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History of Costa Rica

Early History

When Spanish explorers arrived in what is now Costa Rica at the dawn of the 16th century, they found the region populated by several poorly organised, autonomous tribes. In all, there were probably no more than 20,000 indigenous peoples on 18 September 1502, when Columbus put ashore near current-day Puerto Limón. Although human habitation can be traced back at least 10,000 years, the region had remained a sparsely populated backwater separating the two areas of high civilisation: Mesoamerica and the Andes. High mountains and swampy lowlands had impeded the migration of the advanced cultures.

There are few signs of large organised communities, no monumental stone architecture lying half-buried in the luxurious undergrowth or planned ceremonial centers of comparable significance to those elsewhere in the isthmus. The region was a potpourri of distinct cultures. In the east along the Caribbean seaboard and along the southern Pacific shores, the peoples shared distinctly South American cultural traits. These groups--the Caribs on the Caribbean and the Borucas and Chibchas in the southwest--were seminomadic hunters and fishermen who raised yucca, squash, and tubers, chewed coca, and lived in communal village huts surrounded by fortified palisades. The matriarchal Chibchas had a highly developed slave system and were accomplished goldsmiths. They were also responsible for the fascinating, perfectly spherical granite "balls" of unknown purpose found in large numbers at burial sites in the Río Terraba valley, Caño Island, and the Golfito region. They had no written language.

The largest of Costa Rica's archaeological sites is at Guayabo, on the slopes of Turrialba, 56 km east of San José, where an ancient city is currently being excavated. Dating from perhaps as early as 1000 BC to AD 1400, Guayabo is thought to have housed as many as 10,000 inhabitants. The most interesting archaeological finds throughout the nation relate to pottery and metalworking. The art of gold working was practiced throughout Costa Rica for perhaps one thousand years before the Spanish conquest, and in the highlands was in fact more advanced than in the rest of the isthmus.

The tribes here were the Corobicís, who lived in small bands in the highland valleys, and the Nahuatl, who had recently arrived from Mexico at the time that Columbus stepped ashore. In late prehistoric times, trade in pottery from the Nicoya Peninsula brought this area into the Mesoamerican cultural sphere, and a culture developed among the Chorotegas--the most numerous of the region's indigenous groups--that in many ways resembled the more advanced cultures farther north.

In fact, the Chorotegas had originated in southern Mexico before settling in Nicoya early in the 14th century (their name means "Fleeing People"). They developed towns with central plazas; brought with them an accomplished agricultural system based on beans, corns, squash, and gourds; had a calendar, wrote books on deerskin parchment, and produced highly developed ceramics and stylised jade figures (much of it now in the Jade Museum in San José). Like the Mayans and Aztecs, too, the militaristic Chorotegas had slaves and a rigid class hierarchy dominated by high priests and nobles.

Colonial Period

When Columbus anchored his storm-damaged vessel in the Bay of Cariari on his fourth voyage to the New World, he was welcomed and treated with great hospitality. The coastal Indians sent out two girls, "the one about eight, the other about 14 years of age," Columbus's son Ferdinand recorded. "The girls . . . always looked cheerful and modest. So the Admiral gave them good usage. . ."

In his Lettera Rarissima to the Spanish king, Columbus gave a different tale of events: "As soon as I got there they sent right out two girls, all dressed up; the elder was hardly eleven, the other seven, both behaving with such lack of modesty as to be no better than whores. As soon as they arrived, I gave orders that they be presented with some of our trading truck and sent them directly ashore."

The Indians also gave Columbus gold. "I saw more signs of gold in the first two days than I saw in Española during four years," his journal records. He called the region La Huerta ("The Garden"). The prospect of loot drew adventurers whose numbers were reinforced after Balboa's discovery of the Pacific in 1513. To these explorers the name Costa Rica must have seemed a cruel hoax. Floods, swamps, and tropical diseases stalked them in the sweltering lowlands. Fierce, elusive Indians harassed them. And, with few exceptions, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

In 1506, Ferdinand of Spain sent a governor, Diego de Nicuesa, to colonise the Atlantic coast of Veragua. He got off to a bad start by running aground off the coast of Panama and was forced to march north, enduring a welcome that was less hospitable than that of Columbus. Antagonized Indian bands used guerrilla tactics to slay the strangers and willingly burnt their own crops to deny them food. Nicuesa set the tone for future expeditions by foreshortening his own cultural lessons with the musket ball. Things seemed more promising when an expedition under Gil Gonzalez Davila set off from Panama in 1522 to settle the region. It was Davila's expedition, given quantities of gold, that nicknamed the land Costa Rica, the "Rich Coast."

Davila's Catholic priests also supposedly managed to convert many Indians to Christianity. But once again, sickness and starvation were the price: the expedition reportedly lost more than 1,000 men. Later colonising expeditions on the Caribbean similarly failed miserably; the coastal settlements dissolved amidst internal acrimony, the taunts of Indians, and the debilitating impact of pirate raids. Two years later, Francisco Fernandez de Cordova founded the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific, at Bruselas, near present-day Puntarenas. It lasted less than two years.

For the next four decades Costa Rica was virtually left alone. The conquest of Peru by Pizarro in 1532 and the first of the great silver strikes in Mexico in the 1540s turned eyes away from southern Central America. Guatemala became the administrative center for the Spanish main in 1543, when the captaincy-general of Guatemala, answerable to the viceroy of New Spain (Mexico), was created with jurisdiction from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the empty lands of Costa Rica.

By the 1560s several Spanish cities had consolidated their position farther north and, prompted by Philip II of Spain, the representatives in Guatemala thought it time to settle Costa Rica and Christianize the natives. By then it was too late for the latter. Barbaric treatment and European epidemics--opthalmia, smallpox and tuberculosis--had already reaped the Indians like a scythe, and had so antagonised the survivors that they took to the forests and eventually found refuge amid the remote valleys of the Talamanca Mountains. Only in the Nicoya Peninsula did there remain any significant Indian population, the Chorotegas, who soon found themselves chattel on Spanish land.

In 1562, Juan Vásquez de Coronado--the true conquistador of Costa Rica--arrived as governor. He treated the surviving Indians more humanely and moved the existing Spanish settlers into the Cartago Valley, where the temperate climate and rich volcanic soils offered the promise of crop cultivation. Cartago was established as the national capital in 1563. The economic and social development of the Spanish provinces was traditionally the work of the soldiers, who were granted encomiendas, land holdings which allowed for rights to the use of indigenous serfs.

In the highlands, land was readily available, but there was no Indian labour to work it. Without native slave labour or the resources to import slaves, the colonists were forced to work the land themselves (even Coronado had to work his own plot of land to survive). Without gold or export crops, trade with other colonies was infrequent at best. Money in fact became so scarce that the settlers eventually reverted to the Indian method of using cacao beans as currency. After the initial impetus given by the discovery, Costa Rica lapsed into being a lowly Cinderella of the Spanish empire.

Thus, the early economy evolved slowly under conditions that didn't favor the development of the large colonial-style hacienda and feudal system of other Spanish enclaves. The settlers had to make do with clearing and tilling primitive plots for basic subsistence. A full century after its founding, Cartago could boast little more than a few score adobe houses and a single church, which all perished when Volcán Irazú erupted in 1723.

Gradually, however, prompted by an ecclesiastical edict that ordered the populace to resettle near churches, towns took shape around churches. Heredia (Cubujuquie) was founded in 1717, San José (Villaneuva de la Boca del Monte) in 1737, and Alajuela (Villa Hermosa) in 1782. Later, exports of wheat and tobacco placed the colonial economy on a sounder economic basis and encouraged the intensive settlement that characterises the Meseta Central today.

Intermixing with the native population was not a common practice. In other colonies, Spaniard married native and a distinct class system arose, but mixed-bloods and ladinos (mestizos) represent a much smaller element in Costa Rica than they do elsewhere in the isthmus. All this had a leveling effect on colonial society. As the population grew, so did the number of poor families who had never benefited from the labour of encomienda Indians or suffered the despotic arrogance of criollo landowners. Costa Rica, in the traditional view, became a "rural democracy," with no oppressed mestizo class resentful of the maltreatment and scorn of the Creoles. Removed from the mainstream of Spanish culture, the Costa Ricans became very individualistic and egalitarian.

Not all areas of the country, however, fit the model of rural democracy. Nicoya and Guanacaste on the Pacific side offered an easy overland route from Nicaragua to Panama and were administered quite separately in colonial times from the rest of present-day Costa Rica. They fell within the Nicaraguan sphere of influence, and large cattle ranches or haciendas arose. Revisions to the encomienda laws in 1542, however, limited the amount of time that Indians were obliged to provide their labour; Indians were also rounded up and forcibly concentrated into settlements distant from the haciendas. The large estate owners thus began to import African slaves, who became an important part of the labour force on the cattle ranches that were established in the Pacific northwest. The cattle-ranching economy and the more traditional class-based society that arose persist today.

Some three centuries of English associations and of neglect by the Spanish authorities have also created a very different cultural milieu all along the Caribbean coast of Central America. On the Caribbean of Costa Rica, cacao plantations--the most profitable activity of the colonial period--became well established. Eventually large-scale cacao production gave way to small-scale sharecropping, and then to tobacco as the cacao industry went into decline. Spain closed the Costa Rican ports in 1665 in response to piracy, thereby cutting off seaborne sources of legal trade. Such artificial difficulties to economic development compounded those created by nature. Smuggling flourished, however, for the largely unincorporated Caribbean coast provided a safe haven to buccaneers and smugglers, whose strongholds became 18th-century shipping points for logwood and mahogany. The illicit trade helped weaken central authority. The illusion of Central American colonial unity was also weakened in the waning stages of the Spanish empire as interest in, and the ability to maintain, the rigid administrative structure declined.

Independence from Spain

Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in 1821 in a joint declaration of independence from Spain. After a brief time in the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide (see: History of Mexico and Mexican Empire) Costa Rica became a state in the United States of Central America from 1823 to 1839. In 1824 the capital was moved to San José, but following a rivalry with Cartago that was violent. Although the newly independent provinces formed a Federation, border disputes broke out among them, adding to the region's turbulent history and conditions. Costa Rica's northern Guanacaste Province was annexed from Nicaragua in one such regional dispute. In 1838, long after the Central American Federation ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself sovereign.

Following independence, Costa Rica found themselves with no regular trade routes to get their coffee to European markets. This was compounded by transportation problems - the coffee-growing areas were on the Pacific Coast, and before the Panama Canal was opened, ships from Europe had to sail around Cape Horn in order to get to the Pacific Coast. This was overcome in 1843, when, with the help of William Le Lacheur, a British merchant and shipowner, a regular trade route was established.

In 1856, William Walker, an American filibuster began incursions into Central America. After landing in Nicaragua, he proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua and re-instated slavery. He intended to expand into Costa Rica and after entering Costa Rican soil, Costa Rica declared war. Led by Commander in Chief of the Army of Costa Rica, President Juan Rafael Mora, the filibusters were defeated and forced out of the country. Costa Rican forces followed the filibusters into Rivas, Nicaragua, where in a final battle, William Walker and his forces were finally pushed back. Juan Santamaria, a drummer boy who lost his life torching the filibusters' stronghold, was killed in this final battle, and is today remembered as a national hero.

The 1860s were marred by power struggles among the ever-powerful coffee elite supported by their respective military cronies. General Tomás Guardia, however, was his own man. In April 1870, he overthrew the government and ruled for 12 years as an iron-willed military strongman backed up by a powerful centralised government of his own making.

True to Costa Rican tradition, Guardia proved himself a progressive thinker and a benefactor of the people. His towering reign set in motion forces that shaped the modern liberal-democratic state. Hardly characteristic of 19th-century despots, he abolished capital punishment, managed to curb the power of the coffee barons, and tamed the use of the army for political means. He utilised coffee earnings and taxation to finance roads and public buildings. And in a landmark revision to the Constitution in 1869, he made "primary education for both sexes obligatory, free, and at the cost of the Nation."

Guardia had a dream: to make the transport of coffee more efficient and more profitable by forging a railroad linking the Central Valley with the Atlantic coast, and thus with America and Europe. The terrain through which he proposed to build his railroad was so forbidding that it gave rise to a saying: "He who once makes the trip to the Caribbean coast is a hero; he who makes it a second time is a fool." Fulfillment of Guardia's dream was the triumph of one man--Minor Keith of Brooklyn, New York--over a world of risks and logistical nightmares.

Guardia's enlightened administration was a watershed for the nation. The aristocrats gradually came to understand that liberal, orderly, and stable regimes profited their business interests while the instability inherent in reliance on militarism was damaging to it. And the extension of education to every citizen (and the espousal in the free press of European notions of liberalism) raised the consciousness of the masses and made it increasingly difficult for the patrimonial elite to exclude the population from the political process.


The shift to democracy was witnessed in the election called by President Bernardo Soto in 1889--commonly referred to as the first "honest" election, with popular participation; women and blacks, however, were still excluded from voting. To Soto's surprise, his opponent José Joaquin Rodriguez won. The masses rose and marched in the streets to support their chosen leader after the Soto government decided not to recognise the new president. The Costa Ricans had spoken, and Soto stepped down.

During the course of the next two generations, militarism gave way to peaceful transitions to power. Presidents, however, attempted to amend the Constitution to continue their rule and even dismissed uncooperative legislatures. Both Rodriguez and his hand-picked successor, Rafael Iglesias, for example, turned dictatorial while sponsoring material progress. Iglesias's successor, Ascension Esquivel, who took office in 1902, even exiled three contenders for the 1906 elections and imposed his own choice for president: Gonzalez Visquez. And Congress declared the winner of the 1914 plebiscite ineligible and named its own choice, noncontender Alfredo Gonzalez Flores, as president.

Throughout all this the country had been at peace, the army in its barracks. In 1917, democracy faced its first major challenge. At that time, the state collected the majority of its revenue from the less wealthy. Flores's bill to establish direct, progressive taxation based on income and his espousal of state involvement in the economy had earned the wrath of the elites. They decreed his removal. Minister of War Federico Tinoco Granados seized power. Tinoco ruled as an iron-fisted dictator and soon squandered the support of US business interests. More importantly, Costa Ricans had come to accept liberty as their due; they were no longer prepared to acquiesce in oligarchic restrictions. Women and high-school students led a demonstration which called for his ouster, and Flores stepped down.

There followed a series of unmemorable administrations culminating in the return of two previous leaders, Ricardo Jimenez and Gonzalez Visquez, who alternated power for 12 years through the 1920s and '30s. The apparent tranquility was shattered by the Depression and the social unrest which it engendered. Old-fashioned paternalistic liberalism had failed to resolve social ills such as malnutrition, unemployment, low pay, and poor working conditions. The Depression distilled all these issues, especially after a dramatic communist-led strike against the United Fruit Company brought tangible gains. Calls grew shrill for reforms.

Reformism and Civil War

The decade of the 1940s and its climax, the civil war, mark a turning point in Costa Rican history: from paternalistic government by traditional rural elites to modernistic, urban-focused statecraft controlled by bureaucrats, professionals and small entrepreneurs. The dawn of the new era was spawned by Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, a profoundly religious physician and a president (1940-44) with a social conscience. In a period when neighbouring Central American nations were under the yoke of tyrannical dictators, Calderón promulgated a series of farsighted reforms. His legacy included a stab at land "reform" (the landless could gain title to unused land by cultivating it), establishment of a guaranteed minimum wage, paid vacations, unemployment compensation, progressive taxation, plus a series of constitutional amendments codifying workers' rights. Calderón also founded the University of Costa Rica.

Calderón's social agenda was hailed by the urban poor and leftists and despised by the upper classes, his original base of support. His early declaration of war on Germany, seizure of German property and imprisonment of Germans further upset his conservative patrons, many of whom were of German descent. World War II stalled economic growth at a time when Calderón's social programs called for vastly increased public spending. The result was rampant inflation, which eroded his support among the middle and working classes. Abandoned, Calderón crawled into bed with two unlikely partners: the Catholic Church and the communists (Popular Vanguard Party). Together they formed the United Social Christian Party.

In 1944, Calderón was replaced by his puppet, Teodoro Picado, in an election widely regarded as fraudulent. Picado's uninspired administration failed to address rising discontent throughout the nation. Intellectuals, distrustful of Calderón's "unholy" alliance, joined with businessmen, campesinos, and labour activists and formed the Social Democratic Party, dominated by the emergent professional middle classes eager for economic diversification and modernisation. In its own strange amalgam, the SDP allied itself with the traditional oligarchic elite. The country was thus polarised. Tensions mounted.

Street violence finally erupted in the run-up to the 1948 election, with Calderón on the ballot for a second presidential term. When he lost to his opponent Otilio Ulate by a small margin, the government claimed fraud. Next day, the building holding many of the ballot papers went up in flames, and the calderonista-dominated legislature annulled the election results. Ten days later, on 10 March 1948, the "War of National Liberation" plunged Costa Rica into civil war.

The popular myth suggests that José María ("Don Pepe") Figueres Ferrer--42-year-old coffee farmer, engineer, economist, and philosopher--raised a "ragtag army of university students and intellectuals" and stepped forward to topple the government that had refused to step aside for its democratically elected successor. In actuality, Don Pepe's revolution had been long in the planning; the 1948 election merely provided a good excuse.

Don Pepe had been exiled to Mexico in 1942--the first political outcast since the Tinoco era--after being seized halfway through a radio broadcast denouncing Calderón. Figueres formed an alliance with other exiles, returned to Costa Rica in 1944, began calling for an armed uprising, and arranged for foreign arms to be airlifted in to groups being trained by Guatemalan military advisors.

Supported by the governments of Guatemala and Cuba, Don Pepe's insurrectionists captured the cities of Cartago and Puerto Limón and were poised to pounce on San José when Calderón, who had little heart for the conflict, capitulated. (The government's pathetically trained soldiers--aided and armed by the Somoza regime in Nicaragua--included communist banana workers from the lowlands; they wore blankets over their shoulders against the cold of the highlands, earning Calderon supporters the nickname mariachis.) The 40-day civil war claimed over 2,000 lives, most of them civilians.

The Modern Era

Don Pepe became head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica. As leader of the revolutionary junta, he consolidated Calderón's progressive social reform program and added his own landmark reforms: he banned the press and Communist Party, introduced suffrage for women and full citizenship for blacks, revised the Constitution to outlaw a standing army (including his own), established a presidential term limit, and created an independent Electoral Tribunal to oversee future elections. Figueres also shocked the elites by nationalizing the banks and insurance companies, a move that paved the way for state intervention in the economy.

On a darker note, Don Pepe reneged on the peace terms that guaranteed the safety of the calderonistas: Calderón and many of his followers were exiled to Mexico, special tribunals confiscated their property, and, in a sordid episode, many prominent left-wing officials and activists were abducted and murdered. (Supported by Nicaragua, Calderón twice attempted to invade Costa Rica and topple his nemesis, but was each time repelled. Incredibly, he was allowed to return, and even ran for president unsuccessfully in 1962!)

Then, by a prior agreement which established the interim junta for 18 months, Figueres returned the reins of power to Otilio Ulate, the actual winner of the '48 election and a man not even of Don Pepe's own party. Costa Ricans later rewarded Figueres with two terms as president, in 1953-57 and 1970-74. Figueres dominated politics for the next two decades. A socialist, he used his popularity to build his own electoral base and founded the Partido de Liberacion Nacional (PLN), which became the principal advocate of state-sponsored development and reform. He died on 8 June 1990, a national hero. Since then, Costa Rica has held 12 presidential elections, the latest in 2006.

Costa Rica Today

Once a largely agricultural country, the twin pillars of Costa Rica's current economy are technology and eco-tourism. Costa Rica's major source of export income is technology based. Microsoft, Motorola, Intel and other technology related firms have established operations in Costa Rica. Local companies create and export software as well as other computer related products. Tourism is growing at an accelerated pace and many believe that income from this tourism may soon become the major contributor to the nation's GDP. Traditional agriculture, particularly coffee and bananas, continues to be an important contributor to Costa Rica's export income. Land ownership and wealth is widespread and the population enjoys a relatively high standard of living.





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