Country Information: History

Located in Central America: Costa Rica is bordered on the north by Nicaragua, on the south by Panama, the Pacific ocean on the west and the Caribbean on the east. During his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, Christopher Columbus landed at “Cariari,” known today as Puerto Limon. Columbus actually named Costa Rica (rich coast) under the assumption that the land was filled with precious metals. The earth never yielded gold and silver, but the name was perfect for the wealth of natural beauty and flawless climate.

The country has a territory of 51,000 km2 and a population of 5,000,000. Mountains spread from the northeast to the southeast forming a fertile central valley measuring approximately 3,000 km. At 4,000 foot elevation it has one of the most perfect climates in the world. The great majority of the population is concentrated here. The first settlers in Costa Rica were the Chorotega, Huetares and Brunca or Boruca Indians; today there are still about 20,000 Indians living here.

Peaceful Costa Rica, has been ruled since 1949 by democratically elected presidents. The Executive Power is exercised by the President, a person who must be over thirty years old and of Costa Rican birth. The constitution prohibits any army, to maintain peace and order the Civil Guard serves as a police force. The city of San José was founded in 1848 . Most of its old buildings go back approximately 150 years.The architecture of churches , cathedrals, and many modern buildings, is incredibly rich and varied. San José has many diverse architectural styles and buildings. The streets – “calles” – run from north to south and its avenues – “avenidas” – from east to west. Also there is a numbering system for the streets and calles. The town is divided into four quadrants by Avenida central and Calle central. All Av. north of Av. central are odd numbered all south are even numbered All calles east of calle central are odd numbered and all calles west of calle central are even numbered.

When Spanish explorers arrived in what is now Costa Rica at the dawn of the 16th century, they found the region populated by several autonomous tribes living with relative prosperity in a land of lush abundance. In all, there were probably no more than 200,000 indigenous people 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. High mountains and swampy lowlands had impeded migration. Though the indigenous cultures were skilled in ceramics, metalwork, and weaving, few signs of large complex communities exist in Costa Rica.

First European Arrivals

When Columbus anchored his vessels in the Bay of Cariari off the Caribbean coast on his fourth voyage to the New World, he was welcomed and treated with great hospitality by indigenous peoples. The Native American dignitaries appeared wearing much gold, which they gave to Columbus. “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). Alas, the great navigator, Columbus struggled home to Spain in a worm-eaten ship (he was stranded for a year in Jamaica) and never returned. In 1506 Ferdinand of Spain sent a governor, Diego de Nicuesa, to colonize the Atlantic coast of the isthmus he called Veragua. Diego got off to a bad start by running aground off the coast of Panamá and was forced to march north, enduring a welcome that was less hospitable than the one that had greeted Columbus. Antagonized Native American bands used guerrilla tactics to slay the strangers and willingly burnt their own crops to deny them food. Things seemed more promising when an expedition under Gil González Davila set off from Panamá in 1522 to settle the region.

The prospect of vast loot drew adventurers, whose numbers were reinforced after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific in 1513. To these explorers the name Costa Rica (Rich Coast) would have seemed a cruel hoax Floods, swamps, and tropical diseases plagued them in the sweltering lowlands. With few exceptions, there was no gold at the end of the rainbow.

For the next four decades Costa Rica was left alone. By the 1560s several Spanish cities had consolidated their position farther north and, prompted by an edict of 1559 issued by Philip II of Spain, representatives in Guatemala thought it time to settle Costa Rica and Christianize the indigenous people By then it was too late for the latter. Barbaric treatment and European epidemics‹opthalmia, smallpox, and tuberculosis‹had already ravaged the Native American population and had so antagonized the survivors that they took to the forests and eventually found refuge amid the remote valleys of the Cordillera Talamanca.

Because of this antagonism, intermixing with the indigenous population never became a common practice for the Spanish. In other colonies, Spaniards married Native Americans 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 labor of the indigenous people or suffered the despotic arrogance of criollo (Creole) 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, Costa Ricans became very individualistic and egalitarian.


Independence from Spain came on the coattails of Mexico’s declaration earlier in the same year, on 15 September 1821. Independence had little immediate effect, however, for Costa Rica had experienced only minimal intervention during the colonial era and had long gone its own way. In fact, the country was so out of touch that the news that independence had been granted reached Costa Rica a full month after the event. A hastily convened provincial council voted for accession to Mexico; in 1823 the other Central American nations proclaimed the United Provinces of Central America, with their capital in Guatemala City.

After the declaration, effective power lay in the hands of the separate towns of the isthmus. The four leading cities of Costa Rica felt as independent as had the city-states of ancient Greece, and the conservative and aristocratic leaders of Cartago and Heredia soon found themselves at odds with the more progressive republican leaders of San José and Alajuela. The local quarrels quickly developed into civic unrest and, in 1823, to civil war. After a brief battle in the Ochomogo Hills, the republican forces of San José emerged victorious. They rejected Mexico, and Costa Rica joined the federation with full autonomy for its own affairs. Guanacaste voted to secede from Nicaragua and join Costa Rica the following year.

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

The shift to democracy took place in the election called by President Bernardo Soto in 1889‹an event 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 Joaquín Rodriguez won. The citizens rose and marched in the streets to support their chosen leader after the Soto government decided not to recognize the new president. The Costa Ricans had spoken: Soto stepped down.

The 20th Century

The 1940s and their climax, the civil war, mark a turning point in Costa Rican history: from paternalistic government directed by traditional rural elite to modernistic, urban-focused state craft controlled by bureaucrats, professionals, and small entrepreneurs. The dawn of the new era began with Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, a profoundly religious physician and a president (1940­44) with a social conscience. In a period when neighboring nations were governed by tyrannical dictators, Calderón promulgated a series of farsighted reforms, including 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, and a series of constitutional amendments codifying workers’ rights.

In 1944 Calderón was replaced by Teodoro Picado in an election widely regarded as fraudulent. Picado’s uninspired administration failed to address rising discontent throughout the nation. The country was polarized, and 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 by a small margin to his opponent Otilio Ulate, 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.

José María (“Don Pepe”) Figueres Ferrer

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. Actually, Don Pepe’s revolution had been long in the planning; the 1948 election merely provided a good excuse.

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 40-day civil war had claimed more than 2,000 lives, most of them civilians.

Figueres then returned the reins of power to Otilio Ulate, the actual winner of the 1948 election and a man not even of Don Pepe’s own party. Costa Ricans later rewarded Figueres with two terms as president, in 1953­57 and 1970­74. Figueres dominated politics for the next two decades. He died on 8 June 1990, a national hero.

Nobel Peace Prize

In February 1986 Costa Ricans elected as their president a relatively young sociologist and economist-lawyer named Oscar Arias Sánchez. Arias’s electoral promise had been to work for peace. Immediately, he put his energies into resolving Central America’s regional conflicts. He attempted to expel the counter-revolutionary forces, or contras, from Costa Rica and enforce the nation’s official proclamation of neutrality made in 1983. Arias’s tireless efforts were rewarded in 1987 when his Central American peace plan was signed by the five Central American presidents in Guatemala City, an achievement that earned the Costa Rican president the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, a distinction in which the whole nation justly takes pride.

Costa Rica Travel: Travel Information & Tips

No matter how beautiful a destination may be, it needs easy access and be reachable within the limitations of an average vacation period. Costa Rica is only two and a half hours away from Miami!