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Home > Costa Rica > Destination Costa Rica > Brief History of Costa Rica

Brief History of Costa Rica

Back before Columbus discovered the “New World,“ what was to become Costa Rica was very different from its neighboring regions. As you will see, this is a difference that continues all the way to modern times. To the north you had the great civilizations of the Aztecs and the Mayans, and to the south in South America you had the mighty Incas. Because of Costa Rica’s central position, one would think that it would flourish as a part of a major trade center, but that was not the case.

Actually, Costa Rica was very isolated and sparsely populated. The major reason for this is the geography. Costa Rica is something like a bottleneck, with mountains that reach as high as 13,000 ft separating marshes, swamps, jungles and rain forests on either side. It was safer and easier for traders to bypass the place all together and go by sea instead. If you add to this the lack of precious metals, what you come up with, is a place with only five small indigenous groups living in the area by the time the Spanish arrived.

The population of the region at the start of the 16th century was no more than 35,000. The five separate groups were: the Barucas of the central and southern Pacific side, the Bribri of the southern area and, into what is now Panama, the Caribs along the Caribbean coast, the Corobicis in the northern plateau, and finally the Chorotegas in the Nicoya Peninsula area. Today there are a few small reservations in Costa Rica holding the remaining descendants of these groups.

Christopher Columbus discovered the tiny little island of Uvita just off the coast of the present day city of Limon on his fourth voyage in 1502. Supposedly, though the stories vary, Columbus, upon emerging from his cabin after a great storm, took one look at the coastline stretching out on either side of him and proclaimed it “a rich coast.”

Now this story is as good as any and may actually be true, but the point is the Spaniards believed that it meant rich as in riches. So, over the next seventy years various groups of Conquistadors tried to conquer the region and make off with all the riches. Easier said than done. First, there was the jungle on the Caribbean side that was all but impenetrable. Second, there was no great civilization to conquer like there was in other areas of the New World. And third, there were very, very few riches. All in all it made for a disappointing seven decades with only one notable success, that of Gil Gonzalez Davila who in 1522 converted the Chorotega Indians to Catholicism.

Finally, in 1561, the first permanent settlers landed on the Pacific side and even eventually made their way to the Central Plateau and established the settlement of Cartago. Cantago was by no means the hub of the New World, in fact it was pretty much forgotten by the rest of the region. The settlement was so isolated that for a period of time in the late 17th century the colonist reverted to using the old Indian medium of exchange, the cacao bean.

Things definitely got worse before they got better. In 1723 the lrazu volcano blew its top and nearly wiped out the whole town. By the beginning of the 18th century things started to go Costa Rica’s way. Trade was officially reopened and Cacao, tobacco, sugar, wheat and flour were actively exported. With increased prosperity, other towns started to sprout up, most notably, Heredia, San Jose, Alajuela and Escazu. Even with their increasing good fortune Costa Rica was still very isolated and small with a population under 20,000. Many of these people directly descended from the original settlers.

The area was so out of the loop that news of the independence of Central America didn’t even reach the people for almost a year.

The early years of Costa Rican independence was a time of experimentation. No one really knew what to do so they started trying different things. In fact, from 1821 to 1833, the capital was continually switched back and forth between the four main cities, Cartago, San Jose, Alajuela and Heredia, with San Jose the eventual winner. While the rest of Central America was wracked by wars, Costa Rica was left relatively untouched, with no one really bothering with it except for one.

William Walker had a dream of establishing a slave nation in Central America along the lines of the Confederacy. Walker had taken over Nicaragua and was looking south to also take over the undefended Costa Rica. Walker had run afoul of the United States and Britain by seizing all foreign interests in Nicaragua, most notably those of the Vanderbilt’s. Costa Rica helped play a small part in the eventual ousting of Walker and had its one moment of glory in the military sun.

The latter half of the 19th century saw a great deal of political infighting that was anything but peaceful, especially if you wanted to run the country. By the dawn of the 2Oth century, the main economic and political power in Costa Rica had to do with coffee. A few families controlled the growing, roasting, shipping and exporting of it. Along with the revenues generated by this crop came political power. Once again, most of the ruling families were directly descended from the original settlers. In fact, 33 of the 40 presidents that Costa Rica has had, come from three families.

The main reason Costa Rica has been able to get by with relatively little social upheaval is its small population. This coupled with a year-round growing season and rich volcanic soil meant that even the peasant farmers could make a living.

The one major exception to this trend occurred in the late 40’s with two groups vying for control of the direction the country would take. The first group was lead by Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia, who was a doctor and President from 1940 to 1944. He initiated the first social reforms in the country’s history, such as paid vacations and unemployment insurance.

The second group was lead by Jose “Pepe” Figueres who wanted the reforms to go much further. Everything came to a head in 1948 when Calderon lost the election but claimed that it was fixed. Things got so bat that a group lead by Pepe Figueres, and backed by arms from Cuba and Guatemala, took over the government. It was a short but bloody civil war with over 2000 people killed.

After Figueres assumed power he quickly abolished the army lest someone else use it to overthrow him. During his interim administration many more sweeping changes were enacted, such as; a new constitution that gave the vote to women, an end to discrimination against blacks and an extension of social welfare programs such as free education.

In recent times Costa Rica has seen many more changes to its culture. In the early eighties, Costa Rica experienced an extreme financial collapse that caused it to be the first country ever to default on its international loans.

To keep this from happening, the World Bank, the United States and many European Nations stepped in and helped to bail Costa Rica out of the crisis. But there was a price. in order to receive financial aid, the government had to agree to implement very strict spending controls.

By the late eighties, the country had regained a great deal of its financial stability, thanks in a large part to the growing tourist industry. Along with the Central American Peace Accord which was orchestrated by then President Oscar Arias, who for his efforts was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the region took on a kinder and gentler appearance.

In the nineties, the tourist industry grew until if climaxed in 1994 with over 1 million visitors. But in 1995 and 1996 those numbers have dropped measurably. At this time, the economy is in a down turn with lower revenues from tourism and a deflated price in world coffee.

The government is in the process of trying to deregulate many of the industries in the country. Costa Rica is in a transitional period which will decide the course the country and people will take into the next century.

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