A brief history of Costa Rica

Terranova | March 16, 2018

Costa Rica, in Central America, is one of the most beautiful and intense countries on Earth. With a size of 51,100 Km (19,730 Miles) Costa Rica boasts with a diversity that competes with giants such as Brazil, China or the United States.

Being among the macro-diverse countries of the World, the incredible tropical nature of Costa Rica will awake your senses and calm your mind, in a cocktail of awe and joy that may remain with you forever.

However, it is impossible to understand this unique country without touching its history and its geography.

So! Let us begin explaining how this country turned into the Latin American gem it is.

Prehistoric Times

Going back in time, when the continents were formed, where Costa Rica stands today, lied a canal that communicated the Pacific Ocean with the sea that we know now as the Caribbean.

North America and South America that had different origins were separated while dinosaurs roamed about and volcanoes exploded.

Eons passed, and about a hundred million years ago, volcanoes started exploding where we now see our North Pacific. Islands began emerging and started a new archipelago. Thousands of eruptions and earthquakes brought some of these islands up, and some of them back under the water, and time passed.

Costa Rica is formed and changed the world forever

Until about two million years ago, what we know now as the Central Volcanic and Guanacaste Mountain Ranges started a fierce set of explosions. Volcanoes emerged from the water creating new islands, more prominent, and throwing to the atmosphere tons of materials that little by little filled the spaces between the islands, creating in this violence what we know now as Costa Rica, the South of Nicaragua and the Northern region of Panama.

The World changed as this land was born:

First the weather. The closing of the Central American Seaway had a significant impact on the oceanic circulation,  triggering not only the warm Caribbean to change the current going up North but also interrupting the flow of the water rich in nutrients from the Pacific, so local species had to adapt to the new conditions. And it is believed that thousands simply disappeared.

It also had a high impact on the terrestrial life of North and South America, as species began going from one land mass to the other, creating a whole new and different fauna and flora.

For newborn Costa Rica, with a multitude of different heights and climates, these events created a nature that lives up to our days and that, can be summarized in two simple but extremely significant words: Pure Life.

A unique and quite unusual diversity that creates the wonders that we see every day and everywhere in the country.

The first Costa Ricans arrive

Later on, much later, around twelve thousand years ago, first men started to go across the country. Not many stayed, compared to other areas, Costa Rican weather and nature was not as welcoming.

Agriculture started, and the bridge and filter that Costa Rica is (Up to this day), hosted a mixture of people from the primary cultures of the continent:

The corn children (All the Mesoamerican, the Mayas, the Mexicas, the Olmecs and Toltecs to name a few).

And the tubers children (Incas, Chibchas, etc. that cultivated sweet potatoes, yucca and different varieties of the actual potato).

Costa Rica became a passing land. For people, for animals, for birds, even for insects! And up until today.

Spaniards arrive, a name is born

When Christopher Columbus himself set foot in Costa Rica, in his fourth trip (1502), it is thought that there was a population of around a half million people distributed in several indigenous groups all throughout the country.

None knows precisely where the name Costa Rica comes from, but it is said that, in a letter, Columbus claimed that he had found the “richest coast”… Costa Rica.  He probably saw some of the gold of the indigenous people and thought that he had seen a treasure land.

The Conquest

You can imagine with that sort of advertisement, many conquerors came, and well! They left.

Costa Rica was not as productive, and compared to the later discoveries of Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, Costa Rica was not an attractive destination.

Plus! To go across from the Caribbean to the Pacific, what we call Costa Rica now was an extremely hostile land.

There it was, Nicaragua, with the San Juan River that entered all the way to a vast lake and created a very narrow passage to the other coast; or, a bit South, there was Panama, with only a couple of days walking from coast to coast.

Why would someone want to stay in a land with such steep mountains, hostile jungles, and tons of mosquitoes? With almost no gold, no precious stones and not even labor hand…

(The population of Costa Rica rapidly descended like everywhere else in the Americas, because of the violence, hard work conditions and the different new diseases brought by the conquistadores.)

Finally, the area was explored from the Pacific Coast in the 1520’s, but it wasn’t until the 1560’s that the first real villages were found in the Central Valley.

Now, the question remains… Who would come to live in Costa Rica?

As hostile, isolated and impoverished as it was. Who?

Well! There were mainly two groups of people that would live here:  Spaniards that were sent to Costa Rica to govern, or to evangelize, and, people that were hiding from… Whoever! The Inquisition, justice, slavery.  Hundreds of Jews came and hid in the many lush mountains and valleys that this region offers.

The story of Costa Rica is not very different from the rest of Latin America, the Spaniards, slavering the indigenous, and later on, making families with them, bringing slaves from Africa, abuse of power, corruption, disease.

A province of Guatemala, colonial times

Costa Rica became part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, the most miserable and remote province. (Panama belonged to Great Colombia.) Producing a bit of tobacco and some cocoa on the Caribbean side, that had no exit to the ocean and was continuously invaded by pirates and corsairs.

There were a few violent rebellions against the Spanish in the colonial times. The most important, lead by a brave warrior called (By the Spanish) Pablo Presber. He united all the scattered tribes and attacked the Southern Mountains missions, and Cartago. Finally, Presber was caught and beheaded on July the 4th, 1709 in the Plaza Central of Cartago, the capital city.  Rumor has it that dozens of macaws flew over Cartago that day to take its soul.

San Jose was found

In 1736, the Catholic church started to worry about all the isolated families that lived throughout the country. Some of them several walking days from any church. They were not paying the crown taxes, and they were not going to mass, ever!

So, the Franciscans found a little hermit in honor of Saint Joseph, in the middle of this forest opening (Nowadays, this is Central and 1st Avenue with 2nd Street, right behind the Central Bank, in the heart of the city). However people didn’t want to move, and finally, in a mixture of promises and threats and at a very slow pace, families started to step in, and the tiny village began to be inhabited.

The foundation of San Jose is officially dated in 1737, but it was much later when it was considered to be as important as to have an actual valid name in the Spanish Empire’s records.

The Independence

In the early years of the XIX Century, Napoleon invaded a weakened and corrupt Spain that was already in trouble. Latin America was left almost on their own, and independent movements began to be very strong in the different areas.

However, it was up until 1821 that the General Captaincy of Guatemala declared Central America as a free country, on September the 15th.

Costa Rica was so far away that they knew about the independence up until October 18th, (A month and three days after).

At first, they didn’t even know if they were independent of Spain, or were already part of Mexico or Colombia and separated from them.

Up until today, you hear the Costa Rican phrase “Let the clouds of the day, pass by” (Que pasen los nublados del día) to cite that one day’s men of state words.

We never had an independence war.

The first civil war

So, there we were, free from the empire, but as poor and remote as always from the Central American Federation government in Guatemala.

Some people wanted to stay a part of Guatemala, some wanted to be entirely independent, and there was a brief but bloody war in 1823 between the four towns of the Central Valley: Heredia and Cartago, the conservative, and San Jose and Alajuela, much more progressive.   The result of the war was the moving of the capital city to San José.

Wake up and smell the coffee

At the same time and after the Napoleonic wars, commerce started back in Europe, and with it, new products began to be in high demand. One of them, the north African originated coffee.

Some plants came this way, and the first plantation was cultivated where Central Avenue and Central Street meet in 1816.

Costa Rica had the ideal climate for a perfect coffee bean, and cup. It had very distinctive sunny and rainy season, fertile volcanic soils, and very stable temperature.

The first chiefs of state started to push the coffee, and the first export was finally made in 1820. By the 1840’s the government was giving land concessions to whoever wanted to plant coffee.

The first exports and route projects to the Caribbean

The primary buyer of the Costa Rican coffee was actually the British Empire, but Costa Rica had no port on the Caribbean side, so a route through the Central Volcanic Mountain Range was planned.

This road functioned for some years, built in stone, and tremendously rustic, it was swallowed by the jungle later on, and now, interestingly enough, what we call Route #32 goes almost parallel to this first road designed in 1840.   (You will be on it if you go to the Caribbean Coast, and you will actually notice it, as it has one of the most majestic rainforests throughout Costa Rica).

But this small road through the forest couldn’t accomplish the mission of taking out tons of coffee by oxcarts. And a route through the Pacific Ocean was forced. Remember we are talking here about the 1840’s… No Panama Canal yet!  Coffee had to go all the way down to Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) in South America and then up to Great Britain.

The train arrives in Costa Rica, the project

It was unreasonably expensive for our coffee growers to sell the beans.  So, finally and in the growing steam trains trend, Costa Rica decided to build a railroad that would communicate the Central Valley, and its coffee fields and mills, with the Caribbean Sea and Europe.

We are talking here of a country with 150,000 people and surrounded by infinite and hostile jungles. Not an easy or affordable task.

Tomas Guardia, a military dictator that ruled Costa Rica from 1870 to 1882, finally decided to get a loan with the British of 10 million pounds.  An unpayable loan actually.

In 1871, Costa Rica signed a contract with Henry Meiggs, a U.S. born man that designed and built the trains in Chile and Peru.  He passed the agreement to his nephews, Henry and Minor Cooper Keith, from New York.

The train was started from two points: The Central Valley and the Caribbean Coast, to meet at some point between these two distant regions.

Terrible conditions for the railroad construction

Thousands of Jamaicans and Chinese were brought to work in the train rails, but the task was much harder than anyone could have pictured.  The rain was the main problem, camps were flooded permanently, and myriads of mosquitoes attacked the workers causing vast plagues of yellow fever, malaria and all sorts of parasites.

Not even two years later the Cooper brothers started to worry about the finances of the Costa Rican government. The loan was already spent, and the project was just beginning.  Finally, in 1873, Costa Rica announced that they could not pay any more.  The train works were paralyzed for two years.

In this period, Henry Cooper died in New York (1875) after catching malaria.

Going bananas

But let’s go back some decades before this happened:

Sweet bananas as we know them, were discovered in 1836 in Jamaica. And in 1870 they were being sold in Jersey City for $2 a bunch.

When Minor Cooper Keith started to build the portion of Limon, in the Caribbean, in the next year, his workers began to have problems with the food provision. The jungle soils were not very fertile, and the rainforest kept coming back, hunting was hard and unpredictable, so Minor Cooper Keith decided to plant bananas on both sides of the railroad to provide a nutritious source of food. Bananas are technically weeds, they are very invasive and resist the hostile humid conditions of the tropics.

By the 1880’s bananas were already a robust commercial trend in the principal cities of the United States.

While this was happening, in Costa Rica…

Because of all the payment issues of the Costa Rican government, from the very beginning, the Cooper Keith brothers had decided to start a shipping company to get their own financing for the project, consolidating the Central American  Steamship  Company.

After a long negotiation with the younger Mr. Cooper-Keith, Costa Rica signed a contract in 1884, where they would yield the train used to his company for 99 years, as well as 800,000 acres (325000 hectares) of land on both sides of the railroad with all its riches that they contained.  Plus all the needed areas for piers and buildings that the company required.

This way, Cooper Keith controlled everything: The land, the plantations, the railroads and the shipping: Banana Republics were born.

The United Fruit Company is born in Costa Rica

And in 1899 the company merged with the Boston Fruit Company creating the United Fruit Company.

The company extended throughout Central America, the north of South America and controlled 90% of the banana market.

A couple of interesting trivia facts: Minor Cooper Keith married the daughter of the Costa Rican president in 1883.

In 1944, Chiquita Banana brand was created, and the leading advertising was with Carmen Miranda.

The problems grow, and a crisis explodes

In the 1930’s and because of the 1929 economic breakdown, the company started to have problems, and with these, the workers began to protest because of the working conditions. And finally, the Panama Disease,  a fungus, invaded the plantations in the Caribbean.

The company then decides to move the operation to the Central and South Pacific. From Parrita all the way down to Panama.

The Caribbean region was broke, and thousands of unemployed people roamed the sick plantations in search of a solution for their harsh conditions.

Later on, the II World War started, and the company again had to minimize its production because of the danger that the German submarines presented to the ships.

The war, of course, also affected the other Costa Rican product: Coffee.

So, here we are, in 1940’s with a political crisis that ended up on a merge of the Catholic Church, the Communist party, and the government, creating the labor rights and the social guarantees, including the Social Security program that lives up to our days.

A bloody chapter of our history: The Civil War of 1948

The crisis grew, and rumor has it that there was fraud in the 1944 elections.

The military started to repress the unhappy population, and finally after in 1948 the government decided to abolish the results of the elections, a civil war initiated on March 12th.

The war lasted 44 days and caused over 2000 casualties on both sides. Finally, it ended on April 19th.

A new era for Costa Rica

The leader of the revolution, José Figueres entered in San José with his men and the government leader and 1948 candidate, Rafael Angel Calderon had to escape to Nicaragua and then Mexico.

Jose Figueres found a “Government Board” (Junta de Gobierno) composed by him and his men and ruled Costa Rica in an almost dictatorial way for 18 months.

However, in December 1st, 1948, Figueres decides to abolish the official standing army of Costa Rica, and a new constitution is created in 1949 with this daring and incredible fact: Costa Rica has no standing army.

We are talking about the Latin America of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a time of war throughout the continent. Violence, repressions, strong armies all over the continent, civil wars shaking in horror every single country. And yet, in the middle of this violent hurricane lied the small and peaceful Costa Rica, without an army.

Democracy is back

By 1949, the Government Board freely and without any political struggle, gives back the power to Otilio Ulate who was the opposition candidate in 1948.

And in 1953 new elections are called and now, elected by general vote, Jose Figueres was president of Costa Rica for the second time.

The welfare state

Throughout the decade of the 50’s, things started to change. A new golden era began.

Institutions such as banks and hospitals and energy sources such as electricity and fuel were nationalized. The government created robust health and education campaigns all over the country and roads were made to get to the most remote regions.

The woods that had been all over the country started to be turned into farms and plantations. Actually, the rainforest was considered to be “useless land” and overtaxed so that people would cut it to produce progress.

Technical schools and public universities were open, and people were encouraged to study to grow and develop status, creating a robust middle class.

The government brought a lot of foreign investment attracted by the stability, and the educated population and jobs were generated.

The state also started to support the diversification of exports, from coffee, bananas and sugar cane to flowers, foliages, pineapple, and other products.

Another fact that moved the 1960’s and 1970’s was a baby boom and improvement in the pediatric medicine, that multiplied the population. From one million in the late 1950’s to almost 5 million in 2017.

This time was known as the “golden era” of Costa Rica, however, formed a bubble that had to burst sometime.  The size of the government was too big, the benefits were too expensive.

And in the early 1980’s a new era started. Neoliberalism.

Institutions that had been nationalized in the 50’s started to be open to private capital, private banks, hospitals, and universities began to appear all over the main cities. And later on, all over the country.

A strong diversification in production was encouraged, and the population turned bilingual due to education plans financed by the foreign companies that came in the 90’s.

In the decade of the 80’s and much stronger in the 90’s a new conservation drive started to move the country, as tourism began as an industry justifying the preserved areas economically. And creating a recovery of the rainforests in more than 50% of the total land of Costa Rica, with a 31% of totally protected areas.


Nowadays you will find Costa Rica to be a progressive, growing country. Full of future.

More than 60% of the GDP comes from services and tourism.

There is a majority of the bilingual population that have facilitated the introduction in the past twenty years of call centers from all over the World.

The travel infrastructure has also grown regarding well-recognized hotel brands and airlines coming directly from the principal cities of the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Exports are also diversified, and for the first time in our history agriculture is not the primary export. Having medical instruments as our main export (20%). Followed by bananas (10%), tropical fruits (Pineapple, cassava, melons) (9.2%) and orthopedic gear (5.1%). Coffee nowadays is only 3.1 % of the exports.

Sustainability is quite a significant subject (Separate post) for the population, and you will find it everywhere, even in the most luxurious hotels.

The happiest country on Earth? Is it true?

We are the happiest country on Earth according to Happy Planet Index (Vinculo a http://happyplanetindex.org/). Which means that our comfort and well being cost less to Earth than anywhere else in the World.

“This tropical Central-American country is home to the greatest density of species in the world. Costa Rica’s GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European and North American countries and is primarily based on tourism, agriculture, and exports.

People living in Costa Rica have higher wellbeing than the residents of many rich nations, including the USA and the UK, and live longer than people in the USA. And all of this is achieved with a per capita Ecological Footprint that’s just one-third of the size of the USA’s.”  (http://happyplanetindex.org/countries/costa-rica)


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Olga Sáenz