Little is known of Costa Rica’s history before its colonization by Spanish settlers. The pre-Columbian Indians who made their home in this region of Central America never developed the large cities or advanced culture that appeared farther north in what would become Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. There are no grand pyramids or large Mayan cities. However, ancient artifacts indicating a strong sense of aesthetics have been unearthed from scattered excavations around the country. Ornate gold and jade jewelry, intricately carved grinding stones, and artistically painted terra-cotta objects point to a small but highly skilled indigenous population. If you love mysteries, Costa Rica’s artistic history has an intriguing one. More than 300 polished stone orbs have been uncovered in various sites around the country, some believed to be thousands of years old. No one quite understands why they were made, but the numerous myths about their origins only make them more fascinating.
Spain Settles Costa Rica
In 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus anchored just offshore from present-day Limón. Whether he actually gave the country its name—[“]Rich Coast”—is open to debate, but the Spaniards never did find many riches to exploit here.
The earliest Spanish settlers found that, unlike settlements to the north, the native population of Costa Rica was unwilling to submit to slavery. Despite their small numbers, scattered villages, and tribal differences, they fought back against the Spanish until they were overcome by superior firepower and European diseases. When the fighting ended, the European settlers in Costa Rica found that very few Indians were left to force into servitude. The settlers were thus forced to till their own lands, a situation unheard of in other parts of Central America. Few pioneers headed this way because they could settle in Guatemala, with its large native workforce. Costa Rica was nearly forgotten, as the Spanish crown looked elsewhere for riches to plunder and souls to convert.
It didn’t take long for Costa Rica’s few Spanish settlers to head for the hills, where they found rich volcanic soil and a climate that was less oppressive than in the lowlands. Cartago, the colony’s first capital, was founded in 1563, but it was not until the 1700s that additional cities were established in this agriculturally rich region. In the late 18th century, the first coffee plants were introduced, and because these plants thrived in the highlands, Costa Rica began to develop its first cash crop. Unfortunately, it was a long and difficult journey transporting the coffee to the Caribbean coast and then onward to Europe, where the demand for coffee was growing.
From Independence to the Present Day
In 1821, Spain granted independence to its colonies in Central America. Costa Rica joined with its neighbors to form the Central American Federation; but in 1838, it withdrew to form a new nation and pursue its own interests. By the mid-1800s, coffee was the country’s main export. Free land was given to anyone willing to plant coffee on it, and plantation owners soon grew wealthy and powerful, creating Costa Rica’s first elite class—with enough power to elect their own representatives to the presidency.
This was a stormy period in Costa Rican history. In 1856, the country was invaded by mercenaries hired by William Walker, a soldier of fortune from Tennessee who was attempting to fulfill his grandiose dreams of presiding over a slave state in Central America (before his invasion of Costa Rica, he had invaded Nicaragua and Baja California). The people of Costa Rica, led by President Juan Rafael Mora Porras, marched against Walker’s men and chased them back to Nicaragua. Walker eventually surrendered to a U.S. warship in 1857, but, in 1860, he attacked Honduras, claiming to be the president of that country. The Hondurans, who had had enough of Walker’s shenanigans, promptly executed him.
The Little Drummer Boy
Costa Rica’s national hero is Juan Santamaría. The legend goes that Juan enlisted as a drummer boy in the campaign against William Walker. On April 11, 1856, when Costa Rican troops had a band of Walker’s men cornered in an inn in Rivas, Nicaragua, Santamaría volunteered for a suicidal mission to set the building on fire. Although he was mortally wounded, Santamaría was successful in torching the building and driving Walker’s men out, and they were swiftly routed. April 11 is now a national holiday.
Until 1890, coffee growers had to transport their coffee either by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas or by boat down the Río Sarapiquí to the Caribbean. In the 1870s, a progressive president proposed a railway from San José to the Caribbean coast to facilitate the transport of coffee to European markets. It took nearly 20 years for this plan to reach fruition, and more than 4,000 workers lost their lives constructing the railway, which passed through dense jungles and rugged mountains on its journey from the Central Valley to the coast.
Partway through the project, as funds were dwindling, the second chief engineer, Minor Keith, proposed an idea that not only enhanced his fortunes but also changed the course of Central American history. Bananas were planted along the railway right of way, partly to feed the workers but also for their export potential. The crop would help to finance the railway, and, in exchange, Keith would get a 99-year lease on 1,976,000 hectares (800,000 acres) of land with a 20-year tax deferment. The Costa Rican government gave its consent, and in 1878 the first bananas were shipped from the country. In 1899, Keith and a partner formed the United Fruit Company, a business that eventually became the largest landholder in Central America and caused political disputes and wars throughout the region.
In 1889, Costa Rica held what is considered the first free election in Central American history. The opposition candidate won the election, and the control of the government passed from the hands of one political party to those of another without bloodshed or hostilities. Thus, Costa Rica established itself as the region’s only true democracy. In 1948, this democratic process was challenged by Rafael Angel Calderón, who had served as the country’s president from 1940 to 1944. After losing by a narrow margin, Calderón, who had the backing of the communist labor unions and the Catholic Church, refused to concede the country’s leadership to the rightfully elected president, Otillio Ulate, and a civil war ensued. Calderón was eventually defeated by José “Pepe” Figueres. In the wake of this crisis, a new constitution was drafted; among other changes, it abolished Costa Rica’s army.
An international star arose in Costa Rica when Oscar Arias Sánchez was elected president in 1986 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his successful mediation of the Sandinista–Contra war in Nicaragua and other regional conflicts. Arias, Costa Rica’s best-known native son, served from 1986 to 1990 and again from 2006 to 2010.
President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica in March 1963, just months before his assassination. Upon his arrival, the Irazú Volcano woke up and erupted after more than 2 decades of dormancy. Soot and ash reached as far as San José, where the American leader addressed students and political figures.
In 1994, history seemed to repeat itself—peacefully this time—when José María Figueres took the reins of government from the son of his father’s adversary, Rafael Angel Calderón. In 2001, Otton Solís and his new Citizen’s Action Party (PAC) forced the presidential elections into a second round, opening a crack in a two-party system that had become seemingly entrenched for good. Although Solís finished third and didn’t make it to the runoff, his upstart Citizen’s Action Party won quite a few deputy slots.
The battered traditional two-party system was further threatened in 2004, when major corruption scandals became public. Two former presidents were arrested (Miguel Angel Rodríguez and Rafael Angel Calderón), and another (José María Figueres) fled to Switzerland. All were implicated, as well as a long list of high-level government employees and deputies, in various financial scandals or bribery cases. Both Calderón and Rodríguez were convicted and sentenced to jail time, while charges were ultimately dropped against Figueres.
In 2010, Costa Rica elected its first female president, Laura Chinchilla, who was a vice president in the outgoing Arias administration. Then on April 6, 2014, former university professor Luis Guillermo Solís of the opposition Citizen’s Action Party won a runoff presidential election by a landslide over longtime San José mayor Johnny Araya. Solis’s presidency was a mixed bag. He had trouble moving legislation forward, and divisions within his own ruling coalition were a large part of that problem. Longstanding structural issues hampered attempts at addressing rising public debt and corruption.
In 2018, center-left candidate Carlos Alvarado, a former government minister, won a heated election over an evangelical pastor that fiercely opposed same-sex marriage. His administration had promised to help ease rising deficit and unemployment, though the global pandemic put many of his plans on hold. In 2022, his Minister of Finance, Social Democrat Rodrigo Chaves Robles, became the 49th president, promising to end corruption and reduce obstacles to investment.
And still, Costa Rica maintains a strong growth rate even while neighboring Central American economies have seen theirs contract.
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