Costa Rica has a population of nearly 5 million people, more than half of whom live in the urban Central Valley. Some 94% of the population is of Spanish or other European descent, and it is not at all unusual to see fair-skinned and blond Costa Ricans. This is largely because the indigenous population that was here when the first Spaniards arrived was small and quickly reduced by war and disease. Some indigenous populations still remain, primarily on reserves around the country; the principal tribes include the Bribri, Cabécar, Boruca, and Guaymí. In addition, on the Caribbean coast there is a substantial population of English-speaking black Creoles who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands as railroad builders and banana workers. Racial tension isn’t palpable, but it exists, perhaps more out of historical ignorance and fear rather than an organized or articulated prejudice.
Costa Ricans are a friendly and outgoing people. When interacting with visitors, Ticos are very open and helpful. But time has a relative meaning here, so don’t expect punctuality as a rule.
In a region historically plagued by internal strife and civil wars, Costa Ricans are proud of their peaceful history, political stability, and relatively high level of development. However, this can also translate into arrogance and prejudice toward immigrants from neighboring countries, particularly Nicaraguans, who make up a large percentage of the workforce on many plantations.
Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Costa Rica, although freedom to practice any religion is guaranteed by the country’s constitution. More than 70% of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, while another 14% are part of a number of evangelical Christian congregations. There is a small Jewish community as well. By and large, many Ticos are religiously observant, if not fervent, though it seems that just as many lead totally secular lives. Pura vida.
Costa Rica is the most politically stable nation in Central America, and it has the largest middle class. Even the smallest towns have electricity, the water is mostly safe to drink, and the phone system is relatively good. Still, the gap between rich and poor is wide, and there are glaring infrastructure needs. The roads, hospitals, and school systems have been in a slow but steady state of decay for decades, and improvements are slow in coming.
In 1989, on a visit to Costa Rica, Uruguayan President Julio María Sanguinetti famously declared: "Donde hay un costarricense, esté donde esté, hay libertad," translated, “Where there is a Costa Rican, be where he may be, there is freedom.”
Tourism, according to the Costa Rican Embassy in Washington, is the largest source of income and hard currency, exceeding $2.8 billion a year. Costa Rica also makes good money exporting coffee, bananas, pineapples, and palm oil, but it takes in more money from the hundreds of spendy tourists who fly into its airports every day.
It’s estimated that more than half the working population is employed in the tourism and service industries. Ticos whose fathers and grandfathers were farmers and ranchers find themselves working as hotel owners, tour guides, and waiters. Although most have adapted gracefully and regard the industry as a source of new jobs and opportunities for economic advancement, restaurant and hotel staff can be lackadaisical at times, especially in rural areas. And, unfortunately, an increase in the number of visitors has led to an increase in crime, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Common sense and street savvy are required in San José and in many of the more popular tourist destinations.
The global economic crisis of 2008 hit Costa Rica hard. Tourism took a hit, especially in 2009 to 2010. But it has bounced back nicely. More importantly, perhaps, since credit has historically been so tight, there was never a major mortgage or banking crisis in the country. Today, Costa Rica continues to be a culturally and biologically rich Central American nation struggling to meet the economic and development needs of its population. It seems to be moving in the right direction, even though that movement is sometimes maddeningly slow.
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