Costa Rica is a small (19,714 square miles) mountainous republic in Central America. Its area is slightly larger than that of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is located between the Caribbean Sea on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the south and west. The country is bordered by Nicaragua on the north, and Panama to the east. Most of Costa Rica is rugged highlands, ranging from 3000 to 6000 feet above sea level. There is a chain of rugged mountain ranges (called the cordilleras) that extend though the entire central part of the country, running from the northwest to the southeast.
A few of the highest peaks in this chain are active volcanoes. The highest peak located in Costa Rica is Chirripo Grande, which is 12,530 feet high. The cordilleras divide the country into three land regions – the Central Highlands, the Caribbean Lowlands, and the Pacific Coastal Strip. The climate of this country ranges from temperate in the interior highlands to tropical in the coastal planes. Some of the average annual temperatures are from 89 degrees farinhight in the coastal regions to 62 degrees in the inland. During April or May to December, it rains an average of 100 inches.
There are rich volcanic agricultural soils in the Meseta Central (Central Plateau) and the river valleys in Costa Rica. Abundant waterpower is one of the main sources for electricity. Close to one-third of the whole land mass is covered by forest. In the forests, there are cedar, balsa, mahogany, and ebony trees growing in great numbers, although deforestation is becoming a problem. There are over one thousand species of orchids found in Costa Rica alone. Another abundant resource is wildlife, which includes the jaguar, deer, monkeys, the puma, and hundreds of species of birds.
Many of the Spanish colonists who settled in Costa Rica married native Indians. Their descendants of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry are called mestizos. Mestizos and whites make up more than 97 percent of the population. The approximate population is 3,264,776, with a population density of around 166 people per square mile. Two small minority groups compose the rest of the population – about 10,000 Indians, who live in isolated communities in the highlands and along the coasts; and 70,000 blacks, who live along the Caribbean.
The blacks’ ancestors came to Costa Rica from the island of Jamaica in the late 1800’s to build railroads and to work on the banana plantations. Around a half of the population is considered rural, living on farms or in rural towns; the other half of the population live in cities. Many farmers reside in adobe cottages with traditional thick, white stucco walls and red or pink tile roofs. Those people who reside in the cities usually live in row houses, which all look alike and are attached to one another in a row.
Many of these homes are decorated with plants and flowers. The most wealthy families own spacious ranch-style homes that are usually surrounded by gardens. About three-fourths of the entire population of this country live on a fertile plateau in the mountains of central Costa Rica. San Jose, the capital and largest city, lies in this region. Spanish is the official language, but English is also spoken by many educated people. The state religion is Roman Catholicism, but the freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution.
Out of all places in Latin America, Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of literacy, which is about 93 percent (a higher percentage than in any other Central American country). Primary and secondary education are free. Costa Rican law makes it compulsory to attend school between the ages of 6 and 13. Students who graduate may attend secondary school, and then enter a university. One of the best universities in this country is the University of Costa Rica, which is near the capital city of San Jose. It has an annual enrollment of about 28,200.
Costa Rica has been strongly influenced by Spanish traditions. They have also adopted the Roman Catholic cultural pattern of Spain, with emphasis on the family and the church. About 90 percent of the people belong to the Roman Catholic Church. The people of Costa Rica enjoy spending their leisure time outdoors. Many will play the national sport, which is soccer. Basketball, tennis, and swimming are also popular. The guitar, accordian, and mandolin have been the most popular musical instruments, and the music reflects a Spanish heritage.
Festivals in honor of patron saints are a colorful part of village and town life. Bullfights, fireworks, and masked parades attract thousands during the annual Christmas festivals. The diet of most Costa Ricans includes beans, coffee, corn, eggs, rice, squash, and tropical fruits such as bananas, guavas, mangoes, oranges, and pineapples. Beef, fish, poultry, and many kinds of soups are also commonly served. Tamales (ground pork and corn meal steamed in banana leaves) and tortillas (thin flat bread made from corn flour) are popular.
Costa Rica is a democratic republic. It adopted a Constitution in 1949. The head of the state and the nation’s chief executive is the president, who is elected by the people to a four-year term. The Cabinet and the president make up the Council of Government. This council conducts foreign affairs and enforces national laws. It also may veto bills passed by the Legislative Assembly. The Legislative Assembly has 57 deputies elected by the people. Neither the president nor the deputies may be elected to two terms in a row.
The Supreme Court of Justice, the highest court in the nation, has 17 justices appointed by the legislature. In 1948, the country’s army was abolished, but military forces may be organized for national defense if necessary. There are, however, a civil guard and a rural guard. Costa Rica has seven provinces. Those provinces are divided into 80 cantons. For each province, there is a governor that was elected by the president. A council elected by the people governs each canton. The cantons provide fire protection, water, sanitation, and other local services.
All citizens 18 years or older are required to vote in national elections. Costa Rica has two major political parties, the National Liberation Party and the Social Christian Unity Party. The country also has several minor parties. Costa Rica’s economy depends heavily on foreign trade. Coffee ranks as the country’s chief export. Another major export, bananas, grow on the large plantations near the coasts. Beef and sugar also are exported. Chief imports include petroleum, chemicals, and manufactured goods. The U. S. Costa Rica’s major trading partner, while Germany ranks second.
Costa Rica belongs to the Central American Common Market, which is an economic union that was formed to stimulate trade among its members. Silver and gold are mined in the western part of the country. The country also has large deposits of manganese, nickel, mercury, and sulfur. Salt is also important for trade. Most of the country’s economy is based on agriculture. Most industry is based on small-scale enterprises such as coffee-drying plants, cheese factories, sawmills, factories, breweries, etc.
The majority of the labor forces work for agriculture – approximately one-fourth of the workers in Costa Rica are engaged in farming or ranching. The chief agricultural products of the country are bananas, beef cattle, cacao (seeds used to make chocolate), coffee, corn, rich, and sugar cane. Overall living conditions are high by Latin American standards, and the country has a large middle class. In 1502, Christopher Columbus sailed along Costa Rica’s Caribbean shore. The Indians who lived there told the early Spanish explorers stories about deposits of gold and other precious metals that were supposedly mined in the region.
The Spaniards named the land Costa Rica, which means “rich coast”; however, the explorers later found that the area had little mineral wealth. Spanish conquest of this area came later than most of Central America, because of hostility by the natives and the absence of obvious wealth. Soon after 1561, the Spanish began to colonize the land, and settlements began to build up in the central valley. Because of its remoteness and other factors, Costa Rica did not play much of a role in the development in Latin America.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Spain emphasized on commercializing the country’s agricultural wealth and Costa Rica began to be more important in Latin America. Costa Rica achieved independence when Spanish rule ended in 1821, but then the country became part of the Mexican Empire for two years. In 1823, it withdrew from Mexico and joined other Central American states to form the United Provinces of Central America. In 1838, Costa Rica declared its complete independence. Except for the military dictatorship of Tomas Guardia from 1870 to 1882, Costa Rica has enjoyed one of the most democratic governments in Latin America.