costa rica flag white red blue crest

Country of the Week: Costa Rica

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve traded the fjords of Norway for sandy beaches as we arrive in beautiful Costa Rica. Read on to discover the country’s intriguing history, vibrant culture, and much more!

  • Capital (and Largest City): San José
  • Population (2015): 4,832,234 (118th)
  • Total Area: 51,100 km² (128th)
  • Official Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Costa Rican colón (₡) (CRC)
beach sunset costa rica ocean sandy

An idyllic scene, common in Costa Rica

History

Like much of Latin America, the area that is now Costa Rica was home to indigenous tribes prior to European colonization. Unlike some nearby powers (namely the Aztecs and Incas), the civilization was relatively small and less advanced. This all changed in the early 16th century when the first Spanish conquistadors made landfall and began to change the face of the country in the name of Spain.

Costa Rica became a part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which was in itself a part of the larger Spanish Empire. The country was poor by Spanish colonial standards, and for the next couple centuries suffered greatly due to a lack of resources and small population (which made economic growth tough). As a result, the Spanish largely ignored Costa Rica until independence was declared for all of Central America following the Spanish defeat in Mexico.

Disagreement with regards to the nation’s future (join the Mexican Empire or maintain independence) soon gave way to all-out civil war. The Republicans (pro-independence) achieved victory in the early 1800’s and the country continued on its independent path – relatively removed from the rest of the region.

The 19th century did see some changes in the country’s economic fortunes – largely due to the exportation of coffee. Foreign investment and infrastructure construction also contributed to economic growth.

While Costa Rica is largely viewed as one of the more historically stable countries in Latin America, it was not without turmoil. A short-lived (and hugely unpopular) military dictatorship existed between 1917-19. In 1948, a disputed election led to another civil war that lasted just 44 days but left thousands dead.  

The result of this was the abolition of the military (something which is maintained to this day), and uninterrupted democratic elections since 1948. Costa Rica is viewed as a successful, transparent country that is the most stable in the region.

Culture

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Waterfall on Rio Celeste

As a Latin American country, much of Costa Rican culture has been shaped and influenced by Spanish colonization. While indigenous traditions do remain, the relatively small population means they are not as prevalent as in some neighbouring countries. In addition, people from these neighbouring countries (especially Nicaragua) have made a home in Costa Rica – bringing their own traditions and way of life with them.

Costa Rican cuisine combines elements of everything you would expect – Spanish, American, Caribbean, and Latin American flavours can all be found here. ‘Gallo pinto’ is considered a national dish and consists of beans, rice, cilantro, onions, garlic, salt, and local flavours.

Like much of the region, soccer is Costa Rica’s most popular sport. The most successful showing by the national team came in Brazil 2014, when they surprised many by making it all the way to the quarterfinals before a nail-biting loss on penalties to the Dutch.

gallo pinto food costa rica cuisine breakfast

Gallo Pinto – a traditional Costa Rican meal

Geography

Like other nearby countries, Costa Rica is known for warm temperatures, long coastlines, and varied interior geography, which includes volcanoes. Indeed it is the mountains that dominate much of the landscape and make the country sometimes difficult to navigate.

The largest city by far is San José, which is home to over 300,000 (though the urban area is in the millions). While not located on the coast, the city has nonetheless developed into the hub of commercial activity in the country. It is also considered one of Central America’s safest cities.

city stadium san jose costa rica

The National Stadium in San José

Did you know?

  • The life expectancy is 77, which is amongst the highest in the world
  • Costa Rican males are called ‘ticos’ while females are ‘ticas’
  • Married women continue using their maiden name
  • Days are more or less the same length year round due to the country’s nearly equatorial location
  • Costa Rica is the world’s second largest banana exporter
  • ‘Pura Vida’ is an expression used to express happiness
  • Pedestrians are known as ‘targets’ – so be careful!
volcano costa rica landscape mountain

Arenal Volcano in the northwest of the country

Last Word

Despite shaky beginnings, Costa Rica has slowly and quietly grew into one of the safest and most stable countries in the region. It may not have many tales of intrigue and palace coups, but the people are definitely for the better because of it.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).

Stay informed. Stay Current.