History and Culture

Archaeological evidence indicates that indigenous groups related to Colombian, Nicaraguan and Panamanian indigenous populations settled here more than 10,000 years ago. They cultivated corn in drier lowlands and valleys and propagated cacao (chocolate), pejibaye (a palm fruit) and likely many other edible forest crops as well as hunted wildlife. An extensive trade network with indigenous groups outside the region is believed to have existed using dugout canoes along the pacific coast and continued on by foot into the interior. Individual indigenous communities belonged to chiefdoms that extended over large areas and lasted until after the arrival of the Spanish. (Today indigenous peoples number near 65,000 inhabitants and account for almost 2% of the Costa Rican population and belong to eight ethnic groups).

Lacking rich reserves of gold and large indigenous urban centers that could be readily exploited, Costa Rica generally failed to attract armies of conquistadors. The Spanish who settled here were of a more humble sort and largely became poor subsistence farmers. They lived on small farms or in simple rural communities and were practically isolated from the rest of the world. This changed in the 19th century when affluent Europeans developed a taste for coffee. It was soon discovered that Costa Rica’s mountain climate and rich soils of volcanic origin were ideal for growing high-quality coffee

coffee By the 1830’s coffee brought international trade and later prosperity to the nation. In the late 1800’s a railway was built to replace coffee transport by slow-moving oxcarts. Lacking enough residents for a sufficient workforce, Chinese, Jamaicans of African descent, and Italians were hired to build the railways.

Many later settled in the country. In the early 20th century coffee-growing attracted German, French and other Europeans to come to live in Costa Rica and establish their own plantations. Finally, North Americans have settled in Costa Rica in recent years attracted by its warm climate, lower cost of living for retirees, diverse businesses or its biological wealth, among other reasons.


A “Giant” greeting two little reluctant spectators
A “Giant” greeting two little reluctant spectators

In general, Costa Ricans or “Ticos” as they are known, are outgoing, have a ready sense of humor, are predominantly Catholic, independent, and friendly but also reserved as their lives are largely centered around their extended families-and local soccer matches!

Throughout the year Costa Ricans have many traditional activities and celebrations. Some of the activities include small country fairs with colorful oxcart processions, horse parades, bull fights (it is illegal to kill bulls in Costa Rica; the bulls are ridden and chased by participants at the event), food sales, rides for small children, traditional “Giants” accompanied by a noisy cimarona band, soccer matches and children’s games.

A parade of giants with admirers
A parade of giants with admirers


On August 1st every year, hundreds of thousands of Costa Ricans make an annual pilgrimage to the large Basilica in the eastern city of Cartago as an act of faith. On September 14th, the eve of Independence Day, young children walk with their parents at dusk (6 PM) carrying faroles, or paper lanterns lit with flashlight light bulbs or candles. This is followed the next day with parades of school children carrying flags, banners and in marching bands.

Students carrying Costa Rican flags at Sept. 15th Independence Day celebration
Students carrying Costa Rican flags at Sept. 15th Independence Day celebration

At special events, one might hear a group of musicians playing a marimba in the background, or at an important party hosts might hire a mariachi band, complete with fancy uniforms and oversized Mexican sombreros! In recent years, high school graduation parties or girl´s 15th birthday parties are celebrated with a vivacious group of samba musicians. In October, in a nod to the community´s strong African roots, the eastern seaport city of Limon has a Carnival celebration that lasts several days. In December, the dark nights are illuminated with colorful strings of street lights and chinamos,(temporary stalls) that sell tinsel, lights, decorations, and ornaments for the Christmas holiday. At the stroke of midnight, the New Year is celebrated with parties and lots of fireworks!

Costa Rica is a nation of peaceful politics: the army was abolished in 1949 in an effort to better finance causes such as health care, education and later, conservation of natural resources. Every four years national elections are held for the president, two vice presidents and members of congress. There are several parties that present candidates however the majority of votes usually are cast for the two most popular parties.

The Costa Rican diet revolves around a base of rice and beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, and protein sources of beef, chicken, fish and pork. A very popular breakfast dish is called “Gallo Pinto”, and is a mixture of rice and beans usually spiced with salt, garlic, peppers, onions and cilantro. On the east coast, this very popular dish is flavored with coconut milk. This is a reflection of the cooking preferences of its inhabitants of Jamaican heritage and the regional abundance of coconuts. Visitors should make a point of trying the various tropical fruits available in Costa Rica. Near the source, and of different varieties, these fruits are generally vastly superior to most tropical fruits found in northern supermarkets. (Tropical fruits shipped north are picked green and may spend two weeks or more in transit). Costa Rica produces mangoes, papayas, passion fruits, small flavorful datil bananas, tangy soursop, and very sweet pineapples, among others

Beginning in the late 1980’s, as more and more people discovered Costa Rica’s incredible natural beauty a vast network of services grew in response. Now, a more mature tourism industry offers international visitors a variety of accommodations from simple home stays in the rural countryside, to luxury 5 star hotels of renowned international chains.

Transportation can be in the form of a simple oxcart (at the sites of certain attractions for short distances!) to a modern, comfortable luxurious air-conditioned bus. Activities include nature hikes, aerial tramways, canopy tours, saltwater sport fishing, bird watching, horseback riding, rafting, kayaking, swimming, surfing, mountain biking, snorkeling, scuba-diving, nature photography, or simply sunbathing on a warm sun-drenched beach. And the list goes on… Costa Rica has a lot to offer!

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