Costa Rica - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Costa Rica

Costa Rica, country in southern Central America, between Nicaragua and Panama. It has coasts along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Costa Rica, which means “rich coast” in Spanish, was named by Christopher Columbus and his explorers, who expected to find gold here. Their hopes were misplaced, and Costa Rica became one of Spain’s poorest colonies. The situation began to improve after Costa Rica gained independence in 1821. Today, the country is known for having the highest standard of living in Central America as well as the highest literacy rate and longest lifespan. Costa Rica has had a stable democracy since the late 1800s.

More people are of Spanish descent in Costa Rica than anywhere else in Central America. Most of the Native American inhabitants died off or fled after Spanish settlers arrived. Today, the country has small mestizo (mixed Spanish and Native American) and black populations.

Most of Costa Rica’s people live in the interior highlands rather than along the coasts. The country’s capital, San José, and other large cities are in the central highlands. The most fertile farmland is also here.

For years Costa Rica was known for its two principal crops: coffee and bananas. Although these crops remain important, Costa Rica’s economy today depends more on industry and tourism than on agriculture. Computer chips are among the products manufactured in the country. Beaches, “cloud forests” high in the mountains, and national parks filled with colorful birds, butterflies, and plants attract many tourists to Costa Rica each year.


The total area of Costa Rica is 51,060 sq km (19,714 sq mi). The country is bounded on the north by Nicaragua, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, on the southeast by Panama, and on the southwest and west by the Pacific Ocean. The uninhabited and densely wooded tropical Cocos Island, about 480 km (about 300 mi) to the southwest in the Pacific Ocean, is under Costa Rican sovereignty.

The distance across Costa Rica, from the Caribbean to the Pacific, varies from about 120 to 265 km (75 to 165 mi). The short, straight Caribbean coast is low and marshy and fringed with mangrove swamps and lagoons. It lacks good harbors. The more rugged Pacific coast is indented by the Gulf of Nicoya, where the port of Puntarenas is situated, and the Gulf of Dulce. Wide lowlands extend along the almost unindented Caribbean coast. The lowlands along the Pacific are narrower.

Although Costa Rica has lowland areas in the north and along both coasts, most of the country is mountainous. Its rugged highlands, about 900 to 1,800 m (about 3,000 to 6,000 ft) above sea level, consist of several mountain ranges, isolated and clustered volcanoes, and plateau areas. The highest peaks are in the south, near Costa Rica’s border with Panama, where the highlands rise to more than 3,700 m (12,000 ft). Several mountain ranges extend nearly the entire length of the country. These include the Cordillera de Talamanca, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera de Guanacaste. The highest peaks are Chirripó Grande (3,819 m/12,530 ft) and the active volcano of Irazú (3,432 m/ 11,260 ft). In 1968 the Arenal Volcano erupted for the first time in more than 500 years, causing extensive damage and loss of life.

A central plateau, the Meseta Central, is located between the ranges and contains the bulk of the population. Volcanoes have deposited volcanic ash on the plateau, making the soil here extremely fertile. In addition to the capital, San José, the central plateau contains the cities of Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago.

Rivers and Lakes in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has no long rivers. The principal stream is the San Juan River, the outlet of Lake Nicaragua. The San Juan River forms part of Costa Rica’s boundary with Nicaragua to the north. The Reventazón River drains the southern central plateau, flowing eastward through deep gorges to the Caribbean. The Río Grande de Tárcoles drains the northwestern part of the central plateau and empties into the Pacific. Costa Rica’s only natural lake of any significant size is Lake Arenal, which is located on the eastern side of the Cordillera de Guanacaste.

Climate in Costa Rica

The climate of Costa Rica ranges from tropical on the coastal plains to temperate in the interior highlands. Average annual temperatures range from 31.7°C (89°F) on the coast to 16.7°C (62°F) inland. Rainfall is abundant. Along the Caribbean coast annual rainfall totals 2,000 to 2,500 mm (80 to 100 in) or more. The Caribbean coast has seasons of more rain and less rain but has no well-defined dry season. On the Pacific side, near Panama, the rainfall is also heavy, but there is a short dry season. In San Jose on the central plateau, the rainy season lasts from May through October, and annual rainfall averages nearly 2,000 mm (77 in). Rainfall is greatest in the mountains. Annual precipitation in the country averages about 3,000 to 3,500 millimeters (120 to 140 inches).

Natural Resources of Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s resources include its fertile soils and abundant rainfall. Good agricultural soils in Costa Rica are concentrated in the Meseta Central and in the river valleys. The mountainous terrain and the plentiful rainfall combine to provide waterpower, which the country has harnessed to generate electricity. About one-third of the country’s total land area is covered by forests. However, the government limits commercial use of the forests to prevent further deforestation. Mineral resources, including bauxite, are believed to be extensive but remain largely undeveloped. Although petroleum deposits are located offshore, Costa Rica has decided not to develop them to protect the environment. Fishing for tuna, sharks, and turtles is carried out along the coast.

Plants and Animals in Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s forests contain rich stands of ebony, balsa, mahogany, and cedar. More than 1,000 species of orchids are found in Costa Rica. Wildlife is abundant and includes puma, jaguar, deer, monkeys, and at least 600 species of birds. Among the colorful birds to be seen in Costa Rica are the quetzal, the macaw, and the toucan.

Environmental Issues in Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s land is protected by one of the most ambitious conservation programs in Central America. Costa Rica was one of the first, and most active, countries to participate in debt-for-nature swaps, which cancel some national debt in exchange for the protection of a specified amount of land from environmental degradation. In an effort to bolster its economy while remaining responsible to the environment, Costa Rica has also established a booming ecotourism business. This form of tourism encourages travelers to learn more about the country’s natural wonders and to respect the environment in the course of their exploration.

Despite Costa Rica’s efforts to protect its valuable forest resources, much of what lies outside the country’s protected reserves is subject to deforestation. Land is cleared for cattle ranching and for harvesting valuable tropical timber for export. In addition, because some of Costa Rica’s protected lands are privately owned, their protection from future deforestation is not guaranteed. Deforestation places Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity in danger. The country’s location on the cusp between North and South America and its abundance of tropical forests make it home to a great variety of species, many of them rare and threatened. Deforestation also contributes to the country’s problematic rate of soil erosion.

Costa Rica is party to international treaties concerning biodiversity, climate change (see Global Warming), endangered species, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, and wetlands.


A majority of the people of Costa Rica are of European, largely Spanish, ancestry. Whites and mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry) account for about 96 percent of the population; the small black community is largely of Jamaican origin. About 38 percent of the population is defined as rural. Spanish is the official language, but English is also spoken by many people, including most of the ethnic Jamaicans. Roman Catholicism is the state religion, but freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution.

The population of Costa Rica (2009 estimate) is 4,253,877, giving the country an overall population density of 84 persons per sq km (218 per sq mi).

Principal Cities of Costa Rica

The capital is San José, which had an estimated population in 2005 of 1,489,237. Important cities include Alajuela (49,765), a center for the production of coffee and sugar; Cartago (26,846), a commercial and transportation hub; Puntarenas (11,044), a major Pacific seaport; and Puerto Limón (68,787), a trading center and the principal port on the country’s eastern coast. The cities of San José, Alajuela, and Cartago are located on the fertile central plateau.

Education in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of literacy in Latin America, estimated at 96 percent. Primary and secondary education is free, and attendance is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 15. In 2007, 536,436 pupils were enrolled in 3,711 primary schools and 377,900 students attended public and private secondary schools.

The prominent University of Costa Rica in San José was founded in 1843. It has an annual enrollment of about 29,000. Other public universities include the National University (founded in 1973) in Heredia and the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (1971) in Cartago. Costa Rica also has several private universities.

Culture of Costa Rica

Costa Rica, with a relatively small Native American population, has been strongly influenced by the culture and traditions of Spain but with some Native American and Afro-Caribbean influences. The Roman Catholic cultural pattern of Spain, with emphasis on the family and the church, has evolved into a national style of life. Festivals in honor of patron saints are a colorful part of village and town life. The guitar, accordion, and mandolin have traditionally been the most popular musical instruments, and the country’s music primarily reflects a Spanish heritage. Afro-Caribbean influences are also present, and salsa dance music remains popular. Traces of Native American culture survive in designs used in jewelry, leather goods, and clothing. The national sport is soccer.

Costa Rica has vibrant communities of artists, writers, actors, and musicians. Theater performances are well-attended in Costa Rica, and the National Theater in San Jose is one of the city’s most impressive buildings. Both local and touring drama companies perform here. The building also serves as an opera house and concert hall.


The economy of Costa Rica remained agricultural through most of the 20th century, until manufacturing overtook agriculture in the 1990s in economic importance. Most of the country’s economic activity takes place on the central plateau. Overall living conditions in Costa Rica are high by Latin American standards, and the country has a large middle class.

In 2002 the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $16.8 billion, or $4,270 per person. GDP is a measure of the value of all goods and services a country produces. In 2007 annual budget figures showed revenues of $6.5 billion and expenditures of $5.7 billion. Controlling the national debt remains a problem for the government.

Agriculture of Costa Rica

Some 10.3 percent of Costa Rica’s land area is under cultivation or used for plantation agriculture. Apart from banana plantations, most of the agricultural landholdings are small. Coffee, traditionally one of the most valuable crops, is cultivated mainly in the central plateau. However, coffee production has declined since the mid-1990s. In 2007, 110,400 metric tons of coffee was produced.

Bananas, the country’s main crop, are raised in the tropical coastal regions on plantations. In the late 19th and early 20th century a United States firm, the United Fruit Company (now United Brands), opened the largest banana plantation in the world on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and constructed the ports of Quepos and Golfito as banana-shipping points.

A decline in coffee prices in the 1990s led the government to encourage farmers to grow other crops for export. Today, sugarcane and pineapples and other tropical fruit provide export earnings. Corn, rice, vegetables, tobacco, and cotton are cultivated throughout the country, generally for domestic consumption. Cattle are raised for meat and dairy products, and hogs are also raised for meat.

Mining and Manufacturing in Costa Rica

Gold and silver are mined in the western part of Costa Rica. Deposits of manganese, nickel, mercury, and sulfur are largely unworked. Petroleum deposits have been found in the south, but the government has chosen not to exploit these deposits in order to preserve the environment. Salt is produced from seawater.

Manufacturing has grown in importance to Costa Rica’s economy since the 1960s. Traditionally, manufacturing was largely confined to small-scale enterprises such as coffee-drying plants, sawmills, woodworking factories, breweries, and distilleries and small factories that produced textiles, food products, furniture, cigarettes, and other consumer goods. In the 1960s and 1970s larger factories in the country began to produce petroleum products, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics. From the 1980s on, foreign-owned firms opened factories in Costa Rica for assembling electronic products and clothing for export. Medical equipment companies and pharmaceutical companies also opened plants in Costa Rica.

Energy in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has developed its hydroelectric resources and no longer requires petroleum to meet any of its energy needs. By the end of the 20th century, it had become an exporter of electricity. A new hydroelectric plant under construction in the early 2000s would increase the country’s electricity exports.

Currency and Foreign Trade in Costa Rica

The unit of currency is the colón, consisting of 100 centimos (516.60 colones equal U.S.$1; 2007 estimate). The Banco Central, established in 1950, is the bank of issue and administers foreign reserves.

In 2007 the value of imports was $12.7 billion and of exports, $9.3 billion. The chief exports included bananas, beef, coffee, machinery and electrical equipment, sugar, and textiles. Principal imports were manufactured goods, machinery, transportation equipment, chemicals, crude petroleum, and foodstuffs. Chief purchasers of exports are the United States, the Netherlands, Guatemala, Germany, and Malaysia. Leading suppliers of imports were the United States, Mexico, Japan, and Venezuela.

The entry in 1963 of Costa Rica into the Central American Common Market brought about major increases in trade in that region although its importance has since waned. In 1995 Costa Rica joined in the formation of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). A free-trade organization, the ACS comprises the members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) as well as 12 Latin nations bordering the Caribbean.

Tourism of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination in Latin America. It has a stable government and fairly high standard of living as well as excellent beaches, beautiful mountain scenery, volcanoes, and stunning national parks. Birdwatchers are attracted by the country’s diverse bird life. Butterflies also abound. Most of the country’s tourists come from the United States.

Transportation in Costa Rica

Railroad lines in Costa Rica were severely damaged by an earthquake in the early 1990s and were shut down indefinitely. Roads total 35,330 km (21,953 mi); some 680 km (some 425 mi) of roadway forms a portion of the Inter-American Highway. San José is linked by road with the cities of the surrounding plateau region, and bus service is good. Several domestic airlines provide service within the country. Juan Santamaría Airport, which is located near San José, is served by the Costa Rican national airline and several foreign airlines.

Communications in Costa Rica

In 2004 Costa Rica had 7 daily newspapers. There were 829 radio receivers and 248 televisions for every 1,000 residents. In 2005 Costa Rica had 321 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 people. Internet usage was growing steadily.

Labor in Costa Rica

Agriculture employs 15 percent of the labor force while industry employs 22 percent. The remainder was employed in the public and private service sectors. Labor unions are relatively weak in Costa Rica.


Costa Rica is a republic governed under the constitution of 1949.

Executive of Costa Rica

Executive power is vested in a president and two vice presidents, each of whom is elected by direct popular vote for single four-year terms. Each candidate must receive more than 40 percent of the total vote. Voting is compulsory for all citizens over 18 years of age. The president is assisted by a cabinet of some 20 ministers.

Legislature of Costa Rica

Legislative power in Costa Rica is vested in a single-chamber Legislative Assembly, with 57 deputies, elected for four-year terms.

Political Parties of Costa Rica

The leading political groups in Costa Rica are the National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN), a reformist party; the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido de Unidad Socialcristiana, or PUSC), a conservative party; and the Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana, or PAC), a party formed in 2000 by dissatisfied members of the PLN.

Judiciary in Costa Rica

Judicial power in Costa Rica is vested in a Supreme Court, appellate courts, a court of cassation (highest appeals court), and subordinate provincial courts. Capital punishment has been banned.

Local Government of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces: San José, Alajuela, Cartago, Puntarenas, Guanacaste, Heredia, and Limón. Each of the provinces has a governor appointed by the president.

Social Services in Costa Rica

The average life expectancy in Costa Rica is 78 years, one of the highest in the western hemisphere. A national health plan was established in the 1970s. Health services are concentrated in urban areas. A social security program has been in operation since 1942, with participation compulsory for all employees under 65 years of age.

Defense of Costa Rica

Costa Rica has had no armed forces since 1948, when the PLN came to power and abolished the army. The only security forces are the 4,500-member Civil Guard and the 2,000-member Rural Guard.


Human habitation of Costa Rica dates from at least 5000 BC, but in comparison with the great civilizations of pre-Columbian America the Native Americans of Costa Rica were neither numerous nor highly developed. When confronted by Spanish soldiers and missionaries, they resisted violently. Those who did not succumb to the epidemics that swept over the isthmus either died fighting or fled to remote areas. See also Native Americans of Middle and South America.

The Colonial Period

Christopher Columbus sailed along Costa Rica’s Caribbean shore in 1502 and gave the region its name, meaning “rich coast.” Despite the name, Costa Rica had few resources of interest to Spanish explorers. Spanish conquest, therefore, came later than in most of the rest of Central America, delayed by the absence of obvious wealth as well as by the hostility of the natives. Juan de Cavallón led the first successful Spanish colonizers into Costa Rica in 1561. Juan Vásquez de Coronado followed from 1562 to 1565 and founded Cartago, the capital until 1823, and other Spanish settlements in the central valley, where most of the population is still concentrated.

Spain administered Costa Rica as part of the kingdom of Guatemala from 1570 forward. Such circumstances as Costa Rica’s remoteness from Guatemala City and its lack of wealth allowed it to develop with less direct interference and regulation than the other provinces of Central America. Costa Rica’s relative obscurity gave it some of its distinguishing characteristics. The Spanish conquerors were unable to subjugate a sedentary native population, nor could they afford to import African slaves, as they did in areas of more apparent commercial agricultural or mining potential.

Costa Ricans consequently turned to subsistence farming on small land grants, without the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized so much of Latin America. Government and church officials were fewer than in the centers of authority and production. Thus, Costa Rica played only a minor role in the kingdom of Guatemala, and it developed to a large degree apart from the mainstream of Latin American history. It was first in the late 18th century, when Spanish emphasis on commercial agriculture led to the growth of tobacco as a major export, that the colony became of some importance to the Guatemalan authorities.


Tobacco exports promoted the growth of a more prosperous society, and Costa Ricans became prominent in the intellectual and political life of Central America in the early 19th century. When Spanish rule ended in 1821, the country became part of Mexico until 1823, and then part of the United Provinces of Central America, from 1824 to 1838. However, it avoided involvement in the civil wars that plagued the latter federation.

After independence Costa Rican politics reflected the liberal-conservative ideologies found elsewhere in Latin America, with the towns of Cartago, San José, Heredia, and Alajuela vying for leadership. San José gained ascendancy, but the most important development of the mid-19th century was the growth of coffee as the country’s major export. The nation’s first president, Juan Mora Fernández, launched educational reforms. An education law provided for free, universal education for both sexes.

From 1849 to 1859 coffee-grower J. Rafael Mora served as Costa Rica’s president. Mora took the lead in organizing Central American resistance against William Walker, a U.S. adventurer who took over Nicaragua in 1855 and invaded Costa Rica. After a bloodless coup ousted the conservative Mora in 1859, liberal domination followed, notably under Tomás Guardia. During his time in office, from 1870 to 1882, Costa Rica became committed to heavy foreign investment in railroads and other public improvements.

In the late 1800s U.S. investors introduced banana cultivation along the Caribbean coast. The banana empire created by the U.S. businessman Minor Keith became the United Fruit Company in 1899. United Fruit developed the lowland coasts and built railroads and other communications, but it also made Costa Rica more dependent on foreign markets and capital.

Democracy and Stable Government

Although late 19th- and early 20th-century Costa Rican politics had its share of irregularities, the clear trend was away from military solutions toward a more orderly political process. Costa Ricans took pride in having more teachers than soldiers and a higher standard of living than elsewhere in Central America. Coffee remained the mainstay of the economy, but a growing urban middle class began to challenge the political control of the coffee elite with more modern political parties.

The 1930s saw the rise of a strong communist movement, which organized strikes on the banana plantations. The reformist National Republican Party (Partido Republicano Nacional, or PRN) won the presidency with León Cortes Castro in 1936 and again in 1940 with Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia. Calderón lost the support of wealthy conservatives by implementing a labor code and expanding social welfare. His party then turned to the communists and the Catholic Church for support.

When the PRN attempted to continue in power after a narrow defeat in 1948 elections, a new political force, the National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN), overthrew it. Led by José Figueres Ferrer, the PLN became the country’s dominant party. Figueres disbanded the army, nationalized the banks, expanded social welfare programs, extended voting rights, and imposed a 10 percent tax on private capital to pay for social and economic development. Under moderate governments, Costa Rica became Latin America’s most democratic country. Figueres served as president from 1953 to 1958 and again from 1970 to 1974.

The PLN won the presidency in 1974 with Daniel Oduber, but differences between him and Figueres, along with economic troubles, brought an opposition coalition headed by Rodrigo Carazo Odio to power in 1978. His administration was troubled by growing instability throughout Central America and by an economic crisis made worse by falling coffee prices and high oil prices. The government failed to meet the terms of loan agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and international bankers refused to provide more loans.

Costa Rica experienced rapid population growth and consequent strains on its economy in the early 1980s. The PLN returned to power in 1982, when Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez was elected president. Monge cut government spending on social welfare and other programs. He also turned to the United States for aid. To receive assistance, Monge pledged to cooperate with the United States in opposing leftist movements in Central America.

Monge was succeeded by Oscar Arias Sánchez, also of the PLN, in 1986. Arias closed camps near the border with Nicaragua that were set up under Monge to train contras—U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries dedicated to bringing down Nicaragua’s leftist government. Arias won consensus among Central American leaders for a peace plan, which created a framework for settling civil wars and democratizing countries in the region. Arias received international recognition for his plan and in 1987 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the United States curtailed aid during his term, contributing to Costa Rica’s ongoing economic problems. In addition, several drug- and arms-related corruption scandals involving PLN politicians marred his administration.

Recent Developments

The inability to solve Costa Rica’s economic problems has prevented either political party from dominating the executive office. Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, son of former president Rafael Calderón, won the 1990 presidential election as the candidate of the conservative Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). Calderón encouraged free-market economic policies and cut public spending. In 1994 José María Figueres Olsen of the PLN was elected president. Figueres, the son of former president José Figueres Ferrer, promoted Costa Rica as a world leader in environmental conservation and adopted a hard line against public-sector unions seeking wage and benefit improvements. Social unrest increased as taxes rose, government spending declined, and living standards fell.

In 1998 conservative economist Miguel Angel Rodríguez of the Social Christian Unity Party narrowly defeated José Miguel Corrales of the ruling PLN in a presidential election that centered on Costa Rica’s economic problems. The Social Christian Unity Party held on to the presidency in 2002 when Abel Pacheco was elected president. Pacheco managed to win because of a split in the opposition PLN and the formation of the breakaway Citizens’ Action Party (PAC).

Government efforts to cut spending, promote foreign investment, and stabilize the economy continued to provoke unrest. In August 2004 a general strike, called by the country’s public sector unions, was accompanied by mass demonstrations. At the same time corruption scandals embroiled a number of prominent political figures, including Pacheco and former presidents Figueres and Rodríguez. Several government ministers were forced to resign over the controversy.

In 2005 former president Oscar Arias Sánchez announced his candidacy for the 2006 presidential elections. Arias campaigned under the banner of free trade, arguing that Costa Rica must join the rest of the countries in the region in approving the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). His opponent, Ottón Solís, maintained that CAFTA would hurt the country’s farmers and worsen Costa Rica’s economic difficulties. In February 2006 Arias narrowly defeated Solís and became president for a second time.

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