The history of Costa Rica is easy to summarize; and in summarizing, to trivialize; once trivialized, to dismiss. That lack of serious interest means that stability is easier to maintain. Costa Rica is remarkable for its stability in an area that is notoriously unstable. It is a country that, at significant points, had leaders with priorities and foresight, who made the right decisions, thinking of the good of the people. This is the underlying consistency which creates stability in Costa Rica.

Costa Ricans are called “Ticos.” One Tico claims that once the region was called “Tiquizia”, and hence the name. A Spanish-English dictionary says that Ticos prefer diminutives in common speech, so that listening to a Tico is to hear a series of “tico-ita-ito-tico.” It may be a curtailed “costarricano”, although the proper adjectival is “costarricense”. As in most Spanish speaking nations, Ticos have two last names, the first from the father and the second from the mother. Informal situations mean that only the first last name is used. Women do not take their husbands’ last names, unless they first insert a “de” and add it to their two names, which they may do if their husbands are men of some significance.


The presence of human civilization in Costa Rica is evidenced as far back as 10,000 years. The most significant settlements arose between 4,000 and 1,000 years ago, the largest of which is Guayabo, currently under excavation. This city once held 10,000 inhabitants. By Mesoamerican standards, the region currently known as Costa Rica was nowhere in particular and not highly developed. The tribes that developed from hunter-gatherers to semi-agrarians never united into a single civilization. Each tribe maintained distinct cultural identities in separate regions of the land. A few of the tribes gained the “head-hunter” reputation, according to Spanish sources. A distinction must be drawn, however, between tribes who seek heads for magical significance and those who mount the heads of enemies on spikes as a warning to invaders. Costa Rican tribes fall into this second category. A degree of this territorial nature is found in the modal Tico personality today.

Gold was present throughout Mesoamerica, and Costa Rica had its share. The aboriginals panned for it in streams, and made small, decorative objects with it. These objects were given as tributes or traded for agricultural goods. It is this practice that capped the deceptive appearance Costa Rica presented to Christopher Columbus when he landed in 1502, during his final voyage to the Caribbean.

Columbus, or Colon in Spanish, eventually landed on the shores of what is today called Limon. Limon, on the south east Atlantic coast, has the lowest elevations in the country, which rapidly become the highest elevations as the traveler moves west. Several rivers empty into the Atlantic there, which has created an expanse of swamps, where malaria-carrying mosquitoes thrive. The majority of Costa Rican land rests in a high valley where temperatures are moderate and land is fertile, but the earliest European explorers never saw that.

Colon landed and was greeted by representatives of one of the aboriginal tribes. They wore gold ornaments and presented the Spanish with gifts of gold, cacao, and jade. Some legends say two young women greeted Colon, but who greeted him is unimportant; Colon believed that this white-sand shore was the richest yet seen, and so named it “Costa Rica.” Over the next decade, Spanish explorers came to Costa Rica seeking to exploit that presumed trove. They encountered only swamps, cold mountains, unwelcoming tribes and disease. One expedition lost one thousand men to malaria and hostile natives.


Fifty years later, in 1562, the Spanish government sent Juan Vasquez de Coronado from Guatemala into Costa Rica, with the goal of establishing a colony. He established a city, Cartago, by 1563, which became the capital and which reported to the central command in Guatemala. Costa Rica became a colony of Spain, but not one of the profit producing colonies. The gold reserves were never mined. The native tribes, because they were distinct and far flung, were not conquerable as a single group. Unlike the cultures of Aztecs and Mayans to the north, Costa Rican tribes had no central capital for Spaniards to conquer. Many natives did contract European diseases and more than half of the 20,000 thought to have lived there died. Those remaining refused to work as slaves for the Spanish colonists. The Spanish who came to Costa Rica did so to establish small agricultural estates, which they worked with their families. This sets the precedent for a small colony of yeoman farmers who developed pride in their own labor. Today’s Tico still considers himself a proud man if he works hard to support his family.

The next three hundred years of Costa Rican history are a blur of good crop yields and amicable relations between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples. Spanish, Italians and French came, settled the open land unclaimed by the tribes, farmed, mingled bloodlines with the aboriginals (mestizos, or people of mixed aboriginal and European blood, are classified “white” in the census), and ignored and were ignored by Spain. In the eighteenth century, coffee and tobacco became profitable export crops, and many landholders began to raise coffee and tobacco for this purpose. The largest part of farmland, however, produced sustenance for the population.


On September 15, 1821, Central America, not including Mexico, gained independence from Spain. Because of the nature of communications at the time, Cartago was not informed of this independence until some time in October, which announcement made no difference to the average Tico. The people of Costa Rica had been largely autonomous since the region’s inception. In five sessions of a hastily convened governing body, a new constitution was drafted on the principals of civil liberty, equality and democratic government. Independence made necessary only one important decision: Costa Rica could align itself with Mexico, the desire of Cartago and Heredia cities, or it could join the Federation of Central America, the plan of San Jose and Alajuela cities. After a three-day civil war, San Jose won and Costa Rica joined the Central American Federation. The other members of this Federation were El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

This alliance with the Central American Federation was brief. The instability of the rest of Central America did not appeal to the Ticos, whose interests centered on building up the infrastructure of their country. In 1837, Costa Rica withdrew from the Federation. Ticos continued their firmly middle-class, catholic Hispanic way of life.


A US citizen who wanted to annex Central America as five new slave states of the United States, disrupted this era of accord. William Walker was born in Tennessee, in 1824. He was a smallish man, about five-foot-five and very thin. He failed at medicine; then he failed at law; then he failed at writing. He decided to try his hand at subjugating and autocratically ruling all of Central America. Before continuing, it must be said: he failed at that, too.

The conquest began auspiciously for Walker. He succeeded in winning the Presidency of Nicaragua in 1855 and then planned to march on Costa Rica the following year. Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora raised an army of nine thousand Tico volunteers. Most simply hefted the machetes they used to tame jungle vines and formed lines. These volunteers were strong fighters: the invading Nicaraguans and Walker were defeated at Santa Rosa, then pushed back into the Nicaraguan town of Rivas and cornered in the fort. The Costa Ricans ended a brief siege by setting fire to the buildings. Juan Santamaria, a young drummer, carried the torch and died of gunshot wounds in the process. His sacrifice made him the Hero of Costa Rica, joining the Virgin of the Angels as a symbol of Costa Rican pride. Walker was later rescued by the US Navy, and a second attempt three years later to subdue Honduras resulted in Walker’s execution by the Honduran government. Costa Rica endured a decade of civil unrest, prompted by the Coffee Elite who wanted a government that would cater to the rich.


Then in 1870, Tomas Guardia subdued the Tico Coffee Barons in a military coup. This coup, unlike others in Central America, strengthened the institutions which supported democracy. Guardia limited the powers and uses of the military and made education for both sexes free and obligatory. To support the export trade, he also contracted with US born Minor C. Keith to build a railroad from San Jose to Puerto Limon, in exchange for 99 years of concession on the railroad and control of the lands around the railroad. Keith brought experienced Chinese and Italian laborers to build for him. This arrangement failed when the majority of these workers contracted malaria and those still standing went on strike. Keith then imported Jamaican workers to complete the San Jose-Limon connection. Limon remains a largely Jamaican area where citizens speak a Creole of English. Some Chinese and Italians descended from those first workers remain in Costa Rica.

In 1889, democracy prevailed in Costa Rica at last, when Jose Joaquin Rodriguez was elected in the first wholly uncorrupt and free election in Costa Rica, and indeed in the whole of Central America. The problems of Costa Rica, however, multiplied. Minor C. Keith financed his railroad with banana plantations on the Atlantic coast. At the same time, the United Fruit Company incorporated in Boston and gained a monopoly on Central American bananas. Ticos discovered that life in the grip of US Imperialism is marked by low wages, bad working conditions, and a lack of democratically elected leaders with the good of the people at heart. When the United Fruit Company moved operations from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast in 1930, Costa Rica experienced some of the worst social chaos in its history.


In 1940, after US companies withdrew control of Costa Rican exports, the people elected Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia. His ideals lead him to establish such institutions as a social security pension system which continues to this day. However, in 1942, Jose “Don Pepe” Figueres Ferrer broadcast a radio report that the Calderon administration was corrupt, and that Ticos would suffer more under his rule than under US Imperialism. He was arrested and deported to Mexico before the broadcast ended. When President Picado was defeated by Otilio Ulate in 1948, and Picado refused to step down, Figueres brought in an army of Tico volunteers. This time, the volunteers had weapons from other Central American nations in exchange for a promise that dictatorships in those countries would be overthrown with help from Costa Rica. The civil war lasted for five weeks, during which time 2,000 Ticos died. (My husband’s grandfather, “Don Pepe” Vargas, spent that time in prison for refusing to take sides in the bloodshed. His sons and grandsons -- they were good men, too.)

Figueres remained president for 18 months. His most significant reform was to disband the military. Costa Rica still has no standing army, but it is estimated that the number of men fit and able for military service is 750,000, and these men are obligated to serve should the need arise. (I know for a fact they still have those machetes. Those things keep an edge pretty well.) Figueres stepped aside in 1949, conceding to the democratically elected Otilio Ulate. In 1953, Figueres was elected to the presidency, and in 1970 he was again elected. His reforms and innovations brought a time of peace, economic growth and more stability.

A rivalry between Figueres and Nicaraguan Dictator Anastasio “Tacho” Samoza put the peace and stability of Costa Rica at risk once again in the 1970’s and 80’s. On the Nicaraguan border, sympathetic Guanacaste Ticos allowed anti-Samoza Sandinistas to set up training camps. In 1982, Ticos elected President Luis Alberte Monge Alvarez, who after trying to remain officially neutral bowed to US pressure and offers of monetary aid, and allowed the US backed Contras to set up camps, and to build roads and airstrips in Guanacaste.

The candidate who was elected in 1986, Oscar Arias Sanchez, brought Ticos back from the brink of war. He ran on a platform of peace, and his plan to bring about peace and stability to the whole of Central America won the approval and signatures of Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. For his efforts, Arias Sanchez won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

In recent years, the economy of Costa Rica has declined. The colon, deriving its name from that poor deceived Genoese, currently exchanges with the dollar at 410 to 1. To buy a pair of shoes, the average Tico wage earner has to part with a week’s salary. More and more Ticos come to the US to earn money to send back to families in need at home. (I suppose I shouldn’t sound so grim about this situation, as I wouldn’t have one of those charming and stable and also quite handsome Ticos for a husband if there weren’t such a need for better wages and thus such a wave of immigration. Silver linings, and all that.) Coincidentally, there has been a sharp rise in the number of US owned and operated businesses in Costa Rica during the past two decades. Coincidence? Or is it?

The current president of Costa Rica is Dr. Abel Pacheco. He is a doctor of psychology, a skeptic and reformer, who has his own TV show dedicated to the exposure of systematic fraud and corruption. Every morning, he puts on his bathrobe and slippers and walks to the corner store, alone, for a newspaper and coffee. One has to ask the question: Which is the true democracy: the country where the President dare not stir out of doors without armed guards, or the country where the president goes to the bodega himself for his morning paper and cuppa?

Update 3/8/06

The current president of Costa Rica is no longer Dr. Abel Pacheco, but is in fact Oscar Arias. In an election that took place on February 5, 2006, Oscar Arias became only the second person in Costa Rican history to be re-elected. Arias ran on a platform of pro-Costa Rican reform which should include more investment in new industry and expansion of tourism. "Let's think big" he encouraged voters. He is now on a campaign to begin the reforms he promised during elections. Oh, and it's about 510 colones to a dollar, according to the calculations we were making this morning.




Spanish English Dictionary – Costa Rica

Personal Interview – Christian B. Varela Vargas