COSTA RICA is a republic of just under four million people, located in Central America between Panama and Nicaragua. It is one of the most modern, developed, and democratic states in Latin America, with a 96 percent literacy rate, a large middle class, a strong agricultural and industrial economic base, and the highest life expectancy in the hemisphere. GDP is around $7,000 per capita.

The name, literally "rich coast," comes from none other than Christopher Columbus, who visited Costa Rica in 1502. Humans have inhabited the area since at least 5000 BC, but the native Costa Ricans lived a very primitive existence as late as Columbus' time, so there is very little history about them. The conquistadores didn't arrive in Costa Rica until 1561, mainly because there wasn't much in the area that they wanted.

Until the 1700's, Costa Rica was one of the most isolated parts of New Spain. Local rule was from the captain-general in Guatemala City, some distance away, so early settlers were able to develop a farming economy in a fairly laissez-faire environment, where economic inequity was at a minimum. San José, the modern capital, developed alongside cities such as Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela.

Big money didn't start arriving until tobacco became popular in Europe, giving Costa Rica a major cash crop to export. In the 1800's, tobacco was supplemented by coffee and banana exports. From 1821 to 1823, Costa Rica was part of Mexico, and from 1824 to 1838 it was part of the Central American Confederation. The confederation then broke up, and the country became independent.

Isolationist conservatives led the country until 1859, when dictator Rafael Mora was overthrown. Liberals took over in the aftermath, and encouraged foreign investment in the country, spearheaded by the United Fruit Company, which built railroads and communications infrastructure across the country. By the early 20th century, the Costa Rican military had been marginalized, and democratization was in full swing. The middle-left National Liberation Party, led by José Figueres Ferrer, came to power in a 1948 revolution, and became the dominant political force in the country, opposed by the more conservative Social Christian Unity Party. In 1998, the SCUP took over after the national debt skyrocketed in the mid-90's.

Today, the Costa Rican government consists of a unicameral Legislative Assembly with 57 members, each elected for four-year terms. There is an elected president and two elected vice presidents, all of whom are limited to one four-year term. The country is a member of the Caribbean Community and Common Market, although most of its trade is with the USA.

The national currency is the colon (pl. colones), which is worth about 1/4 of a US cent. Each colon is divided into 100 centimos, although, as you can imagine, these aren't used too often nowadays. Small factories account for most industrial output, and most electricity comes from hydroelectric power generated in the cool central highlands. The warmer coasts on the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico draw many tourists, and the country is especially well-known for surfing.

There are lots of big mountains there, including an active volcano, Irazú. The highest peak, Chirripó Grande, is nearly 4,000 meters high.

Overall, a really cool country. I've never met a Costa Rican I didn't like.