Costa Rica

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  • Costa Rica is home to a dazzling variety of natural landscapes: rugged mountains, lush rainforests, active volcanoes, pristine beaches, excellent surf breaks and tropical reefs. Ticos (as Costa Ricans are known) are proud of their prosperous and peaceful country, its natural beauty and rich biodiversity, fabulous weather, stable economy and long-held democracy. Living standards are the highest in Central America, and the country is famous for its well-developed eco-tourism sector, clean energy accomplishments and unique unarmed democracy, making this the safest and most stable country in the region.

    Humans inhabited Costa Rica’s rainforests as far back as 10,000 years ago, but precious little is known about the country’s pre-Columbian history. There are few surviving archaeological sites, and those that do remain are without written records detailing their use. It’s estimated that prior to the arrival of Europeans, there was an indigenous population of up to 400,000, comprising 20 different tribal groups. The country’s most important archaeological site is Guayabo (near modern-day Turrialba in the central highlands); a small city that was inhabited as early as 1000 BC but mysteriously abandoned around 1400 AD. Set deep in the Diquís Delta of southern Costa Rica is a collection of four archaeological sites that bear more proof of pre-Columbian societies. Burial sites, paved areas and artificial mounds are among the evidence, but most fascinating are the hundreds of man-made carved stone spheres—mysterious in their perfect form, their number and varying size, and in the mystery surrounding their meaning, purpose and construction.

    It was on his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502 that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus dropped anchor near modern-day Puerto Limón on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, after his ship was damaged by a hurricane. Columbus’s 18-day stay was the country’s first known visit from the outside world. Costa Rica means “rich coast” in Spanish, allegedly named after the gold jewellery and everyday objects presented to Columbus by the local indigenous peoples, sparking assumptions of wealthy inland civilisations. While relations were apparently friendly to begin with, subsequent attempts by Europeans to establish colonies were met with resistance. Due to its tiny labour force and lack of precious metals or other exploitable export products, Costa Rica was largely ignored and undeveloped by Spanish administrators and came to be known as the poorest and most miserable region in the Americas. Indigenous resistance efforts—combined with the harsh conditions that the Spanish found themselves in, and the colonial focus on more promising regions—delayed the establishment of a permanent colony in the area for sixty years.

    In 1563, the Spanish-installed Governor Vasquez de Coronado established the first permanent settlement of Cartago, in the fertile highlands of the country’s Central Valley (Valle Central). By this time, introduced diseases had devastated the indigenous population, and those who survived mostly chose to disappear into remote forests to avoid absorption into the Spanish encomienda system of forced labour. The rich volcanic soils of the Central Valley were finally harnessed by settlers but Costa Rica’s lack of strategic importance and exploitable resources meant that the familiar Spanish colonial system—of massive farming estates fuelled by slave labour—was not applicable here. Instead, small estate landowners established subsistence farms growing tobacco, cacao, sugar, fruits and vegetables, and with Costa Rica’s economy based solely on agriculture, some of these small estate owners became local political leaders whose power would reach well into the 20th century. During the 18th century new settlements (including the now-capital of San Jose) were established, and Costa Rica’s population was estimated to be more than 50,000 by the turn of the 19th century.

    The early 1800s saw the beginning of a succession of wars against Spanish colonial rule in the Americas that would come to be known as the Spanish American wars of independence. Napoleonic France invaded Portugal and Spain in the first decade of the 19th century, sparking a chain of popular uprisings and government overhauls throughout the Spanish Americas. Revolutionary campaigns spread throughout Latin America, deposing Spanish-installed governments, establishing new independent government juntas and declaring independence from Spain. Costa Rica did not fight for separation from Spain, but when Mexico achieved independence in 1821, it was also claimed for the countries of Central America. Costa Rica was part of the short-lived Mexican Empire for two years, after which it broke away and helped form the United Provinces of Central America, before also severing ties with that federation in 1838.

    Costa Rica had begun taking shape with the construction of roads and new towns, and local merchants were about to discover the potential of a crop that would finally bring the riches long promised to Costa Rica. The discovery that the Central Valley had the perfect soil and climate for coffee cultivation revolutionised the nation’s economy. Local merchants established export markets in South America and overseas, and farmers were given free plant saplings to incentivise coffee production. By the turn of the 20th century, coffee would account for a third of the Central Valley’s cultivation and more than 90% of all export trade. In order to get its coffee out to international export markets, the Costa Rican government contracted a major railway project to connect the plantations of the Central Valley with the major seaport of Limón. The project was a debacle, with accidents, diseases and labour shortages resulting in major delays and the project soaring over budget. The American railway heir in charge of the project had been planting bananas along the tracks as a cheap food source for his labourers, and had begun to ship some bananas back to New Orleans as a way of recouping something from his investment. Luckily, international demand for the fruit exploded, and bananas soon eclipsed coffee as Costa Rica’s most lucrative export.

    Early Costa Rican political life was led by violence and dictatorship rather than democracy, with major political influence resting with the local coffee barons, the Roman Catholic Church and the military. Political life gradually became more civil towards the end of the 19th century, with waning interference from the Church, democratic constitutional amendments and a wave of social reforms including a free public education system and guaranteed minimum wages. In 1948, a serious political crisis interrupted Costa Rica’s path to democracy. A landowner with outspoken political views assembled and trained troops on his farm, with his army evolving into the National Liberation Party that would successfully rebel against the government, sparking a brief civil war and killing 2,000 civilians. In response to the violence, a new constitution was promulgated in 1949. This new constitution made revolutionary changes to Costa Rican governance and social order, including the establishment of citizenship and voting rights for women and minorities, and the prohibition of armed forces, cementing Costa Rica’s unique unarmed democracy. It was this inclusive social democracy—in which the political left was reformist rather than revolutionary—that would come to buffer Costa Rica from the radical extremist politics that plagued the rest of Central America during the Cold War years.

    Although Costa Rica remained politically stable, the conflict throughout Central America discouraged tourism to the region, and the economy was further strained by the crippling price of oil, and by the arrival of thousands of refugees from Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America, fleeing civil wars and human rights abuses. Under intense pressure from the US, Costa Rica was reluctantly dragged into a civil war in Nicaragua. A counterrevolutionary group called the Contra rebels staged guerilla acts from camps in northern Costa Rica, and silence was bought from Costa Rican authorities with bribes. The war with Nicaragua finally came to an end, and Costa Rica’s stable democracy returned, as a result of the Central American peace plan championed by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

    The dramatic fall of world coffee prices in the 1970s had forced the Costa Rican government to look at alternate revenue streams. After 500 years of land clearing, Costa Rica came to realise that its rainforests and natural environs were a unique and lucrative asset for attracting foreign currency. By 1995, almost a third of the whole country had been protected in more than 125 national parks, forests and wildlife reserves, and tourism had surpassed banana and coffee exports as the country’s primary source of income. The boom of eco-tourism has had obvious positive impacts on environmental management and living standards throughout the country, and is today a major draw card for visitors and a major source of income and pride for Costa Rica’s government and citizens.

  • Costa Rica is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, thanks to the Spanish colonialists who brought the religion to the region in the 16th century. According to a nationwide census conducted by the University of Costa Rica, 70% of the population identifies as Catholic, of which two-thirds are practicing

    Other religions include 16% Protestant Evangelical, 8% no religious affiliation, and 6% other religion (including Latter-day Saints, Lutheran, Jewish, Quaker, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist and indigenous animist).

    No matter how elementary your grasp of Spanish, have a go anyway.

    Costa Rica is humid, hot and tropical. Remember to apply sun- and bug-protection liberally.

    With the exception of hotel maids and busboys, Costa Rica does not have a tipping culture.

    Nude sunbathing, skinny-dipping and excessive displays of affection are generally unacceptable.

    As permission before taking photographs of people.

    New Year’s Eve (31 Dec) sees fireworks, feasting and celebrations

    Palmares comes alive with the Palmares Festival in January, with thousands descending on the sleepy coffee town for one of the country’s biggest fiestas. Expect horse parades, bullfights, live music, fireworks, carnival rides and lots of drinking.

    Envision Festival (Feb-Mar) is a multi-day music, arts and culture festival; Costa Rica’s tropical answer to Nevada’s epic Burning Man festival.

    As elsewhere in the Catholic world, Costa Rica observes Lent, the 40 days of prayer, fasting and sacrifice leading up to Easter Sunday.

    Easter week is known as Semana Santa (or Holy Week) and is the most significant week in the Catholic Costa Rican calendar. Cities and towns grind to a halt during Semana Santa, as locals gather for multiple days of special ceremonies and street parades.

    Another important Catholic holiday is the Day of the Virgin of Los Angeles (2 Aug), in which Costa Ricans celebrate their country’s patron saint with feasting and fireworks.

    Catholic countries around the world party like crazy in the name of Carnival, with cities and towns swelling in size as revelers dance, drink and party in the lead up to Lent. While Costa Rica’s celebrations may not rival Brazil’s, the week-long Puntarenas Carnival (Feb) is Costa Rica’s most exciting.

    San Jose hosts the Festival de la Luz (Festival of Lights) each December, during which the city comes alive with lights and lanterns, float parades, masquerades, live music and fireworks displays. Limón hosts its own exciting Carnival in October, celebrating the Afro-Caribbean culture of Limón province in colourful street party style.

    San Jose’s Fiestas de Zapote (usually Christmas – New Year) is a colourful 10-day festival combining rodeo and bullfighting (a humane version, in which the bulls are not harmed) events with street parades, live music and dance, food stalls and carnival games.

    Also in December is the Fiesta de los Diablitos (Festival of Little Devils), in which indigenous communities in the village of Boruca reenact and celebrate the Brunka tribe's victory over the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The village of Rey Curre celebrates the festival in February.

    Secular public holidays include New Year’s Day (1 Jan), Juan Santamaria Day (11 Apr), Labour Day (1 May) and Independence Day (15 Sep).

    Total population is 4,301,712 (2011 census data), making Costa Rica the 124th most populous country in the world, growing at an annual rate of 1.24%

    The median age is 30 years, with 23.5% aged 0-14 and 6.8% aged 65+

    Sex ratio is 1.01 males to 1 female

    64.7% of the total population lives in urban areas, with an average annual rate of urbanization at 2.06%.

    The majority of Costa Rica’s population is either white with Spanish ancestry or mestizo (mixed European and indigenous ancestry). Less than 1% of the population is indigenous Costa Rican. A little over 1% of the population is black Afro-Caribbean, tracing their ancestry to Jamaican immigrants who came to work on the Central Valley-Limón railway construction, and in the banana plantations of the Caribbean coast. These communities were for a long time forbidden from moving throughout the country, and even once these discriminatory travels bans were lifted, most chose to stay in their homelands along the Caribbean coast.

  • Pristine beach in Manuel Antonio national park, Costa Rica&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Sophie Panton</i>

    There are several distinct climatic zones in Costa Rica and as it is a tropical country there is no winter or summer.

    Most regions experience a rainy season from May to November and a dry season from December to April.

    In the rainy season, short afternoon showers are common, although not daily.

    Because of the severe changes in altitude throughout Costa Rica coastal temperatures can reach 28 – 32ºC (82 – 89ºF) while mountain regions can be considerably cooler with temperatures dropping to as low as 5ºC (40ºF).

    Bordered by Nicaragua to the north; the Caribbean Sea to the east; Panama to the southeast; and the North Pacific Ocean to the west.

    51,100 sq km, making it the 130th largest country in the world.

    Incredible waterfall scenery, Costa Rica&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Sophie Panton</i>

    Costa Rica is ranked 54 out of 178 (with an improving trend) on the Environmental Performance Index (2014)—which quantifies and benchmarks performance of government environmental policies and outcomes.

    Environmental issues include air pollution; deforestation and soil erosion due to agriculture and cattle grazing; coastal marine pollution; and landfill management.

    Natural hazards include active volcanoes; landslides and lowland flooding in rainy season; occasional hurricanes and occasional earthquakes.

    Costa Rica is a signatory to various international environmental and conservation agreements.

    Costa Rica's biodiversity is a real drawcard for nature lovers

    With its fertile tropical climate and wide range of protected national parks and wilderness areas, Costa Rica is home to intense biodiversity of plant and wildlife.

    About a third of the landscape is covered in thick broad-leaved evergreen forests of tropical cedar and mahogany, and mosses, orchids, bromeliads and other tropical species are so plentiful, that many tropical botanists undertake studies in the region.

    The northwest is covered with open deciduous forests, and the UNESCO World Heritage Listed slopes of the Talamanca range are covered with evergreen forests of oak and one of the last remaining major tracts of virgin rainforest in Central America. Mangrove forests grow along protected parts of the Pacific coast, and the Caribbean coastline is dotted with palm trees. Costa Rica’s major agricultural crops for export are bananas, pineapples and coffee.

    Most famous of Costa Rica’s wilderness areas are its mist-shrouded cloud forests, where cooling ocean winds provide year-round moisture to support a huge variety of tropical plant and animal species.

    The country’s rich environment provides sanctuary for a huge biodiversity of wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, anteaters, deer, jaguars, pumas and other wild cats, foxes, coyotes, weasels, bats, snakes, iguanas, frogs, insects, butterflies and tropical birds. Marine life includes whales, dolphins, turtles, caimans and otters.

    A small, narrow country between Nicaragua and Panama on the Central American isthmus, with both Caribbean Sea and North Pacific Ocean coastlines, Costa Rica is blessed with a dazzling variety of spectacular natural landscapes: rugged mountains, lush jungle and cloud forests, active volcanoes, pristine sand beaches and coral reefs.

    The coastal plains of the east and west are separated by a temperate central plateau where the capital and the majority of the country’s population are found, and a central spine of rugged mountains comprising two major mountain systems: the Cordillera Volcánica and the Cordillera de Talamanca.

    The Cordillera Volcánica is named for its active volcanic peaks, some of which pose significant threat of eruption, and comprises the three mountain chains of the Cordillera de Guanacaste, the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera de Tilarán.

    The Cordillera de Talamanca contains the country’s highest mountains, including its highest peak, Cerro Chirripó (3,820 m / 12,533 ft).

    Costa Rica is drained by many major river systems that rise in the mountains and empty into the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua, the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Valle Cantral (central highland valley) contains the continental divide, with rivers to the east and west of this ultimately draining into the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, respectively.

    Pre-Columbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquís (2014)

    Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves / La Amistad National Park (1983)

    Cocos Island National Park (1997)

    Area de Conservación Guanacaste (1999)

  • World Youth Adventures can tailor make a school expedition to Costa Rica to your school’s budget and curriculum requirements.

    Talk to us about your next school expedition, or if you need some ideas check out the trips below.

  • Capital City:  San Jose
    Time zone:  Costa Rica is -6 hours behind UTC/GMT
    Language:  Spanish (official)
    Currency:  Costa Rican colón
    Highest Mountain:  Cerro Chirripó
    Highest Mountain Elevation:  3,820 m / 12,533 ft
    Flag consist of five horizontal coloured bands, in order from top to bottom: dark blue, white, red (double-height band), white and dark blue. Placed towards the left-hand side of the central red band is Costa Rica’s official coat of arms.