The Republic of Costa Rica (República de Costa Rica), is located on the Central American isthmus, lying between latitudes 8° and 12°N, and longitudes 82° and 86°W, bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and Ecuador to the south of Cocos Island. It has a population of around 4.5 million, of whom nearly a quarter live in the metropolitan area of the capital and largest city, San José. In total, Costa Rica comprises 19,700 square miles (51,100 square kilometers) of land plus 227 square miles (589 square kilometers) of territorial waters. There are 14 known volcanoes in Costa Rica, and six of them have been active in the last 75 years. The country has also experienced at least ten earthquakes of magnitude 5.7 or higher (3 of magnitude 7.0 or higher) in the last century.
Costa Rica also comprises several islands. Cocos Island (9.3 square miles or 24 square kilometers) stands out because of its distance from the continental landmass, 300 miles (480 km) from Puntarenas, but Calero Island is the largest island of the country (58.5 square miles or 151.6 square kilometers). Over 25% of Costa Rica’s national territory is protected by SINAC (the National System of Conservation Areas), which oversees all of the country’s protected areas. The country also possesses the greatest density of species in the world.
Costa Rica has been cited by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as having attained much higher human development than other countries at the same income levels, with a better record on human development and inequality than the median of the region. It is known for its progressive environmental policies, being the only country to meet all five UNDP criteria established to measure environmental sustainability. Costa Rica was twice ranked the best performing country in the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) Happy Planet Index, which measures environmental sustainability, and was identified by the NEF as the greenest country in the world in 2009. Its rapidly developing economy, once heavily dependent on agriculture, has diversified to include sectors such as finance, pharmaceuticals, and ecotourism.
The human occupation of what is now Costa Rica dates back at least 10,000 years but much of the culture of those early inhabitants remains a mystery. The oldest evidence (stone tool making) is associated with the arrival of various groups of hunter-gatherers about 10,000 to 7,000 years BCE in the Turrialba Valley. The presence of Clovis culture type spearheads and arrows from South America opens the possibility that, in this area, two different cultures coexisted. Archaeological sites in the Nicoya peninsula in the southwest and from the central highlands demonstrate a strong influence from the Mexican civilizations of the Olmec and Nahuati.
Agriculture became evident in the populations that lived in Costa Rica about 5,000 years ago. They mainly grew tubers and roots (like carrots). For the first and second millennia BCE there were already settled farming communities. These were small and scattered, although the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture as the main livelihood in the territory is still unknown.
The earliest use of pottery appears around 2,000 to 3,000 BCE. Shards of pots, cylindrical vases, platters, gourds and other forms of vases decorated with grooves, prints, and some modelled after animals have been found. Other remains reveal sophisticated work, with gold and jade being conducted more than 1,000 years ago.
The impact of indigenous peoples on modern Costa Rican culture has been relatively small compared to other nations, since the country lacked a strong native civilization to begin with. Most of the native population was absorbed into the Spanish-speaking colonial society through inter-marriage, except for some small remnants, the most significant of which are the Bribri and Boruca tribes who still inhabit the mountains of the Cordillera de Talamanca, in the southern part of Costa Rica, near the frontier with Panama.
Accounts differ as to whether the name la costa rica (Spanish for “rich coast”) was first applied by Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the eastern shores of Costa Rica during his final voyage in 1502, and reported the presence of vast quantities of gold jewelry among the natives, or by the conquistador Gil González Dávila, who landed on the west coast in 1522, met with the natives, and appropriated some of their gold.
The first European to set foot in the region was none other than Christopher Columbus who landed on September 18, 1502, at Puerto Limon. Columbus and his men were warmly greeted by a gathering of Carib Indians who wore golden bands as earrings and nose rings, Unfortunately, the Spanish introduced smallpox to the sparse indigenous population. The disease decimated the natives, as the colonizing Spanish conquerors followed their common practice of bringing African slaves to work the land. Today, only one percent of the country’s three million people are of indigenous heritage.
Numerous subsequent Spanish expeditions followed which eventually led to the first Spanish colony in Costa Rica — Villa Bruselas — founded in 1524. During most of the colonial period, Costa Rica was the southernmost province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which was nominally part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (the future Mexico). In practice, it operated as a largely autonomous entity within the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica’s distance from the capital in Guatemala, its legal prohibition under Spanish law against trading with its southern neighbors in Panama, then part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (the future Colombia), and the lack of resources such as gold and silver, resulted in Costa Rica attracting few inhabitants. It was a poor, isolated, and sparsely inhabited region within the Spanish Empire. A Spanish governor in 1719 described Costa Rica as “the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America.”
The area suffered a lack of an indigenous population available for forced labor, which meant that most of the Costa Rican settlers had to work their own land. This prevented the establishment of large haciendas. For all of these reasons Costa Rica was by and large unappreciated and overlooked by the Spanish Crown and left to develop on its own. The small landowners’ relative poverty, the lack of a large indigenous labor force, the population’s ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and Costa Rica’s isolation from the Spanish colonial centers in Mexico and the Andes, all contributed to the development of an autonomous and individualistic agrarian society. Even the Governor had to farm his own crops and tend to his own garden due to his poverty.
In the early nineteenth century, Napoleon’s occupation of Spain led to the outbreak of revolts all across Spanish America. In New Spain, all of the fighting by those seeking independence was done in the center of that area from 1810 to 1821, what today is central Mexico. On September 15, 1821, after the final Spanish defeat in the Mexican War of Independence (1810–21), the authorities in Guatemala declared the independence of all of Central America. That date is still celebrated as Independence Day in Costa Rica even though, technically, under the Spanish Constitution of 1812 that had been readopted in 1820, Nicaragua and Costa Rica had become an autonomous province with its capital in León.
On October 13, 1821, the documents arrived at Cartago, and an emergency meeting was called upon by Governor Juan Manuel de Cañas. There were many ideas on what to do upon gaining independence, such as joining Mexico, joining Guatemala or Nueva Granada (today Colombia). A group was declared (Junta de Legados), which created the temporary Junta Gubernativa Superior. Meanwhile “the clouds clear up” (“Mientras se aclaraban los nublados del día“), a famous phrase of the events of the day. Independence from Spain was acknowledged and ratified on October 29, 1821, by the colonial authorities. It was then ratified in the cities of San José on November 1, 1821, at Cartago on November 3, at Heredia on November 11, and Alajuela on November 25, 1821.
After the declaration of independence, the New Spain parliament intended to establish a commonwealth whereby the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, would also be Emperor of New Spain, but in which both countries were to be governed by separate laws and with their own legislative offices. Should the king refuse the position, the law provided for a member of the House of Bourbon to accede to the New Spain throne. Ferdinand VII did not recognize the colony’s independence and said that Spain would not allow any other European prince to take the throne of New Spain.
By request of Parliament, the president of the regency, Agustín de Iturbide, was proclaimed emperor of New Spain, which was renamed as Mexico. The Mexican Empire was the official name given to this monarchical regime from 1821 to 1823. The territory of the Mexican Empire included the continental intendancies and provinces of New Spain proper including those of the former Captaincy General of Guatemala.
Upon independence, Costa Rican authorities faced the issue of officially deciding the future of the country. Two bands formed, the Imperialists, defended by Cartago and Heredia cities which were in favor of joining the Mexican Empire, and the Republicans, represented by the cities of San José and Alajuela who defended full independence. Because of the lack of agreement on these two possible outcomes, the first civil war of Costa Rica occurred. The Battle of Ochomogo, which took place on the Hill of Ochomogo, located in the Central Valley in 1823. The conflict was won by the Republicans and, as a consequence, the city of Cartago lost its status as the capital, which moved to San José.
In 1823, a revolution in Mexico ousted Emperor Agustín de Iturbide. A new Mexican congress voted to allow the Central American Intendancies to decide their own fate. That year, the United Provinces of Central America was formed of the five Central American Intendancies under General Manuel José Arce. The Intendancies took the new name of States. The United Provinces federation, not strongly united to begin with, rapidly disintegrated under the pressures of intra-provincial rivalries.
In 1838, long after the Federal Republic of Central America ceased to function in practice, Costa Rica formally withdrew and proclaimed itself sovereign. The considerable distance and poor communication routes between Guatemala City and the Central Plateau, where most of the Costa Rican population lived then and still lives now, meant the local population had little allegiance to the federal government in Guatemala. From colonial times to now, Costa Rica’s reluctance to become politically tied with the rest of Central America has been a major obstacle to efforts for greater regional integration.
Following full independence in 1838, Costa Rica had no regular trade routes established to export their coffee to European markets. They had problems with lack of infrastructure producing problems in transportation: the coffee-growing areas were mainly in the Central Valley and had access only to the port of Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast. Before the Panama Canal was opened, ships from Europe had to sail around Cape Horn in order to get to the Pacific Coast. In 1843, the country established a trade route to Europe with the help of William Le Lacheur, a Guernsey merchant and shipowner.
In 1856, William Walker, an American filibuster, began incursions into Central America. After landing in Nicaragua, he proclaimed himself as president of Nicaragua and re-instated slavery, which had been abolished. He intended to expand into Costa Rica and after he entered that territory, the country declared war against his forces. Led by Commander in Chief of the Army of Costa Rica, President Juan Rafael Mora Porras, the filibusters were defeated and forced out of the country. Costa Rican forces followed the filibusters into Rivas, Nicaragua, where in a final battle, William Walker and his forces were finally pushed back. Juan Santamaría, a drummer boy from Alajuela who lost his life torching the filibusters’ stronghold, was killed in this final battle. He is today remembered as a national hero.
Coffee was first planted in Costa Rica in the early nineteenth century, and was first shipped to Europe in 1843, soon becoming Costa Rica’s first major export. Coffee production would remain Costa Rica’s principal source of wealth well into the twentieth century. Most of the coffee exported was grown around the main centers of population in the Central Plateau and then transported by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. Since the main market for the coffee was in Europe, it soon became a high priority to develop a transportation route from the Central Plateau to the Atlantic Ocean. For this purpose, in the 1870s, the Costa Rican government contracted with U.S. businessman Minor C. Keith to build a railroad to the Caribbean port of Limón. Despite enormous difficulties with construction, disease, and financing, the railroad was completed in 1890.
Most Afro-Costa Ricans, who constitute about 3% of the country’s population, descend from Jamaican immigrants who worked in the construction of that railway. U.S. convicts, Italians and Chinese immigrants also participated in the construction project. In exchange for completing the railroad, the Costa Rican government granted Keith large tracts of land and a lease on the train route, which he used to produce bananas and export them to the United States. As a result, bananas came to rival coffee as the principal Costa Rican export, while foreign-owned corporations (including the United Fruit Company) began to hold a major role in the national economy.
Historically, Costa Rica has generally enjoyed greater peace and more consistent political stability compared with many of its fellow Latin American nations. Since the late nineteenth century, however, Costa Rica has experienced two significant periods of violence. In 1917–1919, General Federico Tinoco Granados ruled as a military dictator until he was overthrown and forced into exile. The unpopularity of Tinoco’s regime led, after he was overthrown, to a considerable decline in the size, wealth, and political influence of the Costa Rican military. In 1948, José Figueres Ferrer led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election between the previous president Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (who served as president between 1940 and 1944) and Otilio Ulate Blanco. With more than 2,000 dead, the resulting 44-day Costa Rican Civil War was the bloodiest event in Costa Rica during the twentieth century.
The victorious rebels formed a government junta that abolished the military altogether, and oversaw the drafting of a new constitution by a democratically elected assembly. Having enacted these reforms, the junta relinquished its power on November 8, 1949, to the new democratic government. After the coup d’état, Figueres became a national hero, winning the country’s first democratic election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 14 presidential elections, the latest in 2014. All of them have been widely regarded by the international community as peaceful and transparent. With uninterrupted democracy dating back to at least 1948, the country is the region’s most stable.
Costa Rica’s economy underwent a transformation in 1978. The country went from being “an economic development success story” to entering a severe socio-economic crisis. Costa Rica relied on the exportation of bananas and coffee. In 1978, coffee prices dropped, and its revenues declined. In 1979, the price of oil, a main imported item, increased sharply and rapidly, plunging the country into crisis. In order to help improve the economy, President Rodrigo Carazo continued to borrow money internationally. In return, this led the country to be more in debt.
Once a largely agricultural country, Costa Rica has transformed to relying on technology industry and services, and eco-tourism. Costa Rica’s major source of export income is technology based. Microsoft, Motorola, Intel and other technology-related firms have established operations in Costa Rica. Local companies create and export software as well as other computer-related products. Tourism is growing at an accelerated pace, and many believe that income from this tourism may soon become the major contributor to the nation’s GDP. Traditional agriculture, particularly coffee and bananas, continues to be an important part of Costa Rica’s exports.
A postal service existed in Costa Rica quite early and was coastal in most of its routes. Postal markings of only five offices are recorded between 1800 and 1821. These were at Alajuela, Cartago, San Jose, Villa Nueve and Villa Vieja. The first stamps were printed by the American Bank Note Co., and issued in 1863 (Scott #1-4). These portrayed the Costa Rican coat of arms, were engraved on unwatermarked paper, perforated in a gauge of 12, and consisted of the values Medio Real (½ r) in blue, Dos Reales (2 r) in scarlet, Cuatro Reales (4 r) in green, and Un Peso (1 p) in orange.
In 1883, following the change in currency from Reales to the new Pesos and Centavos, the issue of 1863 was surcharged with new values for postal use: 1 centavos, 2 centavos, 5 centavos (all over the Medio Real stamp), 10 centavos (on Dos Reales) and 20 centavos (on Cuatro Reales). The 5, 10 and 20 centavo stamps were also overprinted U.P.U. Costa Rican stamps were overprinted Guanacaste in 1885-89 following war with Nicaragua over the sovereignty of the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
The first issue in the new Colón currency was dated 1900 and put into circulation in January 1901. It consists of ten stamps with values ranging from 1 céntimo up to 10 colones (Scott #45-54). The Colón currency had been introduced in 1896, but stamps with the old currency were still in use, and continued to be used after 1901 for several years.
The first triangular-shaped stamps to be issued by Costa Rica were released on October 12, 1932, bearing the seal of the Costa Rican Philatelic Society (Scott #158-161). A few additional triangular and diamond-shaped stamps appeared later in the 1930’s.
Scott #C28 is a diamond-shaped airmail stamp released by Costa Rica on February 10, 1937, the lowest denomination — 1 centavo — in a set of three. These commemorated Primera Feria Anual de Costa Rica (the First Annual Fair of Costa Rica), held during 1936 and 1937, and featuring an airplane flying over Poás Volcano (Volcán Poás). This is an active 8,885-foot (2,708-meter) volcano in central Costa Rica that has erupted 39 times since 1828. Near the summit are are two crater lakes, the northernmost of which is known as the Laguna Caliente (“hot lagoon”). It is one of the world’s most acidic lakes. The acidity varies after rain and changes in volcanic activity, sometimes reaching a pH of almost 0; consequently, it supports little or no aquatic life. The bottom of this lake is covered with a layer of liquid sulphur. Acid gases create acid rain and acid fog, causing damage to surrounding ecosystems and often irritation of eyes and lungs. Lake Botos, the southern lake, fills an inactive crater, which last erupted in 7500 BC. It is cold and clear, and is surrounded by a cloud forest located within the Poás Volcano National Park.
Poás was near the epicenter of a 6.1-magnitude earthquake in January 2009 that killed at least forty people and affected Fraijanes, Vara Blanca, Cinchona (the most affected area), the capital San José, and the Central Valley region of Costa Rica. There was also eruptive activity in 2009 involving minor phreatic eruptions and landslides within the northern active crater. Poás eruptions often include geyser-like ejections of crater-lake water. Poás is one of nine volcanoes currently monitored by the Deep Earth Carbon Degassing Project. The project is collecting data on the carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide emission rates from subaerial volcanoes.