Like most Central American countries, before Spanish colonization, indigenous communities thrived for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. Costa Rica was a transiting region between Mesoamerican and Andean cultures, with some notable periods of Aztec, Maya and Inca influence. It is thought that humans have lived in Costa Rica’s jungles and rainforest for as many as 10,000 years, however with no urbanized civilization like the Aztecs or Mayas, and little to no cultural preservation during the time of Spanish colonization, there is not much known about Costa Rica’s true indigenous populations.
Colonization, independence and trade
At the time of Spanish colonization, around 1502, it’s estimated that 400,000 people lived in what is now known as Costa Rica. Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus came across this region, and while exploring and interacting with local tribal groups he saw a great amount of gold, hence the name ‘la costa rica’ or the rich coast. It was, however, not as much as he once thought, so later settlement here was agriculture-focused. During the next century, different Spanish colonies were established on the coast to varying degrees of success. As settlements grew larger, indigenous populations dwindled due to disease and other factors. After around a century, the population had fallen to 20,000, and to 8000 a century later.
It wasn’t until 1821 that the Americas broke free of Spanish control, following the Mexican War of Independence. Costa Rica then became part of the Federal Republic of Central America in 1823, before gaining full independence in 1838. It was also in the 19th century that Costa Rica found its feet in the global coffee trade. Costa Rican coffee producers would originally export their crop to larger South American neighbours, who would, in turn, re-export to Europe. After catching on, they started to export the beans themselves and by the end of the century, coffee crops accounted for nearly 90% of Costa Rica’s exports and 80% of its foreign income. Not only was coffee production an indicator of wealth in Costa Rica, it was also a powerful political tool and prompted the emergence of other industries, including the banana trade, which surpassed coffee exports in the early 20th century.
After 1869, Costa Rica established a democratic government and has largely remained an effective social democracy without radical tendencies for many decades. One notable exception was a Civil War in 1948, prompted by business and military groups clashing with a movement by President Rafael Calderon to protect the rights of the working class and the poor. Peace was restored after only a couple of months, but not without casualties. In the aftermath, the Costa Rican government drafted a new constitution, in which one major move was to abolish the military forces of the country – an edict that remains to this day.
Costa Rica’s economy relies on eco-tourism, and the country has championed the idea that ‘rich coast’ refers not to resources dug from the ground, but rather to the natural wonders above ground! Economic struggles still exist, with underemployment, poverty, foreign trade and debt ongoing issues for the government. However, the easygoing attitude of Ticans comes from a love of their country and history, and pride that their democracy has endured in a conflict-ridden region.