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Costa Rica History

When most tourists think of Costa Rica, history is not the first thing that comes to mind. Instead they conjure up images of pristine beaches, tropical wildlife, and rainforest covered mountainsides. While all of these images are real and available to any traveler eager to make the journey, this paradise of flora and fauna does not reflect the story of Costa Rica history. To truly appreciate all the facets of this Central American country, one must look back in time, all the way to a time before this beautiful land turned into a country, a time when up to 400,000 native people flourished in the jungles of present day Costa Rica, the most developed of all the countries in Central America.

Prior to Christopher Columbus first landing near today's Puerto Limon, it is estimated that approximately 400,000 native people roamed the rainforests and mountains, organized into smaller tribes. Evidence suggests that these civilizations worshiped at an ancient ceremonial center that featured an aqueduct, decorative gold, and paved streets. And although this portion of Costa Rica history was not officially documented, recent discoveries of intricately carved grinding stones, beautiful jade jewelry and carefully painted terra-cotta objects indicate a highly skilled and evolved society. Perhaps it was these discoveries that prompted Columbus to refer to this region as la costa rica, or "the rich coast."

The history of Costa Rica in terms of its Spanish colonial life differs from other countries in the region in that the European settlers were forced to do much of their own physical labor to establish and work on their plantations. This was in stark contrast to the other Spanish colonists of the time who used native people forced into slavery to do their physical labor. For Costa Rican settlers, this was not possible as European diseases or the very efforts to subdue the tribesmen into slavery largely wiped out the native peoples. Costa Rica history, therefore, diverged from the standard model of Latin America from the very beginning.

map of costa rica provinces
For more than two hundred years, small colonies grew corn, beans, and plantains to subsist on and harvested sugar, cacao, and tobacco to sell. However, Costa Rica history took a sharp turn in the 19th century when the country was freed from Spanish control and then subsequently from Mexican control as well. At this point, it was discovered that the climate and soil conditions in the region were perfect for growing coffee, which quickly turned this extremely impoverished country into the wealthiest on the continent. With the help of enterprising foreign immigrants, Costa Rica's residents increased their technical and financial skills, with coffee accounting for more than 80% of foreign earnings.

In order to more efficiently export coffee, the Costa Rican government commissioned the construction of a railroad to haul the beans from the central highlands to the coastal ports. Alongside the railway, banana plants were initially grown as a source of cheap food for the workers building the railroad. Eventually, in a somewhat desperate attempt to recoup some of the seemingly wasted railroad funds, some of the bananas were exported along with the coffee beans to New Orleans, where they were met with great enthusiasm. It was time for Costa Rica history to be made again as bananas exceeded coffee as Costa Rica's most lucrative export, and made Costa Rica the number one banana producing country in the world until 1913.

In terms of politics, Costa Rica history was absolutely defined by violence during the beginning of the 19th century, during which time dictatorships and coups were commonplace. Fortunately, and amazingly, by the end of that same century several constitutions were adopted and Tomas Guardia, a former military man who overthrew the government in 1870 for a 12 year reign, was able to force higher taxes on the previously untapped elite coffee barons, and by the early 20th century Costa Rica boasted child protection laws, free public education and a guaranteed minimum wage.

Decades later in 1949, seemingly against all odds, Jose Figueres Ferrer aka "Don Pepe" (a coffee grower and head of a temporary government) furthered development by enacted a progressive constitution, which granted voting rights to ethnic minorities and women and completely abolished the military, stating that its very existence was a threat to democracy. This was after a 40-day civil war, which garnered Figueres his office and took the lives of 2,000 civilians, but which successfully toppled the former government which refused to honor democratic elections.

Another star in the saga of Costa Rica history, President Oscar Sanchez Arias, was elected in 1986 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for putting an end to the Nicaraguan war and reaffirming Costa Rica's pledge of continued neutrality by getting the five Central American presidents to sign his peace plan.

As far as industry during this time frame is concerned, Costa Rican coffee barons had freely cleared rainforest areas to make room to grow more coffee until the 1970's, at which point supply so far exceeded demand that prices plummeted. It was at this time in Costa Rica history that the notion of ecotourism first took hold. Instead of clearing the rainforests and exporting coffee, which was no longer profitable enough, entrepreneurs and business people would preserve the rainforests and encourage tourists to come and enjoy their natural wonders. This plan was so successful that approximately one third of the country is now environmentally protected as a national park, a forest preserve, or wildlife reserve.

By 1995, tourism as an industry was so successful it even surpassed both coffee and bananas in its contribution to the local economy, and in 1999 alone, more than one million tourists visited Costa Rica to enjoy its natural beauty. Thanks to this ecotourism, Costa Rica history has begun its most recent and promising chapter. This country boasts the highest standard of living in all of Central America, with the overall life expectancy increasing from 50 to 75 years. Unfortunately, the very thing that brought prosperity, the natural beauty and resources of the country, is threatened by the progress required to sustain it. Fortunately, thus far the Costa Rican government has managed to balance the needs of the various industries to ensure continued prosperity.

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