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The History & Culture of Costa Rica

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Costa Rica Fact Sheet
  • Language: Spanish
  • Main religion: Catholic
  • Ethnic Makeup: Spanish, Italian, German, Jewish, Polish, Creole English, Jamaican, Atlantic slave, and indigenous descendants

Back in the 16th century, when the Spanish explorers arrived in what today is called Costa Rica, all they found was a region scarcely populated by several poorly organized tribes. The indigenous people lived in quite autonomous groups and likely totaled less than 200,000.

Since the indigenous communities had very little power when the Spanish arrived, the Spanish settlers had a great influence over the country's history. Additionally, the diseases that the Spanish colonists brought with them also decimated the already small population of indigenous people. 

When Columbus arrived, he named the area Costa Rica ("Rich Coast"). The natives he encountered were friendly and wore lots of gold. The first colonial settlement in Costa Rica was Cartago, established in the late 16th century. It was situated in the central highlands because of its rich and fertile soil, and not along the coast as with many other colonial settlements.

In the 18th century, residents started to expand out of Cartago and created new settlements including Heredia, San Jose, and Alajuela. In 1723, the Irazu Volcano erupted and destroyed much of the original Cartago settlement, but fortunately the survivors were able to rebuild the town from what was left by the that natural disaster.

In 1808 Costa Rica became wealthy with coffee production. This new industry allowed for massive economic, cultural, and geographic expansion, leading to greater national pride and ultimately a successful bid for independence from Spain in 1821. The existing coffee industry helped establish a class structure, which played an important part in developing the political structure of the country during this period.

In an interesting turn of events in 1856, American William Walker threatened the country's newfound independence and tried to form a confederacy of South American states, hoping to unite the five Central American countries as one federated state with himself as leader. He arrived in Costa Rica with an army of Nicaraguan slaves, but Costa Rica's president, Juan Rafael Mora, was able to quickly organize an army of less than 10,000 to fight off the pretentious US military officer. Even today, this victory of a peasant army is still celebrated, and the battlefield - La Casona, in Santa Rosa National Park - is now a museum.

Today Costa Rica takes great pride in the fact that it is one of the richest Latin American countries and it displays this by establishing great protection for their natural environment and welcoming people from all over the world to take part in its pride.

The cultural activity in Costa Rica has only begun to flourish in the last 100 years, due to a historical European influence erasing most of the indigenous culture. This leads to the country being noted more for its natural beauty and friendly people than for its culture. The diverse coastal topography offers a multitude of outdoor activities for everyone, such as bird-watching, deep-sea fishing and wind surfing.

In principle over 90% of the Costa Rican population is of Roman Catholic faith. The Caribbean coastal population, consisting mostly of people of African descent, is primarily Protestant, and there are several other religious communities in San José, including a small Jewish community.

Spanish is the main language throughout Costa Rica. On the Caribbean coast many people also speak Creole, and Bribri is one of few Indian languages still spoken in remote areas, understood by roughly less than 10,000 people. English is understood in most tourist destinations.

Costa Rican cuisine is not so much spicy and hot as it is tasty. Most dishes are centered around beef, chicken and fish/seafood dishes, served with rice or beans and fresh fruit as supplements or dessert. If eaten as a snack, make sure the fruit is washed well.

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