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By Jane Koutnik
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2012 Kuperard
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LAND & PEOPLE
A GEOGRAPHICAL SNAPSHOT
Costa Rica, the third-smallest republic (after El Salvador and Belize) of Central America, is located on the narrow isthmus connecting North and South America. It is bordered to the north by Nicaragua and to the southeast by Panama; the Pacific Ocean washes the western coast, and the Atlantic Ocean, or Caribbean Sea, laps its eastern shore. This small country is situated in the tropics, between 8° and 11° North latitude and between 83° and 85° West longitude.
A backbone of volcanoes and mountains extends north to south, the ranges, or cordilleras, being an extension of the Andes Sierra Madre chain. There are four distinct mountain ranges — Guanacaste and Tilarán in the north, Central and Talamanca to the south. As a live part of the Pacific "Rim of Fire," Costa Rica is home to seven of the isthmus's forty-two active volcanoes. Earth tremors and small quakes that shake the country are not an unusual occurrence. Many dormant or extinct cones are also dotted along the mountain ranges.
The country is divided into seven provinces: San José, Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago, whose capital cities make up the central valley; Guanacaste, along the northwestern area of the country; Puntarenas, which runs from the center of the Pacific coast south; and Limón, which covers the Caribbean coast and is characterized by its Afro-Caribbean culture.
The highest point of the country is Mount Chirripó, which rises majestically to 12,532 feet (3,820 meters). Its amazing vistas, fresh air, cloud forests, and high, treeless plateau, or paramo, are all protected under the national park network.
The Meseta Central, a high-altitude plain, occupies the heart of the country. San José, the capital, is located in the center, surrounded by the neighboring cities of Heredia, Alajuela, and Cartago. Almost two-thirds of the population live in this small, fertile valley, surrounded by the majestic Irazú, Poás, and Barva volcanoes. The verdant foothills above the city yield premium-quality, high-altitude coffee, exotic flowers for export, and a wide variety of vegetables. The countryside is dotted with abundant dairy farms, which produce delicious cheeses and other fresh dairy products. Above the pastures, protected areas help to conserve the cloud forests that drape the mountaintops and are home to the distinctive red and green quetzal bird.
Costa Rica's world-renowned tropical beaches continue to seduce both national and international visitors. The Pacific and Caribbean coasts, each with its unique beauty and characteristics, make up about 621 miles (1,000 km) of shoreline. The Pacific coastal plain is generally narrower than its Caribbean counterpart, with some steep cliffs.
The northern Caribbean area offers an intriguing network of waterways to explore. The canal system was officially inaugurated in 1974 to improve access to the northeast for economic development. Artificial canals account for only about 20 percent of the system; the rest is rivers and lagoons, which were connected to open the waterways for navigation. Both coasts provide turtle-nesting areas at certain times throughout the year. The distinctive colors of the sandy coastline range from glistening white to shimmering black, and luxury hotels contrast with wild, undeveloped beaches.
The world-class rivers have drawn interest from eco- and adventure tourists, seeking either a tranquil downstream float to explore wildlife and exotic plants or an adrenalin rush, rafting the white water. These vital veins of the country have been respected as a true national treasure, though much work remains to be done to conserve these vulnerable natural resources. The Costa Ricans support ecotourism as an economically sustainable venture that protects their natural patrimony for themselves and future generations.
The great natural diversity created by Costa Rica's varied topography invites the visitor to explore and experience this nature-lover's paradise. There is something here for everyone, and the Ticos — the Costa Ricans — are proud to show off their beautiful country.
Costa Rica has a tropical climate, modified by topography. The country has two seasons, the wet season, or invierno (winter), generally between May and November, and the dry season, verano (summer), from December to April. The wet season is characterized by sunny mornings followed by torrential downpours later in the day. There are occasional temporales throughout the rainy season. These consist of continual drizzles, usually lasting a few days. The wet season has become known as the "green season" in the tourist industry. On the Caribbean coast the dry season tends to be shorter, though September and October are usually the driest months there, when the rest of the country is experiencing its wettest weather. The Pacific northwestern area of Guanacaste is characterized by the driest climate in the country, though it too has a well-defined rainy season.
The dry season brings clear skies, sunny days, and breezes. December can be outright windy, with its famous north winds. Pelo de gato, or "cat's hair," is a fine mist that is blown down over the mountain slopes at this time of year, and afternoon rainbows over the mountains add to the magic. Clear, windy nights in the summer months can bring quite cool temperatures to the Central Valley and surrounding mountains. Temperatures vary little between the seasons, the main influence on temperature being altitude. Both coasts are generally very hot and humid, with the Caribbean coast being a few degrees cooler than the Pacific.
The lowland plains are also hot and humid. As you climb, the temperature cools. In one of the coldest spots, Mount Chirripó, it is not unusual to have morning frost and sheets of ice covering the small lakes. The mean temperature for San José, situated at 3,691 feet (1,125 meters), is a comfortable 75°F (24°C).
These near-perfect conditions contribute to the agreeable nature of the Ticos. Because they do not have to fight the elements for survival, they can focus on enjoying their idyllic climate.
A BRIEF HISTORY
It would take several volumes to do justice to Costa Rica's history. This brief overview aims simply to connect the dots and show how the Ticos' particular history and experience have resulted in a peaceful nation of proud, self-reliant individuals.
Human habitation has been traced back at least 10,000 years in this land of mountains and swampy lowlands. Long before Columbus arrived on its Caribbean shores, a substantial indigenous population, consisting of many politically fragmented tribes, with distinct customs and cultures, separated the two great high civilizations of Mesoamerica to the north and the Andes to the south. Today, there is little evidence of the pre-Columbian monumental architecture found in other parts of the isthmus, though archaeologists continue to unearth interesting remains. The indigenous Caribs along the Caribbean seaboard, and the Borucas and Chibchas in the Pacific southwest, were seminomadic hunters and fishermen who cultivated tubers and lived in communal villages. These Caribbean and southwestern tribes were influenced by South American cultures. The Chibchas were responsible for the perfectly spherical granite balls, of unknown purpose, that are found at burial sites throughout the region. The southwestern tribes became highly skilled workers in jade and gold, creating some exquisite designs and artifacts.
Guayabo, on the slopes of the Turrialba volcano in Cartago province, is the country's largest archaeological site. The area now being excavated has been continuously inhabited from about 1500 BCE. At its peak, the ancient stone city, dating from 1000 BCE to 1400 CE, is believed to have had 10,000 inhabitants. Excavations continue to shed light on these mysterious indigenous people.
The Corobicis inhabited the highland valleys, as did the Nahuatl, who arrived from Mexico. Pottery and metalworking make up the most interesting archaeological finds throughout the country. The tribes in both the highland valleys and the Nicoya Peninsula were highly influenced by Mexican cultures.
The Chorotegas, still on the Nicoya Peninsula on the northwest coast, are today the most numerous group of the indigenous people. Their culture resembled that of the Aztecs of Mexico. They cultivated corn, lived in well-planned towns, and produced artistic sculpture and polychrome ceramics. They continue to make beautiful pottery today for the tourist trade.
The Colonial Era
In 1502, Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and last voyage, arrived at the Caribbean shores of Costa Rica, landing at Cariari, today's city of Puerto Limón. He was welcomed and treated with great hospitality by the natives, whose gifts of gold made a great — and misleading — impression on the Spanish. It wasn't long before the native Indians felt threatened by these uninvited guests, and tension mounted between them. The conquistadores' attempts to settle and reap the benefits of the supposedly costa rica, or "rich coast," were basically miserable failures. Harassed by hostile Indians, the Spanish were defeated by floods, swamps, and tropical diseases in the sweltering lowlands. For the next four decades the indigenous population was virtually left alone.
In the early 1560s the Spanish tried again to colonize and forcibly convert this region of the New World. This time the indigenous population succumbed to war, reprisal, relocation, and brutal exploitation, and to diseases such as smallpox and measles, introduced by the Europeans, against which they had no immunity. The survivors of these ravages took refuge in the remote valleys on the southeastern slopes of the Talamanca Mountains. Only the Chorotegas on the Nicoya Peninsula managed to maintain a significant indigenous presence.
In 1562 Juan Vásquez de Coronado founded the first lasting Spanish settlement. His policies — relatively humane treatment of the surviving indigenous population, and relocating the remaining Spanish settlers to the fertile Cartago Valley in the Meseta Central — proved successful. The Spaniards adapted well to the cooler climate of the central highlands, where they cultivated the rich, volcanic soil and soon became a self-sufficient rural community. King Philip II of Spain had granted the colonists the right to parcel up the land and establish the encomienda system of bonded labor, but without abundant native labor, or the mineral resources to develop to enable them to import slaves, the settlers were forced to work the land themselves. Their settlements were small, isolated, and slow to grow. Cartago was established as the first capital in 1563. Nearly a century after its founding there was little more than a single church surrounded by a small community of adobe (sundried brick) houses. All this was destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Irazú in 1723. Eventually settlements grew up around the churches of Heredia (1706), San José (1736), and Alajuela (1782). While the gentry formed a governing class in the towns, the scattered, hardy, farming communities developed an independence of spirit.
Owing to its smallness, remoteness, and lack of mineral wealth, Costa Rica was by and large left to govern itself, with taxes and salaries administered through Nicaragua. The seeds of a sound agricultural economy had been planted, and Costa Ricans were on their way to developing an individualistic and egalitarian society, based on rural democracy.
In the Pacific northwest, the Nicoya Peninsula, and the rest of Guanacaste there were large cattle farms, similar to the rest of Nicaragua. Large estate owners began to import African slaves to work on the farms.
Along the Caribbean coast, cacao plantations proved to be a profitable endeavor. This industry became well established and flourished through the years. Later tobacco would become another important crop, as well as coconuts and bananas.
In 1665 Spain closed Costa Rica's ports because of English piracy, which put an end to legal seaborne trade. As a result smuggling flourished, and this illicit trade further weakened the central colonial authority and strengthened the colonists' independent spirit. Central American colonial unity weakened as the Spanish empire's power declined in the eighteenth century. Spain lost interest and was unable to maintain the administrative structure that controlled its distant colonies. The coup de grâce came when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and installed his brother on the Spanish throne. Costa Rica, the smallest province of the Audiencia de Guatemala, continued on its independent path, building its rural democracy and agriculturally based economy. With Spain's power waning and Costa Rica's de facto independence growing, there was little significant contact between the two over the years.
On September 15, 1821, when independence from Spain was declared by Guatemala for all of Central America, it actually had very little effect on the Costa Ricans. The settlers had long been accustomed to governing themselves, being basically ignored by their distant motherland. The news of the proclamation of independence actually took a month to reach Costa Rica from the seat of Spanish government in Guatemala City. A hastily convened provincial council in Costa Rica voted for accession to Mexico, which had declared independence earlier in the year. Then, in 1823, the other Central American countries proclaimed the United Provinces (Federation) of Central America, with Guatemala City as its capital. Costa Ricans were divided between those who wanted to join the newly proclaimed Mexican Empire and those who favored the Federation based on Guatemala.
The conservative and aristocratic leaders of Cartago and Heredia were for the Empire, and the more liberal progressive leaders of San José and Alajuela were for the Central American Federation, or independence. These differences came to a head in 1823, resulting in a brief civil war. After a short struggle, San José and Alajuela were victorious, and San José was finally established as the capital in 1835. Costa Rica became part of the federal United Provinces of Central America — embracing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua — with full autonomy for its own affairs. The province of Guanacaste soon after seceded from Nicaragua to join the nation of Costa Rica.
Colonial institutions had been notoriously weak in Costa Rica. Modernization of the economy after independence helped to pull the population out of poverty and developed a firm foundation of democracy much earlier than elsewhere in the isthmus.
Liberalism and reform were the most important tools used to counter the social unrest caused by the rivalry between the conservatives of Cartago and Heredia and the liberals from San José and Alajuela. Juan Mora Fernández, a schoolteacher, was elected the first head of state by Congress in 1824. He is respected to this day for the establishment of a sound judicial system, the first newspaper, and expanding the reaches of public education. With much foresight, he sparked an enthusiasm in the cultivation of coffee and gave free land grants to farmers who would plant this valuable crop. Costa Rica seceded from the Federation and became a fully sovereign state in 1838.
There followed a period of effective dictatorship under Braulio Carrillo Colina, who was removed by General Francisco Morazán Queseda, a Honduran, who attempted to relaunch the regional federation. His overthrow led to a liberal enlightenment. A new constitution was introduced, and in 1848 the young president José María Castro Madriz formally declared Costa Rica a republic.
The following president, Juan Rafael Mora Porras, is famous for mobilizing a force of Costa Rican volunteers against the mercenary force of the North American adventurer William Walker. Walker was an incorrigible freebooter from the southern United States, with ambitions to conquer Central America and turn it into a slave state annexed to the USA. He may well be one of the reasons for the negative connotations given to the word gringo, and for the phrase "the ugly American." The famous battle at La Casona ranch in Guanacaste on March 20, 1856, lasted a mere fourteen minutes, with the Ticos victoriously ousting the filibusteros. They chased them back into Nicaragua, where in Rivas they clashed again on April 11, 1856. The young Alajuelan drummer boy Juan Santamaría became a national hero when he volunteered to set fire to the wooden building where Walker's band had taken refuge. He was shot dead as he carried out the action, and is now honored for his bravery each April 11, Juan Santamaría Day. The episode was a defining moment for Costa Ricans, instilling in them a sense of national pride.
The "Grain of Gold"
First introduced from Cuba in the late eighteenth century, coffee soon became king, creating prosperity for the young country and power for the coffee barons, the cafeteleros. Profits from the coffee boom were spent on the country's infrastructure and other projects, and fueled the import of European fashions and ideas into Costa Rica. Rivalry between these wealthy families caused them to vie for political power. In 1849 they ousted President José María Castro Madriz, replacing him with Juan Rafael Mora Porras, a prominent cafetelero. From 1840 to 1890 the economy was dependent upon the cash crop.
The struggle between the coffee barons and the military culminated in 1870 in a coup by General Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez. Although he was a military dictator, his twelve-year rule was in many ways benign. He ordered the construction of a railroad from the Central Valley to the Caribbean coast to facilitate the transport of coffee. The job was undertaken by the North American entrepreneur Minor Cooper Keith; it claimed the lives of more than five thousand laborers and was completed only in 1890. Workers were recruited from China, Italy, and then Jamaica. Keith was awarded vast tracts of land, among other benefits, for his services. He founded the United Fruit Company to cultivate bananas on these lands, laying the base for Costa Rica's prosperous banana industry. Many of the Jamaican railway workers ended up working on the banana plantations.
A Budding Democracy
Excerpted from Costa Rica by Jane Koutnik. Copyright © 2012 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
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