Heritage and Culture
Costa Rican culture is in many ways a reflection of its racial diversity. The predominant influence has long been European, which is reflected in everything from the official language — Spanish — to the architecture of the country’s churches and other historic buildings. The indigenous influence is less visible, but can be found in everything from the tortillas that make part of a typical Costa Rican meal, to the handmade ceramics sold at roadside stands.
An important aspect of Costa Rica’s cultural legacy is their love for peace and democracy. The Ticos like to stand out that their nation is the exception in Latin America, where military dictatorships have long dominated politics.
They take pride in having more than one hundred years of democratic tradition, and almost half a century without an army. The army was abolished in 1948, and the money the country saves by not expending in military issues is invested in improving the Costa Ricans’ standard of living, which has fostered a culture of social peace that makes it such a pleasant place to visit.
The Ticos (Costa Rican Citizen)
The Ticos, as Costa Ricans are commonly known, are famous for their hospitality, and are quite happy to live up to their reputation. They are well-educated and hard working people, who are quick with a handshake and a smile. They are well aware of the special land they have, and most likely they will help foreigners when they get lost, even explaining things that might seem bizarre to foreigners, and making their stay as enjoyable as possible.
People say the Ticos are their nation’s greatest asset, and once you’ve experienced their friendliness and spontaneity, you’ll have no doubt to that regard.
The first European explorer to encounter Costa Rica was the Great Navigator himself, Christopher Columbus. The day was September 18, 1502, and Columbus was making his fourth and final voyage to the New World. As he was setting anchor off shore, a crowd of local Carib Indians paddled out in canoes and greeted his crew warmly. Later, the golden bands that the region’s inhabitants wore in their noses and ears would inspire the Spaniard Gil Gonzalez Davila to name the country Costa Rica, or Rich Coast.
Archaeologists now know that civilization existed in Costa Rica for thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus, and evidence of human occupation in the region dates back 10,000 years. Among the cultural mysteries left behind by the area’s pre-Columbian inhabitants are thousands of perfectly spherical granite bolas that have been found near the west coast. The sizes of these inimitable relics range from that of a baseball to that of a Volkswagen bus. Ruins of a large, ancient city complete with aqueducts were recently found east of San Jose, and some marvelously sophisticated gold and jade work was being wrought in the southwest as far back as 1,000 years ago. Some archeological sites in the central highlands and Nicoya peninsula have shown evidence of influence from the Mexican Olmec and Nahuatl civilizations.
By the time Columbus arrived, there were four major indigenous tribes living in Costa Rica. The east coast was the realm of the Caribs, while the Borucas, Chibchas, and Diquis resided in the southwest. Only a few hundred thousand strong to begin with, none of these peoples lasted long after the dawn of Spanish colonialism. Some fled, while many others perished from the deadly smallpox brought by the Spaniards. Having decimated the indigenous labor force, the Spanish followed a common policy and brought in African slaves to work the land. Seventy thousand of their descendants live in Costa Rica today, and the country is known for good relations among races. Regrettably, only 1 percent of Costa’s Rica’s 3 million people are of indigenous heritage. An overwhelming 98 percent of the country is white, and those of Spanish descent call themselves Ticos.
Of all the Spanish colonies, Costa Rica enjoyed the least influence as a colony. It was initially a tough and unpopular place to settle, with few valuable or easily exploited resources. The Spanish were far more interested in developing their holdings in Mexico and Peru, where vast amounts of silver and gold were being obtained. The early hapless settlers who came to Costa Rica were left largely to their own devices, and the first successful establishment of a colonial city was not until 1562, when Juan Vasquez de Coronado founded Cartago.
When Mexico rebelled against Spain in 1821, Costa Rica and the rest of Central America followed suit. Two years later, a faction in Costa Rica even opted to become part of Mexico, sparking a civil war in the country’s center between four neighboring cities. After the republican cities of San Jose and Alajuela soundly defeated the pro-Mexican Heredia and Cartago, sovereignty was established.
The first head of state was Juan Mora Fernandez, elected in 1824. Best remembered for his land reforms, Fernandez followed a progressive course but inadvertantly created an elite class of powerful coffee barons. The barons later overthrew the nation’s first president, Jose Maria Castro, who was succeeded by Juan Rafael Mora. It was under Mora’s leadership that Costa Rican volunteers managed to repulse a would-be conqueror, the North American William Walker.
Walker was a disgruntled southerner who thought that the United States should annex Central America and turn it into a slave state. He was a lunatic, and a dangerous rather than charming one. With a piecemeal army of about 50 men, Walker had earlier invaded Mexico, where he had been captured and then released back to the States. Not to be discouraged, he next invaded Panama, where he briefly seized control before being forced to flee–into Costa Rica. After his bid for despotic rule there was defeated by Mora’s forces, the indomitable Walker turned his attentions to Honduras. The Hondurans, unlike their predecessors on Walker’s list, captured him, and Walker was finally and summarily executed.
Military rule has reared its head in Costa Rica from time to time, though it has not been marked by the sort of violent extremism that has occurred elsewhere in Central America. In 1870, when General Tomas Guardia seized control of the government, he made some of the country’s most progressive reforms in education, military policy, and taxation.
The Costa Rican civil war erupted in 1948, after incumbent Dr. Rafael Angel Calderon and the United Social Christian Party refused to relinquish power after losing the presidential election. An exile named Jose Maria (Don Pepe) Figueres Ferrer managed to defeat Calderon in about a month, and he later proved to be one of Costa Rica’s most influential leaders, as head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica.
Under Ferrer’s leadership, the Junta made vast reforms in policy and civil rights. Women and blacks gained the vote, the communist party was banned, banks were nationalized, and presidential term limits established. Ferrer was immensely popular, creating a political legacy that firmly cemented Costa Rica’s liberal democratic values.
In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez garnered world recognition when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending the Nicaraguan civil war. During that conflict, both the Sandanistas and the Contras set up military bases in the northern area of Costa Rica, and Arias was elected under the promise that he would work to put an end to this situation. He was able to get all five Central American presidents to sign his peace plan, and Nicaragua is now experiencing relative stability.
Mystery shrouds pre-Columbian Costa Rica: few archaeological monuments and no proof of a written language have ever been discovered. Recorded history tends to begin with Christopher Columbus, who stayed for 17 days in 1502, and was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, ‘the rich coast’. Despite the lure of untold wealth, colonisation was slow to take hold and it took nearly 60 years for the Spanish settlers to make a dent in the tangled jungle. Once the process had started, however, Costa Rica, like its similarly colonised neighbours, suffered the effects of European invasion. The indigenous population did not have the necessary numbers to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases.
The hoped-for hoards of gold never materialised and Costa Rica remained a forgotten backwater for many years. The 18th century saw the establishment of settlements such as Heredia, San José and Alajuela but it was not until the introduction of coffee in 1808 that the country registered on the radars of the 19th-century white-shoe brigade and frontier entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. Coffee brought wealth, a class structure, a more outward-looking perspective, and most importantly independence.
A bizarre turn of events in 1856 provided one of the first important landmarks in the nation’s history and served to unify the people. During the term of coffee-grower-turned-president Juan Rafael Mora, a period remembered for the country’s economic and cultural growth, Costa Rica was invaded by US military adventurer William Walker and his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized an army of 9000 civilians that, against all odds, succeeded in forcing Walker & Co to flee.
The ensuing years of the 19th century saw power struggles among members of the coffee-growing elite and the institution of the first democratic elections, which have since been a hallmark of Costa Rican politics. Civil war, however, did raise its ugly head in the 1940s when ex-president Calderón and his successor, Picado, lined up against the recent ballot-winner Ulate (whose election win was not recognised by Picado’s government) and José Figueres. After several weeks of warfare Figueres emerged victorious, formed an interim government and handed the presidency to Ulate.
The constitution of 1949 finally gave women and blacks the vote and, controversially, dismantled the country’s armed forces – giving Costa Rica the sobriquet of ‘the only country which doesn’t have an army’. President Oscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his attempts to spread Costa Rica’s example of peace to the rest of Central America. The peace has, in recent years, been disturbed by upheavals of a different kind. In July 1996, Hurricane César resulted in several dozen deaths and the cutting off of much of southern Costa Rica from the rest of the country. The Interamericana highway was closed for about two months and the overall damage was estimated at about 100000000.00. The ill-famed Hurricane Mitch of November 1998 caused substantial damage to Costa Rica, but the most catastrophic events occurred in the countries to the north, especially Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In February 1998 the Social Christian Unity Party’s Miguel Angel Rodríguez won the presidency with almost exactly 50% of the vote. A conservative businessman who made the economy his priority, he went on to privatise state companies and encourage foreign investments in an effort to create jobs.
By the time the February 2002 elections rolled around, however, Ticos (a term locals use to refer to themselves) were mumbling about a lack of government transparency and shady deals between political mates. These grass-roots misgivings resulted in a ‘no win’ election, and pollsters returned to the ballot box in April 2002. Rodríguez’s successor, Abel Pacheco of the conservative Social Christian Unity Party, was elected to step up to the president’s ring.
Pacheco began his term promising to eliminate the public debt within four years. He launched a conservationist platform banning new oil drilling and mining and proposed legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to a healthy environment. It didn’t take long before the sheen paled. A campaign finance scandal clouded his presidency, leading some opponents to demand his resignation, and it became unclear if he could weather this storm through to the end of his term in 2006.
Costa Rica is noted more for its natural beauty and friendly people than for its culture. The overwhelming European influence erased almost all indigenous culture, and because Costa Rica was a country of subsistence agriculturalists until the middle of the 19th century, cultural activity has only begun to blossom in the last 100 years.
By some estimates, more than 75% of Costa Ricans are Roman Catholics and 14% are evangelical Christians. In practice, most church attendance takes place at christenings, funerals and marriages. Blacks on the Caribbean coast tend to be Protestant, and there is a sprinkling of other denominations in San José, including a small Jewish community. Spanish is the official language, though English is understood in touristed areas. Many Caribbean blacks speak a lively dialect of English, known as Creole. Indigenous languages are spoken in isolated areas, primarily Bribrí, which is estimated to be understood by about 10,000 people.
No one goes to Costa Rica for the cuisine. Although traditional dishes run to the South American staples of beef, chicken and fish dishes, with rice, corn or beans and fresh fruit as supplements, most of this fare has given way to the ubiquitous pizza and burger option. And even these can only be included in ‘cuisine’ by stretching the definition to its breaking point. Also be warned that Ticos love to spice up European dishes with salt – lots of it. We’re talking lip-puckering, instant-dehydrating, body-shuddering proportions. On the positive side, their coffee is sublime. Even the coffee that accompanies the limp burger from the fast-food joint is a cut above your average North American cup of coffee.
Some information about the indigenous cultures
The day Columbus landed on what is today called “Isla Uvita”, in front of Puerto Limón, more than a quater of a million people and no less than eight different ethnic groups were living in the area.
The northern cultures of Costa Rica (Chorotegas) had great influence from the Aztec and Maya culture, they were the southernmost culture of what is known as Mesoamerica. The Chorotegas spoke the Nahuatl language from the Mayas and Aztecs.
Other ethnic groups like the Boruca, Bribri, Cabecar, Guaymi, Huetar and Guatuso spoke a language that had its roots in the great continent to the south. This language became more complex as the Arawak and Caribe cultures moved into permanent settlements on the Caribbean Coast adding their sounds.
Very few words are left today for the common use, some of these words are: Talamanca (place of blood) this probably for the butchering of turtles on the Caribbean Coast. Poas (Volcano) is a buttery yellow flowers that grows near the volcano’s summit.
The Bribris and the Cabecars are the only two cultures that have been able to keep religious myths pure, outside of major influences from social and cultural changes. The very strength of “Sibú”, supreme god and creator of their universe is running strong through the minds of all those who call themselves Cabecar / Bribri after five hundred years of change and more than twenty generations of story telling in a world built around a more overpowering religion.
Today, the Chorotega’s ceramics, the Bribri’s jicaro, the Guaymi’s textiles and the Guatuso’s stonework are still telling us stories. Today’s replicas or reproductions are as genuine as the originals. Lines and colors tell stories, show beliefs, relate myths, and warrant reverence for what’s sacred. The only difference is age. Clay, paints, materials, methods of production are identical to those used a thousand years ago.
When you come to Costa Rica, start your visit by touring our museums: Museo Nacional, Museo de Jade y Museo de Oro. These three tours will prepare you to understand our country better in terms of archeological and historical overviews.
The Montagua Valley in Guatemala, is the only site in all the hemisphere where what we know as “jade” is found. This leads us to the unsolved mystery of jade in Costa Rica. Was the raw material mined in Guatemala and sent to the Chorotega and other indigenous craftsmen across northern Costa Rica? Some of the finest pieces in museums today came from Costa Rican archeological sites.
For the Maya and Aztec culture jade had a greater value than gold, and even considered that jade that medicinal powers.
The Spheres of Costa Rica
Many of these round stones are within a few degrees of being perfect circles. They are solid with smooth textured surfaces. Without having found a sphere in partial construction or a site where they may have been produced, it’s difficult to understand their real purpose.Spheresthe size of cars and weighing more than nine tons have been found across the countryside of southwest Costa Rica. They may have been produced as far back as 200 or 300 A.D., whether they have been created by people during one generation of craftsmen or during a long period of time is hard to define, we only know that the workmanship is obvious but the method of production still remain theoretical.
Guayabo National Monument
Guayabo is the largest and most important archeological site discovered to date in Costa Rica. It is difficult to determine which cultures influenced it the most, some of the buildings point to a South American influence, but Mesoamerican evidence is also present, there is an overlapping of both cultures. Human occupation of the site dates back to 1.000 B.C, the most recent studies reveal that Guayabo reached its peak from 300 to 700 A.D. This is the period when the stone buildings that can be seen today were built.
The Gold Museum
Most of the gold found in Costa Rica comes from the southwest region. Pieces vary in size and shapes. A great South American influence can be observed, most of the pieces represent animal figures very similar to those of the Chipchas in Colombia, frogs, eagles, and some species of animals that inflict pain on man or dangerous are represented. Also figures of shamans or “sukias” Indian medicine men have been found.
The Gold Museum is a visit you cannot pass up. It will help you understand our indigenous cultures even better.