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Costa Rica

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Formal Name
Republic of Costa Rica

Local Name
Costa Rica

Local Formal Name
República de Costa Rica

Location: Central America

Status: UN Country

Capital City: San José

Main Cities: Alajuela, Cartago

Population: 3,347,000    Area []: 51,100

Currency: 1 colón = 100 céntimos

Languages: Spanish

Religions: Roman Catholic

Costa Rica, republic in southern Central America, bounded on the north by Nicaragua, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, on the southeast by Panama, and on the southwest and west by the Pacific Ocean. The uninhabited and densely wooded tropical Cocos Island, about 480 km (about 300 mi) to the southwest in the Pacific Ocean, is under Costa Rican sovereignty. The total area of Costa Rica is 51,060 sq km (19,714 sq mi). The country's capital is San José.

Land and Resources

Most of Costa Rica is rugged highlands, about 915 to 1830 m (about 3000 to 6000 ft) above sea level. Several mountain ranges extend nearly the entire length of the country. These include the Cordillera de Talamanca, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera de Guanacaste. The highest peaks are Chirripó Grande (3819 m/12,530 ft) and the active volcano of Irazú (3432 m/11,260 ft). A central plateau, the Meseta Central, is located between the ranges and contains the bulk of the population. Wide lowlands extend along the almost unindented Caribbean coast. The lowlands along the Pacific are narrower. Here the coast is broken by a number of bays, the chief ones being the landlocked Gulf of Nicoya, the deep, open Gulf of Dulce, and Coronada Bay. The principal stream of Costa Rica is the San Juan River, which forms part of the country's boundary with Nicaragua to the north.


The climate of Costa Rica ranges from tropical on the coastal plains to temperate in the interior highlands. Average annual temperatures range from 31.7° C (89° F) on the coast to 16.7° C (62° F) inland. A rainy season lasts from April or May to December. Annual precipitation in the country averages about 2540 mm (about 100 in).

Natural Resources

Good agricultural soils in Costa Rica are concentrated in the Meseta Central and in the river valleys. About one-third of the total land area is covered by forest, much of which is commercially productive. Mineral resources, including bauxite, are believed to be extensive but remain largely undeveloped. Fishing for tuna, sharks, and turtles is carried out along the coast. Waterpower is abundant and is used to generate electricity for industrial operations.

Plants and Animals

Costa Rica's forests contain rich stands of ebony, balsa, mahogany, and cedar. More than 1000 species of orchids are found in Costa Rica. Wildlife is abundant and includes puma, jaguar, deer, monkeys, and about 725 species of birds.


A majority of the people of Costa Rica are of European (largely Spanish) descent. Whites and mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry) account for about 96 percent of the population; the small black community is largely of Jamaican origin. About 50 percent of the population is defined as rural. Spanish is the official language, but English is also spoken by many educated people and some of the ethnic Jamaicans. Roman Catholicism is the state religion, but freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution.

Population Characteristics

The population of Costa Rica (1995 estimate) is about 3,424,000, giving the country an estimated overall population density of about 67 persons per sq km (about 174 per sq mi).

Political Divisions

Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces: San José, Alajuela, Cartago, Puntarenas, Guanacaste, Heredia, and Limón. Each of the provinces has a governor appointed by the president.

Principal Cities


The capital is San José, with an estimated population in 1991 of 296,625. Important cities are Limón (population, 1991 estimate, 67,784), a trading center and one of the country's principal ports; Puntarenas (92,360), a major Pacific seaport; and Alajuela (158,276), a center for the production of coffee and sugar.


Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of literacy in Latin America, estimated at 93 percent. Primary and secondary education is free, and attendance is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 13. In the early 1990s about 453,300 pupils were enrolled in some 3300 public primary schools and about 139,300 students attended about 256 public and private secondary schools. The prominent University of Costa Rica, in San José, was founded in 1843, and has an annual enrollment of about 29,000.


Costa Rica, with a relatively small Native American population, has been strongly influenced by the culture and traditions of Spain. Native American and African-American influences have had relatively little impact. The Roman Catholic cultural pattern of Spain, with emphasis on the family and the church, has evolved into a national style of life. Festivals in honor of patron saints are a colorful part of village and town life. The guitar, accordion, and mandolin have traditionally been the most popular musical instruments, and the music reflects a Spanish heritage. Traces of the Native American culture survive in designs used in jewelry, leather goods, and clothing. The national sport is soccer.


The economy of Costa Rica remains basically agricultural, although manufacturing industries have been expanding since the early 1960s. In an effort to introduce economic diversity, more emphasis has been given to the raising of livestock. Overall living conditions are high by Latin American standards, and the country has a large middle class. Between 1970 and 1987, Costa Rica received about $1.2 billion in loans and grants from the United States. In the early 1990s estimated annual budget figures showed revenues of $1.1 billion and expenditures of $1.3 billion.


About 10 percent of Costa Rica's land area is under cultivation. Apart from banana plantations, most of the agricultural landholdings are small. Coffee, one of the most valuable crops, is cultivated mainly in the central plateaus. About 168,000 metric tons of coffee were produced annually in the early 1990s. Bananas are raised in the tropical coastal regions on plantations. In the late 19th and early 20th century a United States firm, the United Fruit Company (now United Brands), opened the largest banana plantation in the world on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and constructed the ports of Quepos and Golfito as banana-shipping points. Cacao, sugarcane, and pineapples are also raised primarily for export. Corn, rice, vegetables, tobacco, and cotton are generally cultivated throughout the country. In the late 1980s livestock included about 1.7 million cattle, 225,000 hogs, and 114,000 horses.

Mining and Manufacturing

Gold and silver are mined in the western part of Costa Rica. Deposits of manganese, nickel, mercury, and sulfur are largely unworked. Petroleum deposits have been found in the south, but not exploited. Salt is produced from seawater.

Most of the country's industry is of small-scale enterprises such as coffee-drying plants, cheese factories, sawmills, woodworking factories, breweries, and distilleries. Costa Rica has factories that produce petroleum products, furniture, paper, textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, candles, boots, and cigars and cigarettes. Costa Rica produced about 3.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year in the early 1990s; about 98 percent of the power was generated in hydroelectric facilities.

Currency and Foreign Trade

The unit of currency is the colón, consisting of 100 centimos (150.67 colones equal U.S.$1; 1993). The Banco Central, established in 1950, is the bank of issue and administers foreign reserves. In the early 1990s the annual value of imports was about $2.9 billion and of exports, about $1.9 billion. The chief exports included coffee, bananas, beef, textiles, and sugar. Principal imports were manufactured goods, machinery, transportation equipment, chemicals, crude petroleum, and foodstuffs. The United States, Germany, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, and Japan were major trade partners. The entry in 1963 of Costa Rica into the Central American Common Market brought about major increases in trade in that region although its importance has since waned. In 1995 Costa Rica joined in the formation of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). A free-trade organization, the ACS comprises the members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) as well as 12 Latin nations bordering the Caribbean.


Railroad lines in Costa Rica total about 950 km (about 590 mi) and link San José with both coasts. Roads total about 35,500 km (about 22,060 mi), of which 16 percent is paved; some 680 km (some 425 mi) of roadway forms a portion of the Inter-American Highway. San José is linked by road with the cities of the surrounding plateau region. Several domestic airlines provide service within the country. Juan Santamaría Airport, which is located near San José, is served by the Costa Rican national airline and several foreign airlines.


In the early 1990s Costa Rica had 6 daily newspapers and about 40 radio stations and 5 television stations. About 800,000 radios, 435,000 television sets, and 450,000 telephones were in use.


In the early 1990s agriculture employed about 24 percent of the labor force while industry employed about 26 percent. The remainder was employed in the public and private service sectors. Labor unions are relatively weak in Costa Rica.


Costa Rica is a republic governed under a constitution of 1949.


Executive power is vested in a president and two vice presidents, each of whom is elected by direct popular vote for single four-year terms. Each candidate must receive more than 40 percent of the total vote. Voting is compulsory for all citizens over 18 years of age. The president is assisted by a cabinet of some 20 ministers.


Legislative power in Costa Rica is vested in a single-chamber Legislative Assembly, with 57 deputies, elected for four-year terms.

Political Parties

The leading political groups in Costa Rica are the National Liberation party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN), a reformist organization, and the Social Christian Unity party.


Judicial power in Costa Rica is vested in a Supreme Court, appellate courts, a court of cassation (highest appeals court), and subordinate provincial courts. Capital punishment has been banned.

Social Services

The average life expectancy in Costa Rica is 78 years, the highest in the western hemisphere. A national health plan was established in the 1970s. Health services are concentrated in urban areas. A social security program has been in operation since 1942, with participation compulsory for all employees under 65 years of age.


Costa Rica has had no armed forces since 1948, when the PLN came to power and abolished the army. The only security forces are the 4500-member Civil Guard and the 3200-member Rural Guard.


Human habitation of Costa Rica dates from at least 5000 BC, but in comparison with the great civilizations of pre-Columbian America the Native Americans of Costa Rica were neither numerous nor highly developed. When confronted by Spanish soldiers and missionaries, they resisted violently. Those who did not succumb to the epidemics that swept over the isthmus either died fighting or fled to remote areas.

The Colonial Period

Christopher Columbus sailed along Costa Rica's Caribbean shore in 1502 and gave it its name ("rich coast"). Spanish conquest, however, came later than in most of the rest of Central America, delayed by the hostility of the natives and the absence of obvious wealth. After Juan de Cavallón led the first successful colonizers into Costa Rica in 1561, Juan Vásquez de Coronado followed from 1562 to 1565 with the establishment of Cartago and other settlements in the central valley, where most of the population is still concentrated. Within the kingdom of Guatemala (in the viceroyalty of Mexico, called New Spain) from 1570 forward, Costa Rica was principally a small dependency of Nicaragua throughout its colonial period. Such circumstances as its remoteness from Guatemala City and its lack of wealth allowed it to develop with less direct interference and regulation than the other provinces of Central America. Costa Rica's relative obscurity gave it some of its unique characteristics. The Europeans were unable to subjugate a sedentary native population, nor could they afford to import African slaves, as was done in areas of more apparent commercial agricultural or mining potential. Costa Ricans consequently turned to subsistence farming on small land grants, without the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized so much of Latin America. Government and church officials were fewer than in the centers of authority and production. Thus, Costa Rica played only a minor role in the kingdom of Guatemala, and it developed to a large degree apart from the mainstream of Latin American history. It was first in the late 18th century, when Spanish emphasis on commercial agriculture led to the growth of tobacco as a major export, that the colony became of some importance to the Guatemalan authorities.


Tobacco exports promoted the growth of a more prosperous society, and Costa Ricans became prominent in the intellectual and political life of Central America in the early 19th century. When Spanish rule ended in 1821, the country became part of Mexico until 1823, and then part of the United Provinces of Central America, from 1824 to 1838. However, it avoided involvement in the civil wars that plagued the latter federation. Costa Rican politics reflected the liberal-conservative ideologies found elsewhere in Latin America, with the towns of Cartago, San José, Heredia, and Alajuela vying for leadership. San José gained ascendancy, but the most important development of the mid-19th century was the growth of coffee as the major export.

Under the conservative dictatorship (1849-1859) of J. Rafael Mora, Costa Rica took the lead in organizing Central American resistance against William Walker, the U.S. adventurer who took over Nicaragua in 1855. After a bloodless coup ousted Mora in 1859, liberal domination followed, notably under Tomás Guardia. During his tenure (1870-1882), Costa Rica became committed to heavy foreign investment in railroads and other public improvements. The banana empire created by the U.S. businessman Minor Keith became the United Fruit Company in 1899. United developed the lowland coasts and built railroads and other communications, but it also made Costa Rica more dependent on foreign markets and capital.

Democracy and Stable Government

Although late 19th- and early 20th-century Costa Rican politics had its share of irregularities, the clear trend was away from military solutions toward a more orderly political process. Costa Ricans took pride in having more teachers than soldiers and a higher standard of living than elsewhere in Central America. Coffee remained the mainstay of the economy, but a growing urban middle class began to challenge the political control of the coffee elite with more modern political parties. The reformist National Republican party (Partido Republicano Nacional, or PRN) won the presidency with León Cortes Castro in 1936 and again in 1940 with Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia. When the PRN attempted to continue in power after defeat in 1948, a new political force, the National Liberation party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN), led by José Figueres Ferrer, overthrew it and became the country's dominant party, a position it has since retained. Under moderate governments, Costa Rica became Latin America's most democratic country. Figueres served as president from 1952 to 1958 and again from 1970 to 1974. The PLN won the presidency in 1974 with Daniel Oduber, but differences between him and Figueres, along with economic troubles, brought an opposition coalition headed by Rodrigo Carazo Odio to power in 1978.

Costa Rica experienced rapid population growth and consequent strains on its economy in the early 1980s. The PLN returned to power in 1982, when Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez was elected president; he was succeeded by Oscar Arias Sánchez, also of the PLN, in 1986. During the late 1980s Arias tried to win consensus among Central American leaders for a plan to bring peace and stability to the region. Rafael A. Calderón, Jr., son of former president Rafael Calderón, won the presidential election of February 1990, running as the candidate of the Social Christian Unity party. In February 1994 José María Figueres Olsen of the PLN was elected president. Figueres is the son of former president José Figueres Ferrer.