Latinamerica Collection
History of Costa Rica

Pre-Columbian Period

Indigenous tribes are said to have existed in Costa Rica as many as 10,000 years ago with various artifacts recovered to prove it. In the western area of the country various bolas have been recovered, which are stones rounded into nearly perfect spheres. They have ranged in size from the size of a fist to larger than a person. Not too long ago, ruins were found not far from the country's capital that even showed an advanced aqueduct system.


During the time of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1502, there were few small indigenous tribes that were mostly wiped by smallpox brought over by the Spanish. Today, only a very small part of the population is of indigenous descent.


Colonial Period
Costa Rica was first settled in 1522 and for the next three centuries was governed by the Captaincy General of Guatemala. The Spanish first called the country the Rich Coast assuming they would find gold and other valuable minerals. However, when the settlers realized there was no gold in the area they turned to agriculture instead.


Costa Rica immediately began to take on its own unique qualities different from those of the other colonies because of its being somewhat cut off from the main points of leadership in Mexico and in the Andes. Costa Rica was generally made up of poor land owners, and due to the extremely small indigenous population, most of the country was ethnically and linguistically homogeneous. For that reason, a strong egalitarian sentiment began to grow between the European inhabitants of the region.


In the 1800s the production of bananas and coffee brought wealth to some fortunate landowners, but this feeling of equality still survived between the people. In 1821, Costa Rica joined the surrounding provinces in its declaration of independence from Spain.


The newly independent colonies quickly became provinces of a new Central American Federation but were characterized by constant border disputes. The newly formed Federation essentially ceased to function after a short period of time and lead to Costa Rica's declaration of complete sovereignty in 1838.


Other than few small lapses in their history, Costa Rica has experienced a relatively peaceful independence. The nation experienced periods of military rule, but none were characterized by the violent radicalism that so many other Central American countries went through. For example, in 1870 General Tomas Guardia took control of the government but made some of the nation's most significant reforms in history regarding education and taxation.


In 1899 the country held what it refers to as its first truly free and honest elections. This peaceful period of free elections lasted until 1917 when Federico Tinico ruled as a dictator for two years. The nation again experienced free elections from 1919 until 1948 when a final lapse occurred in Costa Rican history. The incumbent president Dr. Rafael Angel Calderón refused to give up power after losing his reelection which lead to an uprising by Jose Figueres to defeat Calderón.


After 44 days of violence and deaths of 2,000 people, Figueres' junta drafted a constitution that transformed policy and civil rights. For example, women and blacks were given the right to vote, banks were nationalized, presidential term rules were established, and the military was completely abolished. Figueres quickly became a national hero and was elected as the first president after the approval of the constitution in 1953.


Since the drafting of the constitution in 1953, Costa Rica has had more than a dozen free presidential elections is still the peaceful, military-free nation that it has been since middle of the twentieth century.