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Costa Rica History, Language and Culture

History of Costa Rica

Along with the other Central American countries, Costa Rica came about as a result of the Spanish conquest, first 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus in 1502. It wasn't an easy country to conquer, largely due to its varied terrain and the lack of valuable mineral resources.

Costa Rica's original inhabitants were predominantly hunter-gatherers, who never developed urbanised civilisations like the Aztecs and Maya in present-day Mexico and Guatemala. The diseases brought into the country by the Europeans wiped out most of the indigenous peoples. Those who were left were largely absorbed into the Spanish population, although there are still a few very small tribes to be found in the country.

The settlers worked hard to farm the land and made the territory into a rural democracy, which no doubt had some effect on the way things are run today – Costa Rica is noted for being the most egalitarian and democratically developed country in the region, with a conscientious regard for the ecological protection of its environment.

Originally ruled by the Spanish, as one of the viceroyalties of New Spain, Costa Rica was declared independent in 1821. Initially it exchanged one form of colonial rule for another, being absorbed first by Mexico and subsequently as part of a new Central American Republic. Costa Rica finally became an independent country in its own right in 1838.

Throughout the 20th century, Costa Rica enjoyed peace and a steady growth in prosperity, with the notable exception of a civil war in 1948, which followed a disputed presidential election. Significantly, however, Costa Rica disbanded its military forces after the civil war and still today remains the only country in the region with no national army or military prescription.

Generally, Costa Rica has been a peaceful and liberal country for well over a hundred years and despite a national emergency in 1991, when an earthquake hit the country causing widespread loss of life and damage, its tourism industry has boomed in recent decades. In keeping with its eco-friendly image, the government has announced plans to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021.

Did you know?
• Some 300 giant stone spheres are dotted along the southern coast, on the Diquis Delta; dating from around 600 AD, the stones weigh up to 15 tons, but how and why they were made remain a mystery (though they are commonly attributed to the extinct Diquis culture).
• San Jose airport is named after Juan Santamaria, national folk hero who helped defeat US freebooter William Walker in 1856.
• The strawberry poison dart frog is one of Costa Rica’s tiniest and most colourful creatures; it can change colour from red to green to blue, to confuse predators.

Costa Rica Culture

Religion in Costa Rica

Almost entirely Christian, with a Roman Catholic majority of 70.5%.

Social Conventions in Costa Rica

Greetings usually take the form of a handshake, or a single kiss on the cheek. Formal titular address is important also important. Christian names are preceded by Señor for a man and Señora for a woman, but Don is used to address a highly respected man and Doña for a female equivalent. When addressing someone in Spanish, use the ‘usted’ form of ‘you’; reserve ‘vos’ for friends, family and children. Normal courtesies should be observed when visiting someone's home and gifts are appreciated as a token of thanks, especially if invited for a meal.

For most occasions casual wear is acceptable, but beachwear should be confined to the beach. Saving face is important in Costa Rican culture, which may make mean you are told ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ even when the answer is really ‘no’. In addition, avoid making confrontational statements unless you want to be thought rude.

Language in Costa Rica

Spanish is the official language and this is what is primarily spoken. English is fairly widely spoken also. Within differing indigenous communities, a variety of indigenous languages are used.