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Costa Rica Information Guide

The Republic of Costa Rica is a country in Central America, bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south-southeast. Since the civil war of 1948 that brought President José Figueres Ferrer to power, the country has been free of violent political conflict. Figueres also abolished the military and today, Costa Rica has only a national police force. Unlike most of its continental neighbors, Costa Rica is seen as an example of political stability in the region, and sometimes referred to as the "Switzerland of Central America."

A buzz in Costa Rican air these days is the sense that the country is entering a dynamic era where expectations are high for solid development.

The country's economy grew nearly 8% in 2006 and for the first time in more than a decade, inflation ran in single digits at 9%. With construction booming, especially along the coasts, a burgeoning tech sector and exports up 17%, there is a feeling that Costa Rica is ready to take the next step along the road to prosperity after a decade in which the level of poverty remained stagnant at around 20%.

To sustain the positive trend, the Central Bank instituted a new exchange rate system that creates a range in which banks can set their own rates. This is designed to help control inflation

Tourism, which several years ago supplanted agriculture as Costa Rica's top industry for foreign exchange, continues to spur the economy along with the booming real estate market. Of course, "progress" can be a double edged sword. Case in point: the continuing Costa Rica Real Estate boom, including construction of hotels, condos and residential developments, especially along the Pacific coast. Concerns are that many projects are being built without permits and sometimes within the 50 meter maritime restricted zone. Also, the boom is taxing infrastructure in many areas and overwhelming municipalities trying to keep tabs on growth.

Costa Rica is home to almost a million foreigners. Of those, some 600,000 are in the country legally and some 300,000 are without proper documents. The current administration's Immigration chief has made it a top priority to clean up the Immigration Administration, plagued for years by bureaucratic backups and corruption.

While Costa Rica continues to experience growing pains and deals with myriad serious 21st Century issues, the people remain engaging and friendly, guided by the optimistic spirit of pura vida (pure life). Visitors and residents of Costa Rica marvel at the warmth and hospitality of the people, as well as at the weather and natural beauty of this small proud country that has become a world class destination.

HISTORY

In Pre-Columbian times the Native Americans in what is now Costa Rica were part of the Intermediate Area located between the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions. This has recently been redefined to include the Isthmo-Colombian area, defined by the presence of groups that spoke Chibchan languages.

The native people of the Mayans and Aztecs were conquered by Spain in the 16th century. Costa Rica was then the Southernmost province in the Spanish territory of New Spain. The provincial capital was in Cartago.

After briefly joining the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide (see: History of Mexico and Mexican Empire), Costa Rica became a state in the United Provinces of Central America (see: History of Central America) from 1823 to 1839. In 1824, the capital moved to San José. From the 1840s on, Costa Rica was an independent nation.

Costa Rica has avoided much of the violence that has plagued Central America. Since the late 19th century only two brief periods of violence have marred its democratic development. In 1949, José Figueres Ferrer abolished the army; and since then Costa Rica has been one of the few countries to operate within the democratic system without the assistance of a military.

Costa Rica (Spanish for "Rich Coast"), although still a largely agricultural country, has achieved a relatively high standard of living. land ownership is widespread and tourism is a rapidly expanding industry.

POLITICS

Costa Rica is a democratic republic with a strong system of constitutional checks and balances. Executive responsibilities are vested in a president, who is the country's center of power. There also are two vice presidents and a 15-member cabinet that includes one of the vice presidents. The president and 57 Legislative Assembly deputies are elected for 4-year terms. A constitutional amendment approved in 1969 limited presidents and deputies to one term, although a deputy may run again for an Assembly seat after sitting out a term. An amendment to the constitution to allow second presidential terms was proposed and also the constitutionality of the prohibition against a second presidential term has been challenged in the courts. In April 2003 the prohibition was officially recognized, in a highly polemic resolution, as anti-constitutional allowing Óscar Arias (Nobel Peace Prize, 1987) to run for President a second time in the upcoming 2006 elections. Arias is promoter of free trade and supports the free trade agreement with the United States which is the source of a great controversy that might develop in protests around the country in the upcoming months.

Governors appointed by the president head the country's seven provinces, but they exercise little power. There are no provincial legislatures. Autonomous state agencies enjoy considerable operational independence; they include the telecommunications and electrical power monopoly, the nationalized commercial banks, the state insurance monopoly, and the social security agency. Costa Rica has no military by constitution and maintains only domestic police and security forces for internal security.

PROVINCES

Costa Rica consists of seven provinces:

  1. Alajuela (central; north of capital San José)
  2. Cartago
  3. Guanacaste (north-west)
  4. Heredia
  5. Limón
  6. Puntarenas (south-west)
  7. San José (Area around capital)

For more information on these provinces, click here.

CLIMATE

Costa Rica, though diminutive in size, is geographically a land of extreme contrasts. Straddling a rugged mountain chain, its topography is responsible for constant seismic activity, spewing volcanoes, distinctive climatic zones and immense biodiversity.

Lying within the tropics (between 8 and 11 degrees north of the Equator), the country has 2 distinctive seasons, dry and rainy. However, elevation and temperatures temper this stereotypical tropical climate and conditions vary considerably. Hot steamy jungles, fertile pasturelands, chilly highlands and mountain peaks make Costa Rica a land of spellbinding and infinite variety.

Two distinctive seasons - the rainy or "winter," May to November, and the dry "summer," December to April, mostly affect the Central Valley, Guanacaste and Central Pacific. In the rainy season cloudless sky and intense sun make this the hottest time of the year. Around noon, clouds roll in and thunderous downpours occur. Lighter rain continues into the night. Rain often ceases during veranillo (little summer) that lasts for a couple of weeks in late June - early July.

In the Southern Pacific rain starts a month earlier, but the Northern and humid Caribbean Zones are less affected by the seasonal cycle, where showers or torrential rains alternate with blazing sun.

ECONOMY

Costa Rica's economy is dependent on tourism, agriculture, and electronics exports. The economy emerged from recession in 1997 and has since shown strong growth. Costa Rica's location in the Central American isthmus provides easy access to American markets as it has the same time zone as central US and direct ocean access to Europe and Asia.

The economy has been booming for Costa Rica because the Government had implemented a seven year plan of expansion in the high tech industry. They have tax exemptions for those who are willing to invest in the country. With their high level of educated residents, they make an attractive investing location. Several global high tech corporations have already started developing in the area exporting goods. Also, over the last 12 years or so, the country has seen a large influx of online sports books that employ thousands of locals and has become the so called Mecca of online gaming.

The unit of currency is the colón (CRC), which trades around 560 to the US dollar; currently about 650 to the euro.

CULTURE

In Costa Rica, the locals refer to themselves as "Tico" (maje) or mae (sort of "man" (actually maje means "dumb") idiom in a very popular and "only with close friends" way), or "Tica" (female). The "Tico" ideal is that of a very friendly, helpful, laid back, unhurried, educated and environmentally aware people, with little worry for deadlines or the "normal" stresses of United States life. Visitors from the United States and Europe are often referred to as "Gringos," which is virtually always congenial in nature. Americans are often seen as objects of welcoming friendliness and curiosity.

In fact ticos was a name given by the rest of centralamericans who used to hear them end many words with the "tico" ending, such as "un momentico" which is in a short moment, or "platico" which is a little dish. However these days, such an ending has evolved to "illo" which is very much used. For instance "ese es mi carrillo" which is "that is my car or rather my small car", or "vivo por ese caminillo por donde hay un arbolillo de mangos" that is "I live by that small road where there is a small mango tree". Then, now in the rest of Central America, they don't call anymore the ticos as ticos but rather as "tiquillos" literally "little ticos".

Costa Rica boasts a varied history. Costa Rica was the point where the Mesoamerican and South American native cultures met. The north west of the country, Nicoya, was the southernmost point of Nahuatl cultural influence when the Spanish conquerors(conquistadores) came in the 16th century. The center and south portions of the country had Chibcha influences. The Atlantic coast was populated with African slaves due to the practice of enslavement in the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition, during this 19th century thousands of Chinese families came to the country to work on the construction of the railroad system connecting the urban populations of the Central Plateau to the port of Limon on the Caribbean.


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