Costa Rica Facts

Tadashi

Tadashi

Published: 18 Jul 2022

At first glance, Costa Rica looks like another small Central American country. But in this case, appearances do deceive, as it has the most successful historical record out in the region. Learn more about this amazing country with these 50 facts about Costa Rica.

  1. Costa Rica has an estimated area of 51,060 km².
  2. Water makes up an estimated 1.5% of the country’s area.
  3. It also has an estimated population of 5 million people.
  4. This gives the country an estimated population density of 85 people for every km².
  5. Costa Rica lies in the GMT-6 time zone.
  1. Humans first arrived in what would become Costa Rica around 10,000 B.C.
  2. Christopher Columbus became the first European to arrive in Costa Rica in 1502.
  3. The Spaniards described Costa Rica as their poorest colony in the 18th century.
  4. Costa Rica became part of Guatemala after it gained independence in 1821.
  5. Costa Rica became its own country in 1838.
  6. The country’s economy boomed through the early 19th century thanks to trade with Britain and the USA.
  7. A military dictatorship briefly ruled Costa Rica from 1917 to 1919.
  8. The Costa Rican Civil War erupted in 1948 and lasted only 44 days.
  9. Proper elections in Costa Rica resumed in 1953 under a new constitution.
  10. Costa Rica today has the reputation of Central America’s most stable democracy.
  1. Costa Rica spends 6.9% of its budget on education, more than the global average of 4.4%.
  2. The Press Freedom Index rates Costa Rica as having the seventh freest press in the world.
  3. The World Happiness Report similarly rates Costa Rica as the 12th happiest country in the world.
  4. It also has the status of the 37th most democratic in the world according to the Freedom in the World Index.
  5. The Human Development Index rates Costa Rica as the fifth-most developed in Latin America.
Table of Contents

Cerro Chirripo makes up the highest point in Costa Rica.

It means “Land of Eternal Waters”, a name given by the local Native Americans for the many lakes and streams around the mountain. Cerro Chirripo stands an estimated 3.82 km tall, enough for people on its peak to see the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. The mountain’s height also gives it an average temperature of 11 degrees Celsius during the day, with temperatures dropping below freezing at night. That said, weather records show that no snow has fallen on Cerro Chirripo in the past 100 years.

Cerro Chirripo forms part of the Chirripo National Park and La Amistad International Park, preserving its natural Talamancan montane forest environment. This requires tourists to first get a permit from park officials before visiting the mountain.

Irazu Volcano similarly makes up its tallest volcano.

The origin of its name remains unclear today, with some sources claiming it refers to a Native American village that once stood on the mountain, Iztaru. Other sources, though, claim the volcano’s name comes from the local words “ara” and “tzu”, meaning “point” and “thunder”, respectively. Irazu Volcano also has the nickname of El Coloso, meaning “The Colossus” from the catastrophes that result from its eruptions.

Irazu Volcano
Image from Adobe Stock

Its last eruption took place on December 8, 1994, and thankfully lasted only one day. That said, even that small eruption triggered volcanic mudflows that devastated the lowlands below. The volcano stands an estimated 3.43 km tall, enough for people to see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from its peak. It’s also made the volcano’s peak suitable for several radio antennas servicing various radio and TV stations in San Jose.

Lake Arenal makes up the country’s biggest lake.

It takes its name from the town of Arenal, which once stood on the lake’s former northern shore. The lake grew in size following the construction of the Arenal Dam in 1979, forcing the relocation of the town’s people.

The government subsidized the relocation, even building a new town for them further north, named Nuevo Arenal. Much like its predecessor, Nuevo Arenal stands on the lake’s new northern shore.

Today, Lake Arenal covers an area of 85 km², with an average depth of 45 meters. Arenal Dam itself stands on the lake’s eastern shore, and currently provides an estimated 17% of Costa Rica’s electrical needs.

Costa Rica has a rich biodiversity.

In fact, Costa Rica became the first tropical country in 2020 to not only halt deforestation within its borders but to completely reverse it and restore its natural forest cover. And while poaching and hunting remain issues in the country, the Costa Rican government has successfully launched measures to preserve its natural animal life. These primarily revolve around the establishment of national parks where wild animals can live protected but free.

Corcovado National Park, in particular, has won international fame as the home of all four Costa Rican monkey species. These include the Central American squirrel monkey, Geoffrey’s spider monkey, the mantled howler, and the white-headed capuchin. The Central American squirrel monkey particularly serves as an example of the success of Costa Rica’s conservation efforts. Once an endangered species, its protection in Corcovado allowed the species’ population to rebound, and while still a vulnerable species, the Central American squirrel monkey faces a reduced threat to its future today.

Pre-Columbian Costa Rica had a complex society of its own.

The Native Americans first began farming in Costa Rica around 2000 B.C., which served as the trigger for the development of village societies. At first, religious figures like shamans or even witch-doctors dominated these societies, alongside tribal and clan leaders. Over time, however, separate authority figures emerged, such as village chiefs and elders. This resulted from the practical needs of supervising such issues as farming, land ownership, trade, and even war.

Trade became especially important from 500 B.C. onward, with various towns growing large from trade with other cultures. These included the Olmecs and later on the Mayans, both of which had a high demand for Costa Rican jade. In fact, from 900 A.D. onward, Costa Rica had developed hierarchical societies of its own, divided between priests, nobles, warriors, and commoners, which endured until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.

The Costa Ricans at the time carved stone spheres for mysterious reasons.

Archaeologists specifically attribute them to the Diquis Culture, which flourished between 700 A.D. and 1530 A.D. The spheres can measure up to 2 meters in diameter, with a weight of up to 15 tons. The Diquis made most of them from a volcanic rock called gabbro, with a few spheres made from either limestone or sandstone.

Facts About Costa Rica, Stone Spheres
Photo by Mariordo from Wikipedia

However, archaeologists remain unsure of how the Diquis made the spheres, as their culture mysteriously disappeared shortly after the Spaniards arrived. The mystery extends to the reason why they made the spheres in the first place, with the most common theory involving they marked property belonging to chiefs.

In fact, the spheres remained unknown to historical science until the 1930s, when jungle clearing operations discovered the spheres. This destroyed several spheres, thanks to workers thinking they had gold hidden in them. Authorities quickly took custody of the spheres, but that hasn’t stopped urban legends springing up around them, including one the spheres originally came from Atlantis. Today, the spheres have become a cultural icon of Costa Rica, with replicas or even originals sitting in front of key government offices and buildings.

The Spanish naming of Costa Rica remains disputed among historians.

The meaning itself isn’t in question, with Costa Rica meaning “rich coast” in Spanish. Instead, the dispute revolves around who gave the region the name, with some historians attributing it to Christopher Columbus.

Others, however, attribute it to the conquistador Gil Gonzalez Davila, who explored the Pacific coast in 1522. In particular, records exist of how he obtained large amounts of gold from the natives, whether as spoils of war or as gifts.

That said, it also remains unclear when the Spanish authorities officially recognized the name of Costa Rica for the region. It also proved an ironic name, as Costa Rica turned out to have no deposits of gold or silver within its borders.

Costa Rica stood out among other Spanish colonies in the New World.

We’ve already mentioned how Costa Rica lacked any deposits of precious metals on its land. This had the effect of drawing only a few European settlers, as most of them traveled to the New World hoping to quickly get rich in the gold and silver industries. This also contributed to the Spaniards derisively referring to Costa Rica as its poorest colony.

Ironically, this preserved the local culture of small landowners and towns, between the few European settlers and the small native population. In particular, it meant that large-scale forced labor in massive plantations like in other colonies simply proved impractical. Costa Rica thus stood out as a quiet backwater farming colony in Spain’s overseas empire. It also suffered the least from the ravages of colonialism.

Costa Rica’s first civil war broke out immediately after independence from Spain.

The war erupted in 1823 as a result of disputes between pro-Mexican and pro-independence leaders. The pro-Mexican leaders, also known as the Imperialists, and based in the provinces of Cartago and Heredia, wanted to join the new Mexican Empire. Their opposition, the Republicans, however, based themselves in the provinces of San Jose and Alajuela.

The civil war proved short, not even lasting a year, decided by the Battle of Ochomogo which ended with a Republican victory. In fact, said battle also shared its name with the conflict in history books as the Ochomogo War. The Republican victory not only preserved Costa Rica’s independence but also saw the capital move from Cartago to San Jose.

Cash crops became the source of Costa Rica’s wealth in the early 19th century.

Cash crops generally refer to crops primarily valued as luxuries for sale overseas instead of as necessities. In Costa Rica’s case, these include cacao beans, coffee, sugar, and tobacco, with coffee as the most valuable. In fact, coffee proved so valuable that its farming caused the birth of a new class of wealthy landowners. These so-called coffee barons dominated Costa Rican society between the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Beautiful coffee plant full red of coffee beans in Costa Rica
Image from Adobe Stock

It also led to a construction boom in Costa Rica, which lasted from the 1870s to the 1890s. American investors funded the construction of roads and railroads to bring coffee from the interior to the coastal ports. This also led to an influx of immigrants from neighboring countries, such as Jamaica in particular, out of the demand for manpower. The descendants of those immigrants even make up an estimated 3% of Costa Rica’s population today.

Costa Rica conducted a territorial exchange with Panama in 1849.

At the time, Costa Rica controlled the province of Chiriqui on the Pacific Coast of Central America. Similarly, Panama controlled the province of Guanacaste, also on the Pacific Coast of Central America. Both Panama and Costa Rica coveted each other’s territory and enjoyed support from the local populations.

That said, neither country wanted a war, leading to both Costa Rica and Panama holding referendums on which country the provinces in question wanted to become part of. This led to Chiriqui voting to become part of Panama, while Guanacaste likewise voted to become part of Costa Rica. Both countries have respected the referendums’ results to the present day.

Costa Rica abolished its military in 1949.

This resulted from the military’s role in the civil war which took place in the preceding year. In fact, the new constitution adopted by Costa Rica after the civil war explicitly bans forming a new military. This made Costa Rica the only Central American country without a military of its own, in the hopes of preventing future civil wars. This hope became reality in the following decades, with Costa Rica becoming an island of stability where the rest of Central America devolved into coups, insurgencies, and civil wars.

That said, Costa Rica does possess large police forces, which gained paramilitary capabilities in 1996. Costa Rica also has a small special forces unit. This manages to get around the official illegality of the military in Costa Rica by officially counting as a civilian unit despite not actually forming part of the police organization.

The country has clashed repeatedly with Nicaragua over territorial claims in their shared history.

The dispute over the San Jose River, in particular, goes back to the 19th century. Nicaragua even refused to allow Costa Rican fishermen and passenger ships access to the river unless Costa Rica accepted Nicaragua’s claims.

This eventually led to a court case at the International Court of Justice in 2009. The court forced Nicaragua to allow Costa Rican civilians access to the river, with no need to first get special permits from Nicaragua.

At the same time, however, the court recognized that Nicaragua had genuine security concerns over passage rights to the river. As such, Costa Ricans traveling through the San Jose River must submit to inspection as Nicaraguan security posts on the river.

Costa Rica ended diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 2007.

They did so as part of acknowledging China’s One China Policy. This regards Taiwan as a rogue province with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the only legitimate Chinese government. China considers this policy a non-negotiable prerequisite for trade and diplomacy with other countries.

It did, however, cause concern for the USA, over the damage caused to Taiwan’s international relations as well as increased Chinese influence in the Western Hemisphere. Analysts, in particular, saw Costa Rica’s decision to switch support from Taiwan to the PRC as motivated by Chinese economic incentives.

Costa Rican President Oscar Sanchez later admitted this as true, with Chinese investment soon backing Costa Rican infrastructure projects. Those projects include a new, state-of-the-art sports complex, the National Stadium of Costa Rica, which cost $100 million to build.

Agriculture remains a large part of the Costa Rican economy.

In fact, agriculture remains the foundation of the Costa Rican economy, with a continued focus on cash crops. However, coffee has since declined as Costa Rica’s main agricultural export, providing only an estimated 2.5% of the country’s exports. Instead, bananas have become Costa Rica’s main agricultural export, averaging an estimated 2.37 million tons per year.

Fresh bananas after harvest in Costa Rica
Image from Adobe Stock

Pineapples follow closely, at 1.87 million tons per year. This is followed by milk and other dairy products, at 917,000 tons per year. Other major agricultural exports include corn, palm oil, rice, and sugar. Ironically, despite the agricultural sector’s importance to the country’s economy, it only employs an estimated 12.9% of the country’s workforce.

Agriculture has varying effects on the country’s biodiversity.

The use of modern farming methods such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has caused chemical contamination of Costa Rica’s land and water. It also devastated the local insect population and also increased the risk of fungal infestations, as well as pesticide-resistant pests. Ironically, this causes a loop wherein the solutions to the problems caused involve the increased use of synthetic fungicides and pesticides.

On the other hand, however, the clearing of forested areas to open up new farmland has surprisingly increased the survival rate of certain animals. For instance, the Fer de Lance, Costa Rica’s most venomous snake, had a pre-modern survival rate of 2%. Agricultural development has made it easier for them to hunt their prey, with their current survival rate now at 65%.

Costa Rica also has one of the biggest tourism industries in Central America.

In fact, the tourist industry contributes on average around $1.92 billion per year to Costa Rica’s economy. An estimated 2.68 million tourists visit the country every year, making Costa Rica the most visited nation in Central America.

Tourism started small in Costa Rica, with only an estimated 329,000 people visiting the country in 1988. However, that number rose to over 1 million by 1999 and over 2.6 million by 2015. Analysts have even noticed that tourism has caused poverty levels in Costa Rica to drop by an estimated 3%. Tourism even competes with agriculture as the foundation of the country’s economy. While the agricultural sector enjoys greater stability, tourism makes up a bigger part of Costa Rica’s GDP, at 12.5% compared to agriculture’s 6.5%.

It also has a reputation as a world pioneer in ecotourism.

Costa Rica first began advertising its rich biodiversity to attract tourists in the 1980s. In particular, they advertised their national park system as a way for tourists to see wild animals in their natural habitats with minimal cost to the environment.

By 2006, official statistics pointed to 54% of Costa Rica’s tourists visiting the country specifically to visit its national parks and other protected areas. The Costa Rican government has launched various programs to further advertise its ecotourism attractions. These include the Bandera Azul program, which promotes beaches with clean sands and water. The program also incentivizes owners and developers to maintain ecological standards by including provisions for withdrawal of promotion should water and soil quality drop below a certain level.

The country also has one of the greenest energy industries in the world.

In fact, green energy supplies 98% of Costa Rica’s energy needs. Fossil fuel consumption largely comes as the result of vehicle use. The country’s mountainous terrain has particularly contributed to this, giving Costa Rica plenty of flowing water with hydroelectric potential. Hydroelectric power actually accounts for 80% of Costa Rica’s green energy. Geothermal, solar, and wind power make up the remainder.

And while Costa Rica still has around 2% of the energy grid that need to use fossil fuels, this actually only results from necessity. These include emergency power supplies or energy for places with limited infrastructure. In fact, in 2017, an unusually-wet rainy season provided enough water that the country’s hydroelectric power plants actually provided 100% of Costa Rica’s energy needs for 75 days straight.

The Camino de Costa Rica stands as the country’s most famous hiking trail.

The trail runs for 280 km across the country, starting on the Atlantic Ocean before going through Tortuguero National Park up and up into the mountains. From there, the trail passes through the Barbilla National Park, past the Turrialba and Irazu Volcanoes, before descending to the Pacific Ocean.

Facts About Costa Rica, Camino de Costa Rica
Photo from Wikipedia

The government established the trail in 2018. It did so as part of a program to revive the stagnant rural economy in the surrounding regions. In particular, before the trail’s establishment, local poverty had risen by 25%. Incomes had also dropped by 40%, and rural flight to the cities had risen to 40%. Within a year of the trail’s establishment, incomes had risen by 30%, with growth steadily continuing over the following years.

Costa Rica has its own list of Seven Natural Wonders.

We’ve even mentioned one of them already, Cerro Chirripo, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. It’s actually third on the list, with the first place going to Cocos Island in the Pacific Ocean. It even became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The number two spot goes to the Arenal Volcano, which became famous for a long-duration eruption from 1968 to 2010.

In fourth place, Costa Rica has the Celeste River, famous for its vivid turquoise color. The natural Tortuguero Canals follow in fifth place, linking the many water bodies of the Tortuguero Conservation Area together. Another volcano takes sixth place, Poas Volcano, which has erupted 40 times since 1868. This, in turn, limits tourist access to a scientific observation station, which requires reservations. Unsurprisingly, this has only served to further encourage visits to Poas Volcano.

Finally, we have the Monteverde Reserve, a protected cloud forest featuring seven different ecological zones. The reserve features particularly in Costa Rica’s ecotourism programs, with an estimated 70,000 tourists visiting every year.

The Costa Rican tourist industry today faces a major challenge in the sex trade.

Technically, prostitution isn’t illegal in Costa Rica, just heavily-regulated, evident with sex workers receiving special protections in the country’s healthcare system. That said, problems have arisen in the form of widespread child prostitution, which has caused international criticism. While Costa Rican law considers it illegal, enforcement of the law has proven spotty at best.

This ties in with sex trafficking, involving poor women from neighboring countries getting forced to work as sex workers in Costa Rica. The sex trade has also caused the spread of HIV across the country, which is a major concern for the government. Other issues also include discrimination and even violence against sex workers, especially trans-gender ones.

The export sector also has a massive presence in the Costa Rican economy.

Outside of agricultural goods, Costa Rica also produces various commodities for export. These include medical equipment, with the country producing an estimated $2 billion worth of medical equipment per year. Various major electronic firms also have factories in the country, including the Intel Corporation.

In fact, Costa Rica produces an estimated $841 million worth of electronic circuitry alone per year. Intel products alone account for 20% of Costa Rica’s total exports or 4.9% of the country’s GDP. Other companies have similarly invested in the country, such as Abbott Laboratories, Amazon, and Procter & Gamble. All these companies have invested on the condition that exports must account for 50% of their services.

Costa Rica’s infrastructure has a mixed reputation.

On one hand, Costa Rica has a solid transportation network, with an estimated 30,000 km of road linking its Pacific and Atlantic coasts together. The country’s road network also ties into those of its neighbors, Nicaragua and Panama. Costa Rica similarly has an expansive railroad network, as well as several major ports and airports.

On the other hand, much of its infrastructure suffers from poor maintenance. In 2016, the U.S. government noted that Costa Rica’s infrastructure needs modernization. The OECD added its criticism that year, noting that Costa Rica has insufficient public transportation systems, particularly its railway services. Costa Rican President Luis Solis acknowledged these criticisms in 2017. He expressed that it would take billions of dollars to modernize and expand Costa Rica’s infrastructure.

Facts About Costa Rica, Liberia International Airport
Photo from Wikipedia

The capital of San Jose also doubles as Costa Rica’s biggest city.

The city proper only has an estimated population of 300,000 people, while the Greater Metropolitan Area it’s part of has an estimated population of 2 million people. This accounts for nearly half of Costa Rica’s total population.

As Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose enjoys a high standard of living, as well as the best public services in the country. It also has the reputation of being one of Central America’s safest cities, as well as the most visited city in Central America. The city also doubles as a tourist destination, with sites to see including the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, the National Theater of Costa Rica, and La Sabana Metropolitan Park.

The city goes back to the early 18th century.

Both native and European settlements had dotted the surrounding Aserri Valley long before the city’s founding. In fact, the city’s founding resulted from the colonial authorities’ decision in 1736 to merge these settlements.

As part of the urban program, work began on building a new church to serve as the center of the new city. Church authorities chose Saint Joseph of Nazareth as the church’s patron, with the new city taking the saint’s Spanish name as its own.

Ironically, San Jose would not officially become a city until 1813. Even then, King Ferdinand VII revoked this status in 1814. San Jose regained city status in 1820, making it one of the youngest cities in Latin America.

Costa Rica has a diverse religious background.

Surprisingly, Roman Catholics only make up a small majority of Costa Rica’s population, at 52%. The various Protestant denominations make up the biggest minority religion in Costa Rica, making up 25% of the population.

A similarly surprisingly large minority of people in Costa Rica identify themselves as irreligious, at 17% of the population. This makes Costa Rica stand out in the very religious region of Latin America.

Immigration from Asia has also increased the number of Buddhists in the country, currently estimated at around 2% of the population. Other minor religions in Costa Rica include Islam and Judaism, both of which make up less than 1% of the population.

The country has a unique cuisine.

Critics have described Costa Rican cuisine as mild and with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Staples include rice and black beans, resulting from Spanish influence on the local food culture. Potatoes also feature as a staple, as part of the traditionally starch-rich Costa Rican diet.

Corn remains an ingredient in many Costa Rican dishes, as the original pre-colonial staple. Tamale, in particular, remains a traditional dish served on holidays such as Christmas, dating back to the Aztec Empire. Deer and turkey remain common meats served in traditional Costa Rican recipes, seasoned with pumpkin seeds, sweet peppers, and tomatoes. Afro-Caribbean culture has also influenced Costa Rican cuisine, with dishes like pork cracklings and a soup called mondongo.

Costa Rica has a place in sports history.

Costa Rica first participated in the Olympic Games in 1936, with the sisters Silvia and Claudia Poll becoming their most famous athletes in 1996. The Poll sisters won Costa Rica four medals in swimming between the two of them, one gold, one silver, and two bronze.

Facts About Costa Rica, Sylvia Poll
Photo from Wikipedia

Outside of the Olympic Games, Costa Rica regularly participates in the FIFA World Cup, with football as the most popular sport in the country. Costa Rica even reached the semi-finals for the first time in 2014. It would also have hosted the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2020. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the global COVID-19 Pandemic forced the games’ postponement to 2021.

The country has one of the best healthcare systems in the world.

In fact, Costa Rica ranks higher than the USA when it comes to its national healthcare system. An estimated 82% of Costa Ricans enjoy socialized health insurance, with the government funding an estimated 70% of the country’s health sector.

Costa Ricans enjoy an average lifespan of 79 years, with a national immunization rate of 91%. This actually gives them the second-highest life expectancy in the Americas, again above even the USA. Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula even has the designation of a Blue Zone, given only to places where people aged over 100 still actively live. All children below the age of one have access to dedicated baby clinics. This, in turn, has resulted in a low infant mortality rate of 5 for every 1,000 infants.