Mystery shrouds pre-Columbian Costa Rica: few archaeological monuments and no proof of a written language have ever been discovered. Recorded history tends to begin with Christopher Columbus, who stayed for 17 days in 1502, and was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, 'the rich coast'. Despite the lure of untold wealth, colonisation was slow to take hold and it took nearly 60 years for the Spanish settlers to make a dent in the tangled jungle. Once the process had started, however, Costa Rica, like its similarly colonised neighbours, suffered the effects of European invasion. The indigenous population did not have the necessary numbers to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases.
The hoped-for hoards of gold never materialised and Costa Rica remained a forgotten backwater for many years. The 18th century saw the establishment of settlements such as Heredia, San José and Alajuela but it was not until the introduction of coffee in 1808 that the country registered on the radars of the 19th-century white-shoe brigade and frontier entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. Coffee brought wealth, a class structure, a more outward-looking perspective, and most importantly independence.
A bizarre turn of events in 1856 provided one of the first important landmarks in the nation's history and served to unify the people. During the term of coffee-grower-turned-president Juan Rafael Mora, a period remembered for the country's economic and cultural growth, Costa Rica was invaded by US military adventurer William Walker and his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized an army of 9000 civilians that, against all odds, succeeded in forcing Walker & Co to flee.
The ensuing years of the 19th century saw power struggles among members of the coffee-growing elite and the institution of the first democratic elections, which have since been a hallmark of Costa Rican politics. Civil war, however, did raise its ugly head in the 1940s when ex-president Calderón and his successor, Picado, lined up against the recent ballot-winner Ulate (whose election win was not recognised by Picado's government) and José Figueres. After several weeks of warfare Figueres emerged victorious, formed an interim government and handed the presidency to Ulate.
The constitution of 1949 finally gave women and blacks the vote and, controversially, dismantled the country's armed forces - giving Costa Rica the sobriquet of 'the only country which doesn't have an army'. President Oscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his attempts to spread Costa Rica's example of peace to the rest of Central America. The peace has, in recent years, been disturbed by upheavals of a different kind. In July 1996, Hurricane César resulted in several dozen deaths and the cutting off of much of southern Costa Rica from the rest of the country. The Interamericana highway was closed for about two months and the overall damage was estimated at about 100000000.00. The ill-famed Hurricane Mitch of November 1998 caused substantial damage to Costa Rica, but the most catastrophic events occurred in the countries to the north, especially Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In February 1998 the Social Christian Unity Party's Miguel Angel Rodríguez won the presidency with almost exactly 50% of the vote. A conservative businessman who made the economy his priority, he went on to privatise state companies and encourage foreign investments in an effort to create jobs.
By the time the February 2002 elections rolled around, however, Ticos (a term locals use to refer to themselves) were mumbling about a lack of government transparency and shady deals between political mates. These grass-roots misgivings resulted in a 'no win' election, and pollsters returned to the ballot box in April 2002. Rodríguez's successor, Abel Pacheco of the conservative Social Christian Unity Party, was elected to step up to the president's ring.
Pacheco began his term promising to eliminate the public debt within four years. He launched a conservationist platform banning new oil drilling and mining and proposed legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to a healthy environment. It didn't take long before the sheen paled. A campaign finance scandal clouded his presidency, leading some opponents to demand his resignation, and it became unclear if he could weather this storm through to the end of his term in 2006.
By some estimates, more than 75% of Costa Ricans are Roman Catholics and 14% are evangelical Christians. In practice, most church attendance takes place at christenings, funerals and marriages. Blacks on the Caribbean coast tend to be Protestant, and there is a sprinkling of other denominations in San José, including a small Jewish community. Spanish is the official language, though English is understood in touristed areas. Many Caribbean blacks speak a lively dialect of English, known as Creole. Indigenous languages are spoken in isolated areas, primarily Bribrí, which is estimated to be understood by about 10,000 people.
No one goes to Costa Rica for the cuisine. Although traditional dishes run to the South American staples of beef, chicken and fish dishes, with rice, corn or beans and fresh fruit as supplements, most of this fare has given way to the ubiquitous pizza and burger option. And even these can only be included in 'cuisine' by stretching the definition to its breaking point. Also be warned that Ticos love to spice up European dishes with salt - lots of it. We're talking lip-puckering, instant-dehydrating, body-shuddering proportions. On the positive side, their coffee is sublime. Even the coffee that accompanies the limp burger from the fast-food joint is a cut above your average North American cup of coffee.
Some information on the indigenous cultures
The day Columbus landed on what is today called "Isla Uvita", in front of Puerto Limón, more than a quater of a million people and no less than eight different ethnic groups were living in the area.
The northern cultures of Costa Rica (Chorotegas) had great influence from the Aztec and Maya culture, they were the southernmost culture of what is known as Mesoamerica. The Chorotegas spoke the Nahuatl language from the Mayas and Aztecs.
Other ethnic groups like the Boruca, Bribri, Cabecar, Guaymi, Huetar and Guatuso spoke a language that had its roots in the great continent to the south. This language became more complex as the Arawak and Caribe cultures moved into permanent settlements on the Caribbean Coast adding their sounds.
Very few words are left today for the common use, some of these words are: Talamanca (place of blood) this probably for the butchering of turtles on the Caribbean Coast. Poas (Volcano) is a buttery yellow flowers that grows near the volcano's summit.
The Bribris and the Cabecars are the only two cultures that have been able to keep religious myths pure, outside of major influences from social and cultural changes. The very strength of "Sibú", supreme god and creator of their universe is running strong through the minds of all those who call themselves Cabecar / Bribri after five hundred years of change and more than twenty generations of story telling in a world built around a more overpowering religion.
Today, the Chorotega's ceramics, the Bribri's jicaro, the Guaymi's textiles and the Guatuso's stonework are still telling us stories. Today's replicas or reproductions are as genuine as the originals. Lines and colors tell stories, show beliefs, relate myths, and warrant reverence for what's sacred. The only difference is age. Clay, paints, materials, methods of production are identical to those used a thousand years ago.
When you come to Costa Rica, start your visit by touring our museums: Museo Nacional, Museo de Jade y Museo de Oro. These three tours will prepare you to understand our country better in terms of archeological and historical overviews.
The Montagua Valley in Guatemala, is the only site in all the hemisphere where what we know as "jade" is found. This leads us to the unsolved mystery of jade in Costa Rica. Was the raw material mined in Guatemala and sent to the Chorotega and other indigenous craftsmen across northern Costa Rica? Some of the finest pieces in museums today came from Costa Rican archeological sites.
For the Maya and Aztec culture jade had a greater value than gold, and even considered that jade that medicinal powers.
Many of these round stones are within a few degrees of being perfect circles. They are solid with smooth textured surfaces. Without having found a sphere in partial construction or a site where they may have been produced, it's difficult to understand their real purpose.Spheresthe size of cars and weighing more than nine tons have been found across the countryside of southwest Costa Rica. They may have been produced as far back as 200 or 300 A.D., whether they have been created by people during one generation of craftsmen or during a long period of time is hard to define, we only know that the workmanship is obvious but the method of production still remain theoretical.
Guayabo National Monument
Guayabo is the largest and most important archeological site discovered to date in Costa Rica. It is difficult to determine which cultures influenced it the most, some of the buildings point to a South American influence, but Mesoamerican evidence is also present, there is an overlapping of both cultures. Human occupation of the site dates back to 1.000 B.C, the most recent studies reveal that Guayabo reached its peak from 300 to 700 A.D. This is the period when the stone buildings that can be seen today were built.
Most of the gold found in Costa Rica comes from the southwest region. Pieces vary in size and shapes. A great South American influence can be observed, most of the pieces represent animal figures very similar to those of the Chipchas in Colombia, frogs, eagles, and some species of animals that inflict pain on man or dangerous are represented. Also figures of shamans or "sukias" Indian medicine men have been found.
The Gold Museum is a visit you cannot pass up. It will help you understand our indigenous cultures even better.
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