Costa Rica has always remained ahead of the curve when compared to other developing nations moving the country forwards with the time. They have lacked the war and devastation that has plagued other Central American countries and caused them to fall behind the development of the western world.
Although Costa Rica was colonized by the Spaniards in the 16th century, they were not subject to as much exploitation as other colonial countries like Mexico and Peru where vast amounts of silver and gold were available making them more desirable to the Spanish Conquistadores. There was more or less a lack of “exploitable” resources in Costa Rica, leaving “colonialism” to those who were willing to work hard and brave the challenging terrain, resulting in a more humble existence.
Throughout the centuries, Costa Ricans have lived with little civil uproar, and when civil unrest has been present, it has ended in a progressive manner, and the government has mostly complied with the demands of the people. Peace is a big part of the country’s ideology, and now with the awareness of global warming and the mass devastation of natural resources around the world, Costa Rica has become a leader in conservation and is actively preserving 27% of its extremely diverse rainforests and other primary and secondary growth forests.
As history has shown us, government systems in Costa Rica have more often been on the liberal side of the scale, with communist ideas of nationalizing public services, and socialistic practises such as national healthcare being of high value to the people. They have worked to build a country where socially run enterprises benefit the population and the average Costa Rican. The most revolutionary act performed by the government was the abolishment of the army in 1949 in the New Constitution of the Second Republic. By eliminating the cost needed to sustain military forces, there has been more funding available for developing business and improving public healthcare (90.4% of Costa Ricans receive public health care coverage) as well as for creating good quality education systems.
As a result of government spending being used for social causes, Costa Ricans have received the advantage of higher education and today they have a literacy rate of 94.7%! With 6147 educational institutes located within the country, there is opportunity for most Costa Ricans to be formally educated making the work force here highly suitable for business. Costa Rica's labour force has been rated as the most productive and fast learning in Latin America by AACCLA (Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America). The government has also implemented laws to protect citizens from being taken advantage of by foreign investors, as it occurred in many other tropical destination countries. Foreign residents who own businesses in Costa Rica must hire local citizens to fill the required work force. This has helped Costa Ricans grow along with the development of their country creating an impressive group of professionals and doctors, a strong class of blue collar workers, and skilled trade’s men.
The challenge that Costa Ricans are facing now is the rapid globalization of industries. There are higher demands for the population to conform to the free-market economy of progressive nations and this is creating a split in ideology amongst the people. Those who wish to stay true to the Liberación and social structures that have allowed the average Costa Rican to enjoy a relatively good standard of living, and those who are being possessed by the proposition of a “Freed Trade Agreement” as laid out by the United States in efforts to create a private sector for business.
The national religion is Catholicism as determined by the constitution of 1949. About 76% of the population is Roman Catholic even if they are not devout. The majority are followers that attend church about as regularly as the majority of North American followers, which is limited to special holidays like Christmas and Easter. Protestant missionaries came in 1891 and tried to invade the predominant catholic sector. They built churches and today many are actively practising, however, only about 0.7% of the population was “evangelized” and remains loyal to the Protestant Christian faith.
Every town in Costa Rica has a Catholic church built in the centre of town facing east overlooking the town park or, most often, soccer field. To the east of this is normally the town school. You will notice that a large number of communities are named after a patron saint. San José, for example is Saint Joseph. San Isidro and Santa Ana are other example of this occurrence. You will find ceremonies in most of these locations once a year to honour the Saint of the area.
• March 19 is the day of San José in all towns and neighbourhoods with that name.
• August 30th is San Ramon Day.
• May 15th is San Isidro Labrador’s Day. He is the saint of farmers and farm animals. Blessings are given for prosperity of crops and livestock.
• August 2nd sees Costa Rica’s Patron Saint La Negrita honoured with a pilgrimage to the Basilica in Cartago.
• Virgin of the Sea is a special celebration in Puntarenas for their Patron Saint the Virgin of Mt. Carmel. It is the Saturday closest to July 16. They have regattas with colourfully decorated fishing boats and yachts racing through the Gulf of Nicoya. Sports events are unique addition to the concerts and dances they hold along with fireworks.
• The week of January 15 is a time when the Black Christ of Esqiopulas is honoured in both Alajuelita and Santa Cruz. Alajuelita celebrates with an oxcart parade in procession as they walk to a huge illuminated cross on the mountain side. Santa Cruz chooses folk dancing and marimbas.
• In December the Virgin of Guadalupe is honoured with Indian rituals in Nicoya, and with traditional flutes and drums by the Indians of the Boruca region.
• A special pilgrimage to Ujarrás takes place in mid March, just in time for the religious practise of Lent. A religious procession moves from Cartago to the ruins of Costa Rica’s first church. Then during Holy Week, the week before Easter, from Thurs (Holy Thurs) to Sun (Easter Sunday) the whole city of San José is almost completely shut down. They have elaborate parades and demonstrations depicting the stages of the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Costa Rica has not been on the creative side of music however they have adopted a liking to almost all kinds of music from many nations world wide. A large Mexican influence in the mid 20th century brought this classic musical genre into the country. Cumbia is one of the countrie’s favourites. A music and dance originating from Africans and Amerindians in Columbia, it is very commonly heard at Costa Rican festivals.
Traditional Latin music like Salsa, Meringue, and Bachata are also very popular, especially among older crowds. Younger generations are seemingly more interested in Reggaeton which combines Latino rhythms with Jamaican Reggae and dancehall. The youth within Latin America have come to enjoy this new genre as a characteristic solely of their generation. The Afro-Caribbean influence is very common on the east side of the country where the Afrocostarricense population is predominant. Here you will regularly hear Soca, Rumba, Reggae, and Calypso.
The modern world of Rock is not left out of today’s musical influences. Hard Rock, alternative, and metal are in style with the younger generations of Costa Rica. The presence of North American television stations allows Costa Ricans to view MTV music videos and this has brought a slight influence of pop culture into the country as well.
The earlier influences of pre-Columbian cultures can be found in traditional folk music. The Ocarina is an ancient instrument dating back about 12,000 years. It has shown great historical influence in China and Mesoamerica. The Mayans and the Aztecs had their own version of this oval shaped, flute-like instrument consisting of four to twelve finger holes for producing different notes. This instrument along with ceremonial songs and rare musical scales were passed down from these ancient ancestors.
The marimba is another musical instrument traditionally played by the Costa Rican people. It is a member of the percussion family. It has a series of wooden keys of different sizes that are struck with mallets to produce the different notes. Large marimbas are played by 3 people at one time in order to carry different rhythms, with base, and melody being played together. You will come across this beautiful instrument at some local festivals still today.
To honour the few remaining traditional artisans as well as the new, up and coming artists of the country, the Culture Ministry and the San José Municipality organizes a National Artisan Fair. The finest works in the country are displayed here. Smaller fairs are sometimes held in other parts of the country too. There is also an International Arts Festival in the Central Valley in the second week of March. Here there are international art exhibits with performances in theatre, dance, and music.
Cattle farming is a major industry in Costa Rica and with this comes the standard rituals associated with every ranch and ranger, rodeos or Topes. Tope's (Rodeos) are very common in the Guanacaste region where the largest cattle farms in the country are located. Almost every small town host Rodeos in the summer months between February and April. Among the events are, the always popular Bull Riding Shows, bootless bull fighting, calf-roping, horse manoeuvring, and herding and milking competitions. Here is where you will meet true Sabaneros (cowboys). You may also encounter Cimarrona bands, which are traditional country bands. There is a big rodeo in San José in March with cattle shows, bullfights, and horse races. Also, a Cattle exhibit is held in February in San Isidro de El General. This is mainly an agricultural fair and show with a little bull teasing added for some live entertainment.
Some major festivals you may want to check out are listed here:
Fiesta de Palmares is in early January. This is a carnival complete with rides, bingo, concerts, and parades. These are the largest fiestas in the country and are considered the national fiestas of Costa Rica.
A Full Moon festival is held at Playa Cocalito on the Peninsula de Osa in January with food, art, and cultural activities
The Puntarenas Carnival in the last week of February
The Sun Festival is held the last week in February to promote the use of solar powered energy. There are talks about solar power, exhibits of solar energy devices, and food cooked in a solar powered oven! They also take this opportunity to celebrate the Maya New Year, February 25, with a fire ceremony.
In the last week of February Liberia hosts the grandest festival in Guanacaste
There is a Music Festival in Monteverde with activities running through February and March
Fiesta of the Diablos is a festival of history. Held in the Boruca Indian Village of Rey Curré, it depicts the fight between the Indians and the Spanish with colourful wooden masks and costumes amid flute and drum music. They sell local made crafts and in the evening there is dancing and fireworks!
Dia del Boyero (Oxcart Drivers Day) is the second Sunday in March in San Antonio de Escazú. The Oxcart (carreta) is a symbol of Costa Rican culture and history. They were constructed to transport coffee beans from the Central Valley and highlands to Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast. The wheels were developed to carry the beans over muddy terrain for periods of up to 15 days. They combined the traditional Aztec disc wheel with engineering concepts of the spoke wheel brought over by the Spanish. The elaborate designs that you see painted on the oxcarts were originally specific to each area and this was a way to distinguish the origin of a farmer and his cart. Oxcarts are found in many parades and celebrations all over the country throughout the year. At this particular festival local priests perform special blessings of livestock and crops.
A Caribbean Music Festival is held throughout March and April at Playa Chiquita, just south of Puerto Viejo de Limon
April 11th is Juan Santamarίa Day, a celebration of the countries hero. A young farmer who sacrificed his life for the freedom of the Costa Rican people. In the 1800’s William Walker, a completely arrogant American filibuster (Dutch for Pirate), decided to try and enslave the people of Central America. In the battle for Rivas in 1856, Juan ran straight into shooting range of the enemy with a torch and, before he died, inflamed a building within which William’s troops were hiding. He is a martyr for Costa Rican unity and national identity. “For the redemption of our brethren from the most iniquitous tyranny” (Statement by President Juan Rafael Mora 1856). Celebrations go for a week with bands, dancing, parades and concerts. Often times you will see people re-enacting his bravery by carrying torches.
July 25th is Guanacaste Day which is a celebration of Guanacaste’s annexation with Costa Rica in 1824. They have special folk dances, cattle shows, and the nation’s favourite, bull teasing.
They celebrate Mother’s and Father’s day in Costa Rica. Father’s Day is the third Sunday in June while Mother’s Day is on August 15th.
Semana Cultural Afrocostarricense is a week long cultural celebration for Afro-Costa Ricans in August. There are group discussions and debates along with exhibits about Afro culture.
Independence Day is the 15th of September. This is to celebrate the independence of all of Central America from the colonial empire of Spain. The Freedom Torch is carried all the way from Guatemala to Costa Rica to the colonial capital, Cartago. Children make paper lanterns to illuminate the streets during a nocturnal parade and the National Anthem is sung with pride.
Limón Carnival is a week filled with street dancers, parades, and reggae concerts. A definite “Caribbean Beat” is felt here in this Afro-influenced area of the country. It is held in the second week of October.
October 13 is Fiesta del Maiz, the Festival of Corn. Here they make costumes entirely out of the husks, grains, and silks of corn.
Day of the Dead is on November 2nd here in Costa Rica. It is used more for visiting the graves of friends and relatives, rather than a ploy for costumes and candy.
December sees the influx of many celebrations in preparation for Christmas and the New Year just like in many western nations. San José is lit up by decorative lights, families design complex nativity scenes and a competition is on through to the 22nd for the best display. Festive foods include coconut melcochas (candy), chichi (corn liquor), tamales (boiled corn dough stuffed with varieties of meat and veg), rompope (eggnog), and in place of Turkey and mashed potatoes, the Costa Ricans make a large helping of Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken).
New Years starts to be commemorated by the Festejos Populares on Dec.26 at Zapote, an amusement park and fair grounds in San José. There is a huge parade in Downtown complete with decorated floats and lots of music. New Years Day is a community wide fiesta. People who live near one another and, like in most communities, have grown up together, have open door policies and friends walk in and out of each others homes and join in all the parties!
Generally Costa Rican food is basic but also healthy and very tasty. Rice and beans are staple ingredients in almost all meals and remain the preferred sustainance even in afluent areas where more expensive products could be used.
For breakfast they make the famous gallo pinto. Gallo means rooster but it is not included here. Gallo is the term used to describe the mini wraps that Costa Ricans make using little corn tortillas. This plate includes black beans fried with rice and sometimes onions and other spices. Eggs come however you would like (remember the terms huevos fritos (fried eggs) and huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs). Next you have fried plantains (platanos) which are super sweet. They should be fried just before the fruit spoils, when the most amount of sugar has developed then they are soft and delicious! Sour cream is popularly added to the meal which tastes great when mixed with the rice and beans. Finally, two corn tortillas are placed on top for you to make your own, creative gallo pintos. Other breakfast dishes you’re likely to find are scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, an assorted fruit plate, pancakes, and a typical American breakfast with eggs, bacon, toast and jam.
For most other meals they cook the beans separately from the rice and combine it on a plate with chicken, beef, pork, or fish. Mashed potatoes are often included, along with beats or squash or another cooked vegetable and/or salad. Add few more fried plantains and you have yourself the traditional Costa Rican Casado. Other frequent meals are Arroz con Pollo (chicken with rice, it’s like the national dish, not literally), Arroz con carne (beef) and Arroz Cantones. The last one is like Cantonese fried rice with egg, chicken, sausage and other ingredients individual to each chef’s especial. Fried chicken is served in almost any town and it is tasty. Also worth a try are the empanadas which are a folded pocket of corn meal stuffed with chicken or potato or cheese.
Bocas are appetizers that used to come complimentary in many bars, however, today they regularly charge for them. Ceviche is a much-loved dish on the Pacific coast of most Latin countries and very common in all of Costa Rica. Originating in Peru, it consists of fresh fish that has been marinated in lime juice (or other citrus), with onions, herbs, and spices. The acids in the lime cause the proteins in the fish to become denatured. This is like a pickling process, and basically the fish gets cooked without heat. It is served with tortilla chips for dipping and it is literally mouth watering. Nachos can be found in some restaurants, but it’s not like in Mexico where they eat chips and salsa religiously.
You can find international cuisine in some places, and the quality can be quite satisfactory. Just be careful that you are not being over charged which is common in nicer looking restaurants.
In Costa Rica they love rich desserts which are very sweet and creamy. The most popular and traditional dessert is the three milk cake (tres leches). It is a spongy cake that they soak in evaporatd milk, condensed milk, and cream, yummy!
The most readily available drink is fruit juice as refreshing tropical fruits are abundant in Costa Rica. Ask for “una bebida naturales”, a natural fruit drink. A wide variety is usually available. Some examples are pineapple (Pina), blackberry (mora), sour guava, a native fruit of Costa Rica (cas), watermelon (sandia), melon (melón), papaya, mango, and fruit punch (frutas mixtas). The term Batido is like “smoothie” and they will ask if you prefer it with water or milk (con leche o agua). A tasty traditional drink called Horchata is made from cornmeal and cinnamon, and it’s yummy. An interesting drink that is also popular is the chan seed drink. This seed, when soaked in water, produces a mucous like film and provides your body with linoleic acid, a very healthy omega-6 fatty acid. There is one thing for sure in Costa Rica; your thirst will be sufficiently quenched!
Costa Rica has one major brewery named Cerveceria de Costa Rica which, unfortunately, is now a conglomerate of Florida Ice and Farm Company. Eight different beers are brewed there. Imperial is the most popular. It is similar to an American Pilsner. The company has been brewing this all-natural beer since 1924 and has now started distributing it in the US, Austrailia, and Gran Cayman. Pilsen comes in second place. It is a bit lighter in colour and body and has less hops character. Another popular beer is Bavaria (also my beer of choice). It comes in light, gold, and dark. This is not to be confused with the Bavaria from Holland. Rock Ice , Rock Ice con limón (lime juice), and Heineken are the other three.