Saturday, August 10, 2013


It’s the country with no army. And one of the greenest countries. And one of the happiest places in the world. Literally meaning “rich coast,” Costa Rica lies in Central America, between Panama and Nicaragua, touching both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  As part of the Ring of Fire, Costa Rica is home to several volcanoes (some are still active), the highest being Irazú Volcano. Its tropical climate is partly the cause of it being one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world.

It’s not exactly sure who gave Costa Rica its name, whether it was Christopher Columbus or other Spanish conquistadors who landed later. It was mostly controlled under the Guatemalan province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (what is now Mexico). And then it was part of the Viceroyalty of New Grenada (what is now Colombia) for a while. The country pretty much lacked all of the things the Spanish were looking for – namely silver and gold – so they in turn pretty much left it alone. It was generally thought to be one of the poorest areas in all of Spanish-run America. When Spain lost the Mexican War for Independence, things started changing quickly. Costa Rica changed occupiers several times before gaining its own independence in 1847. In 1948, a dispute regarding an election led to a 44-day civil war, which led to the deaths of nearly 2000 people. The next year, the entire army was abolished. Since then, the country has enjoyed relatively peaceful times.  In fact, last year, they even abolished recreational hunting. (The US South has probably crossed them off of their vacation destinations. – I’m joking, for crying out loud. Although it’s probably truer than not.)

The Central Valley is home to Costa Rica’s largest city and capital, San José. The metro area has about 2.1 million people – about the same size as Houston, Texas. Most people live in the suburbs and work in the city, but even at that, it’s one of the safest cities in that region. It’s quite the center for cultural arts: home to several colleges and universities, theatres, museums, parks, zoos, as well as stadiums and sports arenas and of course, the center of government.

Because it was originally claimed under Spanish rule, the most widely spoken language is Spanish.  However, two of the more commonly spoken indigenous languages – Mekatelyu and Bribri – are also recognized as regional languages. Mekatelyu is actually a Jamaican Creole that was brought to Costa Rica by Jamaicans who moved to the area as migrant workers. It is actually a transliteration of the phrase “make I tell you,” which is loosely “translated” as “let me tell you” in standard English. Bribri is the language spoken by the Bribri people native to Costa Rica. Unfortunately, there are only about 11,000 speakers left. English is also learned in school because of its importance as a global lingua franca and tourism and is understood by many Costa Ricans.

Like most countries in Central and South America, Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, followed by Protestantism (which together make up about 84% of the population). However, the growing number of other ideologies that are practiced freely in Costa Rica seems to rise. About 11% of people consider themselves irreligious, not having any particular feeling towards any one religion at all; about 2% practice Buddhism, and the bottom 2% follow a variety of other ideologies, religions, and philosophies.

Costa Rica is a developing country, just recently opening its doors to global companies like GlaxoSmithKlein, Intel, and Proctor & Gambel. It also is famous for its coffee beans, most notably the Costa Rica Tarrazú beans. I have some of this right now. It’s a little more bright-flavored than others, usually a medium-dark coffee. I really like it. Costa Rica has also grown to be a popular destination for ecotourism, tours set up specifically surrounding its flora and fauna.

This is one country that has a lot to boast about. It has one of the lowest death rates in the world. About 97% of the country has access to clean water, and 95% has adequate sanitation, which helps in lowering the risk of infectious disease to an intermediate level. Because it’s a tropical country, certain diseases such as dengue fever and bacterial diarrhea are still found though.  The AIDS rate is also fairly low. Since the country enacted it’s own version of Social Security in 1941, it also granted its wage-earners universal health care. (However, waiting lists tend to be long to see certain specialists and so on, so people can choose their own private health insurance to avoid these waits.) 

I know a couple of people who have been to Costa Rica (one of whom has told me the beer Imperial is the best!), and from this preliminary reading, I’m completely intrigued.  I think I’d be happy there. (Only three more decades until retirement!) Well, for one, I’m always a little happy with a country that votes for a woman as president (we’re still waiting for one, maybe in a couple of years, perhaps?).  Costa Rica’s president is Laura Chinchilla (who happens to have the same birthday as my late father-in-law). She got her masters degree from Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), and her husband is actually Spanish-Canadian.  It really is a small world. There are a lot of things that Costa Rica is doing well, and I’m really excited to delve into its culture this week, and of course end with some salivatingly delectable food. (Side note: I came across an article from NBC Nightly News dated a couple years ago reporting a study that said people don’t salivate at the thought of good food. I don’t know. I just looked at my recipes, and I just did. So, there.)
This one's for you, Beth. 

Up next: holidays and celebrations

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