The Americans, comprising two enormous continental land masses linked by a narrow isthmus, were the cradle of various pre-Colombian cultures, some of them surprisingly well-advanced for their time. Most advanced of all were the Toltec and Aztec cultures in the central Mexican region and the Maya culture, which took in the whole of the northern part of Central American isthmus and the south of Mexico.
In the South American region the Inca and Chibcha cultures burgeoned. The former covered modern Peru and Bolivia and the latter, somewhat farther north, coincided with present-day Colombia and it was precisely this Central American bridge which allowed an exchange of elements between these great cultures. Costa Rica, together with Panama, is situated at the southern end of this continental bridge and thus in its remote past derived great benefit from this exchange. Although evidence has not been found to testify to the existence in Costa Rica of culture as highly developed as the ones already mentioned, certain common features, particularly in the Costa Rica pre-Colombian pottery work, have indeed been discovered.
The native population of the Costa Rica of today seems not to have been very numerous, if compared with that of neighboring countries. The main tribes making up that population are as follows – the Huetar or Güetar who lived in the Inter-mountain Central Valley with names of Eastern Güetars and Western Güetars; the Brunka or Bruncas, Cotos and Viceitans in the south-west of the country; the Bri-Bri in Talamanca Cordillera and the Caribbean coast in the south; the Chorotegas in the north and western parts of the country (particularly in the present province of Guanacaste) and the Guatusos in the north plains. There is no evidence that these were warrior tribes and it is likely that they devoted themselves to fishing and hunting and in certain cases to the limited growing of certain vegetables and grains, such as maize (Indian corn), yams and yucca. They wove vegetables fibers which they dyed with equally vegetable dyes, as well as the mucilage of certain species of sea-snail. They used the fruit of the cocoa as currency, even through most of their trading activity was done by barter. Skill in art work (especially true of the Chorotegas) is shown in the fine coloured pottery and stone work, which, on the ceremonial altars, denotes refined art and exquisite execution.
Although Costa Rica does not have any important mineral wealth, the original inhabitants have left behind them elegant artistic pieces in gold and jade, which today can be seen in the country’s museums. In 1502, Christopher Columbus went on his fourth and last voyage to the American continent in search of a route towards the East Indies, towards Cipango and Cathay. Sailing off the coast of what is today Honduras, his fleet was caught in the midst of a terrible storm and he was forced to sail southwards in search of shelter between the coast and the small island. At that point on the coast he found a native village called Cariari and here, on the 18th of September 1502, he disembarked. The lushness of the country and the hospitality of the natives made Christopher Columbus, that great Admiral of the Oceanic Sea, baptize it Costa Rica (Rich Coast), a name which the country has preserved ever since that day. When Central America was conquered by Spain the Captaincy General (province) of Guatemala was created and the latest in the line of conquests, Costa Rica, was incorporated into it. It is perhaps this factor that explains why the conquest of the country was generally peaceful. But even so the leaders Garabito and Coyoche put up such a heroic struggle against the Conquistadores, led by Juan de Cavallón, Juan Vásquez de Coronado and Perafán de Ribera, that latter needed twelve years in order to completely subjugate the country, and it was here where the most arduous and far-reaching conquest began: the conquest of nationhood and a rightful place among the peoples of the world and the concord of nations. The 17th and 18th centuries were witnesses to silent but unflagging struggle for integration into a society with its own identity, a mixture of Indian and Spanish blood, both red and both burning. Together they formed the root and trunk of the free-standing Costa Rican tree which now spreads its branches over all the ethnic communities and cultures of the earth. Since then the democratic character of Costa Rica has gradually taken shape: the poverty of the country, the need to survive and forge ahead in the midst of a situation whose only wealth was that which could be derived from the farming of the land. The difficult beginnings in a region with unconquered and exuberant virgin mountains, because of the enormous difficulties in getting flexible and proper logistic support, whether from other conquered parts or from Spain itself, the settlers of Costa Rica, from the very outset, saw themselves as being destined to forge a single team, where social organization would be subjected to work shared, to the struggle shoulder to shoulder, to equal shares for all. A place where respect was born by means of meritorious acts carried out in full view of all, in communities so small that they were almost family circles. Anyone who was fortunate enough to have access to cultural advances was bound to share them in these small circles where everyone was all ears. Political concern must have been born in the heat of this daily isolation of the new colony, and gradually took shape in the need for a government of its own, partly due to the distance from the administration center which governed them and partly to the lack of adequate means of communication. Thus it was that the coming of emancipation three hundred years after Columbus’ arrival in Costa Rica found a society which was mature for the responsibility of its coming of age as an independent, responsible and sovereign nation. Already the strong democratic root was unmovable anchored in nationhood. These two phenomena had certainly been born and had grown into a single social force, a force which spread as the years went by, and even more strongly during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century when both took their nourishment from progress in the social and political ideas which have fashioned the world of today.
Apart from its brief integration into the Federal Republic of Central America (a passing moment of history rather than a historic event) the country has always marched forward with its own independence. The only time that Costa Rica actually took part in an international war was between 1856 and 1858, on the occasion of the invasion and occupation of Nicaragua by mercenary troops led by William Walker and supported by North America slave states. On this unique occasion, the Costa Rican army, comprising badly armed farmers, struggled against and conquered the invader in a series of glorious battles which ended in the unconditional surrender of those who had tried to subjugate a brother country. This Central American brotherhood has also continued during times of peace and an example of it can be found in the setting up of the Central American Common Market. It should also be mentioned that Costa Rica collaborated in the creation of the Republic of Panama, a country with which it has always been united by strong links of friendship and exemplary cooperation.
The economy and educational system of Costa Rica had it foundations solidly built during the 19th century. The sustained progress provided by the coffee trade gave rise to an oligarchy concerned with culture which in turn gave its support to educational improvements and also firmly supported national values.
The Political Constitution or Great Charter of 1844 had provided a proper framework for the development of the country but concern for social improvement and economic development required a different state of things. And so it was that in 1949 after a very short civil war brought about by ignorance of an election result considered as being extremely important, the nation took advantage of the situation and provided itself with a new constitution, which amongst other things abolished the army as a permanent institution. This great historic event together with abolition of the death penalty a hundred years before by General Tomás Guardia and, lately, the creation of the University of Costa Rica and a tribute to universal peace and brotherhood.
Taken from the book: Todo Costa Rica. Author: Ricardo Vílchez N.