70 Interesting Facts about Costa Rica

By Karin Lehnardt, Senior Writer
Published November 9, 2016
  • From northwest to southwest, Costa Rica measures only 285 miles (460 km) and at its narrowest, it is only 74 miles (120 km) wide. It is smaller than Lake Michigan.[3]
  • In 1539, officials in Panama used the name Costa Rica (Rich Coast) for the first time to distinguish the territory between Panama and Nicaragua.[3]
  • On September 8, 1502, Christopher Columbus became the first European recorded to land in Costa Rica. He took refuge just off the coast between tiny Uvita Island and the current port of Limón.[3]
  • Costa Ricans claim that Dr. Clodomiro “Clorito” Picado discovered the properties of penicillin before Dr. Alexander Fleming, based on a paper Dr. Picado had published in 1927 on how penicillin inhibited the growth of streptococcus in his patients.[11]
  • Costa Rica has a 96% literacy rate. For rural areas where children can’t make it to school, lessons are taught over a national radio station.[11]
  • Native Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos and Ticas.[3]
  • Costa Rican women keep their maiden names
  • Costa Rican women do not take their husbands’ last name when they get married. They keep their maiden name for life along with their mother’s maiden name.[3]
  • In Costa Rica, nearly all Catholic churches face west.[5]
  • Coffee was introduced to Costa Rica from Jamaica in 1779. Called the grano de oro (grain of gold), coffee was Costa Rica’s foremost export for 150 years until tourism surpassed it in 1991. More than 247,104 acres of coffee are planted in Costa Rica, making it the 13th largest coffee exporter in the world.[8]
  • In Costa Rica, a soda is a small, informal restaurant that serves chicken, beans, rice, and salad for US$2 or $3 a plate.[6]
  • Like Eskimos with their 57 words for snow, Costa Ricans have at least a dozen terms for rain—from drizzly pelo de gato (cat hair) to a baldazo or aguacero (downpour) and a temporal (heavy rain falling for several days without letting up during the rainy season). The heavy amounts of rain give Costa Rica more rivers and a higher volume of water for a country of its size than any other nation except for New Zealand.[11]
  • Instead of saying “my other half,” Costa Ricans refer to their significant others as their “media naranja,” or “the other half of the orange.”[6]
  • A common phrase used after a Costa Rican woman has a baby is "Ella dio a luz," meaning literally “She gave light.”[5]
  • Costa Rican currency is officially called the colón, but Costa Ricans often use the word harina (flour) to refer to their money.[6]
  • Costa Rican Catadores, or tasters, decide which coffees to buy and are as important as wine tasters are in France. They train for five years to learn exactly how to slurp the coffee off a spoon onto their taste buds, and they taste it cold—a good coffee should taste just as good cold as hot.[3]
  • Bri Bri is the one indigenous language still spoken in Costa Rica.[7]
  • The name fer-de-lance, means “lance head"
  • Costa Rica's deadliest snake is the ground-dwelling fer-de-lance, a 9.8-foot-long pit viper that accounts for more than 80% of the country's fatal snake bites.[8]
  • Costa Rica is the second largest exporter of bananas in the world after Ecuador.[7]
  • According to Costa Rican legend, the liquid inside the pipa (fresh, green coconut) is pure enough to be used as plasma in an emergency situation.[6]
  • To cut down on high levels of pollution, San José, Costa Rica, car owners are forbidden to drive into the city one day out of the week. The forbidden day corresponds to the last number on their car’s license plate.[3]
  • In Costa Rica, a discoteca is a nightclub, and a nightclub is actually a strip club.[11]
  • In Costa Rica, speed bumps are called son muertos, or dead persons.[5]
  • Costa Rica's Escazú is famous for witchcraft where, historically, people took to mountain caves to secretly practice their religious and magical rituals. Despite being a rich suburb of San José, brujas (witches) can still be found, offering readings of tarot cards and a whole range of “other services.”[11]
  • The annual Carrera de Campo Traviesa Al Cerro Chirripó is a race to the top of Costa Rica’s highest mountain and back. To date, the record time is 3 hours, 15 minutes, and 3 seconds.[5]
  • Guaro, moonshine rum made from distilled sugar cane, is Costa Rica’s indigenous spirit. Cacique is the best brand of guaro, and most people mix guaro with Coca-Cola or Sprite.[10]
  • It is believed that Costa Rica was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Treasure Island
  • Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island is thought to be modeled on Costa Rica's Isla del Coco. Many famous pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, Captain Edward Davis, William Dampier, and Mary Welch visited the Costa Rican island. Allegedly, they left troves of buried loot, although treasure hunters over the centuries have failed to discover more than a smattering of the purported bounty.[5]
  • In the 1970s and 80s, American Danny Fowler used the beach town of Pavones, Costa Rica, as his base of operations for running drugs from South America to California. As a reward for his employees, Fowler built a saw mill with wood for new homes, built roads, and even added an airstrip. He was eventually busted by Mexican officials and sentenced to prison, including serving a sentence in California's federal prison.[10]
  • Costa Rica's nation flower is orchids. Orchids were named by Dioscorides, a Greek physician who, noting the similarity of the tubers of one species he was examining to male genitals, dubbed the species orchis.[9]
  • Óscar Arias Sánchez, the president of Costa Rica from 1986–1990 and again from 2006–2010, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his work in trying to end the crisis in Central America.[9]
  • After its discovery, the golden toad became one of the symbols of Monteverde, Costa Rica. It has only ever been sighted in the Monteverde rainforest preserve. In 1983, University of Miami researcher Marc Hayes spotted hundreds of the toad—none have been seen since.[9]
  • Archaeologists have long wondered at the source of Costa Rica's many pieces of pre-Columbian jade, as no jade quarries have ever been found in the country. Guatemala is believed to be the primary source, although some jade may have come from Mexico. One interesting theory holds that some of the jade was brought to Costa Rica by looters of Mayan burial sites, also explaining the presence of Mayan hieroglyphs inscribed on the stones.[3]
  • Costa Rica abolished its armed forces in 1949 and has no standing military. However, the country still maintains a small force to enforce laws and assist with foreign peacekeeping.[3]
  • Costa Rica’s national symbol is the clay-colored robin known as the yigüirro.[4]
  • Costa Rica’s largest body of freshwater is the manmade Lake Arenal.[3]
  • Arenal Volcano is the most active volcano in Costa Rica and one of the most active in the world. In 1968, Arenal erupted and destroyed the town of Tabacón. It last erupted in 2010.[4]
  • Arenal is the most active and youngest of all the volcanoes in Costa Rica
  • In 1546, Christopher Columbus' grandson Luis was named Duke of Veragua. He set out from Spain to claim his legacy with 130 men, but was attacked by Amerindians, lost most of his men, and retreated back to Europe in failure.[3]
  • Costa Ricans tell the story of how they received independence by mail. On October 13, 1821, a courier aboard a mule arrived in the central valley of Costa Rica with the news of independence—nearly a month after colonial officials in Guatemala City had declared independence for Costa Rica from the Spanish Empire.[3]
  • Irazú Volcano is Costa Rica’s highest volcano at 11,000 feet (3,800 m). Also known as El Coloso, the volcano broke a 30-year period of silence with a single, noisy eruption on December 8, 1994. The previous, March 19, 1963 eruption coincided with the arrival of John F. Kennedy in Costa Rica and was even more powerful.[3]
  • Held every second Sunday of March, Dia de los Boyeros is an annual ox cart festival in Escazú, Costa Rica. It attracts around 100 painted antique oxcarts and the great oxen to pull them, plus thousands of visitors.[3]
  • A young Costa Rican Alajuela militia drummer boy named Juan Santamaria volunteered to torch Fort Rivas in Nicaragua—he succeeded but was shot dead in the process. His name lives on in Costa Rican folklore as a symbol of national freedom. The country’s main international airport is named after him.[3]
  • The working cowboys in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province are known as sabaneros or vaccaros.[3]
  • Costa Rica is ranked as one of the most visited international destinations
  • Tourism is Costa Rica’s leading industry with over two million visitors arriving each year.[3]
  • During Costa Rica's arribada, as many as 100,000 Olive Ridley turtles come ashore on Ostional National Wildlife Refuge's isolated beaches, leaving behind as many as 10 million eggs. Arribadas generally occur at two- to four-week intervals from April to December, peaking July through September.[3]
  • The Monteverde Cloud Forest is the home of the quetzal, the most spectacular and colorful bird in the tropics. Some 40 species of the trogon family to which the quetzal belongs inhabit the tropics worldwide, and 10 of those are found in Costa Rica. As witnessed by ancient sculptures and paintings, the quetzal’s long tail coverts were highly prized by the Aztec and Maya nobility. Mayan kings prized the green tail feathers more than gold itself.[3]
  • Costa Rica's basilisk, a small semi-aquatic lizard, has been given the nickname “Jesus Christ lizard" due to its habit of rearing onto its hind legs and appearing to run across the surface of the water when alarmed.[3]
  • Drake Bay in southern Costa Rica is named for Sir Francis Drake, the first English navigator to sail around the world, who landed there in 1579.[3]
  • In the 1980s, the discovery of a 25-lb (11-kg) gold nugget created a gold rush and havoc in Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park. Farmers-turned-prospectors invaded the area and destroyed thousands of acres of parkland. Government officials had to close the park for years while they tried to evict the prospectors.[3]
  • The Coopedata Santa Maria coffee cooperative was recently heralded as the world’s first carbon-neutral coffee plantation in the world.[3]
  • Isla del Coco is the most remote part of Costa Rica, nearly 360 miles (600 km) into the Pacific Ocean, southwest of the mainland. Millions have seen this island on film, in the opening moments of the Steven Spielberg film Jurassic Park. At 8 miles by 3 miles (12 km by 5 km), Isla del Coco is the largest uninhabited island in the world.[3]
  • While Costa Rica takes up only 0.03% of the world’s land space, it possesses fully 4% of all known living species of flora and fauna and is one of the top 20 countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world.[8]
  • Costa Rica possess the highest density of biodiversity of any other country
  • Ollie’s Point in northeastern Costa Rica was named after American Colonel Oliver North, the famous and felonious former lieutenant colonel at the center of the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. The beaches and ports of northern Guanacaste like Ollie’s Point were a staging ground for supplying the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Legend has it that during a news broadcast of an interview with North, some surfers noticed a fabulous point break going off in the background. Hence, the discovery and naming of Ollie’s Point.[6]
  • Each year, Costa Rica hosts what many consider to be the most grueling and challenging mountain bike race on the planet, La Ruta de los Conquistadores (Route of the Conquerors), which retraces the path of the 16th-century Spanish conquistadors from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea—all in 4 days. The race takes place in November and draws hundreds of competitors from around the world.[6]
  • The sun rises and sets in Costa Rica at the same time every day 365 days a year, due to its close proximity to the equator.[1]
  • The Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) is Costa Rica’s national tree. The distinctive tree is known for its broad, full crown, which provides welcome shade on the Guanacaste’s hot plains and savannahs. The tree is also known as the elephant-ear tree because of the distinctive shape of its large seedpods. The province of Guanacaste is named for the tree.[6]
  • In the sleepy town of Manzanillo, Costa Rica, there is a thoroughfare called Mista Cracker Jack Street. Other streets are named after old citizens who have passed on, and Manzanillans call their cemetery “the Ole Buryground.”[10]
  • In 1995, a group of Costa Ricans residing in Nicaragua near the border established the Republic of Airrecú, named for the Maleku Indian word for friendship. The 170-square mile (440-sq km) nation was formed from the belief that the area was mistakenly ceded to Nicaragua, and their president, Augusto Rodríguez, presented documentation on behalf of their claim to the United Nations. Even though Nicaragua has refused to allow the 5,000 residents of Airrecú to secede, the Airrecú movement continues, and they even have a flag and an anthem.[9]
  • The single largest factor affecting Costa Rica’s economy is its national debt. In 1981, the country was the first in the world to default on its loans.[2]
  • Nobody knows for sure why the balls were made
  • Costa Rica’s Diquís Delta stone spheres are one of Central America’s most intriguing archaeological phenomena. Believed to be around 2,000 years old, thousands of stone spheres, from 4 inches (10 cm) to 8 feet (2.5 m) in diameter, were uncovered in the 1940s. Many of the stones were found placed close to grave sites, aligned in strait and curved lines, triangles, and parallelograms. They were most likely constructed by the ancestors of the current Boruca, Térraba, and Guaymi tribes.[2]
  • Paolo Wanchope is Costa Rica’s biggest sports star and arguably the world’s most famous Costa Rican. In 2006, Wanchope scored both goals in Costa Rica’s 4-2 loss in their opening game to Germany, making him the first Costa Rican to ever score two goals in a World Cup match. He has played for Costa Rican clubs as well as international football clubs in England, Spain, and Japan. He retired in 2007 after a knee injury and has since become a coach. He is now the interim head coach of the Costa Rican national team.[2]
  • In 1904, Augustín Blessing (née Presinger), a German priest and missionary serving in the Limón area, became the first man to conquer Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak.[2]
  • The Costa Rican National Post Office was built in 1914. Because the postal service does not offer home delivery, Costa Ricans go to a local post office to collect their mail.[7]
  • Ángela Acuña, Costa Rica’s first female lawyer, founded the Feminist League in 1923 and spearheaded the long struggle for woman’s suffrage in Costa Rica. In 1949, universal suffrage was granted. Acuña was the first woman on record to be appointed ambassador to the Organization of American States.[7]
  • Mecatelio, a fusion of Spanish and standard and Jamaican English, is the language spoken by the descendants of Black Jamaicans who initially arrived in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, from Jamaica to build the railroad in the late 19th century.[7]
  • Joaquín Garcia Monge’s El Moto (1900) is widely considered as the first Costa Rican novel.[7]
  • Costa Rica’s Teatro Nacional (National Theater) was built in 1897 after Adelina Patti, a world-renown Spanish opera singer, performed in Central America but did not sing in Costa Rica because there was not a suitable venue for her to perform anywhere in the country at that time.[7]
  • Costa Rica’s national musical instrument is the marimba. African in origin, it is also part of the musical history of Chiapas region in Mexico and Guatemala. In Costa Rica, early marimbas were made from a hollowed-out, elongated calabaza (squash) gourds set within a wooden frame whose top was lined with a panel of wooden keys, representing an octave.[7]
  • Swede Nils Olof Wessberg was mainly responsible for the creation of the Costa Rican national park system. Wessberg lost his mother to brain cancer in 1947, and suspected that there was a link between the environment and cancer. He left Sweden in 1954 and arrived in Costa Rica on a banana boat, immediately falling in love with the rainforests. In 1963, Wessberg opened the Absolute Nature Reserve Cabo Blanco, and the main trail there is still called “Swede’s path.” While lobbying for the creation of Corcovado National Park in 1974, he was murdered and, per his request, left in the forest to become one with nature.[8]
  • One more reason to visit Costa Rica
  • Costa Rica possesses 51 of the New World’s 300 hummingbird species, making it the hummingbird capital of the world.[8]
  • Dr. Franklin R. Chang-Diaz is Costa Rica’s only astronaut, as well as the first Latin-American to be chosen by NASA and to go into space. He was one of 19 astronauts chosen from a pool of more than 3,000 applications. He tied a record seven space shuttle missions, retiring after a 25-year career with NASA in 2005. He is currenlty designing a plasma-based rocket engine that could revolutionize space travel and put our entire solar system at our disposal for exploration.[11]
  • Geovanny Escalante, a Costa Rican saxophonist for the band Marfil, broke Kenny G’s world record for holding a single saxophone note in 1998. He held the note for 90 minutes and 45 seconds, nearly doubling Kenny G’s time.[11]
  • Important Dates
    DateEvents
    1502Christopher Columbus is the first European to land at Costa Rica, anchoring off the Puerto de Limón on September 25, on his fourth voyage to the Americas.
    1510-1570Local Indian populations—estimated at 400,000 when the Europeans arrived—are decimated through the encomienda system and disease brought by the Spaniards.
    1522Led by Gil Gonzalez, Spanish forces begin a sporadic exploration of the Pacific Coast.
    1539Costa Rica becomes the colony’s official name.
    1562Juan Vázquez de Coronado leads Spanish exploration of the Central Valley. He later becomes first colonial governor.
    1564Cartago becomes first permanent Spanish settlement in the region, under the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
    1635Alleged date of the appearance of La Negrita at the site on which the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels is later constructed in 1926.
    1706Heredia, City of Flowers, is founded.
    1710The cacique (warrior chieftain) Pablo Presbere is captured and executed; the Talamanca region is wrested from Indian control.
    1711Irazú Volcano erupts and destroys the city of Cartago.
    1736San José is founded.
    1782The city of Alajuela is founded.
    1817The University of Santo Tomás is founded; it closes in 1888 but is reopened as the University of Costa Rica in 1940.
    1821Mexico declares its independence from Spain, and it takes six months for the news to reach Costa Rica, which celebrates its independence on September 15.
    1821–1823Costa Rica joins four other Central American territories in the United Provinces of Central America.
    1823Costa Rica declares itself a separate nation and writes its own constitution, Pacto de Concordia. San Jose is officially named the capital.
    1824Northern Guanacaste Province is officially annexed to Costa Rica on July 25, following the province’s secession from Nicaragua.
    1840sCoffee production grows exponentially.
    1847Costa Rican government passes law that provides equal education for both sexes.
    1852The Concordat establishes Catholicism as the official religion of Costa Rica.
    1856Tennessean William Walker invades Costa Rica but is defeated. A sense of nationhood is galvanized by this event and Juan Santamaria is immortalized for setting fire to an enemy brigade, which costs him his life.
    1869Education becomes free and obligatory.
    1870–1882President Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez levies taxes on coffee exports and makes important initiatives in education and transportation.
    1871Construction of the railroad from San José to the Atlantic Coast begins; it is completed in 1890.
    1884Bishop Thiel is expelled from Costa Rica for supporting liberal goals.
    1888Date for which Generation of 1888 is named. This group helps create social infrastructure that supports market development and the expansion of social programs. It also promotes separation of church and state.
    1880sThousands of West Indians and hundreds of Chinese arrive in Limón to work on construction of the railroad.
    1890Coffee is produced on a third of the Central Valley’s land.
    1897National Theater is inaugurated, founded by the government and the coffee-growing oligarchy.
    1897–1910Construction of the Pacific Railroad.
    1908Banana exports reach US$5 million, and the industry reaches its peak 10 years later.
    1913First Costa Rican celebration of Dia del Trabajador (Labor Day).
    1927Costa Rican Public Health Department is established.
    1931Costa Rican Communist Party is established.
    1932Creation of the National Association of Costa Rican Coffee Growers.
    1934Banana workers strike against the United Fruit Company in the Atlantic region.
    1940President Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia initiates an aggressive period of social reform.
    1942Costa Rican government signs a law into effect that forbids Black foreigners from entering the country; it is later repealed.
    1943Unusual coalition is formed by President Calderón, the Communist Party, and Catholic Church to pass certain social reforms.
    1948Charges of fraudulent elections escalate into a six-week civil war; Costa Rica’s standing army is later abolished; however, the country maintains a small capable of law enforcement and foreign peacekeeping.
    1948–1949National Liberation junta led by José (Pepe) Figueres rules for 18 months. A new constitution is adopted in 1949, declaring full citizenship rights to all who are born in Costa Rica.
    1949Otilio Ulate Blanco becomes president.
    1951Alabama Quakers arrive and settle in Monteverde.
    1953José (Pepe) Figueres is elected president. He founds the Castella’s Conservatory Theater, offering free training in the arts for children.
    1959Editorial Costa Rica, a government-subsidized publishing house, is founded.
    1960First television transmission in Costa Rica; by 1995, television sets can be found in 90% of Costa Rican homes.
    1961Mennonite missionaries arrive.
    1962Costa Rica joins the Central American Common Market.
    1968Arenal Volcano erupts on July 29.
    1970sNational Youth Symphony Orchestra is created, and an influx of Chilean immigrants stimulates the Costa Rican theater scene.
    1976–1978Protestant church membership triples.
    1978Nicaraguan-Contra/Sandinista conflict spills over into Costa Rica.
    1980Beginning of economic crisis; the colón plunges in value.
    1983La Amistad Biosphere is declared a World Heritage Site; 12% of the national territory is contained in this protected area.
    1987Óscar Arias Sánchez wins Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in promoting peace initiatives in Central America.
    1989Coffee prices plunge.
    1990Passage of Women’s True Equality Bill
    1990sMaquiladoras begin operation in Costa Rica.
    1990Costa Rica experiences a boom in tourism, particularly ecotourism.
    1994Banco Anglo Costarricense, the national bank, is forced to close due to corruption. Bri Bri Indians are allowed to vote in the presidential elections within their own communities for the first time.
    1996The national electric company, Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), begins its privatization process. Private banks begin operation.
    1997U.S. company Intel opens its Central American regional headquarters in San José.
    1998Writer Carmen Naranjo is nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
    199913,000 Colombians immigrate to Costa Rica in the first half of 1999 because of its economic and political stability. For the first time, over one million tourists visit Costa Rica.
    2003U.S. Navy withdraws from Vieques Island. Costa Rica sends soldiers to Iraq in support of United States’ coalition there.
    2004Costa Rican Constitutional Court declares that the government’s support for the coalition in Iraq is contrary to the Declaration on Perpetual Neutrality and it withdraws its participation in the coalition.
    2006Óscar Arias Sánchez is elected to his second presidency.
    2007Government says Costa Rica is on schedule to become the world’s first “carbon neutral” country. Costa Rica switches allegiance from Taiwan to China in a bid to attract Chinese investments.
    2008Chinese Premier Hu Jintao makes highest-level visit by a Chinese official since Costa Rica ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 2007.
    2009President Sánchez re-establishes ties with Cuba, 48 years after they broke off in 1961.
    2010Laura Chinchilla is elected as the first Costa Rican woman president.
    2011UN International Court of Justice orders Nicaragua and Costa Rica to keep troops back from a disputed river border.
References

1 Blake, Beatrice. The New Key to Costa Rica. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2009.

2 Costa Rica (Fodor’s See It). New York, NY: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 2007.

3 Costa Rica (Insight Guides). Singapore: APA Publications, 2013.

4 "Costa Rica" (World Fact Book). Central Intelligence Agency. April 11, 2014. Accessed May 30, 2014.

5Fun Costa Rica Facts—Random Things to Know.” Costa Rica News. January 15, 2012. Accessed June 15, 2012.

6 Greenspan, Eliot. Frommer’s Costa Rica. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2013.

7 Helmuth, Chalene. Culture and Customs of Costa Rica. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

8 Mellin, Maribeth. Costa Rica (Travelers’ Companion). Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2008.

9 Pariser, Harry S. Explore Costa Rica. San Francisco, CA: Manatee Press, 2007.

10 Runge, Jonathan and Adam Carter. Rum & Reggae’s Costa Rica. Boston, MA: Rum & Reggae’s Guidebooks, Inc, 2006.

11 Wallerstein, Claire. Culture Shock! Costa Rica. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2006.

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