Baker’s Dozen – Fun Facts About Costa Rica

Since we recently visited Costa Rica, I thought it would be fun to share some facts about this Central American nation.

Arenal Lodge driveway.

1)  Costa Rica means “rich coast.”  Its citizens are often referred to as Ticos.  Geographically, Costa Rica is located in Central America with Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south.

Interestingly, it only takes a little over 4 hours to get to Costa Rica from the Midwest where we live.  It took us less time to fly to Costa Rica then it does to drive one of our kids to her in-state college.

We were interested to learn that Costa Rica’s primary problem with crime is mainly due to drug runners that make their way from Colombia, South American, through Panama and then through Costa Rica north to Nicaragua and eventually through the other countries of Central America to Mexico and then to the U.S.  The rural areas, away from the main highways, have very little crime.

The other interesting problem cited by one of our guides is the one they have with immigrants from Nicaragua which they liken to our problem with Mexican immigrants.  For the most part, those who come into the country to work the fields and as laborers are not the problem, but those who aid the drug runners are dangerous and taint the entire immigration issue.

2)  Costa Rica lies between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator in the Northern Hemisphere and has a rainy season and a dry season.  The rainy season is referred to as summer, and the wet season is referred to as winter.  Being in a tropical climate, there is a lot of rainfall in the country although the microclimates vary widely due to the geography.

We visited Costa Rica during winter and, while it did rain every day, usually at night, we were able to stay dry for all of our activities.  Oh, and there was no ice, snow, or cold weather.  In fact, we were in swim suits, shorts, and tank tops for most of our visit.  Now that’s winter weather I could get used to.

3)  Costa Rica’s lack of resources like gold and silver and its lack of a large indigenous population, resulted in it being left largely alone during the period of Spanish occupation and colonization.  Costa Rica was considered one of the poorest and most miserable of all the Spanish colonies, but this allowed it to develop into an egalitarian society with a rural democracy.

It’s interesting that its original reputation allowed it to eventually become one of the most prosperous Latin American countries.

4)  While Costa Rica has had a largely peaceful existence, in 1948, it had a Civil War that lasted 44 days resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 people.  After this, the rebels formed a government junta that abolished the military altogether, and oversaw the drafting of a new constitution by a democratically elected assembly.  The military junta relinquished its power in 1949 to the new democratic government.  Since then, Costa Rica has held 13 presidential elections, the latest in 2010.  All of them have been widely regarded by the international community as peaceful and transparent.  It is the only Latin American country included in the list of the world’s 22 oldest democracies.

Yes, if you read this correctly, you realize that Costa Rica does not have an active military, they are a peaceful country, and they are a democracy.

5)  The Republic of Costa Rica is made up of 7 provinces (like our States).  We visited two of them – Alajuela in the north central part of the country and Guanacaste which lies along the Pacific Coast in the northwest.  San José is the capital.

We did not visit San Jose opting instead to visit the rural part of the country and see the Arenal Volcano.  Costa Rica has 20 volcanoes, seven of which are active.  The Arenal Volcano is one of the top 10 most active volcanoes in the world.  We only saw it emit steam, no pyroclastic flows.  We were able to see Nicaragua and Nicaragua Lake during one of our tours.

We were able to see Nicaragua while on this horseback ride in the mountains.

6)  Costa Rica comprises just 0.25% of the world’s total land mass, but includes 5% of world’s total biodiversity.  Costa Rica has nationalized over 25% of its land and in 2007 committed itself to becoming the first carbon neutral county by 2021.  Costa Rica is ranked third in the world, and first among the Americas, in terms of the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.  Costa Rica ranks first in the Happy Planet Index and is the “greenest” country in the world.

Every driver and every tour guide could quote exactly how many species of plants and animals live in their country.  We even had a little kid talk to us about Mark Twain when they heard we were from Missouri.  The Costa Ricans were overwhelmingly friendly and smart.

Birds, butterflies, monkeys, snakes, deer, frogs – we saw a lot of wildlife on our visit to Costa Rica.

7)  Costa Rica has consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index and ranked 62nd in the world in 2010.  Costa Rica is often cited as one of the countries that has attained much higher human development than other countries at the same income levels.  Costa Rica’s per capita income in 2010 was $11, 215 (American).

The global economic recession has impacted Costa Rica, and we saw evidence of it in the halted housing developments and abundance of Su Vende (For Sale) signs on properties throughout the country.

8)  Life expectancy at birth for Costa Ricans is 79 years.  The Nicoya Peninsula is considered one of the Blue Zones in the world, where people commonly live active lives past the age of 100 years.  Costa Rica has been cited as Central America’s great health success story.  Its healthcare system is ranked higher than that of the United States, despite having a fraction of its GDP.  Costa Rica provides universal health coverage to its citizens.  Preventative health care is successful with 96% of Costa Rican women using some form of contraception, neonatal care services are provided to 87% of all pregnant women in the country, and perinatal mortality rates are very low.  All children under one have access to well-baby clinics, and the immunization coverage rate in 2002 was above 91%.

Maybe we could learn something from those “poor” nations south of the border.  We also learned that many Costa Ricans embrace holistic medicine and holistic uses of their flora and fauna to treat ailments.

9)  Coffee and bananas have been major export items for Costa Rica over the years, but tourism has become its number one business.  Costa Rica is the star of ecotourism.  Birders from throughout the world visit Costa Rica to see its over 700 species of birds.  Efforts on behalf of many plants and animals such as the squirrel monkey have helped to bring them back from the brink of extinction.

10)  Costa Rica is among the Latin American countries that have became popular destinations for medical tourism.  In 2006, 150,000 foreigners visited Costa Rice for medical treatment.  Costa Rica is particularly attractive to American tourists because of its proximity and short flight, the quality of medical services, and lower medical costs.

11)  The literacy rate in Costa Rica is 94.9%, one of the highest in the world.  When the army was abolished in 1949, it was said that it would be replaced with an army of teachers.  Universal public education is guaranteed in the constitution.  Primary education is obligatory and both preschool and high school are free.  We can attest to the fact that everyone whom we encountered had a working knowledge of both Spanish and English.  We saw school children all of whom were dressed in uniforms.  And, in spite of what looked like much poorer conditions than where we live, we saw older children walking home from school talking on their cell phones.  And even the smallest homes had satellite dishes.  Access to television, phones, and the Internet truly make our world a connected place.

12)  Costa Rica’s main language is Spanish, its currency is the colón, its main religion is Roman Catholicism, but it provides for religious freedom in its Constitution.  Costa Rica’s current president is Laura Chinchilla Miranda.  She is the first female president to govern this constitutional democracy of over 4.6 million people.

13)  The country’s motto may be “Long live work and peace” but “Pura Vida” is the most recognizable phrase attached to Costa Ricans, and it reflects the Costa Rican way of life.  A common way of saying hello or answering how are you would be “Pura Vida” which means pure or good life.

Pura Vida!

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