Costa Rica - A Country Overview

Information on Costa Rica; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Costa Rica...


Costa Rica is a Central American country between Panama and Nicaragua. It borders the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its landscape varies between flat coastal plains and rugged mountains, including many volcanoes. The coasts are typified by beautiful white and black sandy beaches.

The highest point in the country is the 3,810m Cerro Chirripo. The mountains which divide the country are an extension of the Andes-Sierra Madre chain which lies along the western side of the Americas. These mountains, the Costa Rican ridge, are divided into the Cordillera Guanacaste, Cordillera Central, Cordillera Tilarán and the Cordillera Talamanca. They separate the Pacific and Caribbean watersheds, into which many rivers drain. The valleys between these ridges are very fertile.

Costa Rica is geologically very active as a result of movement between the Pacific and Caribbean tectonic plates. It has seven active volcanoes as well as many dormant ones, and is part of the "Pacific Rim of Fire". Arenal is the most active volcano in the country. It erupted in 2010 and destroyed the town of Tabacon when it erupted in 1968. Irazu is another major volcano found to the east of San José, the country's capital city. Between 1963 and 1965 its activity poured ash over the city, and it has the potential to do so again. In total there are four volcanoes, two being active, close to San José. Other volcanoes which have been active in the past include Poas, Turrialba, Miravalles and Rincón de la Vieja. Costa Rica also occasionally experiences earthquakes; major ones such as the one that occurred in 1991 and measured 7.4 on the Richter scale are rare.


Costa Rica has a tropical climate with little seasonal variation. It is typically hot and humid, with generally lower humidity on the Pacific than the Caribbean side of the country. The wet season is from May to November and the dry season from December to April. The wet season is characterized by daily rain, particularly at higher altitudes. It is cooler in the mountains. Variations in climate in the country reflect elevation. Montverde, in the highlands, is often cool and misty or foggy, while Guanacaste, which is located much lower, has a dry arid climate. San José in the Central Valley is pleasantly warm and breezy. The coasts are typically hot. The country's weather pattern is frequently disrupted by El Niño, a weather pattern which originates as a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean.


Human habitation in Costa Rica can be traced back nearly 10,000 years, but it is evident that the region was sparsely populated for much of this time. Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit Costa Rica in 1502. However, initial colonization and exploration of the country by the Spanish was thwarted by heat, pirates, native resistance and disease. T

he first permanent settlement, Cartago, was established in 1563 in the central highlands, which has a cooler climate. Spain ruled the area as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, and installed a military governor. The impact of Spanish colonization was less than in other parts of Central America, since the country lacked mineral wealth and a large local population, two things the Spanish conquistadors valued highly. The settlers therefore worked the land themselves, and over time a population of farmers developed.

The region remained a colony until 1821, when it declared independence from Spain along with several other Central American colonies. The country joined the United Provinces of Central America two years later. This period was marked by frequent border disputes. Costa Rica declared itself independent in 1838 when this federation broke up.

Coffee and bananas transformed Costa Rica in the 19th century by attracting immigrant merchants and foreign investment. The money these industries brought led to the rapid development of roads and railroads across the country.

In 1899 a peaceful democracy arrived in Costa Rica when the country's first honest elections were held. Since then there have been only two lapses in this peace, apart from the country's involvement in the Second World War; the first in 1917-19 when the dictator Frederico Tinoco ruled, and the second in 1948, when Jose Figueres led an uprising following a disputed presidential election. The resulting civil war lasted for 44 days and resulted in more than 2,000 deaths. The victorious junta wrote a constitution guaranteeing universal suffrage, free elections and the abolition of the country's military. Figueres became a national hero and won the first election held under the new constitution in 1953.

Politics and Government

Costa Rica is a democratic republic. Since Jose Figueres took power in 1953 in the country's first free election there have been 15 presidential elections; the most recent was 2010. People are able to vote from the age of 18, and voting is compulsory. The country's president and vice president govern for a single four-year term and are elected on the same ticket. A president may run for re-election once they have been out of office for eight years. The 1949 constitution divides the government into executive, legislative and judicial branches, which are independent. The executive branch consists of the president, two vice presidents and a cabinet. The elected president is both the head of government and the chief of state. The president selects a cabinet. The Legislative Assembly has 57 members who are elected by popular vote every four years.

Civil law

The civil law system in Costa Rica is based on the Spanish civil code, with judicial review of legislative acts in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is composed of 22 judges who are elected by the Legislative Assembly. They serve for eight-year terms which can be renewed. The assembly has the power to amend the president's budget.

Provincial government

Costa Rica has provincial boundaries for administrative reasons, but there are no elected provincial officials. The seven provinces are ruled by a governor appointed by the president. The provinces are divided into 81 counties and 421 districts, which are ruled by municipal councils. Since 2002, mayors have been selected by popular vote to serve four-year terms. They are responsible for the administration of their municipality.


Costa Rica experienced stable economic growth until the recent global crisis. The economy shrank in 2009, with the service sector and tourism being badly affected. Growth resumed in 2010-1.

Traditionally the Costa Rican economy has been based on agricultural exports: coffee, bananas, sugar and beef. In recent years this sector has broadened to include specialized agricultural and industrial products. Pineapples have now replaced coffee as the second largest agricultural export after bananas. The economy has been strengthened further by the export of services and goods, such as microchips. Services account for about 71 percent of Costa Rica's Gross Domestic Product, and tourism remains an important contributor to the economy.

The country receives a lot of foreign investment, attracted by its political stability and good level of education. Both Intel and Proctor and Gamble have invested significantly in the country. However, business is held back by weak investor protection, the amount of bureaucracy and the difficulty of enforcing contracts.


Robbery is a significant risk in Costa Rica for both people living in the country and visitors. Thefts occur frequently and do happen in public places during the day. Robberies can turn violent should the victim resist. Thieves, who often work in groups, generally want passports, money, credit cards, jewelry and electronic gadgets. People should avoid carrying such items as much as possible. Particular care should be taken around popular tourist destinations, in dimly lit areas and on busses where the theft of bags from the overhead compartments is common and efficient. Only licensed taxis should be used; look for red taxis with a yellow triangular sticker on the side. The name and number of the company should be on a plastic box on the roof.

Personal attacks and rape are infrequent in Costa Rica. There have been no recent terrorist acts in the country. Civil disturbances as a result of strikes or work stoppages are infrequent.

Foreigners Living in the Country

There are a significant number of foreigners living in Costa Rica. The majority are from the United States and Canada; many are retired. There are also some Australians and Europeans, mainly from Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. The Central Valley, in particular San José, is home for many expatriates. The Pacific coast, including the cities of Escazu and Jaco, is popular with retirees.

Estimates suggest that around 10-15 percent of the people living in Costa Rica are Nicaraguans who arrived in the country recently. The level of Nicaraguan immigration into the country has been a matter of concern for the Costa Rican government. Although they represent a large labor pool, they also place a significant burden on the country's social welfare system. The country is also home to a number of refugees from Colombia and other Latin American countries.


Costa Rica is a very popular tourist destination; its volcanoes, beaches and abundant wildlife are big attractions. The country's hot climate and stunning countryside make it a very popular choice for adventure or sporting holidays. The beaches offer a wide range of water sports opportunities, while hiking is very popular in the rainforests and mountains.

National Parks

The country's national parks are very popular. The biggest national park in the country is the La Amistad International Park (PILA), which was created in cooperation with Panama. The park encompasses vast areas of rainforest and indigenous reserves, and is home to hundreds of species of mammals, including the jaguar, as well as birds, reptiles and amphibians. Overall more than a quarter of Costa Rica's land is protected; there are 20 natural parks, eight biological reserves and many other protected areas.

Diving and surfing

Costa Rica is also very popular with divers. Cocos Island National Park is a World Heritage Site and thought to be one of the world's best diving spots. The island, which lies 532 Km off the country's Pacific coast, is home to sharks, turtles, whales and dolphins as well as many corals. The Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge on the Caribbean coast is also popular. Many people chose to visit the country for its surfing; Costa Rica is one of the best places in the world to practice the sport. There are great surfing beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Further Information