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Small tribes inhabited the area now known as Costa Rica as early as 8000 BC. Clay figurines and decorated vessels suggest that trade and observation of ritual began very early.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502, he chose the name “Costa Rica,” which means "rich coast," because he believed the land would yield vast amounts of gold. However, Spanish conquistadors soon discovered Costa Rica did not contain the mineral wealth they had hoped for.
What they found instead were tribes of farmers and artisans. Exploited for labor by early Spanish settlers, harsh treatment and foreign diseases wiped the majority of the native population within a century.
In the mid 19th century, Costa Rica declared independence shortly after Guatemala did. Spain, which had shown limited interest in Costa Rica during the previous decade, did not attempt to force the colonists back to the crown.
The early years of independence were difficult for the young nation. Over the next five decades, Costa Rica experienced numerous coups and power struggles. In 1823, Costa Rica joined the United Provinces of Central America in the hopes of bolstering the country’s stagnant economy. The plan backfired as the fledgling union proved to be mired by corruption and poor leadership. The union had completely collapsed by the time Costa Rica officially withdrew in 1848.
Costa Rica experienced a brief span of dictatorship from 1838 to 1842. Ironically, the dictatorial government enacted many positive reforms, including the country’s first legal code. The national debt was paid in full. The promotion of coffee as a staple crop gave a much-needed boost to the economy. The years following 1842 were marked by an endless series of coups. New constitutions were adopted and new leaders took control, creating an atmosphere of utter chaos.
In the 1870s, Tomas Guardia named himself ruler for life and immediately set about building a railroad from San José to the Caribbean coast. The project bankrupted the nation, but it also laid the foundation for a thriving banana industry by establishing large plantations near the tracks.
In 1889, President Bernardo Soto opened the door to democratic reforms by sponsoring Costa Rica’s first free and open elections. Soto also advocated freedom of the press and the peaceful transition of power. His reforms ushered in a period of great advancements in education and the arts.
The first three decades of the 20th century offered order and tranquility. Each president advanced democratic liberties and continued to expand the education system. But economic depression and uneven distribution of wealth led to a brief civil war in 1948. The government responded by expanding social welfare programs, extending suffrage rights to women, imposing a progressive income tax on the wealthy, enacting new economic reforms, and stabilizing Costa Rica’s finances.
Today, Costa Rica is by far the most democratic country in Central America. The reforms of the 1940s and ‘50s have ushered in an age of peace and prosperity that has lasted several decades.