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In cooperation with Moon Handbooks, CentralAmerica.Com now offers background information taken from Moon's award-winning guide to Costa Rica which is more extensive than the snapshoot information on this original page.
For detailed information please click one of the following topics from Moon Handbooks featured on this site.
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Geography of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is known for its volcanos. The country is divided by a backbone of volcanoes and mountains, an extension of the Andes-Sierra Madre chain which runs along the western side of the Americas. Costa Rica has four distinct cordilleras or mountain ranges -- Guanacaste and Tilaran in the north, Central and Talamanca in the south. Costa Rica is part of the Pacific "Rim of Fire" and has seven of the isthmus's 42 active volcanoes plus dozens of dormant or extinct cones. Earth tremors and small quakes shake the country from time to time.

The last major quake hit on April 22, 1991. Centered on the Caribbean side southeast of San Jose, it measured 7.4 on the Richter scale. The country's highest point is Mt. Chirripo (3,797 meters). The capital, San Jose, and the neighboring major cities of Alajuela and Heredie lies in the middle of the Meseta Central (Central Valley). Almost two-thirds of the nation's population live in this small, fertile valley. The Pacific coastal plain is much narrower than its Caribbean counterpart. Both coasts are lined with white and black sand beaches.

Costa Rica's Climate
Costa Rica is a tropical country which contains several distinct climatic zones. There is no winter or summer as such and most regions have a rainy season from May to November and a dry season from December to April. Annual rainfall averages 100 inches nationwide with some mountainous regions getting as much as 25 feet on exposed eastern slopes. Temperature is more a matter of elevation than location with a mean of around 72 degrees in the Central Valley, 82 degrees on the Atlantic coast and 89 degrees on the Pacific coast.

A Brief History of Costa Rica
Human habitation can be traced back more than 10,000 years but it appears Costa Rica was sparsely populated and a relative backwater in the pre-Columbian era. There is little sign of major communities and none of the impressive stone architecture that characterized the more advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica to the north and the Andes to the south. When Columbus arrived near LimĒn on September 18, 1502 on his third and last voyage to the Americas, there were probably no more than 20,000 indigenous inhabitants They lived in several autonomous tribes, all with distinct cultures and customs. Costa Rica's only major archaeological site is at Guayabo, 30 miles east of San Jos‚, where an ancient city, dating back to 1000 B.C. and though to have contained 10,000 people at its peak, is currently being excavated. Many interesting gold, jade and pottery artefacts have been found throughout the region and are on display in several museums in San Jose.

The Indians gave Columbus gold and he returned to Europe with reports of a plentiful supply of the yellow metal. But the adventurers who arrived to cash in found only hostile Indians, swamps and disease for their trouble. Several early attempts to colonize the Atlantic coast failed for the same reasons and for almost half a century Costa Rica was passed over while colonization gathered pace in countries to the north and south. In 1562, the Spanish main's administrative center in Guatemala sent Juan Vasquez de Coronado to Costa Rica as governor and Cartago was established as the capital the following year. With no Indian slaves to work the land, the colonists were forced to work the land themselves, scratching out a meagre subsistence by tilling small plots. The impoverished colony grew slowly and was virtually ignored by the Spanish rulers in Guatemala. By the late 18th century, the settlements that would buela had been founded and exports of wheat and tobacco were making economic conditions somewhat better.

Central America gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. The news reached Costa Rica a month after the event. The question of whether Costa Rica should join newly independent Mexico or join a new confederation of Central American states resulted in a bitter quarrel between the leaders of San Jose and their counterparts in Cartago and Heredia. A brief civil war in 1823 was won by San Jose and Costa Rica joined the confederation.

Juan Mora Fernandez was elected the country's first head of state in 1824. His progressive administration expanded public education and encouraged the cultivation of coffee with land grants for growers. This quickly led to the establishment of a new Costa Rican elite, the coffee barons, who quickly put their power to use by overthrowing the first Costa Rican president, Jos‚ Maria Castro. His successor, Juan Rafael Mora, is remembered as the man who mobilized a force of Costa Rican volunteers and defeated William Walker, ending the persistent North American adventurer's ambitions to turn Central America into a slave state and annex it to the United States.

After more than a decade of political turmoil, General Tom s Guardia seized power in 1870. Though he ruled as a military dictator, his 12 years in power were marked by progressive policies like free and compulsory primary education, restraining the excesses of the military and taxing coffee earnings to finance public works. It was Guardia who contracted Minor Keith to build the Atlantic railroad from San Jose to the Caribbean. The post-Guardia years witnessed the fitful transition to full democracy.

The next important era began with the election of Dr. Rafael Angel CalderĒn Guardia in 1940. His enlightened policies included land reform, a guaranteed minimum wage and progressive taxation. But when CalderĒn's United Social Christian Party refused to step down after losing the 1948 election, civil war erupted. The anti-CalderĒn forces were led by Jose MarĄa (Don Pepe) Figueres Ferrer who had been exiled to Mexico in 1942. Supported by the governments of Guatemala and Cuba, he won the war which lasted 40 days and cost 2,000 lives.

Figueres became head of the Founding Junta of the Second Republic of Costa Rica. He consolidated the reforms introduced by CalderĒn and introduced many of his own: He banned the Communist Party, gave women the vote and granted full citizenship to blacks, abolished the armed forces, established a term limit for presidents and nationalized the banks and insurance companies. He also founded the Partido de Liberacion Nacional. (The PLN won last year's presidential election behind Don Pepe's son, now President Jose MarĄa Figueres Olsen.

Don Pepe died in 1990 a national hero, his deeds having set the scene for the social and economic progress that would earn Costa Rica the reputation as a peaceful and stable island of democracy in one of the world's most politically unstable, and often war-torn regions. When civil war broke out in neighboring Nicaragua, Costa Rica was drawn reluctantly into the conflict, its northern zone being used as a base first for Sandinista and later for "contra" forces. In 1986, a young lawyer called Oscar Arias Sanchez was elected president on the platform of peace. Arias' tireless efforts to promote peace in the region were rewarded when the five Central American presidents signed his peace plan in Guatamala City in 1987, an achievement that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Costa Rica's Government

Costa Rica is a democratic republic. Under the 1949 constitution, all citizens are guaranteed equality before the law, the right to own property, the right of petititon and assembly, freedom of speech and the right of habeas corpus. The constitution also divides the government into independent executive, legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch is composed of the president, two vice presidents and a cabinet. The legislature is the National Assembly, composed of 57 members (diputados) elected by proportional representation. National elections are held every four years, on the first Sunday of February. Under a constitutional amendment enacted in 1969, a president may serve only one four-year term during his lifetime. Diputados also are elected for four years and may serve a second term four years after the first ends. The largest political party is the National Liberation Party (PLN). Its main rival is the more conservative Social Christian Unity Party.

Health Issues and Costa Rica
You are unlikely to encounter any serious diseases in Costa Rica. Sanitary standards are high and the health system is excellent. During the past two wet seasons there have been several outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease dengue but so far there have been no reported cases of the more serious hemorrhaging dengue. No vaccinations are required to enter Costa Rica as epidemic diseases have been all but eradicated throughout the country. Infectious hepatitis, a serious problem throughout Central America, is reported only rarely in Costa Rica.

Several private hospitals in San Jose offer emergency medical services to foreigners are reasonable prices: Clinica Biblica (avenida 14, calles central & 1, tel. 223-6422) also has a 24-hour pharmacy. Costa Rica's Social Security system (the Caja) offers a medical insurance assistance program for foreigners needing emergency medical assistance. The coverage can be bought at travel agencies, language schools or through tour companies.

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