brief history of Costa Rica I
The land and climate
Central Intelligence Agency map
Arrow shows the location of Costa
Rica in Central America
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By Clifford Fain Dukes, Jr.
Special to Retire NOW in Costa Rica
Costa Rica was not part of the original land mass of the planet, and
following the Spanish conquest it was referred to as the most
God-forsaken country on earth. It was created by dramatic seismic
events and continues to live with and be vulnerable to them today.
Positioned nine degrees north of the equator Costa Rica enjoys a
tropical climate with two principal seasons:
1.) the rainy season during June through November with slightly higher
temperatures called winter due to that being the influenza season, and
2.) the dry season during December through May with abundant sunshine
and slightly cooler temperatures called summer.
Relative humidity averages 90 percent during the rainy season and 50
percent during the dry season. With its numerous beaches and resort
hotels, Costa Rica has developed into a major tourist attraction. Some
estimates by the local government indicate that tourism related
activities represent 30 percent of the total gross domestic product.
It’s a fascinating country and a fun place to visit. It is the goal of
this history to offer the prospective tourist or potential resident an
understanding to more fully enjoy the country.
THE FORMATION OF COSTA
Some 250 million years ago the surface of earth had one land mass and
one huge ocean representing approximately 30 percent and 70 percent
respectively of the earth’s surface. Tremendous seismic and volcanic
activity began breaking apart this land mass. This was followed by
tectonic movement dividing and repositioning the original land mass
into seven continents and five major oceans. At this point, North
America and South America were separated by open sea that extended from
approximately present day Rivas, Nicaragua to the current coast line of
Columbia, South America.
The three tectonic plates beneath this open sea, Caribbean to the
northeast and Cocos to the southwest and Nazca to the south became
active around 150 million years ago. Violent volcanoes and subduction
of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate caused the formation of
Costa Rica and Panamá. This created a land bridge between North
and South America permitting the interchange of plant and animal life.
The formation of the Costa Rica portion of this land bridge took place
in stages. Initially, four volcanic islands formed that today are known
as Saint Elena Peninsula in the Northwest corner, Nicoya Peninsula on
the central Pacific coast, Osa Peninsula at the Southwestern corner of
the country, and Burica Peninsula southeast of Osa.
Continued subduction and volcanic activity lifted up a mountainous axis
running northwest to southeast in Costa Rica and on into Panamá.
This axis had four distinct sections:
1.) the volcanic range called Cordilleras de Guancaste,
2.) the Cordilleras de Tilaran that begin south of Lake Arenal,
3.) the volcanic Cordilleras Central running east to west and defining
the northern boundary of Costa Rica’s Central Valley, and finally,
4.) the Cordilleras de Talamanca that are the largest and most
extensive mountains in the country.
Volcanoes Poas, Irazu, and Turrialba in the Cordilleras Central are
active at present along with the ever active Arenal in Guanacaste. The
two major valleys in Costa Rica, Central and General Coto-Brus, widened
corrosive atmosphere for metals, paints, and the ubiquitous stucco
structures. One of the pioneers in developing ultraviolet and
salt resistant paints for the Costa Rican market today is Sur Quimica
de Costa Rica (doing business as Pinturas Sur).
the formative years to their present width via tectonic movement of the
Following the formation of the mountainous axis, wind erosion, intense
ultra violet bombardment, torrential rains, water erosion, abundant
landslides, and sedimentation filled in the gaps creating a fertile and
porous volcanic soil.
Costa Rica is located in the Trade Winds belt blowing out of the East.
The Trades, called alisios in
Spanish, acquire a briny mist from the Caribbean surf then carry it
over most of the country. This creates a very aggressive and
Sismológico de Costa Rica photo
Volcán Turrialbe during a recent
Today the Central Valley accommodates about two-thirds of the country’s
4.5 million population and most of its industry. The El General
Coto-Brus Valley is a significant producer of fattened cattle, grains,
fruit, and tobacco.
Interestingly enough, the formation of Costa Rica and Panamá
from the open sea resulted in waterways that later were used as cross
continent canals. In Nicaragua, the San Juan River begins at Lake
Nicaragua and runs eastward to the Caribbean acting as a partial border
between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Rivas, Nicaragua, on the west coast
of the lake is only 19 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This was the
preferred route from the East Coast of the U.S.A. to California during
the gold rush years around 1849, since the overland trip was fraught
with dangers. The water in the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua remain
brackish to this day supporting the presence of salt water fish.
In Panamá the huge Gatun Lake facilitated the construction of
the Panama Canal proposed originally by Spain, for easier extraction of
gold from Peru as well as a shorter sea route to the Far East. Spain
proposed the canal in 1524, and France initiated it in the late 1850s
but later abandoned the project. The U.S.A. completed the canal
after the turn of the 20th century.
Costa Rica and Panamá are now part of what is termed the
volcanic Ring of Fire, a circle of very active tectonic movement and
volcanoes surrounding the entire Pacific Ocean.
Numerous fresh-water springs at the upper elevations of Costa Rica’s
mountainous axis form rapid flowing rivers dropping north to the San
Juan River, east to the Caribbean, and west to the Pacific. These
rivers with their numerous dams and reservoirs allow Costa Rica to
derive some 73 percent of its electricity needs from hydroelectric
sources. Many of these rivers can be navigated across the coastal
plains to the foothills of the mountains. Costa Rica also has several
other green energy projects including wind and geothermal.
Costa Rica’s seismic/volcanic formation deposited marble in Saint Elena
Peninsula, cement and limestone in the Nicoya and Osa peninsulas, and
gold and copper ore deposits over most of the country. The Caribbean
plains are the source of bananas and plantains while the Guanacaste
plains represent the bread basket for the country. The mountainous
regions are ideal for coffee growing and timber operations. Recently
abundant quantities of gold and copper were discovered in the remote
portions of the Talamanca mountain range near the border with
The arrival of human beings to the Americas is still hotly debated. The
most widely accepted theory is that they arrived via two routes:
1) freezing of the Bering Sea during the last ice age and
2) out-rigger canoes from Polynesian to South America. Both groups of
immigrants drifted toward the intra-tropical zones and lived as nomads
until around 3000 BC when they converted to a sedentary, agrarian life
Next: A brief history of Costa Rica II:
Text: Copyrighted 2010 Clifford Fain Dukes, Jr. Used with