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Costa Rica is noted more for its natural beauty and friendly people than for its culture. The overwhelming European influence erased almost all indigenous culture, cultural activity has only begun to blossom in the last 100 years.


By some estimates, over 90% of the country is Roman Catholic, at least in principle. In practice, most church attendance takes place at christenings, funerals and marriages. Blacks on the Caribbean coast tend to be Protestant, and there is a sprinkling of other denominations in San José, including a small Jewish community. Spanish is the official language, though English is understood in tourist areas. Many Caribbean blacks speak a lively dialect of English, known as Creole. Indian languages are spoken in isolated areas, primarily Bribri, which is estimated to be understood by about 10,000 people.

Costa Rican cuisine is tasty rather than spicy-hot and is centered around beef, chicken and fish dishes, with rice, corn or beans and fresh fruit as supplements.


Costa Ricans, as people in other countries, are caught between old cultural forces and new ones that influence especially its young inhabitants. Ticos as a whole still respect conservative values, but they're starting to adopt several American cultural traits. Even then, Costa Ricans still possess a unique identity that distinguishes them from other places and even from their neighboring countries.

Ticos are pretty homogeneous racially and culturally speaking, since only 1% of their population is considered to be Indian, and the other Black and Chinese minorities aren't very numerous. A traveler going through Latin America will notice the Ticos's relative "whiteness" when compared to the people of other places. Ticos also have a very high level of education, and the literacy rate is 96%. Thus, Costa Ricans define themselves as unique and different from their neighboring countries.

Costa Ricans are still conservative when it comes to family issues. Even though the amount of single-mother families is extremely high, family ties are still very strong even in these types of households. Traditions revolve around the family from the moment of birth to that of death. Some immensely important family traditions are: baptisms, first communions, engagement parties, weddings and funerals. These events are attended by the extended family as well as by a large quantity of friends and their family members. Also, most Costa Ricans still live at home until they are married, and leaving the household to go to college or to gain independence is still very rare.

Traditions - imagen 2Traditions are also shaped by gender differences and the "machismo" system. Men and women are expected to act differently from each other, and to respect their roles. A large proportion of Costa Rican women are professionals and hold important positions in both businesses and the government, but they still retain some traits that are traditional and conservative.

Besides traditions that revolve around the family, there are also several significant religious celebrations. The main religious events are: Easter Week or Semana Santa , Christmas Week and August second, which is the celebration of the Virgin of the Angels. Costa Rica is also different from other Latin American countries, because it practices a "lukewarm" Catholicism that causes a strange mixture of partying and religious celebration during these holidays. Also, the Indian population is so small, that religious events don't offer a mixture of Catholic and Indian practices; thus, Costa Rican processions, for example, aren't as colorful as in Mexico or Guatemala.

For Easter Week, many people that live near the capital city of San Jose choose to go to the beach; for them, Easter is mostly a time to relax and to have a good time. However, some people choose to stay at home and to join religious celebrations that include masses and processions. Nearly everything shuts down from Thursday to Monday, which is why it's a good idea to stock up on goods before then, and to avoid traveling, since some transportation services also stop completely. During the Christmas celebration and some days previous to New Years, the same phenomenon occurs. A lot of people attend religious celebrations held at churches or at homes (like rosary and prayer events that offer large quantities of food and drink), while others choose to escape their urban routines and go to the beach. Another religious celebration is the pilgrimage to the Basilica de los Angeles in Cartago city, in honor of the Virgin of the Angels. During this holiday many people walk to the city from all parts of the country, in order to pay a "promise" to the Virgin (when she answered a prayer) or to renew their faith. This event is incredible because of its magnitude and also because some believers travel for days or even weeks in order to reach their destination and to honor the Virgin. Even though some Costa Ricans decide to party during religious celebrations, they still prefer to do it in the company of their family, thus maintaining cultural and family unity. Ticos are extremely friendly to foreigners, and once they've gotten to know you they'll invite you to family gatherings and celebrations. After all, hospitality is probably the most widespread tradition in Costa Rica.

When one talks about culture, one is venturing into ample terrain. This piece can't possibly cover the whole ground of Costa Rican culture, but it does discuss the following points: race, class, customs, identity and religion. Costa Ricans, as any other people, are complex and full of surprises.

The country boasts a population close to 3.5 million people, which by standards of the region, is not large at all. El Salvador, for example, is half the size of Costa Rica, but it has double its inhabitants. Also, the growth rate of the population of Costa Rica is only 2.3% per year, and it's actually decreasing.

Racially speaking, the country is one of the most homogenous of the region. Costa Ricans don't like to consider themselves as racists, but they also enjoy talking about their unique "whiteness" , when compared to other Latin American countries. The 1989 census classified 98% of the people as white or mestizo, and 2% as black or indigenous. A foreigner traveling through Central America will notice the difference between Costa Ricans and their neighbors. Even though racial problems don't exist to the extent that they do in the U.S. or in some European countries, some "Ticos" look down upon darker-skinned people. Blacks weren't even allowed to go beyond the Atlantic province of Limón, until a 1949 reform. However, racial confrontations are extremely rare and prejudice, even though it exists, is displayed in indirect and careful ways.

Costa Rica is also homogenous when it comes to social classes. Most of the population can be placed in a middle-class, and even though extreme poverty exists, it's not as large a problem as it is in other Latin countries. By the standards of a developed country, Costa Rican incomes are very low, but when compared to other neighbors, salaries and earnings prove to be much better. Besides the poor and middle classes, there is an upper class, which is very elitist. As in other countries, this class is composed by both traditionally rich families as well as by "nouveau riche" families. Even with the existence of extremely rich or poor individuals, Costa Rican society is composed mostly by a middle-class, which causes the impression of class and social homogeneity.

Most of the "Ticos" are very conservative individuals who don't usually welcome "strange" or different ideas. The country's economy and industry have grown incredibly in the past years, but the culture still retains conservative tendencies. A lot of foreigners view the Ticos as lacking initiative and as being passive. They also complain of the lack of punctuality and of quick decision-making. However, the positive aspects of the Tico identity are the friendliness and hospitality that most people transmit. Costa Ricans are also extremely social, and they enjoy gatherings and celebrations of all sorts.

One aspect of Costa Rican culture must be treated separately from others- "machismo". The machista way of thinking is shared to some extent by most men and women, although it's not as extreme as in other Latin countries. While machismo has its negative aspects, it also has its advantages, and is often used by most local women to their advantage.

Finally, when talking about culture, one must not forget the topic of religion. Even though 90% of the country is Catholic, they practice a "lukewarm" Catholicism. Ever since colonial times, the Catholic Institution hasn't exerted a powerful influence either politically or culturally. Most Costa Rican Catholics view their religion more as a tradition than as a practice or even a faith.

Many foreigners have fallen in love with the country and the culture of Costa Rica. The main characteristic of the culture seems to be moderation, as opposed to other countries that offer a culture full of extremes and excesses. The race and the classes are pretty homogenous, while the ideal of the Tico identity encourages compromise and peace, instead of revolution and violence. Even the machismo attitude is tame when compared to other places in the region. Although religious, Ticos frown upon fanaticism or excessive power of the Church. Perhaps this respect for the middle ground is the reason why many foreigners have chosen the country as a travel destination or as a permanent residence.

Class and Race

Most Costa Ricans insist that their country is a "classless democracy." True, the social tensions of class versus class that characterize many neighboring nations are absent. Ticos lack the volatility, ultranationalism, and deep-seated political divisions of their Latin American brethren. There is considerable social mobility, and no race problem on the scale of the United States'. And virtually everyone shares a so-called middle-class mentality, a firm belief in the Costa Rican equivalent of "the American Dream"--a conviction that through individual effort and sacrifice and a faith in schooling every Costa Rican can climb the social ladder and better him- or herself.

Still, despite the high value Ticos place on equality and democracy, their society contains all kinds of inequities. Wealth is unevenly distributed (the richest one percent of families receive 10% of the national income; the poorest 50% receive only 20%; and at least one-fifth of the population remain marginados who are so poor they remain outside the mainstream of progress).

A small number of families--the descendants of the original hidalgos (nobles)--have monopolized power for almost four centuries (just three families have produced 36 of Costa Rica's 49 presidents, and fully three-quarters of congressmen 1821-1970 were the offspring of this "dynasty of conquistadores").

Urbanites, like city dwellers worldwide, condescendingly chuckle at rural "hicks." The skewed tenure of an albeit much-diluted feudalism persists in regions long dominated by plantations and haciendas. The upwardly mobile consider menial labor demeaning. And tolerance of racial minorities is tenuous, with "whiteness" still considered the ideal.

Though comparatively wealthy compared to most Latin American countries, by developed-world standards most Costa Ricans are poor (the average income is slightly less than US$3000 per annum). Many rural families still live in simple huts of adobe or wood; the average income in the northern lowlands, for example, is barely one-seventh that in San José. And although few and far between, shacks made from gasoline tins, old automobile tires, and corrugated tin give a miserable cover to poor urban laborers in small tugurios--illegally erected slums--on the outskirts and the riverbanks of San José.

However, that all paints far too gloomy a picture. In a region where thousands thrive and millions starve, the vast majority of Costa Ricans are comparatively well-to-do. The country has few desperately poor, and there are very few beggars existing on the bare charity of the world. The majority of Costa Ricans keep their proud little bungalows spick and span and bordered by flowers, and even the poorest Costa Ricans are generally well groomed and neatly, even formally, dressed: the men in fedoras, the women in shawls.

Overt class distinctions are kept within bounds by a delicate balance between "elitism" and egalitarianism unique in the isthmus: aristocratic airs are frowned on and blatant pride in blue blood is ridiculed; even the president is inclined to mingle in public in casual clothing and is commonly addressed in general conversation by his first name or nickname.

Costa Rican Ethnicity

Costa Rica is unquestionably the most homogeneous of Central American nations in race as well as social class. Travelers familiar with other Central American nations will immediately notice the contrast: the vast majority of Costa Ricans look predominantly European. The 1989 census classified 98% of the population as "white" or "mestizo," and less than two percent as "black" or "Indian." Native and European mixed blood far less than in other New World countries. There are mestizos--in fact, approximately 95% of Ticans inherit varying mixtures of the mestizo blend of European colonists with Indian and black women--but the lighter complexion of Old World immigrants is evident throughout the nation. Exceptions are Guanacaste, where almost half the population is visibly mestizo, a legacy of the more pervasive unions between Spanish colonists and Chorotega Indians through several generations. And the population of the Atlantic coast province of Puerto Limón is one-third black, with a distinct culture that reflects its West Indian origins.


Costa Rica's approximately 40,000 black people are the nation's largest minority. For many years they were the target of racist immigration and residence laws that restricted them to the Caribbean coast (only as late as 1949, when the new Constitution abrogated apartheid on the Atlantic Railroad, were blacks allowed to travel beyond Siquerres and enter the highlands). Hence, they remained isolated from national culture. Although Afro-Caribbean turtle hunters settled on the Caribbean coast as early as 1825, most blacks today trace their ancestry back to the 10,000 or so Jamaicans hired by Minor Keith to build the Atlantic Railroad, and to later waves of immigrants who came to work the banana plantations in the late 19th century.

Costa Rica's early black population was "dramatically upwardly mobile" and by the 1920s a majority of the West Indian immigrants owned plots of land or had risen to higher-paying positions within the banana industry. Unfortunately, they possessed neither citizenship nor the legal right to own land. In the 1930s, when "white" highlanders began pouring into the lowlands, blacks were quickly dispossessed of land and the best-paying jobs. Late that decade, when the banana blight forced the banana companies to abandon their Caribbean plantations and move to the Pacific, "white" Ticos successfully lobbied for laws forbidding the employment of gente de color in other provinces, one of several circumstances that kept blacks dependent on the largesse of the United Fruit Company, whose labor policies were often abhorrent. Pauperized, many blacks migrated to Panama and the U.S. seeking wartime employment. A good proportion of those who remained converted their subsistence plots into commercial cacao farms and reaped large profits during the 1950s to '60s from the rise of world cacao prices.

West Indian immigrants played a substantial role in the early years of labor organization, and their early strikes were often violently suppressed (Tican folklore falsely believes in black passivity). Many black workers, too, joined hands with Figueres in the 1948 Civil War. Their reward? Citizenship and full guarantees under the 1949 Constitution, which ended apartheid.

Costa Rica's black population has consistently attained higher educational standards than the national average and many blacks are now found in leading professions throughout the nation. They have also managed to retain much of their traditional culture, including religious practices rooted in African belief about transcendence through spiritual possession (obeah), their rich cuisine (codfish and akee, "rundown"), the rhythmic lilt of their slightly antiquated English, and the deeply syncopated funk of their music.


Costa Rica's indigenous peoples have suffered abysmally. Centuries ago the original Indian tribes were splintered by Spanish conquistadores and compelled to retreat into the vast tracts of the interior mountains (the Chorotegas of Guanacaste, however, were more gradually assimilated into the national culture). Today, approximately 9,000 Indian peoples of the Bribrí, Boruca, and Cabecar tribes manage to eke out a living from the jungles of remote valleys in the Talamanca Mountains of southern Costa Rica, where their ancestors had sought refuge from Spanish muskets and dogs. There are currently 22 Indian reserves for eight different Indian groups.

Although various agencies continue to work to promote education, health, and community development, the Indians' standard of living is appallingly low, alcoholism is endemic, and they remain subject to constant exploitation. In 1939, the government granted every Indian family an allotment of 148 hectares for traditional farming, and in December 1977 a law was passed prohibiting non-Indians from buying, leasing, or renting land within the reserves.

Despite the legislation, a majority of Indians have gradually been tricked into selling their allotments or otherwise forced off their lands. Poor soils and rough rides have not kept colonists in search of land and gold from invading the reserves. Banana companies have gradually encroached into the Indian's remote kingdoms, buying up land and pushing campesinos onto Indian property. Mining companies are infiltrating the reserves along newly built roads which become conduits for contamination, like dirty threads in a wound. In 1991, for example, an American mining company was accused of illegally exploring within the Talamanca Indian Reserve. And hotel developers are violating the protective laws by pushing up properties within coastal reserves.

Indigenous peoples complain that the National Commission for Indigenous Affairs (CONAI) has proved particularly ineffective in enforcing protections. "When the moment arrives for CONAI to stand up for the Indian people, they don't dare. They duck down behind their desks and wait for their paychecks to arrive," says Boruca Indian leader José Carlos Morales.

The various Indian clans cling tenuously to what remains of their cultures. The Borucas, who inhabit scattered villages in tight-knit patches of the Pacific southwest, have been most adept at conserving their own language and civilization, including matriarchy, communal land ownership, and traditional weaving. For most other groups, only a few elders still speak the languages, and interest in traditional crafts is fading. Virtually all groups have adopted elements of Catholicism along with their traditional animistic religions, Spanish is today the predominant tongue, and economically the Indians have for the most part come to resemble impoverished campesinos.

Other Ethnic Groups

Immigrants from many nations have been made welcome over the years (between 1870 and 1920, almost 25% of Costa Rica's population growth was due to immigration). Jews are prominent in the liberal professions. There is a Quaker community of several hundred people centered on Monteverde, where they produce goudas, cheddars, and monterico cheeses. Germans have for many generations been particularly successful as coffee farmers. Italians have gathered, among other places, in the town of San Vito, on the central Pacific coast. Tens of thousands of Central American refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua still find safety in Costa Rica, where they provide cheap labor for the coffee fields. The Chinese man quoted in Paul Theroux's Old Patagonia Express (see p. xiii) is one of several thousand Chinese who call Costa Rica home. Many are descended from approximately 600 Orientals who were imported as contract laborers to work on the Atlantic Railroad (an 1862 law prohibiting immigration by Asians had been lifted on the understanding that the Chinese would return home once the work was complete). The Chinese railroad workers were worked miserably and paid only one-fifth of the going wage. In recent years many chinos have immigrated freely and are now conspicuously successful in the hotel, restaurant, and bar trade (Theroux's Chinese man owned one of each), and in Limón as middlemen controlling the trade in bananas and cacao.

The Tican Identity

Every nationality has its own sense of identity. Costa Ricans have their own unique traits that derive from a profoundly conscious self-image which orients much of their behavior as both individuals and as a nation. The Ticos--the name is said to stem from the colonial saying "we are all hermaniticos (little brothers)"--feel distinct from their neighbors by their "whiteness" and relative lack of indigenous culture. Ticos identify themselves first and foremost as Costa Ricans and only Central Americans, or even Latin Americans, as an afterthought.

They're extremely critical of themselves, as individuals and as a society. Costa Ricans, too, regardless of wealth or status, act with utmost humility and judge as uncouth boasting of any kind. Their behavior and comments are dictated by quedar bien, a desire to leave a good impression. Like the English, they're terribly frightened of embarrassing themselves, of appearing rude or vulgar (tactless and crude people are considered "badly educated") or unhelpful. As such, they are exceedingly courteous, almost archaically so (they are prone, for example, to offer flowing compliments and formal greetings). It is a rare visitor to the country who returns home unimpressed by the Costa Ricans' celebrated cordial warmth and hospitality.

Ticos are also as tranquil as doves. Violence of any kind is extremely rare. The religious fervor common in Mexico and the Central American isthmus is unknown. And the law-abiding Ticos respect and have faith in their laws, their police force, and state institutions (except, it seems, on the roads). In fact, a distaste for anything that impinges on their liberty or that of their nation is just about the only thing that will make their hackles rise. Attempts to modernize the police force, for example, bring floods of editorial columns and popular outrage protesting "militarism."

Democracy is their most treasured institution, and the ideal of personal liberty is strongly cherished. Costa Ricans are intensely proud of their accomplishments in this arena and show it at 6 p.m. on each 14 September, on the eve of Independence Day, when the whole nation comes to a halt and everyone gustily sings the national anthem.

A progressive people, Ticos revere education. "We have more teachers than soldiers" is a common boast and framed school diplomas hang in even the most humble homes. Everyone, too, is eager for the benefits of social progress. Sociologists, however, suggest that Costa Ricans are very conservative people, suspicious of experimentation that is not consistent with a loosely held sense of "tican tradition." Changes, too, supposedly should be made poco a poco, little by little. Ticos share the fatalistic streak common to Latin America: one that accepts things as they are and promotes resignation to the imagined will of God.

Many old virtues and values have faltered under the onslaught of foreign influence, modernity, and social change. Drunkenness, drug abuse, and a general idleness previously unknown in Costa Rica have reared their ugly heads. And theft and burglary are seriously on the rise (see "Safety," p. 162). But most Costa Ricans remain strongly oriented around traditional values based on respect for oneself and for others. The cornerstone of society is still the family and the village community. Social life still centers on the home and family bonds are so strong that foreigners often find making intimate friendships a challenge. Nepotism--using family ties and connections for gain--is the way things get done in business and government.

You can count on a Tico's loyalty, but not on his punctuality. Private companies, including most travel businesses, are efficient and to a greater or lesser degree operate hora americana: punctually. But don't expect it. Many Ticos, particularly in government institutions, still tick along on turtle-paced hora tica. "[[questiondown]]Quien sabe?" ("Who knows?") is an oft-repeated phrase. So too "[[exclamdown]]Tal vez!" ("Perhaps!") and, of course, "[[exclamdown]]Mañana!" ("Tomorrow!").


Costa Ricans are said to be "lukewarm" when it comes to religion. Although more than 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, at least in name, almost no one gets riled up about their faith. Sure, Holy Week (the week before Easter) is a national holiday, but it's simply an excuse for a secular binge. The passing of the parish priest inspires no reverential gestures. And most Costa Ricans respond to the bell, the public voice of the church, only on special occasions, generally when the bell peals for birth, marriage, and maybe for Easter Morning, when the mass of men mill by the door, unpiously half in and half out.

The country has always been remarkably secular, the link between Christianity and the state--between God and Caesar--always weak. The Costa Ricans' dislike for dictators has made them intolerant of priests. The feudal peasants of other Central American nations, miserably toiling on large estates (latifundias) or their own tiny plots, may have been poor and ignorant, but the Church offered them one great consolation. Theirs would be the kingdom of heaven. And in more recent times, when Catholic organizations attempted to address pressing social problems, they strengthened the Church's bond with the people. In Costa Rica, by contrast, the Church, from the earliest colonial times, had little success at controlling the morals and minds of the masses. While poor peasants can be convinced they'll become bourgeois in heaven, a rising class wants its comforts on earth. Costa Rica's modernity and "middle-class" achievements have made the Church superfluous.

Still, every village no matter how small has a church and its own saint's day, albeit celebrated with secular fervor. Every taxi, bus, government office, and home has its token religious icons. The Catholic marriage ceremony is the only church marriage granted state recognition. And Catholicism is the official state religion. The 1949 Constitution even provided for state contributions to the maintenance of the Church; and the salaries of bishops are paid by the state.

Catholicism, nonetheless, has only a tenuous hold; mass in some rural communities may be a once-a-year affair, and resignation to God's will is tinged with pagan fatalism. In a crisis Ticos will turn to a favorite saint, one who they believe has special powers or "pull" with God, to demand a miracle. And folkloric belief in witchcraft is still common (Escazú is renowned as a center for brujos, witches who specialize in casting out spells and resolving love problems).

Protestantism has proved even less spellbinding. The Catholic clergy has fiercely protected its turf against Protestant missionaries (even Billy Graham's tour in 1958 was blackballed by the local media), and the Protestant evangelism so prevalent in other parts of Central America has yet to make a dent in Costa Rica. A great many sects, however, have found San José the ideal base for proselytizing forays elsewhere in the isthmus. The nation's black population constitutes about half of Costa Rica's 40,000 or so Protestants, though the archbishop of Canterbury would be horrified at the extent to which "his" religion has been married with African-inspired, voodoo-like obeah and pocomoia cult worship.


The briefest sojourn in San José makes clear that Costa Ricans are a highly literate people: the country boasts of 93% literacy in those 10 and over, the most literate populace in Central America. Many of the country's early father figures, including the first president, José Maria Castro, were former teachers and shared a great concern for education. In 1869, the country became one of the first in the world to make education both obligatory and free, funded by the state's share of the great coffee wealth (as early as 1828, an unenforced law had made school attendance mandatory). Then, only one in 10 Costa Ricans could read and write. By 1920, 50% of the population were literate. By 1973, when the Ministry of Education published a landmark study, the figure was 89%.

The study also revealed some worrying factors. Over half of all Costa Ricans aged 15 or over--600,000--had dropped out of school by the sixth grade, for example. Almost 1,000 schools had only one teacher, often a partially trained aspirante (candidate teacher) lacking certification. And the literacy figures included many "functional illiterates" counted by their simple ability to sign their own name. The myth of "more teachers than soldiers" and the boast of the highest literacy rate in Central America had blinded Costa Ricans to their system's many defects.

The last 20 years have seen a significant boost to educational standards. Since the 1970s the country has invested more than 28% of the national budget on primary and secondary education. A nuclearization program has worked to amalgamate one-teacher schools. And schooling through the ninth year (age 14) is now compulsory. Nonetheless, there remains a severe shortage of teachers with a sound knowledge of the full panoply of academic subjects, discredited rote-learning methods are still common, remote rural schools are often difficult to reach in the best of weather, and the Ministry of Education is riven with political appointees who change hats with each administration. As elsewhere in the world, well-to-do families usually send their children to private schools.

Village libraries are about the only means for adults in rural areas to continue education beyond sixth grade. The country, with approximately 100 libraries, has a desperate need for books and for funds to support the hundreds of additional libraries which the country needs. Books (Spanish preferred) can be donated to the National Library (c/o Vera Violeta Salazar Mora, Director, Dirección Bibliotecas Públicas, Apdo. 10-008, San José; tel. 236-1828).

A new program recently instigated by the Ministerio de Educatión accepts volunteers to teach English (Departamento de Inglés, San José 1000). WorldTeach (Harvard Institute for International Development, 1 Eliot St., Cambridge, MA 02138; tel. 617-495-5527, fax 617-495-1239) also places volunteers to teach English in schools that have requested assistance. The local school or community provides housing and a living allowance; you pay a participation fee of $3500 that covers airfare, health insurance, training, and field support.


Although the country lacked a university until 1940, Costa Rica now boasts four state-funded schools of higher learning, and opportunities abound for adults to earn the primary or secondary diplomas they failed to gain as children.

The University of Costa Rica (UCR), the largest and oldest university, enrolls some 35,000 students, mostly on scholarships. The main campus is in the northeastern San José community of San Pedro (UCR also has regional centers in Alajuela, Turrialba, Puntarenas, and Cartago). The National University in Heredia (there are regional centers in Liberia and Perez Zeledon) offers a variety of liberal arts, sciences, and professional studies to 13,000 students. Cartago's Technical Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) specializes in science and technology and seeks to train people for agriculture, industry, and mining. And the State Correspondence University, founded in 1978, is modeled after the United Kingdom's Open University and has 32 regional centers offering 15 degree courses in health, education, business administration, and the liberal arts.

In addition, there are many private institutions, including the Autonomous University of Central America and the University for Peace, sponsored by the United Nations and offering a master's degree in Communications for Peace.


Perhaps the most impressive impact of Costa Rica's modern welfare state has been the truly dramatic improvements in national health. Infant mortality has plummeted from 25.6% in 1920 to only 1.5% in 1990. The annual death rate dropped from 41 per thousand in 1894 to 18 in 1944 and just 3.9 per thousand in 1989. And the average Costa Rican today can expect to live to be a ripe 73.2 years old--longer than the average U.S.-born citizen. All this thanks to the Social Security system which provides universal insurance benefits covering medical services, disability, maternity, old-age pensions, and death.

Currently Costa Rica assigns about 10% of its GNP to health care. The result? A physician for every 700 people and a hospital bed for every 275. In fact, in some areas the health-care system isn't far behind that of the U.S. in terms of the latest medical technology, at least in San José, where transplant surgery is now performed. Many Americans fly in for surgery, including dental work, here. And the Beverly Hills crowd helps keep Costa Rica's cosmetic surgeons busy.

One key to the nation's success was the creation of the Program for Rural Health in 1970 to ensure that basic health care would reach the furthest backwaters. The program, aimed at the 50% of the population living in small communities, established rural health posts attended by paramedics. The clinics are visited regularly by doctors and nurses, and strengthened by education programs stressing good nutrition, hygiene, and safe food preparation. Even a few years ago malnutrition reaped young Ticos like a scythe; in the last two decades infant mortality due to malnutrition has fallen by over 80%. In April 1992, the Social Security service initiated a new plan aimed at lowering infant mortality to one percent. It's a constant battle, however. Health standards slipped slightly in 1990-91 due to budget cutbacks: the tuberculosis rate doubled in 1991, for example, and that year the nation witnessed its first measles epidemic in many years. But then again, so did the United States.

Arts and Culture

Interest--and excellence--in the arts have been slow to develop. Costa Rica, with its relatively small and heterogeneous pre-Columbian population, had no unique culture with powerful and unusual artforms that could spark a creative synthesis where the modern and the traditional might merge. Costa Rica's postcolonial development, too, was benign and the social tensions (which are often catalysts to artistic expression) felt elsewhere in the isthmus were lacking. And more recently, creativity has been stifled by the Ticos' desire to quedar bien (leave a good impression), praise the conventional lavishly, and criticize rarely.

Hence, Costa Rica is relatively impoverished in native arts and crafts. In Costa Rican literature there has never been anyone of the stature of Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Jorge Amado, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, or Jorge Luís Borge. And much of the modern art that exists has been patronized by the tourist dollar, so that art and craft shops now overflow with whimsical Woolworth's art: cheap canvas scenes of rural landscapes, roughhewn macaws gaudily painted, and the inevitable cheap bracelets and earrings sold in market squares the world over.

In recent years, however, artists across the spectrum have found a new confidence and are dismissing rigid social norms to experiment with new paintings and sculptures and movements that metaphorically express the shape of their thoughts. The country's artistic milieu doesn't have the same vibrancy as Argentina's, say, but beneath the patina exciting things are happening for a country long dismissed as a cultural backwater. The performing arts are flourishing. A young breed of woodcarvers and carpenters is transcending the relegation of native-style crafts to mere airport art. Artists are tearing free from a straitjacket of conformity. And the National Symphony Orchestra sets a high standard for other musical troupes to follow. Ticos now speak proudly of their latter-day "cultural revolution."


Santa Ana and neighboring Escazú have long been magnets for artists. Escazú in particular is home to many contemporary artists: Christina Fournier; the brothers Jorge, Manuel, Javier, and Carlos Mena; and Dinorah Bolandi, who was awarded the nation's top cultural prize. Here, in the late 1920s, Teodorico Quiros and a group of contemporaries provided the nation with its own identifiable art style--the Costa Rican "Landscape" movement--which expressed in stylized version the flavor and personality of the drowsy little mountain towns with their cobblestone streets and adobe houses backed by volcanoes. The artists, who called themselves the Group of New Sensibility, began to portray Costa Rica in fresh, vibrant colors.

Quiros had been influenced by the French impressionists. His painting El Porton Rojo ("The Red Gate") hangs in the Museum of Costa Rican Art. The group also included Luisa Gonzales de Saenz, whose paintings evoke the style of Magritte; the expressionist Manuel de la Cruz, the "Costa Rican Picasso;" as well as Enrique Echandi, who brought a Teutonic sensibility following studies in Germany.

One of the finest examples of sculpture from this period, the chiseled stone image of a child suckling his mother's breast, can be seen outside the Maternidad Carit maternity clinic in southern San José. Its creator, Francisco Zuñigo (Costa Rica's most acclaimed sculptor), upped and left for Mexico in a fit of artistic pique in 1936 when the sculpture, titled Maternity, was lampooned by local critics (one said it looked more like a cow than a woman).

By the late 1950s many local artists looked down on the work of the prior generation as the art of casitas (little houses) and were indulging in more abstract styles. The current batch of young artists have broadened their expressive visions and are now gaining increasing international recognition for their "eclectic speculations into modernist and contemporary art."

Many of Costa Rica's new breed of artists have won international acclaim. Isidro Con Wong, from Puntarenas, is known for a style of "magic realism," with works in permanent collections in several US and French museums. Once a poor farmer of Mongolian descent, he started painting with his fingers and achiote, a red paste made from a seed. "Children, drunk bohemians, or the mentally regressed--in other words the innocent chosen by God--are those who understand my works," he says. Imagine the Nicoya landscape seen on LSD! His paintings sell for about $35,000 each.

In Puerto Limón, Leonel González paints images of the Caribbean port with figures reduced to thick black silhouettes against backgrounds of splendid colors, "overtaken if not fully embraced by the design," says art critic Pau Llosa. The most irreverent of contemporary artists is perhaps Roberto Lizano, who collides Delacroix with Picasso and likes to train his eye on the pomposity of ecclesiastics.

The government-subsidized House of Arts helps sponsor art by offering free lessons in painting and sculpture. The Ministry of Culture sponsors art lessons and exhibits on Sundays in city parks. University art galleries, the Museo de Art Costarricense, and the many smaller galleries scattered throughout San José exhibit works of all kinds.

The Center for Creative Arts, opened in 1991 in Santa Ana west of Escazú, offers courses and studio space for local and visiting artists (tel. 282-6556 or 282-8769).


Costa Rica doesn't overflow with native crafts. Apart from a few notable exceptions--the gaily colored wooden carretas (oxcarts) which have become Costa Rica's tourist symbol, for example--you must dig deep to uncover crafts of substance. There are few villages dedicated to a single craft or crafts, as in Mexico or Guatemala. Much that is sold for home decoration or to tourists reflects a mediocre kitsch culture that is imitative rather than creative (frankly, much is cheap junk). And, other than the carretas, there is nothing distinctly and recognizably costarricense.

Still, there are a few worthy exceptions. Guaitil, in Nicoya, retains the Chorotega Indian tradition of pottery. And Santa Ana is also famous for its ceramics: large greenware bowls, urns, vases, coffee mugs, and small tipico adobe houses fired in brick kilns and clay pits on the patios of some 30 independent family workshops, such as Ceramica Santa Ana (see p. 294). In Escazú, master craftsman Barry Biesanz (see p. 289) skillfully handles razor-sharp knives and chisels to craft subtle, delicate images, bowls as hemispherical as turned with a lathe, and decorative boxes with tight dovetailed corners from carefully chosen blocks of tropical woods: lignin vitae (ironwood), nazareno (purple heart), rosewood, satinwood, and tigerwood.

Many of the best crafts in Costa Rica come from Sarchí. Visitors are welcome to enter the fabricas de carretas and watch the families and master artists at work producing exquisitely contoured bowls, serving dishes, and--most notably--miniature versions of the carretas for which the village is now famous worldwide. Although an occasional full-size oxcart is still made, today most of the carretas made in Sarchí are folding miniature trolleys--like little hot-dog stands--that serve as liquor bars or indoor tables, and half-size carts used as garden ornaments or simply to accent a corner of a home. The carts are painted in dazzling white or burning orange and decorated with geometric mandala designs and floral patterns that have found their way, too, onto wall plaques, kitchen trays, and other craft items. Sarchí and the Moravia suburb of San José are also noted for their leather satchels and purses.

There's not much in the way of clothing. However, the women of Drake Bay are famous for molas, colorful and decorative hand-sewn appliqué used for blouses, dresses, and wall hangings. Of indigenous art there is also little, though the Boruca Indians carve balsa-wood masks--light, living representations of supernatural beings--and decorated gourds, such as used as a resonator in the quijongo, a bowed-string instrument.


Though the government, private donors, and the leading newspaper La Nacion sponsor literature through annual prizes, only a handful of writers make a living from writing, and Costa Rican literature is often belittled as the most prosaic and anemic in Latin America. Lacking great goals and struggles, Costa Rica was never a breeding ground for the passions and dialectics which spawned the literary geniuses of Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile, whose works, full of satire and bawdy humor, are "clenched fists which cry out against social injustice."

Costa Rica's early literary figures were mostly essayists and poets (Roberto Brenes Mesen and Joaquin Garcia Monge are the most noteworthy). Even the writing of the 1930s and '40s, whose universal theme was a plea for social progress, lacked the pace and verisimilitude and rich literary delights of other Latin American authors. Carlos Luis Fallas's Mamita Yunai, which depicts the plight of banana workers, is the best and best-known example of this genre. Other examples include Fallas's Gentes y Gentecillas, Joaquín Gutierrez's Puerto Limón and Federica, and Carmen Lyra's Bananos y Hombres.

Much of modern literature still draws largely from the local setting, and though the theme of class struggle has given way to a lighter, more novelistic approach it still largely lacks the mystical, surrealistic, Rabelaisian excesses, the endless layers of experience and meaning, and the wisdom, subtlety, and palpitating romanticism of the best of Brazilian, Argentinean, and Colombian literature. An outstanding exception is Julieta Pinto's El Eco de los Pasos, a striking novel about the 1948 Civil War.

Music and Dance

Ticos love to dance. By night San José gets into its stride with discos hotter than the tropical night. On weekends rural folks flock to small-town dance halls, and the Ticos' celebrated reserve gives way to outrageously flirtatious dancing befitting a land of passionate men and women. Says National Geographic: "To watch the viselike clutching of Ticos and Ticas dancing, whether at a San José discotheque or a crossroads cantina, is to marvel that the birthrate in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation is among Central America's lowest." Outside the dance hall, the young prefer to listen to Anglo-American rock, like their counterparts the world over. When it comes to dancing, however, they prefer the hypnotic Latin and rhythmic Caribbean beat and bewildering cadences of cumbia, lambada, marcado, merengue, salsa, soca, and the Costa Rican swing, danced with sure-footed erotic grace.

Many dances and much of the music of Costa Rica reflect African, even pre-Columbian, as well as Spanish roots. The country is one of the southernmost of the "marimba culture" countries, although the African-derived marimba (xylophone) music of Costa Rica is more elusive and restrained than the vigorous native music of Panama and Guatemala, its heartland. The guitar, too, is a popular instrument, especially as an accompaniment to folk dances such as the Punto Guanacaste, a heel-and-toe stomping dance for couples, officially decreed the national dance. (The dance actually only dates back to the turn of the century, when it was composed in jail by Leandro Cabalceta Brau.)

Costa Rica has a strong peña tradition, introduced by Chilean and Argentinian exiles. Literally, "circle of friends," peñas are bohemian, international gatherings--usually in favored cafes--where moving songs are shared, and the wine and tears flow.

On the Caribbean coast music is profoundly Afro-Caribbean in spirit and rhythm, with plentiful drums and banjos, a local rhythm called sinkit, and the cuadrille, a maypole dance in which each dancer holds one of many ribbons tied to the top of a pole: as they dance they braid their brightly colored ribbons. The Caribbean, though, is really the domain of calypso and reggae, whose seductive tempo lures you to dance, reducing life to a simple, joyful response to the most irresistible beat in the world.

Three dance academies can teach you the basics of dancing a la costarricense: Danza Viva (tel. 253-3110) offers courses in salsa and merengue, the two dances most popular at discos, as well as the lambada, the more formal bolero and marcado, the Caribbean mambo, and ballet, jazz, and modern dance. An offshoot of Danza Viva is Merecumbe (tel. 224-3531), which specializes in popular dancing. And the Academia de Bailes Latinos offers more intensive courses in ballroom and formal dancing.

Folkloric Dancing

Guanacaste is the heartland of Costa Rican folkloric music and dancing. Here, even such pre-Columbian instruments as the chirimia (oboe) and quijongo (a single-string bow with gourd resonator) popularized by the Chorotega Indians are still used as backing for traditional Chorotega dances such as the Danza del Sol and Danza de la Luna. The more familiar Cambute and Botijuela Tamborito--blurring flurries of voluminous frilly lace skirts accompanied by tossing of scarves, a fanning of hats, and loud lusty yelps from the men--are usually performed on behalf of tourists rather than at native turnos (fiestas).

A number of folkloric dance troupes tour the country, while others perform year-round at such venues as the Melico Salazar Theater, the Aduana Theater, and the National Dance Workshop headquarters in San José. Of particular note is Fantasía Folklorica, a colorful highlight of the country's folklore and history from pre-Columbian to modern times (see p. 222).

Vestiges of the half-dead Indian folk dancing linger by a hair's breadth elsewhere in the nation. The Borucas still perform their Danza de los Diablitos, and the Talamancas their Danza de Los Huelos. But the drums and flutes, including the curious dru mugata, an ocarina (a small potato-shaped instrument with a mouthpiece and finger holes which yields soft, sonorous notes) made of beeswax, are being replaced by guitars and accordions. Even the solemn Indian music is basically Spanish in origin and hints at the typically slow and languid Spanish canción (song) which gives full rein to the romantic, sentimental aspect of the Latin character.

Classical Music

Costa Rica stepped onto the world stage in classical music with the formation, in 1970, of the National Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of an American, Gerald Brown. The orchestra, which performs in the National Theater, often features world-renowned guest soloists and conductors. Its season is April through November, with concerts on Thursday and Friday evenings, plus Saturday matinees. Costa Rica also claims the only state-subsidized youth orchestra in the Western world. The Sura Chamber Choir, founded in 1989 with musicians and vocalists from the country's two state universities, is the first professional choir in Central America, with a repertoire from sacred through Renaissance to contemporary styles. The Goethe Institute, Alliance Française, the Museo de Arte Costarricense, and the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center (call 253-5527 for information on the Center's US University Music Series) all offer occasional classical music evenings.

Costa Rica holds an International Festival of Music during the last two weeks of August. In 1992, performances included the Costa Rican Chamber Orchestra, a Brazilian chamber orchestra, a string, woodwind, and harpsichord sextet, and Costa Rican music for two guitars.


A nation of avid theater lovers, Costa Rica supports a thriving acting community. In fact, Costa Rica supposedly has more theater companies per capita than any other country in the world. The country's early dramatic productions gained impetus and inspiration from Argentinean and Chilean playwrights and actors who settled here at the turn of the century, when drama was established as part of the school curriculum.

The streets of San José are festooned with tiny theaters--everything from comedy to drama, avant-garde, theater-in-the-round, mime, and even puppet theater. Crowds flock every night Tuesday through Sunday. Performances are predominantly in Spanish, although some perform in English. (The English-speaking Little Theater Group is Costa Rica's oldest theatrical troupe; they perform principally in the Centro Cultural's Eugene O'Neill Theater.) And the prices are so cheap--you could go once a week for a year for the same cost as a single Broadway production--that you can enjoy yourself even if your Spanish is poor. Theaters rarely hold more than 100 to 200 people and often sell out early. Shows normally begin at 7:30 or 8 p.m. The Tico Times offers a complete listing of current productionsand notes whether a play is in Spanish or English. Also see the "Viva" section in La Nacion.

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