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Colonial times were hard for all ...

Travel, Vacation and Adventure Guide to Costa Rica

Gaily bednight, A gallant knight In sunshine and in shadow, Had journeyed long, Singing a song, In search of Eldorado ~ Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849

Colonial times were hard for all. Costa Rica, rich in flora and fauna, did not have the easily accessible gold that spurred the Spanish to conquer and settle the New World. And its native population, scattered and decimated, made the encomienda system – where local natives became the slaves of landowners – less than successful. For lack of manpower, most farms became family farms, and the national myth holds that because everyone had to work for survival, no class system developed here as it did in Mexico or Guatemala. The legacy of hard-working, independent minded farmers is the basis for Ticos’ love of democracy.

Of course, that version glosses over the maltreatment of natives and Caribbean-Africans – yet one cannot deny that Costa Rica’s long-time democratic leanings ultimately avoided the worst of the social turmoil that plagued its Latin neighbors.

But the economy was another story. Although the land was relatively fertile, the rough terrain hampered exports. Things got so bad that in 1709, cacao beans (the sole export) became the official currency. A present-day historical quip about colonial times is: “What was well distributed in Costa Rica was not wealth but poverty.”

When Irazú Volcano erupted in 1723 its ashes blanketed Cartago. This was the country’s largest city, yet it consisted of only 70 adobe and thatch houses and two churches. For years, Costa Rica was the colonial backwater of the Kingdom of Guatemala, of which it was a part.

By 1821 its 65,000 inhabitants were all but forgotten – so they were surprised to hear that Guatemala had declared independence from Spain on behalf of all Central American countries on September 15. The four largest Meseta towns of Cartago, San José, Heredia and Alajuela each met separately to declare their own independence.

Jealous and suspicious of one another, the towns agreed to remain neutral toward the future of Costa Rica until the “clouds of the day disappear” – a decision often cited as a classic example of the Tico tendency to procrastinate.

Conservative forces in Cartago and Heredia wanted to align Costa Rica with Mexico, while republican leaders in San José and Alajuela wanted complete independence. And, like city states of ancient Greece, each of the four cities insisted on being the new capital. In March 1823, a quick battle in the Ochomongo hills (a hilltop monument commemorates the fight along the Cartago-San José Highway) resulted in a republican victory, independence and, later, the designation of San José as capital.


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