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The Costa Rican equivalent of the Panama Canal ...

Travel, Vacation and Adventure Guide to Costa Rica

I think I can, I think I can, I know I can. ~ The Little Engine That Could, Watty Piper.

Orange you glad I didn’t say banana? ~ punch line of an old “knock knock” joke

The Costa Rican equivalent of the Panama Canal was the Atlantic Railroad, described by one engineer as “the most difficult damned piece of railroading in the world.”

By the mid-1800s, coffee had become very big business for small Costa Rica and its growers needed to ship more competitively to their European markets. They wanted a rail line to run 194 km (120 miles) east from Alajuela to Limón, the deep-water Atlantic port where Columbus first landed. The challenge was how to build it over impossibly high mountains, through formidable jungle and over swampy lowlands.

The railroad project, which started optimistically in 1871, soon ran into trouble after nearly 4,000 workers died from disease and accidents in laying the first 20 miles of track. Minor Cooper Keith, a brash, young, charismatic North American with an adventurer’s spirit, soon talked his way into directorship of the project. With construction in disarray, his bulldog determination pushed it forward. When Costa Rican workers refused to work outside of the Central Valley, Keith recruited first Chinese and Italian laborers, then Jamaicans and other West Indian workers.

In 1884, he renegotiated the British loans for more favorable terms. As part of his compensation, he was granted the concession to operate the railroad and a lease on 323,887 hectares/800,000 acres – nearly 7% of the country – adjoining the rail line. Keith determined to cultivate bananas in the tropical lowlands to raise more funds for the construction. This proved to be either lucky or a stroke of genius.

The “coffee” railroad was finished by 1890, although the first freight was actually bananas. This side-venture for Minor Keith proved so successful that he merged his plantations with Boston Fruit to found the infamous United Fruit Company. Vilified as the worst example of foreign exploitation and economic domination of Central America, United Fruit proved to be the modern equivalent of the Spanish carpetbaggers of years before.

Plantation workers often endured harsh conditions for little pay and were totally dependent on the company for housing, medical care and supplies from company stores. When Panama Disease infested bananas on the Atlantic side in 1934, black workers were not allowed to follow the relocation to Golfito in the Pacific lowlands. After a 72-day strike in 1985, the company pulled up stakes in Golfito and returned to Limón. Whenever the UFC left for greener plantations, its former workers and their families were devastated.

United Fruit’s domination of the banana trade lasted until the late 1950s, when Standard Fruit (Dole) broke the monopoly, but even now the various banana companies’ influence and economic power are clearly visible. As late as 1994 the police near Sarapiquí fired upon striking union workers. Since the strike in 1985, most of the independent agricultural unions have been broken and replaced by management-friendly “workers’ associations,” which every worker must join. Wages hover around US $70 a week for back-breaking, and sometimes dangerous, manual labor.

Part of the danger to workers is from agro-chemicals used to fertilize and protect the banana trees. Herbicides and fungicides are used liberally and the blue bags you see covering the banana bunches are impregnated with pesticides to protect the fruit. Although a new plastic recycling plant has been built near Siquirres to stop ground disposal of the used blue bags, banana plantations are a major source of pesticide pollution as well as deforestation. In the last 15 years, production has grown 50% and 45,000 hectares/111,150 acres – five times as much land as 1967 – are now cleared of jungle and planted with bananas.

DDuring earlier days of United Fruit, black Jamaican workers wanted nothing to do with the mestizo Spanish workers – and vice versa. The company took advantage of that to divide the workers when it came to rights and wages. In 1909, Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born North American black separatist, visited Costa Rica and was appalled by the deplorable working and living conditions. Even though the mestizo workers were not in much better shape, it was mostly blacks who stood up against the company in bloody and deadly strikes for better pay and conditions. Their justifiable complaints have lasted into modern times. Labor laws and more sympathetic governments have at least relieved some of the most egregious of workers’ problems.

Culturally, Keith’s importation of English-speaking workers of African descent also had a lasting impact on Costa Rica. Isolated from the Central Valley Spanish-speaking government, black residents kept English as a first language, although it can be somewhat hard to understand if spoken in dialect. And governing the province from the highlands has sometimes presented problems for both cultures. Over the years, Ticos have had to face up to their own institutional racism, despite their reputation for tolerance and inclusion. However, these days, blacks have integrated successfully into Costa Rica’s Spanish-centric society, while most white Costa Ricans have done the same in the Afro-Caribbean culture of the Atlantic side. As bilingual speakers in San José, Limón residents sometimes even have a workplace advantage over their Spanish-speaking countrymen.

Economically, however, the standard of living in Limón and along the Caribbean side in general, where most of the country’s black population resides, is visibly lower than in the Central Valley. Despite a rich income from bananas, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica was often treated as a poor cousin. Until 1970, when a highway was finally built, the old Atlantic Railroad was still the principal means of transportation between the capital and Limón. The city’s most common complaint – one that has been made for many years – is that the government ignores the Atlantic side in favor of other regions.

But the eastern side of Costa Rica, once dependent almost exclusively on banana production, now struggles to attract its fair share of tourism. Bananas provide Costa Rica with millions of dollars in annual revenue and jobs for thousands of workers in economically depressed areas. We always look for the “Grown in Costa Rica” labels when we shop for our daily dose of potassium-rich bananas. On the roads you’ll see many Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte brand trucks carrying precious bananas for export to the United States and Europe – Costa Rica is second only to Ecuador in world banana production – but the heralded Atlantic Railroad is no more. Financial losses caused the suspension of passenger traffic on November 20, 1990, just days short of the railroad’s 100th birthday. This piece of history, nicknamed the “Jungle Train,” had also been a popular tourist trip, taking visitors through spectacularly beautiful countryside. The train’s coup de grace came on April 22, 1991 when a powerful earthquake caused landslides that swept away large parts of the line. A small portion of the line is still running and may become a tourist attraction.


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