Costa Rica History and Politics

Indian cultures

Around 10,000 BC The first people settled in what is now Costa Rica. Several peoples were formed who immigrated from the north or south. One can differentiate between peoples who resemble the cultures of Mesoamerica and those who were influenced by the Caribbean or South America. Many of the ethnic groups developed between 300 BC. and 300 AD from non-hierarchical peoples to rich ruled by a Kaziken (leader of the Indians).

Nicoya and Huetar

In the north, on the Nicoya Peninsula, lived the Chorotega. Their kingdom of Nicoya came into being around 800 and was destroyed by the Spanish in 1520. The Huetares lived in the central highlands and on the Caribbean coast between 800 and 1500. They formed several empires that were ruled by kings. The Huetares were also subjugated by the Spanish in the 16th century.


A significant settlement in the highlands was Guayabo, now the largest archaeological site in Costa Rica. Guayabo was settled between 1000 BC. and 1400 AD. This culture is called Diquís.

The Boruca lived in the southwest, on the Pacific coast. There were also other ethnic groups. You can see the ethnic groups and the peoples as they lived in Costa Rica in 1502 on the map.

Stone balls

In the southwestern corner of today’s Costa Rica, around 300 of almost perfect stone spheres have been found. They were probably made from the 7th century, most from the year 1000. Some are a few centimeters tall, others up to two meters in diameter. We don’t know what they were for. Today, many of these spheres adorn museums or gardens.

Columbus and first attempts at colonization (1502-1530)

In 1502 Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean coast of today’s Costa Rica. He was the first European to set foot on land here. Over the next few years there were repeated attempts to establish a colony. But all failed. The conquistadors fought over the land, the indigenous peoples resisted and pirate attacks destroyed the settlements.

Spanish Colony – part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain

Systematic colonization began in 1560 and Costa Rica was incorporated into the viceroyalty of New Spain. Poor in raw materials and precious metals such as gold and silver, however, it has always remained a rather insignificant colony for the Spaniards.

Cartago was founded in 1563 and remained the capital until 1823. Many Indians died of smallpox introduced by the Spaniards, against which they had no resistance. Cocoa and tobacco plantations emerged on the Caribbean coast.

Independence in 1821 and member of the Central American Confederation (1823-1839)

In 1810 the struggle for independence began in Mexico, which was victoriously ended in 1821. The entire area south of today’s Mexican state joined the new Mexican Empire in 1821. With the end of the Empire in 1823, however, it broke away from Mexico and founded the Central American Confederation. It consisted of the states of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Costa Rica resigned after Nicaragua and Honduras in 1838. The confederation collapsed completely a year later.

Coffee and bananas

Coffee was grown on plantations by wealthy large landowners. Presidents like Juan Rafael Mora Porras (1849-1859) or Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez (1870-1882) ruled authoritarian. In the 1880s, a railway line was built from the central highlands to the Caribbean coast, mostly by workers from Jamaica.

Now the coffee could be transported to the ports by train instead of ox carts. The builder of the railway line was an American. He received land and began growing bananas, which soon became the second important export product. American firms like the United Fruit Company gained influence. The first free elections were held in 1889.

History of Costa Rica from the 19th century to the present day

The first half of the 20th century

In 1910 the railway line to the Pacific was completed. Other presidents ruled authoritarian to dictatorial. Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia embarked on a reform course between 1940 and 1944. He ran again for the 1948 election, lost the election and accused his opponent of electoral fraud.

Civil War and Abolition of the Army (1948)

There was a 44-day civil war. José María Figueres Ferrer set up a “National Liberation Army” and ultimately won the war against government troops. It remained the only civil war in Costa Rica. Figueres belonged to a junta that took power. A new constitution was drawn up and the country’s army abolished. Since then, Costa Rica has been one of the few countries in the world without its own army.

José Figueres Ferrer (1953-1958 and 1970-1974)

In 1951 the social democratic party Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN) was founded. In 1953 Figueres became president with the PLN, remained in office until 1958 and was re-elected in 1970. He turned against the right-wing military dictatorships in neighboring countries and US interference. The country’s economically and politically stable position in the 20th century is attributed to his influence. His son José María Figueres was President of Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998.

Óscar Arias Sánchez (1986-1990 and 2006-2010)

Óscar Arias Sánchez, who was President of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990 and from 2006 to 2010, also contributed to the stable situation. In 1987 he presented the Arias Sánchez Plan. The aim of this plan was to secure long-term peace for Central America. Arias Sánchez received the Nobel Peace Prize for this in the same year. In 2009 he mediated after the coup in Honduras (see History of Honduras).

Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014)

In 2010 Laura Chinchilla became the first woman president of Costa Rica, she is also a member of the PLN. She campaigned for environmental protection, especially for sharks, and in 2013 signed a law that allows same-sex marriages. Nevertheless, she took conservative positions and, for example, opposed abortion under all circumstances.

Luis Guillermo Solís (2014-2018) and Carlos Alvarado Quesada (since 2018)

In 2014 Luis Guillermo Solís became President. He belonged to the PLN until 2005, but resigned in 2009 and joined the left- of-center party Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC, in German “Bürgeraktionspartei”). He was the first president in 60 years who is not a member of the PLN, the PUSC or their predecessors. In 2018, Carlos Alvarado Quesada became the new president. He is also a member of the PAC.

Costa Rica History