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, and because Costa Rica was a country of subsistence agriculturalists until the middle of the 19th century, cultural activity has only begun to blossom in the last 100 years.
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 Jose, including a small Jewish community. Spanish is the official language, though English is understood in touristed 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.
Mystery shrouds pre-Columbian Costa Rica: few archaeological monuments and no proof of a written language have been discovered. The indigenous people did not have the necessary numbers or organization to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases. As a result, the Spanish influence is felt more strongly here than in any other Central American country. The few remaining examples of the indigenous culture include the fabulous collection of jade on display at San Jose's Museo de Jade, and the major archaeological site at Guayabo, which is slowly revealing the presence of streets, aqueducts and causeways. This evidence suggests that the culture present on the eve of the Spanish invasion mirrored that of the Incas and Mayas of Mexico and Central America more closely than was previously suspected.
Costa Rica ('the rich coast') was dubbed so by Christopher Columbus himself, who stayed for 17 days in 1502 and was impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals. Colonization was not immediately successful, taking until the 1560s for the Spanish settlers to become immune to tropical diseases and make a dent in the tangled jungle. The first colony, Cartago, was settled in the fertile and salubrious central highlands, departing from the Spaniards' usual practice of settling the coastal areas, because the tropical shoreline was more prone to disease. This settlement also differed from the normal pattern of colonization in that the presence of only a few Indians meant there was no labor to milk and no Mestizo culture created from intermarriage.
The hoped-for hoards of gold did not eventuate, and Costa Rica remained a forgotten backwater for many years. …