Aptly-named Costa Rica (Spanish for “rich coast”) is the stereotypical tropical paradise, located in Central America between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With high human development and environmental performance rankings, and some of the world’s most beautiful and undisturbed scenery, there’s little reason to wonder over this country’s reputation as an international travel hotspot.
Pre-Columbian Costa Rica was a cultural crossroads between Mesoamerica and the Andes. Columbus visited the country in 1502, and it was soon colonized by Spain. Costa Rica was often described as the poorest of Spain’s colonies, owing to its remoteness from major trade routes and lack of available forced labor; however, this also allowed it to remain largely free from Spanish control, and to develop an identity unique from its neighbors. The country declared independence from Spain in 1821 and soon joined the Federal Republic of Central America, but formally withdrew in 1838. Costa Rica has remained largely free from the political turmoil experienced by other Latin American countries; it enjoyed democratic rule throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, interrupted only by the short despotic rule of Federico Tinoco Granados from 1917-19 and the brief, but bloody, Costa Rican Civil War of 1948. The post-war junta, led by national hero José Figueres Ferrer, relinquished power to a democratically-elected government a year later, after abolishing the country’s military–making Costa Rica the first country in the world to do so. Peaceful, democratic transitions of power have been the norm ever since.
Although Costa Rica still enjoys a reputation for the quality of its agricultural exports, especially coffee and bananas, tourism has rapidly outpaced agriculture as the largest source of foreign exchange. Costa Rica was a pioneer of the ecotourism movement, aided by the world’s largest system of protected areas and highest rate of species density by total landmass; travelers spend an estimated US$1.9 billion per year visiting its sunny beaches, exotic islands, and unique volcanic landscapes. Hundreds of rare plants and animals can be seen in Costa Rica, among them the jaguar, the loggerhead turtle, and 320 distinct bird species. Electronics, pharmaceuticals, and offshore finance are major industries as well.
With so many attractions, it should come as little surprise that Costa Rica draws large numbers of temporary and permanent residents. Work, both paid and volunteer, is available in a wide variety of fields, and an influx of retirees in recent years has prompted a real estate boom. Costa Rica is a particularly great place to study Spanish; the country offers an abundance of options, ranging from independent language schools along the touristy, multinational Pacific coast, to university studies and total language immersion in San José, often with the option of a homestay. A growing number of schools are located near beaches, and even offer instruction in recreational activities like surfing and photography alongside Spanish. What better way to pick up a new language?
Spanish is the official language, and the local variety is known for being easy to understand among speakers from other countries. Adventurous travelers might also try to pick up a few phrases of Mekatelyu, an English Creole language spoken in Limón province by the descendants of Jamaican immigrants.