Ethnic Groups. Most Costa Ricans (or "Ticos," as they like to call themselves) are descended from the early Spanish settlers. The Spaniards settled largely in the fertile Meseta Central, or Central Plateau, where most of the people live today. Some of the Indian inhabitants were killed in warfare with the colonists. Others saved themselves by hiding in the forests along the Caribbean coast, where their descendants still live as farmers and hunters.

The first blacks to arrive in Costa Rica were runaway slaves, escaping from British-ruled Caribbean islands. More blacks came in the 1880's to help build Costa Rica's railroads. Others arrived in the 20th century to work on plantations. Blacks today make up about 3 percent of the population. Most live in the Caribbean province of Limón.

Language and Religion. Spanish is the language of Costa Rica. Both the Indians and blacks, however, are likely to speak English as well.

The people are predominantly Roman Catholic in religion. A special religious festival takes place every year on August 2 in the city of Cartago. Pilgrims from all over Central America come to worship at the shrine of Our Lady of the Angels, whose tiny black stone statue was found here by a country girl in the 17th century. On the festival day the statue is carried in procession to the various churches of Cartago.

Way of Life. Old Spanish customs still survive in Costa Rica, but they are weakening. Once it was usual for young men and women to meet each evening in the plaza of their town or village for a band concert, or retreta. During the retreta the young women would circle the plaza in one direction, and the young men in another. As they passed, the men would call out compliments to the women and perhaps arrange to see one of them later.

But this tradition is dying out, especially in the larger towns. Today, young people are more likely to meet at fast food shops or go to the movies together. Coffee shops are still popular with adults, who meet there to talk and do business together.

Decorative Arts. Probably because of its small Indian and black populations, Costa Rica has less variety in its arts and crafts than some of the other Central American nations. But the Costa Ricans love brilliant color and use much of it in their homes. Houses are painted in bright pinks, greens, and blues, and are decorated with colorful flowers that bloom all year round.

The main symbol used in Costa Rican art is the oxcart, once the chief form of transportation in the countryside. Oxcarts traditionally were decorated in dazzling designs, with owners trying to compete with each other in brilliance of color. Today the oxcart is losing out to the jeep and the pickup truck as a source of transportation. But small oxcart replicas are still made and are popular, especially with tourists.

Education. Costa Ricans are proud of their modern school system. About 93 percent of the people are literate (able to read and write), one of the highest rates in the world. A minimum of six years of school attendance is required. Of the several institutions of higher education, the largest is the University of Costa Rica in San José, the capital.

Sports. By far the most popular sport is fútbol (soccer). It is a national passion, and every town has at least one team. Basketball is probably the next most popular game but has none of the following that fútbol enjoys. Baseball is popular near Limón. Bullfighting is often treated as a form of comedy, and the bull is never killed.

Thomas L. Karnes
Author, The Failure of Union: Central America 1824–1975

Write about it:
Do you know of any traditions in America or in your community that are dying out? Why do you think people are sad when the see customs begin to fade?

Why do you think Costa Ricans are proud of their school system?