Christopher Columbus was the first European to land on the shores of Costa Rica, in 1502. While anchored near what is now a cruise port of call, Puerto Limon, the Great Navigator explored the area’s lush terrain and befriended native Indians, who brought goods to trade. Upon returning to Spain, the sailor claimed that he saw more gold in Costa Rica than all his years as governor of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Envisioning great wealth for the Spanish crown, Columbus was eager to return as Costa Rica’s governor. That honor went to a rival, and Columbus died four years after claiming Costa Rica for Spain.
Nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica turned out to be one of the poorest of Spain’s colonies, and one of the most difficult to manage. Its jungles were impenetrable, there was a lack of indigenous people to enslave as forced labor, and gold was not as abundant as previously reported. Spanish settlements in Costa Rica fumbled along until the beginning of the 18th century, when commodities like wheat, cacao, tobacco and sugar began to be exported. By the 19th century, coffee was the major player in Costa Rica’s economy, finally bringing a measure of wealth to the country. Later, bananas became the principal export.
Today, Costa Rica is treasured by tourists for its natural riches. It’s a world-class ecotourism destination, and about 26 percent of its territory is designated as a national park or conservation area. About 4.5 million people live here; they refer to themselves as Ticos and are famous for their hospitality.