To close off 2021, here are some fun facts about Costa Rica that you may or may not know!

I often laugh to myself when I hear that now familiar sound of a crunchy gnawing above my head as I pass underneath palm trees near my home in Ojochal, Costa Rica. I think that many people like me, a former dweller of Canada, would not expect that sound to be coming from a squirrel eating a coconut. Costa Rica is a funny place like that: just familiar enough and yet so different at times. And so, to finish the year 2021 (a doozy in our books!), here are 21 fun facts about Costa Rica that make life in this tiny but powerful country so interesting.

1. Costa Rica’s famous phrase, pura vida, has not-so-Tico origins

A 1956 Mexican film titled Pura Vida is the origin of the popular idiom. The film tells of the adventures of a luckless man who repeats the phrase every time things don’t go his way. By the 1980s, the use of the phrase was widely adopted throughout Costa Rica in step with the peaceful atmosphere that characterized the country as opposed to the wars and suffering throughout the rest of Central America.

Today, the term is used to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and to show admiration towards a situation, object or person.

2. There is no standing army in Costa Rica

Following the bloody, 44-day-long Costa Rican Civil War in which 2,000 people died, the country decided to get rid of its army in 1948. Costa Rica is one of only 23 countries around the world that does not have an armed force. Almost two dozen countries, including the U.S., have pledged to provide military assistance to Costa Rica if the need should arise. Otherwise, we can always count on the army ants to be at the ready.

3. Street Signs Were Not in Use in Costa Rica Until 2012

Since locals commonly use landmarks to provide directions, the need for street signs has not existed until recently. In 2012, a $1 million project in the capital of San Jose resulted in the introduction of street signs.

4. The national anthem plays on the radio every morning

Costa Rica wakes up to the national anthem every morning because most major radio stations play the anthem each morning at 7 am.

5. Less than 2% of Costa Ricans are of indigenous ancestry

94% of Costa Ricans are of European or mestizo ethnicity, with the majority having Spanish ancestry. This is because there were not many indigenous people living in what is now Costa Rica during the days of European exploration. This was a land that was largely unpopulated and so indigenous people were not enslaved by the settlers. Instead, they were reduced in numbers over time by taking away their ancestral lands.

6. Costa Rican president Oscar Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for his regional peace plan.

From the Nobel Prize website, “Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias Sánchez was awarded the Peace Prize in 1987 for a plan designed to put an end to the cruel civil wars that were devastating Central America. In August 1987, the peace plan was approved by Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. It aimed at free elections, safeguards for human rights, and an end to foreign interference in the countries’ internal affairs.”

7. The national tree of Costa Rica is the mighty Guanacaste

The Entelorobium Cyclocarpum, known as Guanacaste, was chosen as the national tree of Costa Rica on August 31, 1959, as a symbol of the Costa Ricans’ great interest in nature and its conservation as the tree itself symbolizes abundance and protection.

8. The national bird, the yigüirro, announces the coming of rain

The clay-colored thrush, known in Costa Rica as the yigüirro, is a cheerful bird that symbolizes the optimistic attitude of the people of Costa Rica. Its well-known song has always been equated with the arrival of the rain by local farmers and is a premonition for a good harvest. There is some correlation between the bird with its modest plumage singing or jumping near the orchard with the farmer equally in humble clothing.

9. Costa Rica’s national animal is not what you’d expect

Most people would guess that one of the adorable sloth species would be the national animal of Costa Rica. Or maybe it is a monkey, or turtle, or Scarlett macaw, or even a frog. After all, those are just some of the many animals that adorn keychains and other memorabilia made in Costa Rica. But it is actually the white-tailed deer, which I personally have only seen once in the wild in Costa Rica, up in the hills above Dominical. 

This deer species is in danger of extinction due to illegal hunting and the destruction of its natural habitat. It can live in the mountains or at sea level, but it prefers the savannahs of Guanacaste.

10. The national instrument of Costa Rica is the marimba

The marimba is a melodic percussion instrument that is present in all popular Costa Rican celebrations. Considered native to Africa, the instrument was brought to the Americas by black slaves. Originally, it was a small instrument without legs with sounding boxes made of pumpkin and a spider’s nest as a vibrator, adhered with beeswax.

11. Costa Rica has a ‘Symbol of Natural Wealth’

The crests of Chirripó National Park. These rock formations considered of “great natural and esthetic value” were officially declared a national symbol on April 25, 2011.

12. Zoos and wildlife habitats look different here.

Costa Rica is big on biodiversity and environmental conservation and in 2013, the Minister of Environment led a movement to “reinforce the idea of interacting with biodiversity in botanical parks in a natural way.” The idea was that no animal would be in captivity unless it was being rescued or saved. Today, there are rehabilitation centers across the country, nurturing a variety of animals (from anteaters to sloths to jaguars) back to health and releasing them into the wild.

13. Coffee is referred to as Costa Rica’s “golden grain”

Costa Rica was built on coffee and “el grano de oro” fueled much of the country’s early development. In the 1800s, prospective farmers even got free land if they planned to use it to cultivate coffee. 

Their prime industry in the 20th century was coffee and led ultimately to the aptly named “coffee barons” – sort of like oil barons, but with coffee instead. This basically led to the economic growth of the country and the bean was a major source of funds for the creation of the National Theatre in San José. 

14. Eight indigenous groups call Costa Rica home

Today, only about 65,000 Costa Ricans identify as having indigenous roots, but the fact that this is less than 2% of the population isn’t stopping the indigenous tribes of Costa Rica from carrying on with their traditions. The Boruca, Bribri, Cabécar, Guaymí, Huetar, Maleku, Matambú, and Térraba are all recognized by the government and slowly these groups are reclaiming their rights, lands, languages, and cultural heritage.

While the primary language spoken in Costa Rica is Spanish, there are five indigenous languages spoken, and two others recently went extinct.

15. Costa Rica’s name was an error in judgment (but spot-on in other ways!)

When Chris Columbus returned from his last voyage, which included Costa Rica, he told the Spanish court that there was much jewelry and gold draped on the necks and shoulders of the natives. Spanish conquistador Gil Gonzalez de Avila corroborated his stories. Therefore, everyone started calling it La Costa Rica – “the rich coast.”

Turns out that there wasn’t much silver and gold, but Costa Rica’s nature has been treasured by many since.

16. Costa Rica is the most politically stable country in the region

It may have had a military dictator in the early 20th century, and it did have a civil war, but since then, Costa Rica has had 16 successive – and peaceful – presidential elections. It’s a stark contrast to many other countries in Central or even Latin America. This is likely a big factor in why Costa Rica is also the most visited nation in Central America.

17. Chinese people in the 19th Century thought Costa Rica was called Puntarenas

There was a Chinese colony that was settled in Puntarenas around 1873 that became more and more well known, and many people just assumed that their neighbors and friends-of-friends were making the move to a place called Puntarenas, not Costa Rica.

18. More of Costa Rica is made up of national parks than any other country.

Costa Rica is definitely up there as one of the best for preserving natureA massive 25% of Costa Rica’s entire territory is comprised of national parks. The average for the developed world is 13% and the world average is only 8%.

19. Britons are the second-largest group of Europeans in Costa Rica

You’d think it might be Italians, or maybe Germans, but as of 2012, there were around 5,200 Britons (people of British origin) living in Costa Rica. That’s quite a few. That’s because in the late 19th century, Britain – who were all over the Caribbean at the time – was the first to notice the coffee plantations in Costa Rica and wanted to export back to their homeland.

20. The island in the movie Jurassic Park is based on Cocos Island in Costa Rica

Some say that Cocos Island was the inspiration for Treasure Island; others say that it might have influenced Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. More recently, people claim that it is Isla Nubar from Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park.

21. Costa Rica is famously home to hundreds of mysterious stone spheres.

The Stone Spheres of Diquis are said to be about 2,000 years old and are stones sculpted into virtually perfect spheres. They range from four inches to eight feet in diameter. No one knows what they’re for, but they’re found near gravesites and are arranged in lines and curves.

It’s interesting how a country as small as Costa Rica can have so many official national symbols. Perhaps the absence of an army and the renunciation of militarism may be the reason that Costa Ricans enjoy their time observing their surroundings and placing value on that which is important to them.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter