Ciudad Cortes is a special place in South Pacific Costa Rica that is worth taking note of.
When it comes to the Southern Zone, Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal are probably the top three most known townships. But there are many towns and neighborhoods in and around South Pacific Costa Rica that are worth taking note of. And the town with debatably the richest history in the region is one that is seldom visited by the expat community of Costa Ballena, except for those who live in close proximity, like in Chontales and Balsar, and are in the know.
Located at the mouth of the river Balsar leads out into the Great Rio Terraba, Ciudad Cortes is the first district of the Osa canton and the main city in this region. It is also known as Puerto Cortes after the small river port on the banks of the river, 10km from the opening to the Pacific Ocean. The population of Cortes is close to 9,000 inhabitants and still growing, as are the services and amenities that can be found within this colorful town that’s rich with history.
A brief history of Cortes
In pre-Colombian times, this region was inhabited by the Bruncas and Diquis, the latter to which are attributed the mysterious stone spheres found all over Costa Rica’s South Pacific. This region quietly existed off of most maps, with hardly anyone daring to explore this wild part of the country until the early 1800s.
At the beginning of the 19th century came a small migration of Chiricanos (immigrants from Chiriqui province in Panama, although the Republic of Panama did not yet exist). They mingled with local Costa Ricans and formed the hamlet of El Pozo in present-day Cortes. The dispossessed Chiricanos chose this area because there were large tracts of unused land and an absence of a state presence so they were able to establish themselves, raise livestock, and grow rice.
Larger scale colonization of Cortes began in the early 1900s and the local banana boom began in the 1940s with the arrival of the United Fruit Company. After abandoning their plantations on the Caribbean coast, the Costa Rican Banana Company moved to Cortes in 1938, establishing an administrative office on the Terraba River and its main operations center in Palmar Sur. They developed a landing strip, dispensary, and housing for their workers that was adjacent to the plantations. United Fruit’s tax benefits allowed for very profitable activities that centered around Puerto Cortes, Sierpe and Puerto Jimenez, providing lots of economic and social development in these regions.
The name El Pozo was changed to Cortes in the 1930s, with the town’s people choosing to name the region after then-president, Leon Cortes Castro, who was a big supporter of the large fruit companies being in the region. The status of village was acquired in 1955 and just two years later, Cortes was awarded the title of city for its rapid growth, bringing in immigrants from all over the country as well as many young men from China, seeking better opportunities for life.
Embarcadero is a road that was used as the main entrance from the mouth of the river Balsar to the Town of Cortes for commerce and arrival of people by boat. When this the river road was being used, merchants would stand on the riverbanks and offer the sale of food to those coming in off the boats, such as vigorones (pork rinds) or gallos (a small snack-like meal). Independent banana farmers built train tracks to connect the town with the riverbanks of Balsar to carry the produce to the boats that would then bring them across the Terraba River to the Fincas.
In the boom years of banana plantations in Cortes, there were hotels, restaurants, and even two movie theaters, along with several brothels. The bicycle was one of the many trademark elements brought in to Cortes by the United Fruit Company, which still continues to be the most popular mode of transportation in town. Many who were born in the time of the banana plantation boom wish for the town to return to its former glory of the 1950s and 1960s.
The banana boom unfortunately ended in 1984 with a drop in international fruit prices. United Fruit withdrew from Osa and left thousands unemployed. Some believe that this is where Costa Ricans from Cortes get their ability to weather most tragedies and to solve problems as a community, managing to rebuild into the colorful city it is today.
Ciudad Cortes in more recent times
In 1996, the effects of Hurricane Cesar caused significant flooding of low-lying Cortes. Many of its residents chose to move to higher ground (3km north of its first town center) to get away from the flood-prone land. Many public institutions followed suit and this location, which was to become known as Nueva Cortes, became the new economic center, also benefiting from being located closer to the coastal highway (route 34). Growth in Cortes continued over the years and in 2008, Tomas Casas Hospital opened in a new, more proximal location serving a wider region and offering most hospital services, including orthopedic surgery.
Today, the city continues to grow its economy through agriculture (pineapples, cassava, shrimp, plantains, and more). The city is expected to experience further demographic growth, especially in the new developments like Ojo de Agua, Canada, and La Laguna that are close to the Costanera highway. Current urban development is primarily in new homes in high-lying neighborhoods that do not experience any flooding (about 20% of Cortes is prone to flooding).
As development edges further outward from the city center, Cortes itself has begun to absorb many of the small towns that surround it. The region of Balsar used to be a suburb of Cortes and has quickly become its own neighborhood, with higher-end homes being built on land with huge views of the Terraba river valley and the Pacific Coast. The official district of Puerto Cortes also includes: Coronado, Chontales, Lourdes, Ojochal, Ojo de Agua, Punta Mala, San Buenaventura, Tortuga Abajo, and Tres Ríos, among others.
Services in Cortes
Ciudad Cortes is the main center for institutional services in the region. There are many options for education in Cortes, for instance. Elementary schools are plentiful and the high school, Liceo Pacifico Sur, serves the entire district of Cortes. Buses travel all over to pick up students and to take them to their daily classes. Most recently, a post-secondary vocational school campus from INA (National Institute of Learning) has opened in the heart of Nuevo Cortes that can certify applicants to work in a variety of fields. As it stands, Puerto Cortes has the highest social development in the southern part of the country.
As mentioned earlier, the new Tomas Casas hospital is considered to have the best health infrastructure in the Southern Zone with 50 beds and 361 employees. Cortes also has the district’s AYA offices (water authority), the headquarters of the Universidad Panamericana, and the office of the Ministry of Education. You will also find the Courts of Justice for the Osa canton, fuerza publica (public police force), the civil registry office, the Municipality of Osa office, the Justice Tribunal, an airstrip, and numerous mechanics, restaurants, and tour operators.
Cortes is also growing its tourism economy, which has become an important activity in the district. The municipality is planning to connect three neighboring towns, all bordering the Terraba River: Puerto Jimenez, Sierpe, and Ciudad Cortes. The goal is to cultivate a more fulfilling experience for visitors to this region, who can enjoy the different aspects of these three locations via a simple and efficient boat tour. What makes Ciudad Cortes unique, for instance, is its strong connection with the arts. Osa Academy of the Arts and the Cultural Center are two places that people can take in some of the biggest talents in Costa Rica, past and present. Cortes is also home to a canopy tour office that takes visitors up past Balsar, mangrove tours are popular up and down the Terraba River, and Grijalba 2 is one of the four sites with stone spheres in Costa Rica that has a world heritage declaration.
Cortes is a city that is proud of its culture. There is a current project called the Historical Passage of Ciudad Cortes which shows its history in a series of murals throughout town that describe in pictorial form many of the points explained above. The idea is to form part of a route of tourism that is developing. This history can also be seen in the varying styles of architecture that are found throughout the many diverse neighborhoods. Although it is not the most notable destination for foreign expats, it plays a role in all of our lives in one way or another and it’s nice to appreciate it for more than just its services.
Ciudad Cortes is a community with huge historical importance regarding the development of the Southern Zone of Costa Rica and a significant hub for all of our necessary services available in the region, all with a little extra culture and charm.