Spain Settles Costa Rica


The First Attempt


The first European to ever reach Costa Rica, Christopher Columbus anchored off of its eastern shores on September 18, 1502. After a violent storm damaged his ships and battered his crew's morale, Columbus took refuge in, what he called, the Bay of Cariari (near Limón) for a period of 17 days. During their respite, Columbus and his crew explored the surrounding villages. To their delight, the native people treated them amicably and seemed to possess an abundance of gold. The Spaniards returned home with the impression that Veragua (Columbus' name for the eastern coast from Honduras to Panama) was abundant in gold and other treasures, and that the people, vulnerable and unsuspecting, could be conquered with ease.

Years later, King Ferdinand of Spain sent Governor Diego de Nicuesa to explore and settle Veragua in 1506. However, the governor and his fellow colonizers did not experience the friendly reception that Columbus had boasted about. Prior to arriving they had suffered various hardships, losing about half of the company. When Nicuesa finally made contact with them, the inhabitants refused any relationship. In fact, the native people proceeded to burn their own crops to avoid feeding the newcomers. Due to the formidable terrain and the fact that tribes were scattered throughout the country, an attack-and-conquer approach was futile. Spain's attempt at colonization of Veragua was a complete failure.

Approach From the West


In 1513, Vásco Núñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean. With a new entry point into the region, Spaniards began exploring the west coast of Veragua. In 1522, a land expedition arrived from northern Panama. In spite of illnesses, hunger and the intense tropical weather, the surviving members of the expedition returned with treasures of gold and pearls, taken from the natives. In addition, the accompanying priest, introducing Catholicism to native peoples along the way, claimed numerous converts.

Numerous explorers and colonizers attempted to sprout settlements on both coasts. However, hunger, disease, attacks by the native inhabitants, and infighting among the settlers fueled by greed and status diminished any possibility of establishing a lasting community. On the other hand, with increased contact by Europeans in the area, the population of indigenous people was devastated by the introduction of small pox and other diseases for which they lacked an immune response.

Success in Cartago Valley


In 1562, Juan Vásquez de Coronado took the seat as governor of Veragua and found a group of Spaniards and Spanish mestizos living inland from the Pacific Coast. Throughout his exploration of the region, Coronado was more compassionate in his treatment of the native people than were those who came before him. He found the highlands most suitable for settlement and moved his fellow Spaniards to the Cartago Valley. The climate here was milder and the soil rich in nutrients from the lava of Volcán Irazú. The next year, Cartaga became the capital of Costa Rica.

Success in Cartago Valley


In 1562, Juan Vásquez de Coronado took the seat as governor of Veragua and found a group of Spaniards and Spanish mestizos living inland from the Pacific Coast. Throughout his exploration of the region, Coronado was more compassionate in his treatment of the native people than were those who came before him. He found the highlands most suitable for settlement and moved his fellow Spaniards to the Cartago Valley. The climate here was milder and the soil rich in nutrients from the lava of Volcán Irazú. The next year, Cartaga became the capital of Costa Rica.

Population and Economy


The Spanish population in Costa Rica remained small in number through the 17th century. Due to early war and disease, the native population possessed no exploitable work force. Poverty was commonplace, and foreign industries neglected to invest in the small ithmus. In 1709, Spanish money became scarce and in its place settlers were forced to revert back to using cacao beans.

In 1723, Volcán Irazú erupted, almost destroying Cartago. The Spanish communities survived, however, and actually increased in area through the 18th century. The Central Valley acquired three new cities: Cubujuquí (Heredia) in 1706, Villanueva de la Boca del Monte (San José) in 1737, and Villa Hermosa (Alajuela) in 1782.

As the Spanish settlers increased their possession of land, they also took control of the native people, putting them to work as slaves in the silver mines or cacao plantations. Hard labor and malnutrition kept the native population down in number, and the Spanish settlers soon found themselves toiling in their own fields for a living.


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Costa Rica 101

History of Costa Rica

The first European to ever reach Costa Rica, Christopher Columbus anchored off of its eastern shores on September 18, 1502.

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