Full name: Republic of Costa Rica
President: Laura Chinchilla (woman)
Population: 4.6 million (UN, 2010)
Capital: San Jose
Area: 51,100 sq km (19,730 sq miles)
Major languages: Spanish (official), English
Life expectancy: 77 years (men), 82 years (woman) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Costa Rican colon = 100 centimos
Main exports: Coffee, bananas, sugar, textiles, electronic components, electricity
GNI per capita: US$6,230 (World Bank, 2009)
Internet domain: .cr
International dialling code: +506
Costa Rica was inhabited by an estimated 400,000 Indians when Columbus explored it in 1502. The Spanish conquest began in 1524. The region grew slowly and was administered as a Spanish province. Costa Rica achieved independence in 1821 but was absorbed for two years by Agustín de Iturbide in his Mexican empire. It became a republic in 1848. Except for the military dictatorship of Tomás Guardia from 1870 to 1882, Costa Rica has enjoyed one of the most democratic governments in Latin America.
In the 1970s, rising oil prices, falling international commodity prices, and inflation hurt the economy. Efforts have since been made to reduce reliance on coffee, banana, and beef exports. Tourism is now a major business. Óscar Arias Sánchez worked to simultaneously heal his country's economic woes and foster peace in Central America.
José Maria Figueres Olsen of the National Liberation Party became president in 1994. He opposed economic suggestions made by the International Monetary Fund, instead favoring greater government intervention in the economy. The World Bank subsequently withheld $100 million of financing. In 1998, Miguel Angel Rodríguez of the Social Christian Unity Party became president, pledging economic reforms, such as privatization. In 2000, Costa Rica and Nicaragua resolved a long-standing dispute over navigation of the San Juan River, which forms their shared border. A psychiatrist, Abel Pacheco, also of the Social Christian Unity Party, won the presidency in elections held in April 2002. In May 2003, several national strikes took place, by energy and telecommunications workers over privatization and by teachers over their salaries.
Traditionally dependent on coffee, banana and beef exports, Costa Rica has diversified its economy. The opening of a large computer chip plant in the late 1990s was a fillip to the economy, but its fortunes have been subject to the fluctuating world demand for microchips.
Tourism is Costa Rica's main source of foreign exchange. Its tropical forests are home to a profusion of flora and fauna, including 1,000 species of orchid and 850 species of birds, such as macaws and toucans.The Caribbean coast with its swamps and sandy beaches is also a big draw. But Costa Rica is trying to shake off its reputation as a destination for sex tourists.While relatively free of crime, Costa Rica has been used as a transit point for South American cocaine and there have been allegations that drug-tainted money has found its way into the coffers of the two main political parties.Once dubbed the "Switzerland of Central America", the country's self-image was badly shaken in 2004 when allegations of high-level corruption led to two former presidents being imprisoned on graft charges.