Perhaps the three most well-known traits of Costa Rica – or “Tiquicia” as it is affectionately called by its roughly 4 million inhabitants – are: 1) it’s got no army, but in change 2) has lots (and lots and lots) of nature, so much that you almost wonder how it fits all in, because 3) it’s really small (about 51.000 km2, that’s only a little bigger than Switzerland or half the size of Kentucky). On a distant fourth place probably comes in the fact that it is located on the Central American land bridge, snuggled in tightly between Panama to the south, Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west (and not to be confounded with Puerto Rico, that’s an island in the Caribbean attached to the USA).
Press articles and websites frequently depict our country as a peaceful little tropical paradise with stunning biodiversity, far away from the worries and bustle of the industrialized world and populated by a happy, friendly and humble people.
In fact, all this is true.
Costa Rica has the greatest density of species in the world, concentrating 5% of the planet’s biodiversity on only 0.1% of its landmass. Within its boundaries you can find anything from tropical beaches to thick rain forests, lush valleys to dry savannahs, extensive marshes and river mouths to towering mountains and volcanoes (the highest being “Cerro Chirripó”, rising to 3.820m above sea level). 23% of Costa Rica’s land mass is subject to different protection regiments, as an effort to maintain this biological wealth. Bananas, pineapples and the famous Costa Rican coffee remain staple exports and especially coffee production and the expanding plantation of ecologically or fair trade certified products still involve a lot of small farmers. In international studies on the level of general happiness, Costa Ricans regularly occupy one of the top spots. The Human Development Index is one of the highest in Latin America and all off this is sheltered by a democracy which, while the rest of Central America was marked by dictatorships, civil wars and harsh social conflicts, has remained stable since 1948.
But it’s not the whole story.
Despite solidary health care, pension systems, high rates of literacy, high coverage of access to drinking water and electricity, around 20% of the population can be considered as poor, a fourth of them live in extreme poverty. While bananas, coffee and pineapple are at the sight of millions of consumers in European and North American supermarkets or gourmet stores, the about 2 million tourists visiting the country each year bring in more foreign currency than the three of them combined, the microchips manufactured in a big facility run by Intel make up for 20% of Costa Rican exports, and the service area also keeps growing with call centers which control anything from the cable network of Los Angeles to internet poker games or sport bets.
As diverse as its economy are Costa Rica’s people. Even though it has often been claimed that Costa Rica is ethnically quite homogenous, this homogeneity itself is the product of a century-long melting process which integrated Spanish colonists, indigenous population and Afro-Americans into what nowadays is considered a “typical tic@”. More recently, migrations from all parts of Europe, the West Indies, Asia and even the Lebanon have added additional flavors to this mix. While most of these newcomers dissolved into the 94% mestizo majority, Afro-Americans (3%), Indigenous people (1%) and Chinese (1%) remain as significant minorities. And the story goes on: With over 10%, Costa Rica at the moment is the country with the highest share of immigrant population in all of Latin America. While the vast majority of the newcomers originate from the neighboring Nicaragua, other important groups Colombians fleeing the ongoing civil conflict in their home country and also US-citizens or Europeans in search of their own tropical dream.
Most of the time, all these groups coexist and mix quite peacefully, enhancing Costa Rica’s cultural diversity, but especially in times of crisis, every now and then preoccupying surges of xenophobia disturb the quiet surface and put the tolerant self-image Costa Ricans covet so much into question. Also, like everywhere in the Americas (or the world, you might say), ethnic discrimination above all towards indigenous and Afro-American people notwithstanding substantial improvements has not yet been completely eradicated.
As you can see, Costa Rica has many facets, and many of them may remain hidden from the casual tourist’s view. Volunteering with ACI Costa Rica offers you the chance to live and work with its people and share with us all this little country has to offer. So, if you really want to know what “Tiquicia” is like, there’s only one thing to do: Apply to one of our programs and come see for yourself!
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