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You think you know Costa Rica? We know you know this is the land of “pura vida.” You know that people here call themselves Ticos. You know it’s not an island. You know Jurassic Park was filmed here. Oops! Gotcha – Jurassic Park was actually filmed in Hawaii. But speaking of dinosaurs … here are 10 fun facts about Costa Rica that maybe – maybe! – you didn’t know. Give yourself 10 points if you already knew all these things, and we’ll try to make our list harder next time.
Costa Rica never had dinosaurs, but it did have mastodons and giant sloths.
Costa Rica arose from the ocean an estimated 1 to 3 million years ago, making it an infant in diapers in geological time.
North and South America used to be two unconnected continents with nothing but ocean between them (and all of Central America lying at the bottom of the sea). But the collision of three tectonic plates led to massive continental uplift and major volcanic activity, which lifted Costa Rica and the rest of this isthmus above sea level.
This new land bridge between North and South America had a profound impact on the flora and fauna of both continents, allowing mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects to migrate freely between the two. Costa Rica became a cauldron of creation, and its warm, rainy climate fostered the growth of dense rain forest, which is the ideal nursery for the world’s most biodiverse environments.
Because the dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago, there were never any dinosaurs here, at least not on land. But amazingly, there were once mastodons in Costa Rica, as we know because we’ve found their bones here. Also, there were giraffe-size giant ground sloths, some 15 feet tall.
Costa Rica is known for its mysterious pre-Columbian stone spheres.
In the Diquís Delta, in southern Costa Rica between Palmar del Sur and Sierpe, hundreds of exquisitely crafted stone spheres have been found – round as a marble, but sometimes gigantic. Weighing up to 16 tons, these stone orbs have been dated to around 800-1500 CE. Christopher Columbus landed in Costa Rica in 1502, which is right around the time this sphere-making population died out for reasons unknown.
Both the how and why behind the making of these spherical stones have been widely debated, with some claiming that aliens from outer space must have been involved. But most archaeologists believe the gabbro basalt used to make them was quarried from nearby mountains and shaped with fire, tools and abrasives like sand. Then these spheres were probably transported to their final location by rolling them on logs – as the wheel didn’t exist in Latin America before the arrival of the Spanish.
These stone spheres are believed to have been a major status symbol among the early inhabitants of this region, with the most powerful villages one-upping their neighbors by creating, transporting and displaying the largest collections of these amazing sculptures.
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth.
At 51,180 square km. (19,760 sq. mi., roughly the size of West Virginia), Costa Rica occupies just 0.03% of the world’s landmass – one-third of 1 percent. Yet it’s believed to account for 5% of all the biodiversity in the world – meaning that of every 20 animal species in the world, one lives in Costa Rica.
Such biodiversity is extremely rare. Among mammals alone, Costa Rica has six species of big felines, four types of monkeys, a healthy population of tapirs and sloths, plus a great many coatis, anteaters, deer, agouti, peccary, skunks, opossums, raccoons, squirrels and more. Roughly half of the mammal species in Costa Rica are bats.
Costa Rica is also a world-renowned paradise for birdwatchers, with over 900 species having been identified here. And the country contains one of the world’s largest concentrations of butterflies.
Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have an army.
Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 – right after a new government swept to power by winning a 44-day civil war. President José Figueres Ferrer, whose face appears today on the 10,000-colón bill, abolished the army and redirected the resources that funded it to health and education.
War has not touched the country since then, and in fact, Costa Rica has historically been the most peaceful country in Central America. It’s also arguably the safest country in the region and has the most stable democracy. Costa Rica also leads its neighbors in health care, education and literacy.
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Some 25% of Costa Rica is set aside for conservation.
This is a difficult figure to nail down, but it’s said that around one-fourth of Costa Rica is protected from development within national parks and other nature reserves.
Costa Rica was one of the first countries in Latin America to recognize that a tree preserved is worth more than a tree cut down. Ever since the establishment of the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve in 1963, Costa Rica has embarked on an intensive effort to preserve its natural spaces against development. This initiative is a primary reason that tourism has become Costa Rica’s top industry.
Also, some 99% of Costa Rica’s energy comes from renewable sources (not including transportation fuels, which are the primary impediment to the country’s goal of carbon neutrality).
Costa Rica is often called the happiest country in the world.
Costa Rica has often landed in the No. 1 place at the Happy Planet Index, which ranks all the countries of the world according to their life expectancy, overall well-being, ecological footprint and sense of equality.
This is another variable that’s difficult to measure, and there are studies that rank other countries higher. These are not literal measures of happiness, but of the factors that should lead to happiness, like overall quality of life. Yet Costa Ricans do seem to be among the happiest and friendliest people anywhere.
Costa Rica has some of the world’s longest-lived people.
In 2005, National Geographic published a story by Dan Buettner called “The Secret of Long Life.” It identified five places in the world, dubbed “Blue Zones” – including Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula – where people live extraordinarily long and healthy lives, often thriving past the age of 100.
The other locales were in Sardinia, Italy; Icaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; and among a community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. So how did the Nicoya Peninsula make the list? Good eating, moderate daily exercise, a connection to the community and a spiritual life have all been identified as contributing factors to extraordinary longevity here.
Costa Rica has a vast jungle area in the southeast that is almost impenetrable.
If you look at a map of Costa Rica, you’ll notice that there’s a vast area in the southeast where there are no roads and no towns. This is La Amistad International Peace Park (which actually extends deep into Panama). Have you been there? Don’t worry, almost nobody else has either. And no, the Spanish never conquered it – even the Ticos haven’t conquered it yet.
Covering some 750 square miles in Costa Rica alone, this park is by far the country’s largest protected area and its least explored region. Have you heard about the hotels and restaurants there? We haven’t either. This is pure wilderness – rainforest, cloud forest and tundra-like páramo in the heights of the Talamanca Mountains. It’s possible to camp here, but exploring this place is for serious bushwhackers only.
Almost nobody in Costa Rica receives mail.
While people in North America or Europe may be used to receiving junk mail, bills or Christmas cards in their mailbox, the practice of delivering mail to every home does not exist in Costa Rica. You could live your whole life here and never receive a piece of mail.
In the United States, a half-million blue-uniformed letter carriers deliver mail every day to every address – but this simply doesn’t happen in Costa Rica. If you ever receive a piece of physical mail at your home in Costa Rica, it’s likely to arrive by special delivery on a motorcycle.
Also, Costa Rica does not have normal street addresses, and in fact many streets don’t even have names. Addresses in Costa Rica are described something like this: “300 meters north of the Super Wendy, in a one-story white house with a black gate.”
Costa Rica is home to one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts.
Franklin Chang Díaz, born in 1950 in San José, has flown to space on NASA shuttles seven times, tying the record for most spaceflights. He is in the NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame.
After retiring from NASA in 2005, Chang founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company, which is dedicated to building a plasma rocket that could theoretically transport humans to Mars in 39 days.
Chang is arguably one of the three most famous Costa Ricans alive today, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias (president from 1986 to 1990 and 2006 to 2010) and star soccer goalie Keylor Navas.
So how many of these fun facts about Costa Rica did you already know?
0-3: You were probably thinking of Puerto Rico.
4-7: Well done, but you need to get down here more.
8-10: You are more Tico than gallo pinto.