If you greet someone in Costa Rica with Como estas? (How are you?), they’ll respond with a smile, Muy bueno, pura vida! (Very well, pure life!)
Is the pervasive well-being of these citizens, their pura vida, due to their wisdom, or is it pura suerte (pure luck)?
We all have heard the parable of the goose that laid the golden eggs, killed by a greedy, short-sighted ignoramus is order to get all the eggs, only to discover that the goose had to be alive in order to keep laying. Duh. We’re just back from a land that has a golden goose, only the people there nurture it, feed it, and take special care of it, and it keeps on laying golden eggs, year after year after year.
Luck (la Suerte) played a big role in the Costa Ricans getting the golden goose. The country was largely ignored by the Spanish conquistadors as not profitable. Guatemala had better farmland. Colombia, Mexico, and Peru had gold and silver. The topography was mountainous and steep, and covered with dense forest, making travel difficult.
There were few indigenous people to trade with or enslave. It was later settled by European small family farmers who could clear and cultivate the steep hillsides with manual labor, and who eventually formed a democratic middle-class society based on work, responsibility and family values. They never became anyone’s colony in the operational sense of the word and became officially independent in 1821.
Unfettered by outside attempts at control or exploitation, they governed themselves carefully and responsibly according to their own values and built a stable democracy. Their military forces were disbanded in 1949 by the government, who took the UN at their word as world peacekeepers.
They also believed that because Costa Rica never threatened any other nation or meddled in others affairs, they had no reason to fear being attacked, and they never have been, in spite of revolutions and unrest in Nicaragua, their neighbor to the north, or in Panama on their southern border. In all this, there was some luck, and also much skill in managing themselves.
Another lucky break came around 1850 when a British ship took on a full load of coffee beans, mostly as ballast for the trip home, and started the world coffee boom. We don’t know why Costa Rica just happened to have a ship-load of coffee beans lying around, but we don’t know how a goose can lay golden eggs either.
Add to this another thing: Costa Rica is the transition zone between North American and South American flora and fauna, and, coupled with several climate zones from two coastal tropical jungles (Atlantic and Pacific), dry tropical forests, and cloud forests at the mountaintops, they have the greatest biodiversity on Earth: 12,000 species of plants, 235 species of mammals, 360 species of amphibians, more bird species than all of North America and more butterflies than all of Africa. They are noted for having this unique world treasure and for proudly taking responsibility for preserving it.
So what do 4 million people, living in a country the size of Minnesota, do with this? Is it really a golden goose, or just a potential one? Has it laid any golden eggs yet other than coffee-flavored ones?
Having gotten along just fine on their own before and after independence, they decided to keep it that way. Their law prohibits multinational corporations from coming in and exploiting their few but unique natural resources. No timber can be shipped out unless it is fabricated into an end product inside Costa Rica.
No agricultural plantations can be owned by non-nationals.
All zoning laws are strict and nationwide, so different counties can’t compete with each other for development by offering variances and other incentives.
One-third of the nation’s land is in national parks and nature preserves, and the Costa Ricans (Ticos) are proud of it.
As a result of these policies, tourism is the No. 1 source of revenue for Costa Rica. Good old tourism. You don’t have to deplete your natural resources, just preserve them, provide attractive comfortable accommodations, and people will flock to you, escaping the despoiled environments of their own lands and bringing lots of money.
When one is at a four-star beach resort in Costa Rica, everyone can see the ocean from multiple swimming pools, restaurants, golf courses, etc. When you’re in the water you do not see high-rise buildings, you see palm trees, parks with tables and chairs tucked under in the shade.
The national parks and preserves are in their original state where people from around the world come to see the plants and animals and birds and butterflies in their natural habitat. Pineapples, bananas and coffee exports, the second, third and sixth sources of revenue for Costa Rica, (microchips and medical equipment exports are numbers 4 and 5), are grown on farms owned and operated by Ticos and sold on the open market. They are not owned or controlled by absentee agribusinesses.
Natural resources, which have no real value until they are made into some kind of usable product, have their value added by Ticos before they can leave the country. The profits stay in the country. Import/export duties add to the nation’s treasury. The only other significant tax is a 13 percent sales tax on selected items. Income taxes and property taxes are very low.
The mission statement of the Costa Rican government is to provide for the health, education, and welfare of the citizens.
The only special interest group is the people. Excellent health care is available for all, free if you can’t pay, unbelievably inexpensive by U.S. standards if you can pay. Education is free through college.
The healthcare system is five-tiered. Level 1 is medical techs, who visit each home every year to help families assess status and needs, and provide guidance when needed. Level 2 is general practice clinics in each community. Level 3 is M.D. specialists, Level 4 is general hospitals and general surgery, Level 5 is special care hospitals and specialized surgery.
We’ve traveled in a good many countries, East, West, North and South, and Ticos are the healthiest and happiest folks we’ve seen yet. We saw no evidence of any kind of violence: physical, psychological or verbal, except soccer games on TV. Because they are far-sighted and self-directed, they are enjoying the benefits of globalization by screening out the drawbacks while preserving their own culture and values.
The Ticos were lucky to inherit a fortunate set of circumstances, but their continued success is due to their ability to govern themselves responsibly, intelligently and creatively. One of the high school kids on our tour summed it up very elegantly: Gee, these people have their act together! For more information on travel and tours to Costa Rica contact our travel desk at: