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HomeCosta RicaCosta Rica's Evolution: 8 Major Transformations Over 30 Years

Costa Rica’s Evolution: 8 Major Transformations Over 30 Years

I have lived in Costa Rica for over 30 years, long enough to have seen some major generational changes. The first several times I flew to Costa Rica, I flew on Lacsa, then the national airline of Costa Rica. They wined and dined their customers in flight; I remember a flight where the entire section where I sat got so happily boisterous that a group of Ticos burst into the Himno Nacional at 35,000 feet. It was like being in a flying cantina, and all the drinks were free.

Those days are long gone of course. But while that is a change I truly miss, there have been numerous others, some that I welcome, others not so much. Here are but a few of the differences between life in Costa Rica in the early 1990s and now:

1. Roads

Yes, they are still far from perfect–but you should have seen them 30 years ago. My first trip to Manuel Antonio from San Jose, the pavement ended somewhere north of Jaco. It took 7 hours on the bus. Most of the barrios in San Isidro de el General, my off and on home base, had dirt or gravel roads.

Now virtually all are paved–although there are still plenty of potholes. Kilometers drive like miles: Most of our roads are 2-lane, and a 100 kilometer drive on these roads takes about the same time as a 100 mile drive on a modern highway.

2. Cars and Drivers

The first vehicle I bought in Costa Rica had a 5-digit license plate. The car was a 1977, so that gives you an idea of how few cars were on the road in Costa Rica back then. Since then the number of cars and drivers on the road has taken off. There are more than 4 times the number of cars on the road now.

Here is a crazy statistic– in the year 2016, there were 75,000 births in the country, and 159,000 cars newly registered. And a new generation of drivers as well. I remember my wife’s family piling 6 or 7 adults in one car to make the drive to her mom’s farm back in the 90s. Now they all have their own cars.

3. Telephone service

The first place I lived outside the San Jose area was several kilometers from the nearest phone. The phone was located in the village bar/social center/pulperia. It was a manual dial and you were billed by the minute by the owner. A landline phone was a luxury that was transferable–people would pay good money for one as they were scarce.

ICE–the telecommunications company– was a monopoly, and the government used it as its cash cow. When Costa Rica voted to join CAFTA in 2009, the monopoly ended, and ICE was also freed up to compete with other newly formed cell phone companies, leading to a cell phone in every hand today.

4. Machete vs weed whacker

I am sure none of the peons miss those days, but the gentle whang of a machete cutting grass was so much more pleasant to hear than the high decibel whine of the weed whacker (many of which seem to have no type of muffler). The machete is still in use, but mainly in the deepest campo or in extreme situations when the weed whacker can’t do the job.

5. Physical Size

The new generation of Costa Ricans are notably bigger than their predecessors. I am a shade over 6 feet tall, and remember walking down the street in San Jose years ago, able to see over the heads of most everyone else on the street. Now I have 2 sobrinos politicos in their early 30s, both of whom are taller than me.

I also remember how, on my arrival, Costa Ricans were the fittest looking people I had ever seen. Especially coming from the US, home of the Supersize me generation. Thirty years later I see a new generation of Ticos that includes its share of overfed adults (but still few in number compared to the US).

6. 2 party system

Costa Rica had its own 2 party system when I first arrived. Liberacion and PUSC were the parties that scooped up most all of the votes. Liberacion was the party that took power after the 1948 Civil War. PUSC was the party that had tried to circumvent the election, bringing on the brief war.

Liberacion would be close to what is now called “Democratic Socialism”. PUSC was the party I perceived to be more pro-private sector. Now PUSC is a minor party, and Liberacion remains popular mainly with the oldest sector of Ticos. In the last election, there were 27- yes, 27- candidates for President, and the election was won by Rodrigo Chaves of the newly formed Social Democratic Progress Party.

7. Value of the colon

The colon was 98 to the dollar when I arrived here. I remember paying 50 colons for a beer in a bar at the beach. I found a little soda in downtown San Jose where I could get gallo pinto, eggs, tortillas and coffee for 120 colons. A beer at the beach today runs an average 1,500 colons and a desayuno tipico in the humblest of sodas probably 2,500 colons.

Costa Rica was a much simpler country then. As a side note, the 1990 Sele that stunned the world by advancing to the 2nd round of the World Cup in their first ever appearance, was so underpaid in colons that most of their players had side jobs. In their first match, versus Scotland, the BBC announcers took note of this, as the Scottish players all played in Europe and were well enough paid.

Costa Rica had a player that worked as a butcher and another as a baker, so the announcers got a big chuckle by asking, “wheres the candlestick maker”? Costa Rica won the game 1-0.

8. Attitude towards marijuana

The new administration recently took steps toward legalization. I’ll smoke to that! The past 3 decades here are roughly equivalent to the 50s, 60s and 70s in the US, when it comes to marijuana. The 90s it was a very clandestine thing among the locals and you had to be careful about it.

The 00s it became more open, but lawmakers were heavily opposed and growers were still threatened with long jail sentences. The 2010s up to the present day has seen a more tolerant outlook, leading to the present possibility of legalization. Now to be honest, personal use has never been a big deal. Costa Rica was and remains very much a live and let live country when it comes to personal behavior.

These are 8 of the most significant changes I have seen– feel free to add your own. Pura Vida

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