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Mystery shrouds pre-Columbian Costa Rica: few archaeological monuments and no proof of a written language have ever been discovered. Recorded history tends to begin with Christopher Columbus, who stayed for 17 days in 1502, and was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, 'the rich coast'. Despite the lure of untold wealth, colonization was slow to take hold and it took nearly 60 years for the Spanish settlers to make a dent in the tangled jungle. Once the process had started, however, Costa Rica, like its similarly colonized neighbors, suffered the effects of European invasion. The indigenous population did not have the necessary numbers to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases. The hoped-for hoards of gold never materialized and Costa Rica remained a forgotten backwater for many years. The 18th century saw the establishment of settlements such as Heredia, San José and Alajuela but it was not until the introduction of coffee in 1808 that the country registered on the radars of the 19th-century white-shoe brigade and frontier entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. Coffee brought wealth, a class structure, a more outward-looking perspective, and most importantly independence.

A bizarre turn of events in 1856 provided one of the first important landmarks in the nation's history and served to unify the people. During the term of coffee-grower-turned-president Juan Rafael Mora, a period remembered for the country's economic and cultural growth, Costa Rica was invaded by US military adventurer William Walker and his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized an army of 9000 civilians that, against all odds, succeeded in forcing Walker & Co to flee. The ensuing years of the 19th century saw power struggles among members of the coffee-growing elite and the institution of the first democratic elections, which have since been a hallmark of Costa Rican politics. Civil war, however, did raise its ugly head in the 1940s when ex-president Calderón and his successor, Picado, lined up against the recent ballot-winner Ulate (whose election win was not recognized by Picado's government) and José Figueres. After several weeks of warfare Figueres emerged victorious, formed an interim government and handed the presidency to Ulate. The constitution of 1949 finally gave women and blacks the vote and, controversially, dismantled the country's armed forces - giving Costa Rica the sobriquet of 'the only country which doesn't have an army'. President Oscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his attempts to spread Costa Rica's example of peace to the rest of Central America. The peace has, in recent years, been disturbed by upheavals of a different kind. In July 1996, Hurricane César resulted in several dozen deaths and the cutting off of much of southern Costa Rica from the rest of the country. The Interamericana highway was closed for about two months and the overall damage was estimated at about 100000000.00. The ill-famed Hurricane Mitch of November 1998 caused substantial damage to Costa Rica, but the most catastrophic events occurred in the countries to the north, especially Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In February 1998 the Social Christian Unity Party's Miguel Angel Rodríguez won the presidency with almost exactly 50% of the vote. A conservative businessman who made the economy his priority, he went on to privatise state companies and encourage foreign investments in an effort to create jobs. By the time the February 2002 elections rolled around, however, Ticos (a term locals use to refer to themselves) were mumbling about a lack of government transparency and shady deals between political mates. These grass-roots misgivings resulted in a 'no win' election, and pollsters returned to the ballot box in April 2002. Rodríguez's successor, Abel Pacheco of the conservative Social Christian Unity Party, was elected to step up to the president's ring. Pacheco began his term promising to eliminate the public debt within four years. He launched a conservationist platform banning new oil drilling and mining and proposed legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to a healthy environment. It didn't take long before the sheen paled. A campaign finance scandal clouded his presidency, leading some opponents to demand his resignation, and it became unclear if he could weather this storm through to the end of his term in 2006.

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