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by Michael L. Smith

Columbus Day is celebrated in Costa Rica on October 12th.

In the past, Costa Rica, like most of the Americas, observed a day in October as Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. For Costa Rica October 12 was Día de la Raza, Race Day, a celebration of the human race as well as Columbus's voyages.

As sentiment throughout the Americas has changed focus in recent years, so has Costa Rica's vision of this important date. It now embodies a celebration of all the peoples who constitute the base of this country's culture.

Recognizing the strong influence on present-day Costa Rican culture by the Indians, Europeans, Africans and Asians who have settled and lived here throughout history, Costa Rica utilizes the Día de las Culturas to commemorate the invaluable contributions to this culture that is uniquely Costarricense.

The Discovery

For at least 10,000 years before Christopher Columbus set foot on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, there were civilizations utilizing this land bridge between North and South.

Two main cultures dominated the land: the Mesoamerican, reaching down into western Costa Rica from the north, was strongly influenced by Aztec and Mayans tribes; and one reflecting South American cultures that spread throughout the eastern and southern areas, the Talamancan Region.

Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) landed on the Atlantic coast of a wild land, near what is now the port city of Limón, on September 18, 1502 during his fourth voyage to the new world.

For 60 years following Columbus's arrival, Spanish expeditions stayed close to the coasts. Terrain and weather conditions made it almost impossible for them to penetrate into the highlands.

Spaniards exploring the Pacific regions of this new land were given so much gold by the natives that by 1539 the territory between Panama and Nicaragua had become officially known as Costa Rica, the "rich coast."

It wasn't until 1564 that the first permanent settlement was established in the Central Valley in what is now the city of Cartago. The man considered the true conquistador of Costa Rica, Juan Vázquez de Coronado led that colonizing expedition.

The Spanish system of using Indians as serfs did not work well in Costa Rica. As a result the colonists, including the governor, had to work the soil themselves in order to eat. This led to the development of small family farms which became the norm for the new society.

The isolated, poor conditions and lack of mineral wealth contributed to keeping Costa Rica a tranquil, albeit poverty ridden, place during the Colonial period.

In 1809 Governor Tomás de Acosta observed that Costa Rica had changed little from its beginnings--everyone still lived at a subsistence level and farming methods and crops were not too different from those of the pre-Columbian aborigines.