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Dig into Costa Rica’s past, and the sheer weight of history weaves magic over this land of mountains, valleys, coastland, verdant jungles, and often-active volcanoes. Ten thousand years and more ago, hunter-gatherers came into the area, and little by little, they began to settle, building great stone cities, creating mysterious granite spheres, crafting gold and pottery.

The Spanish, relatively latecomers, arrived in 1502, and coffee didn’t take root in Costa Rica until the 1700s. But once it found the fertile soil, perfect elevation, and microclimates that National Geographic calls the finest coffee-growing region of the world, coffee cultivation began to shape the country. Circa 1800, the Costa Rican government began offering free land to coffee farmers, and by 1829, coffee revenues surpassed other crops. At first, beans were exported via Panama to Chile and re-labeled “Café Chileno de Valparaíso.” But England soon became the largest pre-WWII importer of Costa Rican beans, and Costa Rican coffee came into its own.

Wealthy coffee barons rose to power mid 1800s and into the 1900s, but ultimately a more democratic form of government brought about modernization, railroads, and education for both sexes. In 1982, the Costa Rican government ruled that all coffee grown in the country must be of the Arabica variety. Though yields can be considerably less than Robusta varieties, this law has has made Costa Rica famous for coffee quality. The country is currently the 13th largest coffee producer in the world, and it is not coffee barons who turn out approximately 1.5 million bags of coffee a year--it is small farmers with an average of 5 hectares (12 acres) of land apiece, and hearts to coax the very best out of their holdings. As a result, traceability is usually readily available: most Costa Rican coffees are identified by the farm (finca) on which they are grown, the member cooperative, or beneficio where they were processed.

The “Ticos” take pride in their land and their coffee. They have a phrase, Pura Vida, which encapsulates the optimism of the people. This multipurpose phrase is translated “pure life,” and carries with it an underlying thankfulness, along with the understanding that no matter what the situation, somewhere someone is experiencing something worse, so maybe the situation isn’t so terrible after all! In essence, no matter how much or little you have, life is short and we’re here together so—pura vida!

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