Self-respecting Spanish nerds understand that Costa Rica means “rich coast”. This name hails back to Columbus who claimed that he got to see more gold in two days meeting “Costa Rican” chieftains than in four years on Hispaniola. However, his rosy depictions are at best exaggerations and at most lies since – unlike other “rich” colonies – Costa Rica neither had plenty of minerals to exploit nor a native population to enslave.
While the country’s soil is fertile with all the volcanoes around, it’s generally too swampy for serious plantations. So quite the opposite to other (richer) colonies, Costa Rica didn’t develop a society based on a land-owning elite and slaves working the fields – or a land-owning elite getting rich from minerals and slaves working the mines. The situation being what it was, the Spanish came to consider the region the “poorest and most miserable in all the Americas”.
However, in the 19th century, it turned out the highlands around San José had excellent soil and climate for growing coffee, which was a really trendy product at the time. To transport coffee from the hinterlands to the Caribbean Sea, the government commissioned the construction of a railway line from San José to Puerto Limón. The contract was given to the American entrepreneur Henry Meiggs and taken over by his nephew Minor C. Keith after his death. Incidentally, Mr Keith was responsible for planting Costa Rica’s first bananas nearby to have cheap food for the workers.
As it turned out, not only were the tracks a pain in the ass to build with jungle and hills everywhere, pouring rain, yellow fever and other diseases, but transporting coffee and the occasional passenger also wasn’t profitable. To make some money on the side, Keith had some of the bananas shipped to the US. Fortunately, Americans were really wild about the new fruit and, by the early 20th century, exporting bananas had become more lucrative than exporting coffee.
Of course, the resulting revenues didn’t fulfil Columbus’ dreams of a truly rich coast in Costa Rica and they didn’t benefit ordinary Costa Ricans. Instead, Keith teamed up with another American importer to establish the United Fruit Company (the predecessor of today’s Chiquita) which, before long, became Central America’s biggest employer and the monopolist in Costa Rica. Unsurprisingly, the form of government associated with his endeavour, known as a “banana republic”, didn’t serve regular people very well.