For much of its colonial history Costa Rica, with Cartago as its capital, was on the fringes of the New World. Most of the isthmus was governed by the Audiencia de Guatemala which, ruling from southern Mexico in the north down to modern day Costa Rica in the south, barely mustered interest in the distant trading outpost. To the south, Panama much preferred wealthy trade with the riches of South America.
Left alone with little colonial meddling, a slow and sometimes painful growth saw a string of communities build up in the central highlands, among them San José (1737), Heredia (1706) and Alajuela (1782). In the mid-18th century San José was a ramshackle collection of farms but by the end of the century, a monopoly in tobacco trade had given the city a slight prominence over other towns of the region, fuelling the development and early signs of civic pride. When news of Guatemala's independence from Spain in 1821 finally reached Costa Rica - delivered with such indifference that the news took over a month to arrive - the citizens of San José, with the shoots of a promising coffee industry beginning to appear, were confident of their ability to assume the status of capital.
The emerging agricultural elite, combined with the entrepreneurial spirit of the time, created conflict between the emerging towns, pitting the youthful, energetic and independently minded cities of San José and Alajuela against the more traditional forces of Cartago and Heredia who favoured annexation to a Central America Federation. The dispute was settled in 1823 at the Battle of Ochomongo but skirmishes continued for a further 20 years as the four towns fought for ascendancy of the Central Valley.
The victorious outcome for San José set a path for the nation's growth. Forced by necessity to enter the world economy, a flurry of activity promoted trade in mining and lumber, but it was coffee from the Central Valley that provided a stable and reliable market. As growth of the golden bean was promoted,
(merchant classes) developed to take advantage of new opportunities. They controlled the export and processing of coffee as well as the credit going to family farms, getting rich in the process and quickly becoming the most influential players in the early development of the young republic.
The wealth provided by a coffee elite which sold directly to Europe quickly brought return trade in European tastes to the capital. Infrastructure improved through the mid to late 19th century with the introduction of two-storey buildings, street lamps and cabs. The cultural landscape shifted with the introduction of language classes, Shakespeare, operetta and cockfighting. The University of Santo Tomás opened in 1843 and by 1897 the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre), financed by a coffee tax, stood at the centre of the capital as monument to the extravagant wealth, style and tastes that now dominated the lives of rich
. Although coffee cultivation spread throughout the Central Valley, the strength of the coffee oligarchy ensured San José remained in control.
The air of opulence was considerably dampened by the depression of the 1930s and as the country spent a couple of decades drifting through depression, economic and social reform and civil war, the capital's stylish extravagance became a distant memory. However, when economic growth stimulated expansion in the late 1950s, industrial development fuelled new prosperity in the capital and San José grew at the expense of the surrounding rural communities as people flocked to its bright lights. The rapid growth of the city, in the absence of urban planning, quickly destroyed its European charm, replacing it instead with blocked streets and increasing pollution. Today
are broadly indifferent about their capital. However, like a close family member, the city's weaknesses are not an area for public discussion - certainly not by foreigners.
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