Every country has its holidays and its own unique ways to celebrate them. As a way to help you better enjoy your vacation in Costa Rica, from time to time we’ll tell you about different holidays that are an important part of life in this country.
Costa Rica is a country very proud of its heritage and highly conscientious about instilling this pride in their children from an early age. Celebrating with gusto is a Costa Rican tradition in itself, and no other holiday is more important than Independence Day. Independence, Liberty, Freedom, Love of Country are so important for Ticos (Costa Ricans) that they have designated the entire month of September as “el Mes de la Patria” or Month of the Homeland. I don’t know of any other country that celebrates the anniversary of its Independence for a whole month! During the month of September public and private businesses and buildings as well as people’s homes fly the national flag and are adorned with streamers and other decorations in red, white and blue, the colors of the Costa Rican flag, and other patriotic signs.
The 5 Central American countries of Spanish origin – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica- were originally Provinces of Spain under the Captaincy General of Guatemala to which the Spanish Crown appointed a Viceroy to govern them. Since Costa Rica was the territory farthest from Guatemala and no valuable metal had been discovered by that time, Spain had practically no interest in Costa Rica, allowing it to develop pretty much independently. Life was simple then, the economy based on farming for self-sustenance and commerce that consisted of trading farm products for manufactured goods. Thus went life for about 300 years…
Eventually winds of independence began to blow throughout the Central American Isthmus while Spain battled Napoleon Bonaparte and other foes in the old continent. Eventually on September 15, 1821, without a war, Spain signed the independence of the Captaincy General of Guatemala and all its territories. Word was sent to each of the former provinces and the news arrived in Costa Rica on October 13th – talk about slow mail! someone had to ride across the isthmus to reach Costa Rica with the news.
As a result of these circumstances, all 5 Central American nations share the same Independence Day. Several interesting commemorative celebrations have resulted from their common history.
There is a unique celebration which unites once more for this event all the former colonies. A few days before September 15, a Torch of Freedom is lit in Guatemala in a ceremony of Independence. Then a relay marathon starts where individuals carry the Torch on foot from one end of the Central American Isthmus to the other, through all the former Provinces of the Captaincy of Guatemala, signifying the Freedom that ignited all the new Countries with their Independence. People crowd the roads as it passes cheering it on, waving their national flag. It enters Costa Rica on Sept 13th at the Peñas Blancas Nicaraguan border where the Province of Guanacaste is the first place in Costa Rica to welcome it. As the Torch arrives in the country from Nicaragua, it is passed by the Nicaraguan Freedom Torch carrier to one from Costa Rica. Taking a turn to carry the Torch of Freedom is a big honor and people from all walks of life take part in the relay. School children in uniform, athletes, farmers, ranch hands, professionals, teachers, tradespeople, those who have distinguished themselves in some area which has made the country proud…all take turns on the relay. As the Torch passes through the countryside and towns, people crowd the sides of the road and cheer it on. Those who are able to do so, accompany the torch in cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, skate boards, horseback or whatever means of transportation is available to them. Cars honking their horns, noisemakers, music playing, police and firetrucks escorting the Torch with their sirens blaring, musicians playing typical Costa Rican music from the back of a truck follow the entourage- a loud and participatory parade with Costa Rican Flags flying from all vehicles or waved by bystanders or on horses or bicycles all the way. I have had the honor and pleasure to accompany the Torch from the Nicaraguan border to Playas del Coco and the spirit is contagious, electrifying and very festive. Ticos take very seriously the business of being Patriotic.
This parade goes through Liberia, capital of the Province of Guanacaste, where several additional torches are lit. The main torch that came from Guatemala will continue to Cartago, the original capital of Costa Rica not too far from San Jose, where a ceremony will take place. The secondary torches will continue igniting the spirit of freedom though other areas of the nation not on the route to Cartago. One of these will go towards Philadelphia, Santa Cruz, Nicoya and other towns in that direction. Another will go to Sardinal and Playas del Coco. When the torch arrives in Coco, it’s usually about 1 am in the morning and nobody in town is asleep, waiting for the Torch. The local police will receive the Torch in a ceremony and then it’s placed on a stand in the park where it will remain under Honor Guard around the clock. School children in uniform will take turns standing Guard.
The following night, September 14th at 6 p.m. every television and radio station in the country simultaneously broadcast the Costa Rican National Anthem. Shortly after this, at nightfall the Lantern Parade starts in every corner of Costa Rica. Elementary school children have prepared at school homemade lanterns (nowadays you can buy these but tradition is that they make it themselves and a great many still do so, under teacher or parental guidance.) The lanterns are generally made to look like little houses and they carry a small candle inside. Parents and other adults are in hand to be sure the candle is held firmly protected where there is no danger of fire or getting burned. Because Coco is a beach town, they usually walk on the beach towards the beachfront park where people gather to see them arrive. It’s very impressive to watch this procession of candlelight in the dark with the sound of the ocean as background. The significance of this is a reenactment of the messenger who had to travel through all of Central America to bring the news of Independence carrying the light of freedom and the little houses representing the arrival of the news in all towns big and small of the new nation. There usually are presentations of typical dances by children in traditional costume and marimba music at the park.
The following morning is the BIG DAY! About 8 am, school children are ready again to march through town with their school’s marching band, people once more lining the Main Street of Coco all the way to the park. There will be short speeches as part of the Civic Ceremony of Independence Day and long festivities to include numerous musical presentations of traditional dances, all in typical garb, many adults also will wear their typical attire and the ladies adorn their hair with a flower as it used to be done. Marimba music will play in the park and people will dance to it. No one stays home, young and old alike come to this celebration of Freedom. Street vendors sell typical food and I love the occasion to be able to eat arroz de maiz, a traditional dish, a dish of corn meal with pork that is delicious, I never pass the opportunity for this!
This September 15th marks 195 years of Independence and the Ticos have reason to be proud of what they have made of their country. A country with no army but public schools in every little corner of the nation. A quality of education comparable to that of the most advanced countries in the world. A mortality rate that is very low and a life expectancy superior to that of the United States. A country where you can be free to agree or disagree with any political party with no fear of reprisal. Where free democratic elections are held every 4 years and the transition of government is a peaceful event. A country that is an international hub for medical care and every year thousands of people from all over the world come to Costa Rica for medical and dental care comparable to that in highly developed countries but at a fraction of their cost. With world class medical institutions and state of the art equipment and medical and dental professionals trained at or having done internships at renowned medical facilities around the world. And they have done all this and more while retaining their sense of humor, love of music and dancing, passion for sports and their innate friendliness and hospitality. The spirit of Pura Vida. Hope to see you here soon!