South of the Central Bank building, right in the heart of downtown San Jose, there is a fountain in which water flows from two coffee baskets made of stone. This is a tribute by government economists to the crop that became the foundation of national economy in the XIX century.
A mere 30 years ago, it was still common to hear Cabinet members utter the phrase "the best tax and revenue ministry is a good crop of coffee." These words couldn't be more accurate, during the' half of the XX century, Costa Rica's exports still depended on coffee. This situation changed in the 90s, when tourism became the most important source of income, replaced soon after by electronic components manufactured by the multinational company Intel, whose factory in San Antonio de Belén actually rests on an old coffee plantation.
Into Costa Rican homes
Although coffee's supremacy through more than 10 decades is unquestionable, its introduction into the national economy was not that simple. During colonial times, the beverage of choice was hot chocolate and it was drunk out of a jícara cup, not a mug, as described by historian Patricia Vega in her book "The Taste of Casual Conversation. The History of Coffee Consumption in Costa Rica 1840-1940" (Con sabor a tertulia. Historia del consumo del café en Costa Rica 1840-1040).
According to the historian, before 1820 the members of Cartago's elite, land owners and priests would order coffee from salesmen who imported the beans from Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti. The parcels took at least four weeks to reach the country and the cost made it a luxury that only the wealthy could afford.
More than likely, this social group's coffee craving came from its desire to imitate the European, who enjoyed the drink as early as the XVIII century at coffee houses and during casual conversations about royal gossip, government intrigue, art and religion, says Vega.
However, in Costa Rica coffee would soon expand to other social classes. The plant first found its way to yards and patios in the Central Valley during the first two decades of the XIX century. In spite of that, the cup of fresh coffee was not yet part of the traditional breakfast. According to Vega, the majority of the population drank "aguadulce" because it was cheaper (sweetened hot water made by boiling a piece of hard brown sugar extracted directly from the cane).
The affluent still chose to drink the more luxurious hot chocolate, which was a more stimulating beverage. Chocolate too became increasingly expensive after the drop in cocoa production during the late XVIII century, and after Costa Rica's economy suffered a hard hit because of the war against the foreign invaders in mid XIX century.
Cornerstone of the economy
In the mean time, coffee stopped being produced just for home consumption and became a lucrative export business. The first sale outside national territory was completed in 1820 and consisted of two "quintales" sent to Panama (one quintal is equivalent to 100 pounds). That date is actually commemorated by a brand of coffee currently sold in national grocery stores.
By 1830, exports increased considerably in markets such as Chile and later England and Germany.
The crop's economic potential led to the creation of towns like San Mateo and Atenas, in the areas surrounding the road to Puntarenas, the most important port for the transportation of the bean to international markets.
Oxcarts made it all the way there, and the communities opened food stands and coffee plantations along the way. The bean was acquired through formal transactions, exchanges or theft. In fact, a famous thief who left his mark in history books, Tburcio Pilar Jimenez (who was also believed to be responsible for the theft of President Tomas Guardia's horse after Sunday mass in 1872), was taken to court for leading a gang that stole coffee from plantations at night, under the light of the full moon.
Such was the value of the merchandise that not only did it transform Costa Rica's economy, but also its social life. Historians Victor Hugo Acuńa and Ivan Molina, in their book "Economic and Social History of Costa Rica" (Historia Económica y Social de Costa Rica), describe how the country's "golden bean" marked the beginning of the gap between social classes: "Agricultural capitalism consolidated after 1850.
This process practically turned coffee into Costa Rica's only export product, boosted the agricultural colonization of the east and west of the Central Valley, integrated Guanacaste into the national economy, safeguarded the birth of the capitalist bank system, attracted the support of the government, and unknowingly fed artisan and farmer discontent," say the historians.