“By Our Will” Chapter 8: The Costa Rican Railroad

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Foreign residents living in Guanacaste, like this writer, soon understand that the culture of San José differs greatly from Nicoya and Santa Cruz. Guanacastecos complexion are darker given its later colonization by the Spanish and a higher degree of consanguinity with native Americans and African slaves. But most importantly is that Costa Rican citizens of European ancestry in the Central Valley ruled the country and have frequently, if not usually, treated Guanacaste as a poor backwater more akin to the character of Nicaragua than the Costa Rica’s invented traditions and imagery as European in its outlook and governance.

While the Partido of Nicoya tended to rule itself both before and after Annexation in 1824, an important moment of division brought Guanacaste into Costa Rica. As the distinguished geographer Richard Houk has written, “The poorest, the most abandoned, the most isolated of Spanish possessions in [the] Americas was the province of  Costa Rica (1).” And of all the parts of Costa Rica, Guanacaste may have been the poorest, almost without roads, without schools, without a printing press without government funds and with only small overland  trade with its neighbor, Nicaragua.

President Braulio Carrillo Colina (1835–42) was Costa Rica’s first modern leader, albeit, with dictatorial powers, who organized the coffee trade with Great Britain and built roads. But it took 30 days for coffee to reach the Atlantic by ox cart and horseback, a grueling 160 km trip. Yet, in spite of the difficulties, between 1832 and 1845, coffee exports increased 100-fold and by 1872, five-times again (1). And as the trade grew, the Port of Caldera in Puntarenas on the Pacific replaced the Atlantic, transporting the products by ship to Panama where they were placed in the Panama Railroad connecting the oceans for transshipment to the world. With coffee, the Costa Rican government was controlled by the coffee barons until 1870, when General Tomá Guardia Gutiérrez was elected president and a new constitution was adopted.


At that time, Costa Rica’s trade with Great Britain competed with Panama that used New York banks for investment in the Panama Rail Road that opened in 1855. Soon after, interest in a Costa Rican line is stirred as a North American, Thomas Francis Meagher, signed a contract with the government to build a coast-to-coast railroad in 1860.

For the next 50 years, hundreds of workers from China to Jamaica immigrated  to build the Costa Rica Railroad even as the government struggled to honor payments to London bonder holders and as routes changed due to flooding, malaria, yellow fever and other catastrophes hampering progress.

The Maria Cecilia steam engine of the Pacific branch of the Costa Rica Railroad first ran the rail on July 23, 1910, departing from Caldera station to San José with passengers and cargo. With a link to the Atlantic at Limon, Guanacaste could finally participate in Atlantic foreign trade without passing through the Panama Canal or around the Horn. As coffee was Costa Rica’s entry into European markets, bananas and the railroad turned exports to the United States, while moving capital out of the country, introducing labor unrest and worker strikes.

Photo from Historia gráfica de las luchas populares en Costa Rica (1871-1930).

 But coffee alone did not make the railroad economically viable. Beginning in the 1870s, the railroad initiated planting of bananas along the line near Limon, providing a staple for the railroad-construction workers and a return cargo for the ships bringing building materials and provisions to Costa Rica. That innovation started the project that eventually led to the formation of the multinational United Fruit Company in 1899 (3).

Of particular interest here is the historic documentation of the cancellation of concessions for timber in Hojancha and Nicoya. A contract was signed on April 5, 1884 between the bondholders, the railroad company and the government to grant 800,000 acres of government land to satisfy its debts. Of these 800,000 acres, the company selected 127,000 acres from the headwaters of the Nosara River on Mount Alta in Hojancha to Playa Pelada beach and all the way down South to San Miguel beach in Nandayure.

 As the railroad company debts were paid by United Fruit Company, the mahogany was cut to build warehouses for ripening bananas in other parts of the country. The repossession of these lands by the government has had a lasting impact on the region’s distrust of the government, with both campesinos and landlords powerless to defend their livelihoods. By this deforestation, the era of the Guanacaste cowboy was born.

Read more of the series “By our will”:

Chapter 1: The Arrival of Gil, The Conquistador, in Guanacaste 

Chapter 2: Civilizing the Conquistadors

Chapter 3: Purple Treasure

Chapter 4: Path Between the Seas

Chapter 5: Land of Opportunity

Chapter 6: Nicaragua y Costa Rica

Chapter 7: Celebrating Guanacaste

Chapter 8: The Costa Rican Railroad

Chapter 9: Hamburger Heaven


1) Houk, R. J., The Development of Foreign Trade and Communication in Costa Rica to the Construction of the First Railway, The Americas, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Oct., 1953), pp. 197-209.

2) Ibid., p. 198.

3) Augelli, J. P., Costa Rica’s Frontier Legacy, Geographical Review, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 1-16.

Rosenbaum has been a researcher and consultant on sustainable tourism and community development for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the World Bank in several countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. In addition, he has published more than half a dozen books on cultural issues as a senior researcher at George Washington University. Due to his own personal interests – he lived in Nosara and visits Guanacaste often-, Alvin decided to delve into the history of Guanacaste to understand this environment in the best way possible: by incorporating variables from the past into the analysis done going forward, to understand the present and the future of this land that welcomed him with open arms. Alvin spent many hours and several months systematizing all of the information from books and interviews and talking with Guanacastecans who are well-versed in local history to finally produce a series of installments titled “Por Nuestra Voluntad” (By Our Will).

The chapters of the series By Our Will are the author’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of this newspaper. If you wish to write an opinion article, contact us at [email protected]