National Geographic : 1981 Jul
while the Pacific pounds the irregular west coast. A chain of lofty volcanic cordilleras two-thirds of the land area-marches the length of the isthmian republic, from near its northwest border with Nicaragua to Pana ma. The highest peak, cold and windswept Chirrip6, pushes skyward 12,533 feet, yet lies no more than 50 miles from either coast. To the first Spaniards this dazzling diver sity spelled only adversity. Floods, hurricanes, and tropical diseases stalked them in the sweltering lowlands. And fierce, elusive Indians harassed them maddeningly. Here was no Aztec or Inca Empire to be enslaved intact, but hundreds of independent bands eager to slay the strangers and willing to burn their own crops to deny them food. Starvation was so constant a companion to the Spaniards that some resorted to cannibalism. Without native slave labor, the early colo nists were forced to work the land them selves. And without gold, trade with other New World colonies was infrequent at best. "As a result of their isolation, they became very individualistic. Also barefoot," I was told by 74-year-old Jose Maria Figueres Ferrer-"Don Pepe" Figueres. "At one point," Don Pepe continued, "with trade disrupted by English and French pirates the people made garments of goat hair and tree bark. Cacao beans be came the medium of exchange." History From a Revolutionary I listened carefully to this man, this di minutive giant. He is more than a student of Costa Rica's past. Leader of the country's last revolution, Don Pepe is a major archi tect of the modern state. Not for naught the colonists' travails, he told me, because "the struggle, where even the governor had to tend his own crops, brought about an unusual egalitarianism that survives today; the struggle paved the way for our free education and free elections that began in the 1880s." To talk to this national hero, I had fol lowed precipitous Highway 2 south from Cartago, in the central highlands, through awesome mountain passes where envelop ing clouds drift dark and ominous as whis pered rumors, and barricades loom from the mist to signal road shoulders sheared away. Costa Rica Steers the Middle Course After 30 kilometers I reached his finca, or farm. Its name, appropriately, is La Lucha Sin Fin-"the struggle without end." At my urging, Don Pepe related what happened when his country's electoral pro cess was tampered with in 1948. The party then in power, backed by local Communist activists, refused to honor an election that would have ousted it. Don Pepe-farmer, (Continued on page 40) WILLIAM THOMPSON Top crop in Costa Rica and number one export, coffee brought317 million dollars in 1980 for 125,000 tons. Grown on the mountain slopes of the Meseta Central,or "centralplateau," coffee employs 45,000 people year round; an additional12,500 pick the ripe red cherries when school lets out for harvest.