The Story of the Costa Rican Civil War

The Costa Rican Civil War is the defining event of the 20th century for Costa Rica. It has influenced the country and its consequences reach out to today. We always say you should make every attempt to understand a country. This is why we’re going to talk about the civil war and what you’ll notice when you travel to Costa Rica.


In the 1940s the political scene was dominated by Rafael Angel Calderón, a surgeon who would become president of Costa Rica from 1940 to 1944. He was a powerful man who wanted to hold onto power, but after 1944 he was constitutionally ineligible to run until 1948.

He supported President Teodoro Picado. The Picado Years, as they came to be known, saw very few changes. It was widely thought he was controlled by Calderón and his followers so he could return to power in 1948.

Picado was forced to release the military onto the general public multiple times to maintain order, and this was what finally started the 44-day civil war.

The Civil War Begins

Rebel commander Jose Figueres rose up against the government and aimed to supplant Picado and Calderón after disputed elections in 1948 when opposition leader Otilio Ulate was widely thought to have won.

The forces of Figueres were anti-communists and a combination of centre left and right wing fighters. Their National Liberation Army began exchanging fire with government forces on March 12, 1948. This saw the official start of the war.

The end of the Civil War

The Civil War ended relatively quickly with the rebels working their way up the Pan American Highway and capturing numerous cities along the way. The government was weak and in the face of US-supported rebels with only support from Nicaragua they quickly folded. The Fall of Cartago convinced Picado to surrender before the rebels could lay siege to San Jose.

Contrary to what people think, Picado actually completed his constitutional term whilst on a visit to Nicaragua. His vice president, Mr Santos Leon Herrera was the person who signed the official surrender terms.


Ulate was given power a year and a half after the end of the Civil War. Figueres brought in a new constitution which abolished the military, before removing the provisional governmental junta. Calderón would later return from exile in Mexico, but he would never lead Costa Rica again. Picado, on the other hand, lived out the rest of his live in Nicaragua.

The Scars of War

With 2,000 dead, the figures of the Civil War live long in the memories of Ticos. They show great distaste towards military conflicts and actively seek to live peaceful lives. When you travel to Costa Rica, avoid bringing up any support for any military conflicts. Conflict simply isn’t in the Tico mindset.

You will only find a single memorial to the Civil War, and even this isn’t particularly grand. It just shows how much Ticos hate the idea of conflict and the military. The term 'pure vida', simply meaning 'pure life' arguably came out of the Costa Rican Civil War, and this philosophy has shown no signs of abating.