The early settlers of Costa Rica, like their descendants, found the coastal districts less attractive than the small central plateau in which the moderate elevation tempered the tropical climate and in which lay the more easily worked agricultural lands. On the plateau was established the center of Spanish control, which by 1565 had at least nominally been extended to practically all the land now claimed by the Republic.
Geographically and in the character of its population, native and European, this southern projection of what later was the Captaincy General of Guatemala had features which from the beginning of the Spanish colonial period set it in contrast to the other divisions of Central America. It was isolated from the other provinces by lands either of little value or rendered difficult of access by mountain barriers. As a consequence, it did not attract large numbers of Spanish adventurers, but continued backward in its economic development and neglected by the representatives of the mother country. Later, when Costa Rica became independent, this physical separation from its neighbors contributed both to its development of local nationalism and to its comparative freedom from the intraregional dissensions which made the history of the neighboring republics turbulent.
The indigenous civilization was sharply differentiated from that of the northern states. In the latter states lived Indians with a developed tribal organization and a more advanced agriculture and local industry, all of which facilitated imposition of the typical encomienda system elsewhere found in the better-favored regions in which Spanish control came to be established. The colonial system came to rest on grants of Indian villages to the conquerors, who collected tribute from their subject serfs and in course of time developed the large landholdings typical of most of the Spanish-American colonies.
Costa Rica differs also from the other divisions of Central America in the character of its Spanish population. Elsewhere the conquerors and those who followed them are reported to have come largely from Andalusia, but Costa Ricans are said to have come largely from northwestern Spain.
Access to European markets in the colonial era and until late in the nineteenth century was by the roundabout Pacific route, causing an isolation from the rest of the world which kept the purchase of imported goods at a low level, and restricted the goods which could be sold abroad. Coffee was introduced only toward the end of the colonial regime. When bananas and plantains became a staple crop for local consumption is not clear, but their cultivation appears to have been well established by at least the early 1840's.