In light of the last World Cup game between Greece and Costa Rica, played in 2014, we decided to focus on the “Greek side” of Costa Rica, and more specifically on three towns in the country which have Greek names.
Grecia, which means Greece in Spanish, is the capital of the canton by the same name in the province of Alajuela. Though the town is not inhabited by Greeks, its architectural elements are reminiscent of Greece.
At the exit of Pan America Avenue, right before you enter the city, there is a collection of Corinthian columns. Downtown, behind City Hall, there is a square called Plaza Hellenica, where one can find a bust of Aristotle, offered to the city by the Greek Ministry of Culture in 1997. And as if that weren’t enough, at the entrance to the town, there is an inscription which reads, “Welcome to Greece” and a miniature of the famous Greek Parthenon.
Grecia, Costa Rica has a population of 15,457 and is located at an altitude of 999 meters above sea level in the foothills of Central Cordillera. It is on the eastern end of the Valle Central, 45 kilometers (30 miles) from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.
The town was officially founded on April 27, 1838 and was declared a city on August 6, 1903. There are three versions as to why it was named after Greece.
The first theory is that the prefect of the region, and later the president of the country, José Rafael de Gallegos Alvarado, a known philhellene, was so influenced by the Greek Revolution that he decided to name the town Grecia.
The second theory says that residents of the area had a meeting in 1826 to decide on the name. During the meeting, one of the residents, Juan Lara Zamora, suggested that the area be named Grecia in honor of the European country which had gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, to symbolize a new beginning for the city’s residents.
And the third theory is related to the second, which says that Juan Lara Zamora owned a farm called Grecia in the area, which was very well-known.
The main attraction of Grecia is a church called Iglesia de la Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes which is constructed entirely of prefabricated steel plates in an unusual deep red color. In fact, an urban legend says that the church was a gift from a foreign country to Greece, but accidentally it ended up in the city of Grecia because of the similarity of the sound of the names!
In any event, the town is a major tourist destination because of a permanent exhibition entitled the “World of Snakes,” which presents fifty species of reptiles from around the world.
However, Grecia is not the only place in Costa Rica which is reminiscent of Greece. There is also a town called Atenas (Athens) with 8,000 inhabitants. Again, the urban legend says that philhellene Jose Rafael de Gallegos Alvarado is responsible for its Greek name, although there is no further information on the subject.
Last but not least, Esparza is a town in Costa Rica which was called Sparta when it was founded in 1851. After many years, and because of the Spanish pronunciation, the name was changed into Esparza.