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Numismatic Museum

Discover the means of payment that have been used in Costa Rica and go down the country’s history.

The Numismatic Museum's Numismatic Museum permanent exhibition named Del Real al Colón: Historia de la Moneda en Costa Rica shows about 300 objects from the collection that generate a journey through the economic history of Costa Rica from the Pre-Columbian times to the present.

This is a chronological exhibit; therefore, it allows you to travel throughout the different periods of history through coins, bills, and coffee tokens that have been used in our country.

The museum is divided into five thematic areas covering the history of currency, the history of the Mint, private coins, financial education, and the new family of banknotes. In each of these areas, the most extraordinary objects of the collection stand out: the first coin of the country, the oldest or the one with the most value, among others. These key pieces introduce the historical period to which they belong or the themes addressed by the exhibition.

In addition, the fundamental concepts of financial education are present throughout the tour in such a way that the visitor may identify the trade practices in history and recognize the habits that are currently beneficial in the management of their finances.


Short Tour

Pre-Columbian societies used the bartering system or the exchange of products such as salt, cocoa, corn, ceramic objects, cotton, and gold objects, among others. During the Conquest in the 16th century, the Spanish used glass beads—known as chaquiras—and other objects to exchange goods with the indigenous people—gold among them. Chaquiras were highly valued by the indigenous people, since they used them to make necklaces, indicative of social rank amongst these groups. In the city of Santiago de Talamanca, chaquiras were used as currency in the 17th century, its equivalence with the official silver currency established at five chaquiras per real.

The territory now known as Costa Rica was a trade exchange center, its land and sea exchange networks going beyond its current borders both north and southward 

Moneda española de 8 reales, 1681
Spanish 8 reales coin, 1681

The Spanish began the colonization process starting in the 16th century in the territory now known as Costa Rica and imposed a new social, economic, cultural, and political organization that drastically changed preColumbian societies' way of life.

The Spanish imposed their monetary system, a bi-metal currency system using gold and silver. Gold coins were called "escudos;" and silver ones, "reales." 8 reales made a “peso.” The shortage of currency was a constant concern throughout Colonial times and up to the 20th century, since Spain did not establish a mint in the General Captaincy of Guatemala, to whom the province of Costa Rica belonged.

Furthermore, part of the little currency it generated came from trade between the province and the other colonies of the Spanish Empire, such as the Portobello trade markets in Panama.

Due to a shortage of metal, cocoa beans were used as means of payment throughout the 18th century.

Thus, both systems, currency and trade, were simultaneously used for the transaction of good and services. There was also a coin of smaller denomination used for transactions of lesser value, called the “maravedí” and made of copper.

Coins are an official means of expression of the power behind it. Portraits, coats of arms, and legends are combined to convey messages of power, sovereignty, or subjugation. They also relate to political, social, economic, and cultural aspects relevant to the society or individuals behind them

Throughout history, one of the first acts of a land’s sovereignty and independence has been to issue their own currency. Coin minting is not only an economic necessity, but also a sign of identity. Hence the importance given to the obverse, or "heads," which shows the symbols of power of the issuing party, be it a monarch, a state, or a republic.

A new medal was issued to commemorate Costa Rica's independence from Guatemala in 1821. The medal, issued in 1822, became the first Central American proclamation medal after the Independence. From 1821 to 1824, coins continued to be scarce in spite of the development of economic activities such as mining in Montes del Aguacate; since the country had issued no coins of its own, it continued to use Colonial currency, together with that of other American states who had recently become independent.

"Coin of the Palm Tree ”, 1824

The Colonial Spanish monetary system was used after the Independence: reales, or silver coins, the peso (an eighth of a real), and gold escudos. Coins continued to be scarce, since minting possibilities were few and gold and silver was not readily available, which explains why Colonial coins were still used along with that of other states.

In 1824, five states founded the Central American Federation: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, all former captaincies of Guatemala. The Money Federation Law established the new signs and inscriptions for a new coin, thus altering the images and legends that would appear on it.

Regarding its design, they had the coat of arms of the Federation with the words “free, grow, fertile,” the figures of 5 volcanoes to represent the five member states, a zenith sun on the gold coin, and a setting sun on the silver coin. The new coins kept the names of reales and escudos.

At the time, Costa Rica had a provisional mint known as Ingenio Los Horcones, which operated until 1928, when the Mint of Costa Rica was founded in San José

Moneda de 8 reales, 1841
8 reales coin, 184

Braulio Carrillo—Costa Rica's first chief of state—was a very important figure of this time. He led the country from 1838 to 1842, after the country separated from the Central American Federation.

At the time, only 1-escudo and 1/2-real coins were minted; due to the currency shortage, the government authorized a sixpoint star to be stamped onto foreign currency or currency from other periods, thus allowing their circulation. A small piece of these coins was extracted to test the quality of the metal, confirm their legitimacy, and their share for the services rendered.

Costa Rica at the time was a burgeoning country with a developing economy. This explains the symbols used on coins, allusions to the economy and products such as tobacco, which at a given time was a possible international export product

In 1842, Francisco Morazán overthrew Braulio Carrillo and named himself chief of state of Costa Rica in order to re-establish the Central American Federal Republic. Therefore, the coins and designs of the Federation began to be used again. Although Francisco Morazán was deposed in 1842, the governments after his up until 1848 kept the design and coins of the Federation, hoping that it would be brought back to life again.

“Macuquinas,” Colonial coins issued in America with irregular, misshapen edges due to their crude manufacturing technique, were re-stamped to increase circulating currency.

Costa Rica's first commemorative coin was issued in 1847 to commemorate the new constitution. Worth 1 real, it had a coffee plant on its obverse, a crop whose export had given Costa Rica access to the world market; its reverse was an engraving of "the face of an Indian" bearing a striking similarity with the Virgin Mary. Quite likely, this is the reason why the coin was popularly known as “Mariquita.”

Moneda de 1 peso, 1850
1 peso coin, 1850

Costa Rica was proclaimed a sovereign independent republic on August 31, 1848, while Dr. José María Castro Madriz was in office. It established diplomatic relations with several European states and with the United States. A flag and a coat of arms were among the new symbols adopted for the Republic of Costa Rica—founded on August 31, 1848—, which were later engraved on its coins. From that point on, “peso” became the official name of the silver coins. The first bank, named the National Costa Rican Bank, was established in 1858; it only operated for a year.

The shortage in circulating currency and the fact that there were no dies to mint new coins forced the government to continue using Federation coins and even foreign currency re-stamped with a design known as “Passing Lion”.

Many of the images on coins and banknotes were heavily influenced by European Neoclassic trends, such as the coin known as the “standing Indian.”

Exchangers appeared as a new profession. They were in charge of exchanging coins from one denomination to another, lending money and backing long distance payments; just like our current banks. The word bank actually comes from the benches where these exchangers used to sit to conduct their transactions.

Moneda de 5 pesos, 1873
5 pesos coin, 1873

The decimal system was established in 1863, and the monetary unit the “peso” for both gold and silver coins, to be fractioned into a hundred parts known as "centavos," or cents. The real, escudo, and onza system passed down from the Colonial period effectively disappeared. This reform made foreign trade easier, since many other countries already used it as well. This period marked the start of the consolidation of the banking system and use of paper money in Costa Rica, giving rise to private banks such as the AngloCosta Rican Bank (1863) and the Union Bank (1877), among others.

Regarding the exchange rate between the new and old coins, 1 peso was worth 8 reales.

Moneda de 20 colones, 1900
20 colones coin, 1900

The Costa Rican coin changed its name from "peso" to "colón" in 1896. The colón is divided into 100 parts called "céntimos." The name “colón” was adopted in honor of Christopher Columbus, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his arrival to America four years earlier.

Gold 2, 5, 10, and 20-peso coins, as well as 5, 10, 25, and 50 céntimo coins were minted then. Cheaper materials, such as copper and brass—a zinc and copper alloy—, cupronickel (copper and nickel) were gradually used for lower denominations (2, 5 y 10 céntimo), and went on to be used for all coins starting in the 1930s.

This process took place not only in Costa Rica, but globally, to mitigate the economic effects of events such as World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Starting in 1951, cupronickel was mainly used to mint coins, as well as steel, brass, and aluminum, especially for coins of low denominations. The economic crisis of the early 1980s forced the government to make the coins smaller starting in 1983; it also resorted to using steel and aluminum to manufacture them and to eliminate some coins of low denomination to replace them with 5, 10, and 20-colón coins.

What is known "the new set of currency" was first issued in 1995—in place to this day. Its most characteristic qualities are its gold color and is minted in alloys such as bronze-plated steel, aluminum bronze, and aluminum. The 50, 100, and 500-colón coins were introduced starting in 1995 to replace banknotes in those same denominations.


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Visit this exhibit, Monday to Sunday, from 9:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Download these resources to learn more about the history of the means of exchange used in Costa Rica.

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