Costa Rica is Central America's jewel. It's an oasis of calm among its turbulent neighbors and an eco-tourism heaven, making it one of the best places to experience the tropics with minimal impact. It's also mostly coastline, which means great surfing, beaches galore and a climate built for laziness.
Costa Rica is located in Central America. It is part of the land bridge between the continents of North and South America. The country is bordered to the north with Nicaragua, and to the south with Panama. The east borders on the Caribbean Sea, and the west on the North Pacific Ocean. The Caribbean cost is 132 miles long, while the Pacific coast is 635 miles long. Costa Rica lies wholly within the tropics, just ten degrees north of the equator.
Things to buy
Choose from coffee and coffee-related products, reproduction of pre-Columbian jewelry, craftily carved wooden boxes, attractive Chorotegan pottery, leather goods, hand-painted art (on bird feathers), guitars and other musical instruments or painted oxcarts (you can get them packed in boxes for easy traveling). There’s also an abundant selection of clothes and crafts imported from Panama, Ecuador and Guatemala available.
The voltage throughout the country is 110 V, the same as in North America. However, three-prong outlets are scarce, so bring along an adapter if you need one. Travellers with appliances set for 220 will need an adapter that changes the voltage and allows for use of a different plug.
No shots are required, but we always suggest having a Hepatitis A shot as a precaution. The water in the major cities of Costa Rica is safe and most hotels and restaurants offer purified tap water. You might prefer to drink bottled water (agua purificada) or seltzer (agua mineral) to be sure. Costa Rica has excellent, low-cost medical care and well-qualified practitioners. Many North Americans come to Costa Rica for cosmetic surgery or dental work.
Costa Rica is on Central Standard Time, six hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. It does not currently use daylight saving time, although the idea has been considered
Canadians and US citizens are not required to have a visa and may visit Costa Rica for a maximum of 90 days without one. To enter the country you must have a valid passport, or a photo ID (like a driver’s license) and a copy of your birth certificate. We strongly recommend having a passport. All Europeans need a valid passport.
Before traveling to Costa Rica it is recommended to ask the Costa Rican embassy or consulates located in your country what the requirements are as they change from country to country.
Catholicism is the dominant religion (75% of the population), as it is in most of Latin America. Consequently, nearly all major holidays are religious in nature. The government and popular culture is secular, though still conservative. Only 14% are Protestants and many other minority religious groups can be found.
Tipping & taxes
As a general rule, hotel and restaurant staff, tour guides and cab drivers accept tipping in appreciation of good service. Hotels, restaurants and nightclubs are required to add a 13% sales tax and a 10% service charge on all bills, so tipping here is optional but very welcome.
Costa Rica has departure taxes of US$26 per person to be paid directly at the airport (information as per August 2004, subject to change without prior notice).
Direct-dial telephone service, facsimile, telex, radio and cable television are all available. Bilingual operator assistance for international calls is: 116, local information: 113, long distance information: 124. Internet cafes are available in most towns and hotels. Collect call from Costa Rica to many countries are possible.
When to visit
The dry season from December to April is also the high season in Costa Rica. During the rainy season (or also called the “green season”) from May to November you will see sunny mornings and rain showers in the afternoon and evening. But don’t be surprised if you see only rain or one week without any rain at all. In the tropics all can happen. Overall, the climate is tropical, with an average temperature of 22°C. It can be much hotter along the coastal areas of the country, and cooler in the mountains. The North Pacific Coast is much drier than the Caribbean Coast, where the weather is more humid all year long.
The green season is becoming more and more popular along travellers for many reasons: prices are much lower, everything is green and you will find fewer tourists along the way. But no matter when you chose to travel to Costa Rica, you will always enjoy it.
Food and drinks
Please consider the following precautions during your trip, that are the same wherever you travel around the world: Do not leave your luggage unattended at the airport or with a stranger, do not carry any stranger´s luggage through customs or immigration, and always carry your money within an inside pocket or a body pouch, or money belt.
Daily spending money could be carried in your bag or front pocket. Credit cards and travelers´ checks are good tools when you travel. Carry a separate package with the following information: a copy of the identifying pages of your passport, the number of your credit cards, travelers checks, bank accounts, airplane tickets, and emergency phone numbers. Valuable items should be left in a safe box. Avoid crowds as well as dark and lonely places, and deal with well-known tourism agencies instead of unknown persons. In other words, take the same precautions you would have when visiting any other country, but do not let that decrease your enjoyment of this experience.
Costa Rica is a tropical country and experiences only two seasons: rainy and dry. The dry season is generally between late December and April, and the rainy season lasts the rest of the year. The Caribbean coast tends to be wet all year. Temperatures vary little between seasons; the main influence on temperature is altitude. San José at 1150m has a climate that the locals refer to as 'Eternal Spring' with a low average of 15°C and high average of 26°C. The coasts are much hotter, with the Caribbean averaging 21°C at night and over 30°C during the day and oppressive humidity, and the Pacific, which is a few degrees warmer still. Costa Rica's climate is considered the healthiest climate of the world according to a NASA research.
Depending on the altitude and the region in which you are, you can find a great variety of microclimates. Cool, wet and very green mountain ranges, where many dairy farmers have established themselves; rain forests and dry tropical forests; the wet Caribbean coast and the dry Pacific coast; and cloud forests. The highest-located hotel in Costa Rica, at 3000m of altitude experiences frost almost every night. This large variety of climates is responsible for an incredible array of plants and animals -9,000 species of flowering plants, 1,200 of orchids, 850 of birds, 205 of mammals, and 376 of reptiles and amphibians.
What to wear & bring
Cotton shorts and T-shirts, a light foldable raincoat, hiking or tennis shoes and swimsuits are recommended during the day. Formal wear with light dresses or pants for women and slacks and short sleeve shirts for men are the dress code for evenings at restaurants or parties. Do not forget a sweater if you are planning to visit the mountain regions. Also San José can be a little cool at night.
You should never forget your camera and extra film, a small first aid kit, binoculars, walking shoes, sunscreen, traveller's checks, cash or/and credit cards, swim suits, casual clothes for nightlife and fine dining, insect repellent, copies of your favorite Costa Rica travel guide, sandals, sunglasses & hat, necessary medications, rain jacket, passport/birth certificate & driver's license.
San José is the capital and cultural heart of Costa Rica. Other major cities (by population) are: Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Liberia, Limón and Puntarenas.
The cosmopolitan capital of Costa Rica is the transportation hub of the country, so most visitors spend at least a few days in the city. It has a more North American feel to it than many Latin American capitals, with department stores, shopping malls and fast-food chains. However, it also has several excellent museums, some great restaurants, colorful markets and a fine climate.
The best of the museums are the Museo Nacional, which has displays of Costa Rican archaeology, colonial furniture, costumes and religious art; the Museo de Oro Precolombino, which houses a dazzling collection of pre-Columbian gold pieces; and the Museo de Jade, with the world's largest collection of American jade sculptures. The most impressive city building is the Teatro Nacional, built in the 1890s. It hosts plays, operas, ballets and performances by the National Symphony Orchestra. The best market is Mercado Central, which bustles rather than buzzes, but has a range of goods from live turkeys to leatherwork, and some of the cheapest meals in town.
Costa Rican currency is the colon. It floats daily against the dollar and can be exchanged at banks and change booths. American dollars and major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, except in small business establishments or hotels and restaurants in remote locations. Travellers’ checks are not exchanged as favorably as cash. If you pay by credit card, a small surcharge is sometimes added. ATMs are available in most cities and towns with bank offices.
Euros are not yet very popular in Costa Rica, very difficult to change and hardly accepted. At the bank you will pay a much higher commission when changing into colones. It is better to stick to the American dollar and always have some change in colones in your pocket.
Education & Politics
Costa Rica’s constitution requires 6% of its Gross Domestic Product be dedicated to education – and as a result it has a higher literacy rate (96%) than the United States. All post offices have computers for general use, and Internet connections are also available there. Costa Rica also invites students from overseas who come to the Spanish-language schools that abound throughout the country.
We believe that one of the main reasons Costa Rica is called the Switzerland of Central America is its educational system. Compulsory education exists since 1843. Costa Rica's high education levels - besides the absence of a military - are probably what makes it the most politically stable country in Latin America. Military was abolished in 1948 and the constitution forbids the creation of a new one. Since then Costa Rica is known as a Democratic Republic.
The population of Costa Rica is almost reaching 4 millions habitants predominately of European heritage, but a fair number of them show varied amounts of indigenous characteristics (about 10% of the population). Almost half of the population lives in the Central Valley around San José.
The Caribbean region has a large percentage of blacks, especially along the coast. Many of these people are descendent of Jamaicans who came to work on the construction of the railroad. There is also a Chinese minority spread fairly around the country.
The official language is Spanish, but many speak some English, a required course in all schools. Along the Caribbean Coast you will find a mixture of Spanish and English called “patuá”.
Costa Ricans are affectionately known as Ticos, and it would be difficult to find a more friendly and welcoming culture.