Costa Rica: Travel/Tourist Information Guide

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The Republic of Costa Rica is a country located on the Central American isthmus. It is bordered to the north by Nicaragua, by Panama to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The capital of Costa Rica is San José, which is also its largest city. Population is estimated at 4.9 million. The name “Costa Rica” means “rich coast” in Spanish. In recent years, Costa Rica has performed favorably in the Human Development Index and ranked 62nd in 2012, one of the highest among all Latin American nations, as cited by the United Nations Development Programme. Costa Rica is known for its sound environmental policies, ranking first in the Americas, and fifth in the world in the Environmental Performance Index in 2012. The country ranked twice as the best performing country based on environmental stability according to the Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The NEF also awarded Costa Rica as the greenest country in the world in 2009. Costa Rica became the first country in the Americas to totally ban recreational hunting in 2012.

The country is divided into seven provinces: San José, Alajuela, Guanacaste, Limón, Cartago, Heredia, and Puntarenas. The terrain shifts between plains, forests, and wetlands, to hills, mountains, and valleys. Majority of the inland areas are rugged mountains, some of which are dormant volcanic peaks. Costa Rica has several islands, and 25% of the national territory is under the protection of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC). The highest point in the country is Cerro Chirripó at 3,819 m (12,530 ft), which is the fifth highest peak in Central America. The lowest point is 240.79 m (790 ft) below sea level in the caves of Barra Honda National Park. Irazú Volcano is the highest volcano in the country, and Lake Arenal is the largest lake in the country. Lake Arenal is a man-made lake that generates around 7% of the entire country’s electricity. There are 14 volcanoes in the country, six of which have been active in the last 75 years. In the past century, Costa Rica has experienced at least ten earthquakes with a magnitude of 5.7 and higher.

Its location just between 8 and 12 degrees to the north of the equator gives Costa Rica a tropical climate year-round. There’s a dry season and a rainy season. The dry or summer season spans from December to April, while the rainy season is from May to November. The Central Cordillera Mountains receive the most rain in the country, while the Guanacaste province receives the least amount of rainfall. Humidity is higher on the Caribbean side of the country compared to the Pacific side. Mean temperatures vary from 20°C/68°F to 27°C/80.6°F. On the summits of the mountains, temperatures can reach up to below 10°C/50°F. The hottest months are March and April, while the coldest month is January. The best time to visit Costa Rica is from mid-December to April, the dry season when there’s plenty of sunshine ideal for lounging on the beach or exploring forests.

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Since the 1980s, Costa Rica became known as a popular nature travel destination, bolstered by a well-established system of national parks and protected areas, which take up 25% of the country’s total land area. It is the largest percentage of protected areas in the world. One of the most important national parks in Costa Rica is Corcovado National Park—known all over the world among ecologists especially for its rich biodiversity. It is the only park in the entire country where one can see all four species of Costa Rican monkeys. Costa Rica is home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, and despite its tiny percentage of the world’s land mass, the entire country contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Some of the world’s most unique, impressive, and endangered animals can be found in Costa Rica. These include the jaguar—the largest feline in the New World, the margay—a smaller, native feline that is “near threatened” due to its declining population, the white-headed capuchin monkey, green and scarlet macaw, giant cane toad, the spiny-tailed iguana which is the world’s fastest lizard, and the Central American squirrel monkey which is only found on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and some parts of Panama. When it comes to plant life, Costa Rica has an abundance of fruit-bearing trees that bear their fruits year-round, huge ficus trees, and 1500 varieties of orchids. Biodiversity has contributed to Costa Rica’s reputation as a model country for ecotourism, a feature it enjoys today. The country has also managed to gradually reduce deforestation to almost zero by 2005. Almost half of the tourists who visit Costa Rica every year engage in ecotourism-related activities like trekking, bird and wildlife watching, and visiting rural communities. Costa Rica also provides plenty of tourist-friendly beaches both from the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean coastlines. Several active volcanoes are scattered around the country, and some can be visited safely.

Throughout its history as a nation, Costa Rica has managed to remain a peaceful and politically stable nation, avoiding severe political turmoil and violence, unlike some of its neighboring nations. It has permanently abolished its national army in 1949, making it the first sovereign nation without a standing army. It is the only Latin American country to be included in the list of the world’s oldest democracies.

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Whites and mestizos make up more than 83% of the total population in Costa Rica. Around 6% are mulatto, 2.5% are native American, 1.05% are black or Afro-Caribbean, and the remaining comprise of other races. The country also hosts immigrants mainly from other Central American countries, and refugees mostly from Colombia and Nicaragua. Spanish is the official language in Costa Rica. English is also used in large cities and popular tourist destinations. Some locals are bilingual, speaking comfortably in Spanish and English. Mekatelyu, or Limonese Creole, an English-based Creole language, is spoken in Limón Province, located in the Caribbean coast of the country. Some indigenous communities still speak in their respective native languages like Boruca, Bribri, Cabécar, Maléku, Ngäbere, and Teribe. The official state religion is Roman Catholic, with 71% of the population affiliated with the religion. Around 14% are evangelical Protestants, 11% do not identify with a religion, and the remaining 4% are affiliated with other religions.

The local currency used is the Costa Rican colon (CRC). The U.S. Dollar is also widely accepted.

Costa Rican culture is a combination of Mesoamerican and South American native cultures. Since the arrival of the Spaniards during the 16th century, Spanish culture continues to be a huge fixture in the lives of Costa Ricans today. This is evident in the prevalence of the Spanish language and Roman Catholicism.

Costa Rican food can be described as simple but wholesome. Spices are used, but most Costa Rican foods aren’t spicy. When in Costa Rica, try gallo pinto—a common breakfast food of mixed rice and beans with cilantro or onion, casado—a typical Costa Rican lunch of rice and beans with chicken, meat, or fish, and served with fired plantain or salad. Also try the salsa Lizano—a Costa Rican ketchup made of mild vegetable sauce, which is slightly sweet and has a hint of curry. Fresh, local fruits are cheap and abundant, and you can find them in markets and food stores. Common drinks include frescos—a drink made from fresh fruit, sugar, and water or milk, agua de Cebada—barley water, horchata de arroz, and cacique—an alcoholic drink made from fermented sugar cane. Most places in Costa Rica have potable water, but it’s better to have bottled water when in less populous places, rural towns, and places near the coast.

Costa Ricans refer to themselves as “Ticos” and “Ticas”. “Pura vida” is a phrase Costa Ricans normally greet each other with. It means “pure life” or “good life”. When one uses it, they wish the other person a “good life”, or acknowledge the other’s presence and greeting.

Popular tourist activities in Costa Rica include visiting the beaches, rafting, fishing, scuba diving, surfing, biking, golfing, trekking, hiking, extreme sports like zip lines, and wildlife watching. While traveling and tourists are common in Costa Rica, it’s still necessary to exercise caution. Traffic is especially dangerous in the country, since pedestrians generally do not have right of way. Roads in rural areas are not the best, and driving at night isn’t recommended. In the big cities, popular tourist areas, even bus stops and buses, robbery and petty theft is common. When going out to explore, it’s better to dress simply and minimize jewelry. Never leave your valuables anywhere and in plain sight.

Costa Rica does not follow an official street nomenclature system. Many important streets in the capital of San José are known by their names. Generally, locals give direction based on well-known landmarks, buildings, and other structures.

Most tourist areas like hotels, cafés, restaurants, and bars provide free Wi-fi access. Just ask an employee for the password.

Getting around Costa Rica

You can travel around Costa Rica by public bus or taxi. Many major tourist destinations in the country are serviced by buses from and to San José. Cost of bus tickets are relatively cheap and covers most towns in the country. However, the entire bus system is based on routes in and out of San José, and popular routes are almost always full. To get sure seats, get to the station early to buy tickets. Taxis are common in large cities, and mini vans are also used as taxis.

Rental cars are also available.