La pura vida, 'the pure life', is Costa Rica’s national saying, used as a greeting or an expression of enthusiasm, and it is the pure life that most visitors come here to experience. As a nation Costa Rica pioneers the concept of ‘ecotourism’ to support and sustain the local environment. The country has earned a reputation for active tourism – hiking up volcanoes or surfing pacific breaks, but people also come here in pursuit of the more sedate pleasures of bird watching, beach-going or just watching the sunset with a beer.
Situated low down on the Central American isthmus, at 51,000 sq km the country is roughly twice the size of Wales, but manages to encompass mountains, jungles and volcanoes, fast-paced cities, calm Caribbean beaches and crashing pacific surf.
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish, but English and indigenous languages survive in some areas. Some differences between 'Spanish' Spanish and Costa Rican Spanish can be confusing – Adios, for example, can mean hello as well as goodbye here (Teach Yourself Latin American Spanish, Hodder 1994, is helpful for detailing the particulars). English is spoken along the Caribbean coast but again, visitors should be prepared for a thick creole dialect which might be pretty unrecognisable to the untrained ear. However, many Costa Ricans speak very good English and it is rarely hard to communicate with some basic vocabulary and a willingness to engage in a little Hispanic gesticulation.
Costa Rica deals in colones, named after Christopher Columbus (Colón), also known, more colloquially, as pesos. American dollars are accepted in most tourist destinations - indeed, prices are listed in colones and dollars in many shops and restaurants. It’s sometimes worth doing a quick calculation if you intend to pay in dollars in order to make sure the makeshift ‘exchange rate’ is reasonable…The currency conversion rate in August 2006 values the pound at 978.95 colones or 1.89 US dollars, but the equation is very much temporary as the colon is in a state of constant devaluation.
Costa Rica’s climate is wildly variable – at any one time it can be burningly hot along the pacific coast, rainy in the Caribbean and snowy in the mountain peaks of the central highlands. The rainy season ‘officially’ lasts from May to November but you can – and probably will – get caught in a downpour any time, anywhere. Take a cagoule.
Having said that, visitors can expect tropical heat, with temperatures in the high 20s and 30s (ºC) all year round. Obviously, at high altitudes temperatures fall away, and the Caribbean coast tends to be hotter and wetter than elsewhere. An English language region-by-region forecast can be found at www.costaricabureau.com
Tourism is the mainstay of the Costa Rican economy and there is no shortage of visitor-orientated activity.
San Jose is the centre for commerce, industry and culture. While the country’s art collections are not famous, you can find off-beat museums such as the Museum of Jade, which traces the history of the Americas through stones, jewels and fossils. A surprising amount of green space and an architectural mish-mash make it a pleasure just to walk the streets.
North and Central Highlands - North of San Jose, the active volcano Arenal spurts out spectacular lava best seen at night and naturally heats hot springs at its base. The nearby town of La Fortuna is a base for visiting the hot springs, the surrounding countryside and the volcano itself. Further north and into the mountains, at the Monteverde National Park you can speed through the jungle canopy on enormous zip-lines, as well as the usual hiking and biking.
The Pacific coast and particularly the Nicoya Peninsula in northwest Costa Rica are popular surfing spots. The surf is amazing but can be dangerous and huge crashing waves are avoided at many of the smaller beaches. The traveller scene is quite Americanised in this area, with a lot of condos, hotels and surf shacks advertising ‘beer n’ nachos’.
Caribbean coast – The Cahuita and Tortugero National Parks are situated on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, both of which are home to a huge array of wildlife in all directions – sky, land and sea. The small towns and villages along the coast are popular with travellers but retain a character distinct from the rest of Costa Rica and have a laid-back feel. It goes without saying that there are one or two nice beaches, too…
Pricier than most neighbouring countries, Costa Rica is not renowned for its shopping potential, unless you are after a vast array of t-shirts, mugs and key-rings emblazoned with the pura vida legend. Coffee, leatherwork and ceramics are generally a safe buy, and San Jose’s huge central market is an experience in itself. Quirkier artefacts such as locally-produced textiles, silver-wear and liqueurs can be found in smaller markets around the country.
San Jose’s nightlife is justifiably renowned. Barrio Tournon in the North of the city is vibrant, youthful and relatively affluent. Bars with live music - usually tango, latin and/or jazz - crop up all over the city. For hardcore ravers there are free parties held in multi-storey car parks or other large free spaces which go on till dawn, when partygoers leave for a breakfast of churros and chocolate at one of the 24-hour churrerias. See local papers for listings – A.M Costa Rica is an English language paper but its entertainment listings tend to be heavily ex-pat orientated. Despite efforts to make police presence more widely felt, San Jose after dark is not a safe place and it may be advisable to call for a taxi even if home is within walking difference.
Outside San Jose, Costa Rica’s nightlife is more provincial - beach bars on the coast and small pool halls in towns. Bars in coastal resorts can be filled with spring-breakers drinking tequila out of their shoes or vomiting on the dance floor – a more relaxed atmosphere and most locals can be found in smaller and cheaper bars that do not advertise in English along the beachfront. It is rarely hard to find somewhere to go for a drink - it is a sad fact that even villages in Costa Rica seem to have a church, a pulperia (grocery shop) and an Alcoholics Anonymous hut.
UK and US driving licenses are valid for up to 90 days driving, after which the Costa Rican permit must be obtained. The speed limit is usually around 90km/hr on main roads or 75km/hr on secondary roads. However, when driving along a muddy, potholed, badly-signposted road with a herd of goats ambling along it, 75km/hr might seem a bit ambitious. Smaller Costa Rican roads are largely bad, sometimes impassable, and an unusually high accident rate is the reason police are strict on speeding and drink-driving. Traffic police use radar to catch speeding vehicles and issue tickets that can be paid in most banks. Petrol and diesel are widely available at 24-hour petrol stations, grocery stores and even at local markets at a price of around 0.65 US dollars per litre.
Food and Drink
Food - The immortal combination of rice and beans dominates Costa Rican ‘cuisine’, however, more exciting fare can usually – though not always - be found. Outstanding fresh seafood is available in nearly all coastal areas, while ‘ecotourism’ has provided the foundation for a flourishing organic/healthfood industry – unusually for central America, vegetarian options are offered even in more out-of-the-way cafes and restaurants. Gallo pinto – scrambled or fried eggs with rice and beans - is eaten for breakfast by surfers, hikers and Costa Ricans.
Restaurants - San Jose has a few international-standard restaurants, while at the other end of the market cheap roadside stalls sell everything from hotdogs, to mangoes, to boiled eggs. Simpler things such as fresh bread, fruit and coffee are easier on the stomach and usually excellent. Phrasebooks are a useful aid as many menus are impenetrable to the non Spanish-speaker. Drink - Costa Rica produces Imperial Beer, which is cheap, ok-ish and drunk by most Costa Ricans, as well as a few red wines. Neighbouring countries provide more familiar and probably superior drink – Mexican Corona, tequila and Kahlua and the excellent Nicaraguan rum Flor de Cana, which can be bought for around £2 a bottle, served with ice, limes and Coca-Cola. Argentinian and Chilean wines are also available for less than they cost in the UK or US.
Tourist Informationwww.costaricabureau and www.visitocstarica.com are official tourist websites with links to other amenities.
San Jose’s Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) can be found at:Costado Este del Puente Juan Pablo II, Sobre Autopista General Cañas, San José, Costa Rica
The postal address is:Apartado 777,1000 San José,Costa Rica Tel. +506 223 1733
Another bureau is:Cámara Nacional de Turismo (CANATUR) Apartado 828, 1000 San José, Costa Rica Tel. +506 234 6222.www.canatur.org
All car hire locations in Costa Rica
- Arenal Airport
- Carrillo Airport
- Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport
- Flamingo Airport
- Golfito Airport
- Guapiles Airport
- Hacienda Monteverde
- Hacienda Tamarindo
- Juan Santamaria International Airport
- Limon International Airport
- Mal País
- Nosara Airport
- Peñas Blancas
- Puerto Jimenez Airport
- Puerto Limón
- Quepos Managua Airport
- Río Blanco
- Río Segundo
- San José
- Santa Ana
- Tamarindo De Santa Cruz Airport
- Tambor Airport
- Tobias Bolanos International Airport