Costa Rica

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Introduction to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is Central America's jewel. It's an oasis of calm among its turbulent neighbours and an ecotourism 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's enlightened approach to conservation has ensured that lush jungles are home to playful monkeys, languid sloths, crocodiles, countless lizards, poison-dart frogs and a mind-boggling assortment of exotic birds, insects and butterflies. Meanwhile, endangered sea turtles nest on both coasts and cloud forests protect elusive birds and jungle cats.

Thrill seekers can fly through forests on zip lines, peer into boiling volcanoes, surf oversized waves and dive with dolphins and whales – all in the course of a normal day. Then again, if you have some serious chilling to do, you can always lounge in a hammock and enjoy the pure life, or pura vida – a national expression that sums up the desire to live the best, most hassle-free existence.

Full country name: Republic of Costa Rica

Area: 51,100 sq km

Population: 4.1 million

Capital City: San Jose

People: 96% Spanish descent, 2% African descent, 1% indigenous, 1% Chinese

Language: English, Spanish

Religion: 75% Roman Catholic, 14% Protestant

Government: democratic republic

Head of State: President Abel Pacheco de la Espriella

GDP: US$37.97 billion

GDP per capita: US$9,600

Annual Growth: 1%

Inflation: 9.1%

Major Industries: Tourism, electronics, coffee, bananas, sugar, food processing, textiles and clothing, construction materials, fertilizer, plastic products

Major Trading Partners: USA, Germany, Italy, Japan, Guatemala, Mexico

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Visa requirements for Costa Rica change rapidly so check with your consulate before leaving. Currently citizens of the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, Panama, South Korea, Uruguay, the UK, France and most other western European countries do not need a visa for a 90-day stay. Citizens of Australia, Iceland, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Vatican City and most of Eastern Europe and Latin America can stay 30 days without a visa. If you do need a visa, it will cost approximately 20.00 from a Costa Rican consulate.

Health risks: dengue fever (Unlike the malaria mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day, and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings. Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. A blood test can indicate the possibility of the fever. There is no specific treatment. Aspirin should be avoided, as it increases the risk of haemorrhaging. There is no vaccine against dengue fever), malaria (If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave; use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) – it may be worth taking your own, and impregnating clothes with permethrin effectively deters mosquitoes and other insects), cholera ((low risk)This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It’s transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage. Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure. The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It’s characteristically described as ‘ricewater’ diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario – only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form. It’s a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don’t succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment. You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera. Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time), hepatitis (Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC -6

Dialling Code: 506

Electricity: 120V ,60Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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The country just about closes down during Semana Santa (Easter Week) and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day tends to be an unofficial holiday, especially in San José. Various towns celebrate their own saints' days and other significant dates. San José's Day (Saint Joseph's Day) is March 19, while Virgin of Los Angeles Day (the patron saint of Costa Rica) is August 2. Juan Santamaría's Day on April 11 celebrates the national hero who helped see off William Walker in 1856, and Dia de la Raza (Columbus Day) on October 12, as elsewhere in the Americas, is a national holiday.

Public Holidays

Jan 1 - New Year’s Day

Mar 19 - St Joseph’s Day

Mar 24-27 - Easter

Apr 11 - Juan Santamaria Day

May 1 - Labor Day

May 26 - Corpus Christi

June 29 - St. Peter and St. Paul’s Day

July 25 - Guanacaste Day

Aug 2 - Virgin de los Angeles Day

Sep 15 - Independence Day

Nov 2 - All soul’s Day

Dec 25 - Christmas Day

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Best time to Visit

As far as climate goes, the late-December to mid-April dry season is the most pleasant. But of course, this is when everyone else goes to Costa Rica, so prices are up and hotels are full. Although some roads are impassable in the wet season, it's still worthwhile to visit at this time, and things are much quieter. April, May and mid-October to mid-December should give you the best of both worlds.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Costa Rican colón


Budget: US$3-10

Mid-range: US$10-20

High: US$20-25

Deluxe: US$25+


Budget: US$5-15

Mid-range: US$15-40

High: US$40-70

Deluxe: US$70+

If you're coming from one of the poorer neighbourhoods such as Nicaragua or Honduras, Costa Rica can strike you as the rather well-to-do Central American cousin with a proportionately high-cost lifestyle. In reality, it's a fast-developing country with an unabashed interest in the tourist dollar that, nevertheless, still has hotels and nosheries for the shoestring traveler. If you're traveling with someone else and don't mind a bit of grunge living and a few low-rent meals, you should be able to scrape by on USD35 a day. If you're planning to have your own bathroom, eat decently and catch an occasional plane, USD40 to USD60 should cover your needs. Travelers expecting to be very comfortable can easily spend USD100 to USD150 per day, depending on their definition of comfort. The best tours cost upwards of USD200 per day, but these include flights and first-class accommodations and services.

If you want to change cash, stick to US dollars (but make sure they're in decent condition and avoid USD100 bills - due to a counterfeiting scam, most Costa Ricans won't touch them). US dollars are your best bet for traveler's checks as well, as other currencies will rarely be accepted - any of the major brands will do. If you buy colones with your credit card, expect to get hit with a huge interest bill. Banco Popular, ATH and Credomatic have the largest number of ATMs and their networks often extend as far as the smaller towns and cities. Some banks, though, such as branches of Banco Nacional, accept cards held by their customers only. Visa and MasterCard are the most widely-accepted credit cards; you may have some trouble with American Express.

You don't usually need to bother with tipping at restaurants, as most add a 10% tip (plus 15% tax) to the bill. You should tip bellboys and room cleaners about USD0.50, tour guides USD1 to USD5 a day per person. Of course, if the service is excellent or lousy you should use your own discretion.

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San José

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.

Most of the cheaper hotels and eateries are west of Calle Central, between Avenidas 1 and 2. Barrio Amón, northeast of the centre, caters to a wider range of travellers.


This small community in northwestern Costa Rica was founded by Quakers in 1951 and is now a popular and interesting destination for both local and international visitors. The small town of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the Monteverde cloud-forest reserve.

The road leading from the town's center to the reserve is clustered with attractions including the butterfly garden, the serpentarium, a cheese factory, a and number of art galleries. Interesting though these attractions are, they are merely the warm-up acts for the main event.

Pacific Beaches

If you're macawed out, swim or relax on one of Costa Rica's beaches; the Pacific coast has a pleasing mixture of luxury resorts and deserted beaches. Golfito, on the southern Pacific coast, is an important port and jumping-off point for the region's fantastic beaches.

Heading northeast from the town, the coast features numerous remote coves, with jungle-lodge accommodations and virgin rain forest backdrop. The coastal Parque Nacional Corcovado, on the Península de Osa, has a huge colony of scarlet macaws.


Over 40 years of government funding have given Costa Rican parks and wildlife quality and quantity of biological reserves and well-preserved ecosystems. The national park northwest of Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, has at its center the perfectly conical (and iconical) 1633m (5356ft) Volcán Arenal.

The volcano has been exceptionally active since 1968, when huge explosions triggered lava flows. The degree of activity varies from week to week; sometimes there is a spectacular display of flowing red-hot lava and incandescent rocks flying through the air, while at other times just a gentle glow.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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