Read on for Family Travel Forum's overview of travel to Costa Rica, including general regions, cautions, customs, and basic, practical facts.
Bordered by Nicaragua, Panama, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica is the most well developed country in Central America for adventure tourism and is known throughout the world for its bio-diversity and its incredible variety of wildlife. About 30% of the country is protected land, many of the hotels and tour programs are geared toward eco-tourism, and the certified wildlife guides in Costa Rica are among the most well trained in Latin America.
Costa Rica is also a very peaceful and democratic land and has been so for many years. There are no armed forces and democratic elections have been conducted since the 19th century. Costa Ricans also enjoy one of the highest standards of health care in Latin America as well as an excellent educational program, with a literacy rate of over 90%, and, like all Central American countries, the people are warm and friendly and eager to show you their beautiful country.
Regions of Costa Rica
San JosÃ© and Area:
Besides the capital city of San JosÃ©, this area includes the picturesque mountain towns of Barva, Alajuela, Sarchi, and Zarcero, plus the national parks of Poas Volcano, Braulio Carrillo, Irazu Volcano, and the Rain Forest Aerial Tram.
This region includes Puerto Limon and Tortuguero National Park, famous for its extensive wildlife and turtle nesting site.
This lush coastal area encompasses many places such as Guanacaste, Jaco Beach and Manuel Antonio National Park.
This region includes the town an cloud forest of Monteverde as well as surrounding attractions such as Arenal Volcano.
[FTF note: Check out our feature stories by Brenda Elwell on each of these unique areas of Costa Rica by searching the site]
Dangers – Petty thievery, which can occur both in the city and in outlying areas. Be particularly careful in San JosÃ©, especially after dark. Do not display your wealth. Leave expensive jewelry at home and wear a cheap plastic watch. Keep car doors locked and windows up when driving in the city.
Tap Water– Safe to drink in San Jose and major cities only. Avoid uncooked fruits and vegetables unless you can peel them.
Money– Take cash, some travelers checks, and bring fifty $1 bills. They come in handy. You can easily draw cash off your credit card in all the major cities and tourist areas. U.S. dollars are accepted if you are short on colones.
Credit Card Acceptance – Because of the well-developed tourism infrastructure credit cards tend to be more widely accepted here than in other Central American countries. Prices tend to be a little higher as well, although still cheaper than the U.S. Some ATM machines in the major cities will accept your credit card for withdrawing cash.
Necessities – take flashlights, batteries, Kleenex pocket packs (for use in public toilets) and rain gear (for the rainy season).
Languages and Customs
There are three Spanish phrases you should know before you enter Costa Rica.
The first phrase is “Pura Vida” (Poo rah vee dah) which literally translated means “Pure Life” but actually means “Way to Go!” or “Awesome!” To the Costa Ricans it is a joyful way of expressing approval.
The second two phrases are “Por aquÃ” (poor ah key) and “Por allÃ” (poor ahl yee) – “This way” and “That way.” When you drive through the mountains of Costa Rica, with your trusty map and guidebook you will find that most roads and decision points are unmarked. When you ask directions to a place, people often ignore your maps and say simply “Por aquÃ” or “Por allÃ.”
One word to be familiar with is “Tico” (Tee Coh) which is the nickname for Costa Ricans. The word is used frequently throughout the country and is not considered derogatory.
Note: December 1 is a Christmas bonus payday in Costa Rica. It is impossible to get a taxi in the afternoon or evening in any of the cities without at least a one to two hour wait. Plan accordingly.
Costa Rica offers so many varied and interesting attractions that the first-time visitor will be hard pressed to cover the highlights even on a two-week vacation. Choices must be made which will be determined by your interests and preferred pace of travel.
There are numerous vacation packages catering to special interests such as bird watching or white water rafting.
If you just want to park yourself on a beach for a week and have easy access to nearby wildlife then a week in the Guanacaste area will do just fine.
If you want a more active vacation with a variety of locations, then you might want to consider basing yourself in the San JosÃ© area, making a few day trips to the surrounding mountain towns and attractions and then taking off for several nights in one of Costa Rica’s major ecological tourist areas such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest in the northwest or the Tortuguero Nature Preserve in the northeast part of the country.
If you are planning a ten-day vacation, we recommend adding a two night stay in Tortuguero to our suggested one week itinerary. If your time and budget permit a two-week stay, we recommend lengthening your stay in one of the beach/wildlife areas such as Guanacaste or perhaps arranging for some special interest day tours such as white water rafting or wildlife excursions.
It is easy to rent a car and travel on your own throughout Costa Rica. The major roads are in good condition year round but some of the remote attractions may have poor road access, especially during or immediately after the rainy season (May to November). If you do drive on your own, rent a four wheel drive vehicle, do not drive the mountain roads at night, and keep your doors locked and windows rolled up when driving through San JosÃ©, even in the daytime.
Hire local certified guides whenever the opportunity presents itself. It will add immensely to the pleasure of your trip.
Fast Facts about Costa Rica
Language – Spanish is the official language, but English is understood in major tourist areas.
Religion – Most of the population is Roman Catholic and Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a national holiday with everything (public services, businesses) closing down for a few days starting with Holy Thursday. The black population along the Caribbean coast tends to be of the Protestant faith.
Electrical Outlets – 120 volts (same as U.S) .
Currency – Colones – about 566 to 1 USD. Visit www.oanda.com for current rates.
Taxes – 13% tax at better hotels and restaurants.
Tips – 10% in restaurants, optional in very small comedores. Tips not expected by cab drivers, but optional if they help you with luggage. Tour guides should receive a tip of several dollars per person, per day.
Time – CST, one hour behind the Eastern U.S.
Weather – Varies depending upon the region and the altitude. Most of the country has a warm spring- like climate year round with the Pacific and Caribbean coasts being more humid. Evenings cool down so bring a sweater. The dry season runs late December to April. The rest of the year is considered the rainy or “green” season. The Caribbean coast can have rain year round.
Documents – U.S. citizens need a valid passport. information and on-line
Vaccinations – A prescription for malaria is recommended if you are planning to visit jungle or mosquito-infested areas. Discuss any children’s vaccinations at least three months prior to departure with your pediatrician. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also has up-to-date information on worldwide health conditions and recommended vaccinations or visit www.mdtravelhealth.com.
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