COSTA RICA TRAVEL TIPS
A collection of important information that can make your trip more enjoyable.
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.
The capital, San José, was founded in 1737 and is a pleasant mixture of traditional and modern Spanish architecture. Places of interest include the Teatro Nacional and the Parque Central. On the Caribbean coast there are numerous beaches, ports and towns worth visiting. Braulio Carrillo National Park in the central region of the country has five kinds of forest. Orchids and ferns, jaguars, ocelots and the Baird tapir may all be seen here. Common dishes include casado (rice, beans, stewed beef, fried plantain, salad and cabbage) and sopa negra (black beans with a poached egg). Coffee is good value and has an excellent flavour. San José has many nightclubs and venues with folk music and dance. There are several theatres and cinemas. If you plan to travel Costa Rica, take a moment to brush up on the travel tips that will help you be more prepared for travel anywhere in Costa Rica.
COSTA RICA GENERAL INFORMATIONS
Area: 51,100 sq km (19,730 sq miles).
Population Density: 79.2 per sq km.
Capital: San José. Population: 328,293 (official estimate 2002).
Government: Republic. Gained independence from Spain in 1821. Head of State and Government: President Abel Pacheco de la Espriella since 2002.
Language: Spanish is the official language. English is widely spoken. Some French, German and Italian are also spoken.
Religion: Almost entirely Christian, with Roman Catholic majority.
Electricity: 120 volts AC, 60Hz. Two-pin plugs are standard.
GEOGRAPHY: Nicaragua is to the north, Panama to the south, the Pacific tot he west and the Caribbean Sea is to the east. The country is effectively split in two by a chain of volcano mountains which run north/south. The highlands go upward to 12, 000 feet. Located at about 4,000 are the country's leading cities including the capital of San Jose. The land is very fertile due to the past activity of the volcanos some of which are still quite active.
GETTING AROUND COSTA RICA
There are two domestic airlines: Sansa and NatureAir. Demand for seats is high, so try to book as far in advance as possible. The majority of Costa Ricans do not own cars, so public transportation is quite well developed, although transport to towns other than San José is limited. Most multi-destination trips will require backtracking into San José and then catching another bus outward again.
The buses are not that comfortable and to the uninitiated and faint-of-heart the system can seem incredibly chaotic, but ask any Costa Rican for advice and they'll point you in the right direction. The good news is that the fares are generally cheap - no destination is more than 9.00 away. There are three major bus terminals in San José: the Coca-Cola terminal is about a 20-minute walk east from the city centre, down Avenida 1; there's the understated Atlántico Norte terminal; and the Caribe, terminal north of Avenida 13 on Calle Central.
Taxis are considered a viable form of public transportation for long journeys, and can be hired by the day, half-day or hour. Cars and motorcycles can also be rented in San José.
The railway network in Costa Rica was severely damaged during the 1991 earthquake and is unlikely to reopen.
If you're travelling to the beaches, anything goes in terms of beachwear. Nudity is not legal but tolerated in some secluded places. When you visit the capital and higher parts of the country, it is necessary to bring a light sweater and warm clothes because it can get fresh and sometimes cold (at San Gerardo de Dota on the Inter-American Highway at 3000m altitude temperatures can become below freezing).There are no epidemics in Costa Rica, but it is recommended to get general vaccinations and we suggest you bring a medical history in case you become ill or if you are currently suffering from a illness. The tap water is safe in most parts of the country, and bottled water is available everywhere. If you require health assistance, Costa Rica provides good service at the hospitals and regional medical centres. Always watch over your belongings at all times. Keep your passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy including entrance stamps with you at all times. Don't bring or accept marked or ripped bills because there might be problems with acceptance. Many places don't like $100 bills. Always watch your step! Sidewalks tend to have holes and other pedestrian hazards. Do not bring or use any drugs. Marihuana is still considered a drug in Costa Rica. In the event of any emergency call 911.
COSTA RICA ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
With a valid passport and round trip or continuing ticket, citizens of the United States of America, Canada, Germany, Spain and Italy can travel to Costa Rica for a 90-day stay without a consular visa. With the same requirements, citizens of France can travel to Costa Rica for a 30-day stay without a consular visa. Visitors who would like to extend their visits to Costa Rica, beyond these limits, should go to the Immigration Office upon arriving in Costa Rica. Click here for Visa informations
COSTA RICA DUTY FREE
The following goods may be imported into Costa Rica without incurring customs duty:
400 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 500g tobacco; 3l of alcoholic beverages (people aged over 18 only); a reasonable quantity of perfume for personal use.
COSTA RICA HEALTH
1: Following WHO guidelines issued in 1973, a cholera vaccination certificate is no longer a condition of entry into Costa Rica. However, cases of cholera were reported in 1996 and precautions should be considered. Up-to-date advice should be sought before deciding whether these precautions should include vaccination as medical opinion is divided over its effectiveness; consult the Health appendix for further information.
2: Typhoid is very common throughout the area.
3: Malaria risk exists throughout the year, mostly in the benign vivax form, in the rural areas below 700m, especially in the cantons of Matina, Los Chiles (Alajuela province) and Talamanca (Limón province). Lower transmission risk exists in 20 cantons in the provinces of Guanacaste, Alajuela and Heredia. There is negligible or no risk of malaria in the other cantons of the country.
Food & drink: Mains water is normally heavily chlorinated and, whilst relatively safe, may cause mild abdominal upsets. Drinking water outside main cities and towns may be contaminated and sterilisation is advisable. Bottled water is available and is advised for the first few weeks of the stay. Milk is pasteurised and dairy products are safe for consumption. Local meat, poultry, seafood, fruit and vegetables are generally considered safe to eat.
Other risks: Hepatitis A, B and C occur. Paragonimiasis (oriental lung fluke) and lymphatic and bancroftian filiariasis have been reported in Costa Rica. Dengue fever occurs. Cutaneous and mucocutaneous leishmaniasis have also been reported.
Rabies is widespread throughout Central America. For those at high risk, vaccination before arrival should be considered. If you are bitten, seek medical advice without delay. For more information, consult the Health appendix.
Health care: Health insurance is recommended. Reliable medical services are available in Costa Rica. Standards of health and hygiene are among the best in Latin America.
COSTA RICA COMMUNICATIONS
Telephone: IDD is available. Country code: 506. Outgoing international code: 00. Telephone booths are available all over the country.
Mobile telephone: GSM 1800/3G network is operated by Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE). Handsets can be hired, although this can be difficult and time-consuming.
Fax: Facilities are available in San José at the Radiográfica Costarricense SA (opening hours: 0700-2200).
Internet: There are Internet cafes and some hotels also provide facilities.
Telegram: Since the abolition of the inland telegram service in the UK, the Costa Rican Government Telegram Company will not accept telegrams destined for the UK.
Post: Airmail letters to Western Europe usually take between six and 10 days.
Press: Daily newspapers printed in Spanish include Diario Extra, El Heraldo, La Nación, La Prensa Libre and La República. One weekly paper is printed in English – The Tico Times.
Radio: BBC World Service (website: www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice) and Voice of America (website: www.voa.gov) can be received. From time to time the frequencies change and the most up-to-date can be found online.
COSTA RICA BUSINESS PROFILE
Economy: About half of Costa Rica’s export earnings are derived from agriculture (coffee, bananas, meat, sugar and cocoa). Staple crops are also grown for domestic consumption. Manufacturing industry consists of food-processing, textiles, chemicals and plastics and is steadily expanding with government encouragement. New industries include aluminium production, following the discovery of a large bauxite deposit; and a rapid move into the computer industry, as a result of which, microprocessors have become a valuable export. Oil and hydroelectricity meet the bulk of the country’s energy needs. Tourism dominates the service sector and is the most important source of foreign exchange earnings. The economy is nearly static at present with annual growth under one per cent. Costa Rica receives some international aid through international bodies such as the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and from the USA, which is Costa Rica’s main trading partner. Costa Rica is also a member of the Central American Common Market.
Business: Customs tend to be conservative. Advance appointments, courtesy and punctuality are appreciated. It is preferable to have some knowledge of Spanish, although many locals speak English. Best months for business visits are November and December; avoid the last week of September, which is the end of the financial year. Government office hours: Mon-Fri 0800-1600.
COSTA RICA SOCIAL PROFILE
Food & Drink: Costa Rican cuisine is simple but good. Much of it consists of items similar to what we might expect in Mexico such as tortillas, etc. There is a very unique dish to Costa Rica called "gallo pinto" which is a blend of rice, beans, sour cream, herbs and spices, and eggs. It is quite tasty and is often served for breakfast. This is similar to a "casasdo" which also includes a fried plantain, beef (or fish) and chopped cabbage. It also often has an avocado thrown into the mix. If you are looking for international fare both Italian and Chinese are easier to find. For the sweet tooth there is dessert called "cajeta" which includes milk and sugar boiled down to a thick syrup and poured between layers of cake to produce a torte-fudge cake effect. Imported beverages are pricey here. The alternative includes five brands of beers and some inexpensive wines. THere is a local specialty called "guaro" which is a distilled liquor made from sugar cane - it is strong! Local rum mixed with Coca Cola is well known as is something called "Cafe Rica" which is a coffee liquor.
Nightlife: San José especially has many nightclubs, venues with folk music and dance, theatres and cinemas.
Special Events: For a complete list of special events for 2005, contact the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo. The following is a selection of special events celebrated annually in Costa Rica:
Dec 2004-Jan 2005 Fiestas del Fin del Año (week-long festivities). Jan International Tennis Tournament, San José; Festival of Alajuetila. Feb-Mar Orchid Show, Cartago. Mar Día del Boyero (Day of the Oxcart Driver), San Antonio de Escazú; National Craft Fair, San José; South Carribean Music Festival, Puerto Viejo. Mar 19 San José Day. Apr 11 Juan Santa Maria’s Day. Jun 29 Feast of St Peter and St Paul. Aug Arrival of Pilgrims, Cartago. Aug 2 Virgin of Los Angeles Day. Oct Carnival Week, Puerto Limón.
Social Conventions: Handshaking is common and forms of address are important. Christian names are preceded by Don for a man and Doña for a woman. Normal courtesies should be observed when visiting someone’s home and gifts are appreciated as a token of thanks, especially if invited for a meal. For most occasions casual wear is acceptable, but beachwear should be confined to the beach. Tipping: It is not necessary to tip taxi drivers. All hotels add 10 per cent service tax plus 3 per cent tourist tax to the bill by law. Restaurants add a 10 per cent service charge.
Tipping: Tipping is recommended for hotel staff, porters and waiters. All hotels add 10% service tax plus 3% tourist tax to the bill by law. Restaurants add a 10% service charge. It is not necessary to tip taxi drivers.
COSTA RICA CURRENCY
Currency: Costa Rican Colón (c) = 100 céntimos. Notes are in denominations of c10,000, c5000, c2000, 1000 and 500. Coins are in denominations of c100, 50, 25, 20, 10 and 5. US Dollars are also widely accepted.
Currency exchange: Visitors should consult their banks for the current rate of exchange (there is no direct local quotation for sterling; the cross rate with the US Dollar is used). ATMs are available throughout the country.
Credit & debit cards: Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa are all accepted; American Express slightly less so, but check with your credit or debit card company for details of merchant acceptability and other services which may be available.
Travellers cheques: To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take travellers cheques in US Dollars.
Currency restrictions: There are no restrictions on the import and export of either local or foreign currency (but only US Dollars are exchangeable).
COSTA RICA SHOPPING
Special purchases include wood and leather rocking chairs (which dismantle for export), as well as a range of local crafts available in major cities and towns. Local markets are also well worth visiting. Prices are slightly higher than in other Latin American countries. Best buys are wooden items, ceramics, jewellery and leather handicrafts. Shopping hours: Mon-Sat 0900-1800/1900. There may be variations between areas.
COSTA RICA TIPPING
Best to examine your restaurant bill and see if you are already paying a gratuity. If not, leave 10%. Smaller restaurants do not usually include a tip in the check, so you will need to do so. Taxi drivers are normally not tipped, but loose change is appreciated. Porters are given loose change or a $1 bill.
COSTA RICA PEOPLE
Interactions with Costa Rica's people are the highlight of many trips to the region. Come to the Central Valley on August 2nd and witness the most impressive annual pilgrimage that thousands of Catholic ticos make on El Día de la Virgen to Cartago's Basílica de la Señora de los Ángeles, or visit San Joaquín de Heredia not far west from the center of town, for the Semana Santa processions. Go to San José at the end of the year and party through Christmas and the New Year with ticos that come from all over the country to enjoy the sound of live music, fireworks, bull riding and traditional fares in Zapote. Santa Cruz, in the Nicoya Peninsula, is officially La Ciudad Folklórica de Costa Rica, steeped in history and traditions that come to life every January with indigenous and folk dances, bull riding, fares, and horse shows, all to the tune of folkloric bands. You can also enjoy the safe and relaxing pace of life at San Ramón, "the city of presidents and poets," where some of Costa Rica's greatest political and literary figures were born. Traditional Catholic families, proud of the role San Ramón once played in the country's fight for democracy, education, culture, and the rights of the poor, will give you a warm welcome and show you around the town. Finally, go to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, 61km southeast of Puerto Limón, to experience the eclectic mix of Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, and indigenous cultures of Costa Rica's west coast. Puerto Viejo is also the most commercially venturous of the Caribbean towns, with colorful craft markets and handmade souvenir shops sprinkled throughout the city. In general, Costa Ricans are known for their warmth and hospitality. Travelers who stop to chat will find locals truly excited to show what their hometowns have to offer.
COSTA RICA CLIMATE & CLOTHING
Except on the privileged Meseta Central, Costa Rica's climate varies with altitude. The coasts have only two seasons, dry from December to April, wet from May to November. The Atlantic tends to be humid and hot, while the Pacific lowlands can be broiling but tempered by the sea breezes. During the less crowded rainy season there is the compensation of cool afternoon showers and luxuriant vegetation.
Pack light. Bring comfortable, hand-washable clothing. T-shirts and shorts are acceptable in San José (during the day, if planning to go out in the evening slacks are highly recommended as some restaurants won't admit you in shorts or sandals). Loose-fitting long-sleeved shirts and pants are recommended if you want to avoid sun. Bring a large hat to block the sun from your face and neck. Pack a light sweater or jacket for San José's cool nights and early mornings and for trips up to volcanoes and highlands. Sturdy sneakers or hiking boots are essential if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing and hiking. Waterproof hiking sandals or other footwear that lets your feet breathe are good for strolling about town, and also for beach walking, fording streams, and navigating the myriad mudholes you'll find on rain and cloud forest trails.
Lightweight cottons and linens most of the year, warmer clothes for cooler evenings. Waterproofing is necessary during the rainy season.
COSTA RICA SPORTS & ACTIVITIES
Ecotourism: Partly in order to continue to encourage ecotourism, the Costa Rican authorities have set aside a large proportion of the country (around 26 per cent of the total land area) as national parks and protected areas. There is good road access to most of these areas, and public transport is available. Nature trails and tracks are well developed. The country has a stunning variety of landscapes, micro-climates, flora and fauna, and nature lovers will not be disappointed. The highland area in the centre consists of four mountain ranges. Some of the country’s great attractions are its eight active volcanoes. The sight of Arenal, in the Sierra Volcánica Guanacaste in the northwest, erupting at night is truly spectacular. In the foothills of Rincón de la Vieja, the mud pools bubble permanently. It is possible to bathe in the hot springs in this area. The central highlands are the most accessible for the visitor, and feature Poás, whose crater contains a boiling sulphurous lake, and Irazú, its desolate landscape resembling the surface of the moon. The country’s tallest peaks are in the non-volcanic Cordillera de Talamanca near Panama, and include the impressive Chirripó (12,533ft/3828m). The upper slopes of the mountains are often covered by cloudforest, characterised by the algae, mosses and lichens on the permanently wet surfaces. Numerous orchids and ferns grow here, but the forests’ most notable inhabitant is the Resplendent Quetzal (a bird). Lower down is the rainforest. Best visited in the company of an experienced guide (in part, because it is so easy to get lost), these forests are filled with elusive wildlife. Among the creatures they harbour are monkeys, armadillos, sloths, crocodiles, and birds such as toucans, parrots and macaws. Sea turtles can be observed in the Tortuguero region at certain times of the year. Depending on what the visitor wants to see, it is best to visit in the dry season (from December to April). For further information, see the Climate section.
Watersports: The most popular adventure sport is white-water rafting. Outfitters and guides can arrange trips. The Reventazón River (class III) is suitable for beginners, while more experienced rafters can tackle the Pacuare (class IV) and the Pascua (class V) rivers. The best times to go are from May to November. Lake Arenal was recently voted one of the world’s top windsurfing spots. Situated at 5580ft (1700m) above sea level, the lake offers its best windsurfing between April and December. Puerto Soley on the northern Pacific coast offers good ocean windsurfing. Kayaking and ocean kayaking are gaining in popularity. Surfing is possible at many beaches, being especially popular at Pavones on the Pacific coast and at Playa Naranjo in the northwest. This part of the country also offers excellent diving and snorkelling, with more than 20 local dive sites. Tuition and equipment hire are widely available. Cocos Island, praised by Jacques Cousteau, and Caño Island off the southwest coast, are also good diving areas.
Fishing: The Pacific coast, from the Gulf of Papagayo to Golfito offers excellent sport fishing. Sailfish, marlin, tuna and wahoo are among the catches. The Tortuguero Canals and the area around Barra del Colorado offer good freshwater game fishing, while trout can be caught in the country’s mountain streams.
Other activities: Mountain biking can be done on the trails in the forests and national parks. Hotels have equipment for hire and some specialist operators organise trips. Horseriding is also easily arranged. Because a different type of saddle and stirrups are used, even experienced riders may need to take some time to get used to their mounts. Beginners should arrange to have tuition beforehand, as working ranch horses are often used on rides. Canopy touring is becoming popular as well; it entails being attached to a harness and ‘flying’ through the jungle canopy via a series of cables. Bungee jumping and ballooning are also available.
COSTA RICA TIME ZONE
Costa Rica is in Middle America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, between Nicaragua and Panama. Standard time zone: UTC/GMT - 6 hours