Costa Rica (Spanish: Costa Rica or República de Costa Rica, pronounced [reˈpuβlika ðe ˈkosta ˈrika]) is a small country in Central America bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east.
Costa Rica is officially known as the Republic of Costa Rica
Since the late 1980's Costa Rica became a popular nature travel destination, and its main competitive advantage is its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, covering around 23.4% of the country's land area, the largest in the world as a percentage of the country's territory, and home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, in a country that has only 0.03% of the world's landmass, but that is estimated to contain 5% of the world's biodiversity. The country also has plenty of world renowned beaches, both in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, within short travel distances between both coasts both by air and land, and also several active volcanoes that can be visited with safety.
By the early 1990s, Costa Rica became known as the poster child of ecotourism. According to the Costa Rican Tourism Board, 46% of international tourists visiting the country in 2009 engaged in activities related to ecotourism, including trekking, flora, fauna, and bird watching, and visits to rural communities. However, most visitors look for adventure activities, which Costa Rica offers as well. Costa Rica was included by Ethical Traveler magazine in the 2011 and the 2012 list of The Developing World's 10 Best Ethical Destinations.
Costa Rica historically managed to stay away from the political turmoil and violence from which neighbouring nations still suffer. The nation constitutionally abolished its army permanently in the 1940s. It has also managed to be the only Latin American country included in the list of the world's 22 oldest democracies, paying homage to its stance as a peaceful and politically stable nation. Costa Rica has also consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index, and is cited by the UNDP as one of the countries that has attained much higher human development than other countries at the same income levels.
Costa Rica is ranked third in the world and first among the Americas in terms of the 2010 Environmental Performance Index. And the New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranked Costa Rica as the happiest nation in the world, both in 2009 and in 2012. This same organization (NEF) ranked Costa Rica as the "greenest" country in the world.
This nation has bewilderingly diverse culture, climates, flora, fauna, and landscapes. From rain forests, to dry tropical and temperate forests, to volcanoes, to Caribbean and Pacific beaches, to high mountains, and marshy lowlands.
Costa Rica constitutionally and permanently abolished its army in 1949.
Costa Rica is located on the Central American isthmus, lying between latitudes 8° and 12°N, and longitudes 82° and 86°W. It has a total of 1,290 kilometres (800 mi) of coastline, 212km (132 mi) on the Caribbean coast and 1,016km (631 mi) on the Pacific.
Costa Rica also borders Nicaragua to the north (309km or 192 mi of border) and Panama to the south-southeast (639km or 397 mi of border). In total, Costa Rica comprises 51,100 square kilometres (19,700 sq mi) plus 589 square kilometres (227 sq mi) of territorial waters.
The highest point in the country is Cerro Chirripó, at 3,819 metres (12,530 ft); it is the fifth highest peak in Central America. The highest volcano in the country is the Irazú Volcano (3,431m or 11,257 ft). The largest lake in Costa Rica is Lake Arenal.
Costa Rica also comprises several islands. Cocos Island (24 square kilometres / 9.3 square miles) stands out because of its distance from the continental landmass, 480km (300 mi) from Puntarenas, but Calero Island is the largest island of the country (151.6 square kilometres / 58.5 square miles).
Near 25% of Costa Rica's national territory is protected by SINAC (the National System of Conservation Areas), which oversees all of the country's protected areas.
Flora and fauna
Costa Rica is one of the world's most popular destinations for eco-tourists because of its biodiversity. Costa Rica possesses the greatest density of species in the world, and around 25% of its national territory is protected by a system of conservation areas and national parks. It has been stated in various places that Costa Rica may contain as much as 6% of the world's plant and animal species in an area the combined size of the US states of Vermont and New Hampshire. Both tropical plant and animal species abound in Costa Rica. Some of the more impressive plants range from huge ficus trees with epiphytes abounding on their limbs to approximately 1500 different orchids. The animals are equally as impressive, whether it's a jaguar (the largest cat in the New World), the ever-elusive Margay, or the wonderful birds like the green or scarlet macaws (lapas in Costa Rican Spanish.) The amphibians are also quite impressive; the poison dart frogs with their bright colors are bound to catch your attention, or the giant cane toads.
Because Costa Rica is located between eight and 12 degrees north of the Equator, the climate is Tropical year round. However, the country has many microclimates depending on elevation, rainfall, topography, and by the geography of each particular region.
Costa Rica's seasons are defined by how much rain falls during a particular period and not to the four seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. The year can be split into two periods, the dry season known to the residents as summer, and the rainy season, known locally as winter. The "summer" or dry season goes from December to April, and "winter" or rainy season goes from May to November, which almost coincides with the List of Atlantic hurricane seasons, and during this time, it rains constantly in some regions.
The location receiving the most rain is the Caribbean slopes of the Central Cordillera mountains, with an annual rainfall of over 5000 mm. Humidity is also higher on the Caribbean side than on the Pacific side. The mean annual temperature on the coastal lowlands is around 27°C, 20°C in the main populated areas of the Central Cordillera, and below 10°C on the summits of the highest mountains.
Costa Rica Weather Averages
Most visitors can get into Costa Rica without the need of a Visa and can stay in the country for 90 days. Costa Rica requires Indian citizens to be in possession of a valid visa when they arrive. However, people of ANY nationality holding valid US, Canada, Japan, South Korea or Schengen visas do not need a prior visa. The only conditions being that the visa must be valid for 3 months and should be stamped in your passport.
Costa Rica requires valid Yellow fever certificate if arriving from most neighbouring countries. If such is not presented you would not be allowed to enter/board the flight. At Bogota airport - if you have certificate you can have it emailed to the airline and then proceed to the local vaccination authority for duplicate certificate to be issued free of charge. The critical part is to get the printed version on time. If you don't have certificate or cannot get it on time you will probably be approached by friendly police officers to arrange such for a fee. Keep in mind that the date of the vaccination should be at least 10 days prior entering the country from which you are flying.
Another way to get to Costa Rica that many people are unaware of is travelling by car and driving the Pan-American highway that stretches from Alaska all the way to Southern Panama and passes right through Costa Rica.
As of November 2012 to cross the border you need to show a return ticket from Costa Rica. The ticket must be "from Costa Rica", so for example flights from Panama are not accepted, although you need to leave Costa Rica to get to Panama. At border crossing with Nicaragua there is a small Tica Bus office that sells tickets without fixed travel date.
Note that occasionally, immigration officials will stop buses that are travelling from cities near the border to check identification cards and passports. If you don't like carrying your actual passport on you, make sure you have a copy of your passport AND a copy of the stamp showing the date you entered Costa Rica to validate you haven't been in the country more than 3 months.
Juan Santamaría Airport (IATA: SJO) is located close to the cities Alajuela, Heredia and the capital San José.
SJO is currently under remodelling, and in July 2009 its operation was taken over by the same organization that runs the airports in Houston, Texas. An otherwise pleasant airport features the normal assortment of duty-free shops, interesting souvenir and bookshops, but an inadequate selection of overpriced restaurants (Church's Chicken, Burger King, Poás Deli Cafe and Papa John's pizza). SJO is serviced daily by Air Transat (Seasonal) American Airlines, Canjet (Seasonal), Condor, Delta, Frontier Airlines, Iberia, Interjet, JetBlue Airways, Thomas Cook, Spirit Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United, US Airways, Air Canada, Avianca , Copa Airlines and AirPanama . Connecting the airport with cities such as: Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Chicago, Newark, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, Frankfurt, Mexico City, Bogotá, Medellín, Caracas, Lima, Guayaquil, Quito and all Central America.
There is a USD32 exit fee at the Juan Santamaría Airport. This must be paid in cash, or by Visa (in which case it will be processed as a cash advance). The fee can also be paid in advance at some hotels or banks (Banco Credito Agricola de Cartago and Banco de Costa Rica).
Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR) is near Liberia in the Guanacaste province. This airport is closest to the Pacific Northwest coast. Liberia receives flights from Delta, American, Sun Country, United, US Airways, JetBlue, Air Canada, CanJet (charter), Sun Wing (charter), and First Choice (charter). Connecting the airport with Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, Newark, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, London, etc. The new terminal is open and is a wonderful addition to this airport.
Tobías Bolaños International Airport (Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional Tobías Bolaños) (IATA: SYQ) i(LIR) is in the Pavas district of San José about a 10-15 minute drive from the city centre. This airport primarily serves as the gateway linking to local Costa Rican domestic flights or nearby international destinations of Nicaragua and Panama.Currently, this airport is the hub for Nature Air. The terminal is neat, and clean though small and lacks any food concession so eating before an early morning flight is advisable.
The Interamericana (Pan-American Highway) runs through Costa Rica and is the main entry point by car. The border post in the north (to Nicaragua) is called Peñas Blancas and in the south (to Panamá) Paso Canoas (closes at 22:00, Costa Rica time or 23:00, Panamá time). Virtually all travel out of the capital (except to the Caribbean side) will involve travelling this road. The locals call the highway "Via Muerta," and after you have been on it a while you understand why — near San Jose and other major cities, the road is paved and has excellent signage; outside of the major cities, however, the road is gravel in places with fairly tight turns and substantial changes in elevation. You will see more large truck traffic on this road than in any part of Costa Rica. There are many speed traps along this major artery, as well as some random police checks for seat belts and, especially near the borders, for valid travel documents.
The highway speed is 80km/h, but since the Interamericana (a.k.a. Highway #1) passes through innumerable small towns, the speed frequently drops to 50 or even 30km/h as you suddenly find yourself in a school zone. Most of the highway is not divided. A common indicator that a police checkpoint is ahead is that oncoming cars flick their lights at you. New laws that went into effect in 2010 have greatly increased the amount of tickets; it used to be a max of about USD20; there are now tickets that exceed USD400 for attempting to bribe an officer, and other big tickets for drunken driving, speeding, and other illegal actions including talking on a cell phone and not using seat belts. Be nice to the police if you are pulled over because, as a result of the new laws, it is possible for them to "throw the book" at you, although they generally do not. This could mean citing you for minor offenses that the new laws have instituted, such as the requirement that every car carry an emergency kit. New laws have also now enforced a 3 year prison sentence for driving with a 0.8 blood alcohol level and a USD480 fine. Driving over 20km/h over the speed limit is a USD310 and losing 20 points. Police now tend to target tourists because they think that Costa Ricans don't have the money to pay the big tickets---and they're right. The police themselves earn about USD500 per month, and that happens to be the average monthly wage in Costa Rica.
The good news is that there is a brand new highway known as Autopista Del Sol (Highway of the Sun) that stretches from the beaches around Orotina all the way into San Jose. This highway is smooth as U.S. or European highways, in fact it was constructed by a company that is based in Spain. There are tolls along this highway but if you travel the entire stretch it will still only come out to be a few dollars in total. 2011 update: unfortunately, problems have been found with this highway and parts of it are sometimes closed for repairs.
Many Costa Rican roads are in terrible shape, and short distances can take a very long time. Even the only road in and out of popular tourist destinations are riddled with major potholes. To avoid potholes, drivers will often snake through the left and right lanes, usually returning to the right when oncoming traffic approaches. While this may seem erratic, you can become quickly accustomed to it. If you see a tree branch or pole poking out of the middle of a road, that is a "sign" that there is a deep sinkhole, pothole or manhole without a cover. Stay away from it.
Driving at night is highly inadvisable, due to the unpredictability of road conditions and lack of safety features such as guard rails on the many hairpin turns in the hills. To put safety in perspective, Costa Rica's per capita traffic death rate is comparable to that of the United States, but there are undeniably many hazards, and they are likely to be unfamiliar ones.
Many roads are unpaved, and even the paved roads have lots of unpaved sections and washed out or unfinished bridges. Bridges are often only wide enough for one vehicle; one direction usually has priority. Do not expect to get anywhere quickly; supposed three-hour journeys can turn into five or more hours easily: there are always slow cars/buses/trucks on the road. This causes a lot of crazy driving, which you begin to emulate if you are in-country for more than a day. The government does not seem to be fixing the infrastructure well (or at all!); 50km/h is good over unpaved roads. Some hotels located in the mountains require a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the destination. Call ahead. This is more for the ground clearance than the quality of the road. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are widely available at the car rentals near the airport, but call ahead.
Navigation can prove challenging. Road signs are relatively few, and those that do exist can be inaccurate. It is recommended that you have a good road map with the small towns listed, since road signs will often only indicate the next town, not the direction of the next major city. Towns generally do not have town-limit signs; it is best to look at the names on the roadside food stores and restaurants to determine the place you are passing. Stop and ask, practice your Spanish. The center of town is usually a public park with a Catholic church across from it.
There are no formal street addresses in Costa Rica, but two informal systems exist. The first (often used in tourist information) indicates the road on which the establishment is located (e.g., "6th Avenue"), together with the crossroad interval (e.g., "between 21st and 23rd Streets"). In practice, street signs are virtually non-existent, and locals do not even know the name of the street they are on. The second system, which is much more reliable and understood by locals, is known as the "Tico address", usually involving an oriented distance (e.g., "100 metre south, 50 metres east") from a landmark (e.g., "the cathedral").
It is worth noting the particular road naming system in San Jose. Avenues run east-west and streets run north-south. The numbering is less straightforward. Starting at Central Avenue going south are 2nd, 4th, 6th Avenue, etc. while going north are 1st, 3rd, 5th, etc. Streets use even numbers going west, and odd numbers going east. This means that if you are at 7th Avenue and 4th Street, and looking for 6th Avenue and 5th Street, you are on the wrong side of town.
Gas stations are full-service and the guys there are very cool about taking US dollars or colones. The interesting thing is that Costa Rica is small so you do not burn a lot of gas getting places, even though it seems like forever. Costa Rica is also a land of traffic circles, so people from Europe should have no problem, but North Americans should make sure they know how they work. The gas stations really are full-service, and you can have your oil checked, water filled, and tire pressure topped off. The state owns a gasoline company and the private companies raise their prices to the level of the state-set price. It is recommended to always use super gas and not regular; the regular gas is soiled. If you use the "regular" gas, you will have to change the gas filter and clean the injectors after 5000 miles.
There is an extensive network of bus routes within the country with reasonable fares. Departures are very punctual, though routes often take longer than expected. Stop by the Tourist Office downtown (underneath the Gold Museum in the Plaza--ask anyone and they'll be able to help you out). The bus system is a safe and even fun way to see a lot of the country cheaply and not have to worry about car rentals. Getting around without Spanish is no problem.
There is twice daily boat service from Los Chiles (in NE Costa Rica), former home of the Contras, to San Carlos, Nicaragua. The cost is about USD12, plus a USD1 fee. The boats usually leave San Carlos at 10:30 and 16:00.
Small ship cruises carrying less than 100 passengers begin in Panama and end in Costa Rica or reverse. These cruises visit popular National Parks such as Manuel Antonio but also visit remote beaches and coastline not accessible by road. Prices range from USD2,000-6,000 per person for 7-10 day tours.
Larger cruise ships occasionally dock or anchor at Porto Caldera and Puntarenas for a day or so, usually to begin, end or continue cruises with itineraries through the Panama Canal to or from Caribbean or US ports.
Keep in mind that Costa Rica does not have a publicly known street nomenclature system. Many important streets in San José have names and most people know those names, but outside of the capital (and even within the capital) directions are given using well known buildings, stores, or other structures as references.
In addition to paper maps, you can also use the GPS maps from various providers. GPSeTravelguides offers a complete navigation map for Costa Rica, http://www.gpsetravelguides.com/page/costa-rica-gps-map.html. Trackit GPS provides maps in local retailers, http://www.trackit.co.cr. Kaart Data apps can be used on iOS and Android, http://www.kaartdata.com/mobile-apps/ Cenrut maps can be loaded on Garmin devices, iPhones and Android phones: http://www.cenrut.org/adw/over.htm
Most major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are serviced by at least two daily buses from and to San José. The advantages of public transportation in Costa Rica are that tickets are cheap (rarely more than USD7 per person) and they cover most towns around the country. However, nearly the entire bus system is based on routes in and out of San José and this can add significant travel time. The buses are also not booked with a reservation system so it is possible to not have a seat on popular routes. However, many do have assigned seats once you buy a ticket at the station and so get there early to be sure you get your bus.
In San José there is not one central bus station, but rather several different ones, with each station roughly serving a different area of the country, with some exceptions. For example, most of the service to the Caribbean side of the country leaves from the Terminal Gran Caribe. However, in November 2012 the direct service to the far south Caribbean coast moved to the Puntarenas bus station, which mostly serves the west side of the country. Still, you can still get to the Caribe side by taking a bus (on the Autotransportes Caribeños line) from the Terminal Gran Caribe to Limón, and then transferring there to another bus south (the Mepe line). In short, do some research beforehand so you don't get lost looking for your bus. Often you can just call or email your final destination (e.g. your hotel) and they will tell you what bus to take, where to catch it and how often it runs. Schedules are available online
One great advantage of renting a car is that you can visit many of the secluded beaches and mountain areas. And with the power of the Internet, you can now rent just about any vehicle online and have it waiting for you when you arrive.
For USD350-700 a week you can rent an Economy or Mid-size 4x4. Insurance is the majority of this cost and it is not optional. Four-wheel-drive is good for extensive travelling outside the Central Valley, especially in the wet season. In the dry season going from La Fortuna to Monteverde via a direct route was over a boulder strewn 15-30mph road. Four-wheel-drive was also useful on the Nicoya coast.(above based on 2001 roads). It's often possible to rent a car with a local driver from the various tour companies, if driving yourself seems a bit daunting.
Due to the condition of most roads outside San Jose, car insurance, even with a zero-deductible option, generally does not cover tires and rims. Car rental companies require a guaranty deposit from USD750 during the rental period and a credit card is necessary for this process. Using an insurance program provided by some types of gold or platinum credit cards is a good advantage, since these credit cards would cover small scratches, small dents as well as the entire rented vehicle in case of collision or theft.
You have to exercise caution when renting a car in Costa Rica; where it is not uncommon for rental companies to claim "damage" they insist you inflicted on the vehicle. It is by far the best policy to rent a car through a Costa Rican travel agent. If you are travelling on a package, your agent will sort this out. Otherwise, go into an ICT-accredited travel agent in San Jose and ask them to arrange rental for you. This should be no more expensive than renting on your own and will help guard against false claims of damage and other accusations; rental companies will be less willing to make trouble with an agent who regularly sends them clients than with individual customers who they may not see again.
Make sure to check the car carefully before you sign off on the damage sheet. Check the oil, brake fluid, fuel gauge (to make sure it's full) and that there is a spare tire with a good air pressure and a jack. Look up the Spanish word for "scratches" (rayas) and other relevant terminology first, so you can at least scrutinize the rental company's assessment. Ask them to write down all the minor damages, not just check on the drawing, and keep a copy of this document on you.
Take the maximum insurance (around USD15-20 per day); because of the country's high accident rate, you need to be covered for damage to the vehicle, yourself, any third party and public property.
When you book a rental car online, it may show very low price that doesn't include insurance. You'll then get a nasty surprise at airport at the time of rental when they typically charge you about USD40/day, no matter how low you might have booked online.
For about USD420 a week, depending on the bike and the season, you can rent a dual sport bike or a cruiser. A motorcycle rental company requires a guaranty deposit from 600 USD during the rental period.
The road conditions are very bad so be prepared especially if you easily get motion sickness.
Another easy way to get around Costa Rica is to use the services of mini-vans. At most of the hotels, the receptionist is able to assist travelers who want to travel across the country by arranging for the services of a driver. Rates are reasonable (USD29 per person, for example, to get from San Jose to Tamarindo in April 2007) The drivers know the roads well; the vans are clean and comfortable; and they take you from door to door.
Taxis are available in most large cities. They are usually inexpensive, charging only a few dollars to get most anywhere within the city. The meter is called "la maria"; ask the driver to turn it on immediately upon getting in the car, or he may leave it off and make up his own, more expensive, price when you get to your destination. Also try checking it wasn't running before you got in, the initial fare shouldn't be higher than 600. Most Drivers know familiar routes such as San Jose to Santa Ana and you can find the rate by asking "Cuanto para ir a _____" and he will tell you the flat rate. This can keep you from paying too much because the driver will not make unnecessary detours. Official taxis are red with a yellow triangle on the side. They also have yellow triangles on the side of the car which will have a number in it. If the number matches the number listed on the license plate, it is an official taxi. Do not get in if the numbers do not match. "Pirate Taxis", though sometimes cheaper, are NOT SAFE. Do not risk it. If you are alone, especially. If you are female, ride in the back seat, as riding in the front with the driver can be seen as suggestive. Caution should be exercised when using this service, extra caution. It's not recommended to ride non-red cabs.
Hitchhiking is far more common in rural areas than in urban areas. If you choose to hitchhike, Costa Ricans are generally very friendly and helpful, particularly in more rural areas where traffic on the dirt roads can be light. As always, be gracious and offer a bit of money, which will probably be declined due to the kindness.
There are two internal airlines that connect the major tourist towns. You are limited to 25 or 30 pounds of carry-on luggage per person, depending on the airline. Nature Air allows more luggage per person, as their planes are larger and are also twin-engine. The main airlines are NatureAir  and Sansa .
Spanish is the official and most spoken language in Costa Rica. All major newspapers and official business are conducted in Spanish. English is used widely in most areas, especially those frequented by tourists, and information for visitors is often bilingual or even exclusively in English. A number of businesses operated by European proprietors can accommodate guests in Spanish, English and their native languages.
Some Costa Rican colloquial expressions:
A prevalent version of slang in Costa Rica, and other regions of Latin America, is called "pachuco", "pachuquismo" or "costarriqueñismo" and is used by all social classes (to some degree), however, it can be at times vulgar and is considered an informal way of speaking.
For the word "you" (singular informal form), instead of "tú", most people of the Central Valley use "vos" (as in "vos sos" - you are) which is also common to other American dialects of Spanish (Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala...), but the word "usted" is prominent in south Pacific Costa Rica and preferred over "vos". Either way, formal Spanish is understood and you may use any form of the word "you" you consider proper.
Costa Ricans tend to use the term Regaláme, literally "gift me", instead of "get me". An example is when a Costa Rican says: "regáleme la cuenta", literrally "gift me the bill", which is unusual to other Spanish speaking countries, however, it is a very common Costa Rican term. Another such case might be when Costa Ricans go out to buy something, in which case they might use the term this way: "Regáleme un confite y una Coca", literally, "Gift me a piece of candy and a Coke", but it is understood that the person asking is going to buy said things and is not expecting the other to gift him or her those things. A more precise phrase in standard Spanish would be: "Me vende un confite y una Coca", meaning: "Sell me a piece of candy and a Coke".
Limonense Creole (Mekatelyu)
As well as Costa Rican Spanish, there is also an English-based Creole language spoken in Limón Province on the Caribbean Sea coast of Costa Rica. It is called Limonese Creole or Mekatelyu. This Creole language is similar to varieties such as Colón Creole, Miskito Coastal Creole, Belizean Kriol language, and San Andrés and Providencia Creole since all originated from English seafarers and settlers. The name Mekatelyu is a transliteration of the phrase "make I tell you", or in standard English "let me tell you". It is basically English language however it has a very distinctive pronunciation and vocabulary very similar to Jamaican English.
Wildlife - Costa Rica is world famous for having an incredibly high level of biodiversity throughout its tropical forests (this covers what you may hear referred to as rain forests, cloud forests, and dry forests). There are tropical mammals such as monkeys, sloths, tapirs, and wild cats as well as an amazing assortment of insects and other animals. There are many many birds (both migratory and resident) - more on that below. With 25% of the country being national parks and protected areas, there are still many places you can go to see the abundant wildlife and lush vegetation of the country. Just like anywhere, the farther you get off the beaten path, the more likely you are to see a wide variety of flora and fauna.
There is such biodiversity in Costa Rica not only because it's a land bridge between North and South America, but also because the terrain is so varied and there are weather patterns moving in from both the Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean. There are impressive volcanoes, mountain areas, rivers, lakes, and beaches all throughout the country. There are many beautiful beaches - most of the popular ones are on the Pacific side but the Caribbean has many excellent beaches as well.
Bird Watching - One of the most wonderful activities for people who love nature is bird watching. You can enjoy bird watching in many areas of Costa Rica. Due to the great diversity of climates, temperatures and forest types in Costa Rica, there is a wonderful variety of birds, with over 800 species. Some helpful books available on bird watching are Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch (Cornell University Press) or An Illustrated Field Guide to Birds of Costa Rica, illustrated by Victor Esquivel Soto. These books can be found at certain bookstores in San José or before coming to Costa Rica. They are both heavy books; many people tear out the plates of the Stiles & Skutch book to carry into the field and leave the rest of the book in their car or room. Plastic cards with the most common birds are available for many areas and are sold at gift shops.
Costa Rica's list of birds includes:
The coastal list of birds includes:
Good Bird watching spots include:
Most hotels, as well as tourist information centers, will provide bird watching guides, maps and other essentials for bird watching. Unless you are an experienced neo-tropical birder, it can be a lot more productive to go out with an experienced birding guide. Do not forget to bring a hat, rain gear, boots, binoculars and camera. In hot areas, an umbrella can be more useful than a poncho or jacket. Southern Costa Rica is generally considered the better option for bird watching.
Volcanoes -Costa Rica is one of the most seismologicly active countries in the western hemisphere, and as a result several volcanoes have sprouted over the years- most notably volcanoes Poas, Irazu, and Arenal.
Costa Rica is a country with an extraordinary wealth of things to do, but regardless of your travel interests, you're going to want to spend time at one of the country's great beaches. The lion's share of beach tourism is concentrated on the Pacific side, in the Central Pacific region near San José, the Nicoya Peninsula, and in the dry tropical forests of Guanacaste. Less touristed, but no less beautiful are the beaches in the tropical rainforest of the southern Pacific coast near Corcovado National Park, or on the exotic, rastafarian, eco-tourism paradise of the Caribbean side.
While some of the best beach vacations will be found on tiny quiet beaches off the beaten path, or even at exclusive resorts, here's a quick list of the country's biggest and most popular beach destinations:
Costa Rica is one of the countries with more rivers per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. Nearly anywhere you go you will find some kind of river trip to enjoy nature from a very unique point of view.
There is a wide variety of exciting rafting trips offered in Costa Rica. For many years, the rafting Mecca of Costa Rica was Turrialba, a large town embedded in the mountains near the Reventazon and Pacuare Rivers, on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica.
However, the Arenal Volcano area is now an increasingly-popular whitewater rafting destination with close access to the Sarapiqui and Toro Rivers, as well as the Class II-III Río Balsa which delight rafting enthusiasts in the Northern slopes of the country.
On the Pacific slope, the river with the largest volume, El General, is famous for multi-day adventures and for being an incredible playground for kayakers. The Coto Brus River is also part of this watershed. Further north, on the central Pacific coast, are the Savegre and Naranjo Rivers. In this area you have the opportunity to enjoy both half-day trips on the Naranjo River and 1-to-2-day trips on the Savegre River.
The Class III-IV Tenorio River near Canas, Guanacaste is a favorite among day-trippers from the beaches of Guanacaste, as well as part of shuttle-tour-shuttle services from the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde to the Guanacaste area. The lower section of the Tenorio River is widely-known for being an excellent nature float trip.
The Pacuare River (Class III-IV) is at the top of the list for 2- or 3-day adventures. If you are interested in similar trips, the Savegre River (Class III-IV) is an excellent alternative for an overnight rafting excursions.
If you want more adrenaline, the Chorro Section (Class IV+) of the Naranjo River, near Manuel Antonio, Quepos is one of the most exhilarating rafting trip of the country. This section is run from December to May.
As for nature-oriented trips, the Peñas Blancas River near the Arenal Volcano provides a great look at the tremendous biodiversity of the country.
Most likely, any of these rafting trips will be the highlight of your active vacations, so don’t miss your chance to paddle one.
Costa Rica has some of the best Sport Fishing in the world and is the first country to practice catch and release fishing. The Pacific side has incredible fishing for Sailfish, Marlin, Dorado, Tuna, Wahoo, Roosterfish, Snapper, Grouper and more. The Caribbean side is famous for big Tarpon and big Snook. Over sixty-four world records have been caught in Costa Rica. Half day, Full day and Multi-Day Trips are available.
Costa Rica is home to some of the best scuba diving in Central America. With diving on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts as well as the world famous Cocos Island, there is something for all scuba enthusiasts.
Cocos Island is a famous island located approximately 300 kms off shore and is only accessible by liveaboard boats. The area is a national marine park and is the only place in Costa Rica that you can regularly find schooling hammerheads.
The Gulf de Papagayo is a well established dive location with three major diving options. Local diving, the Catalinas, and the Bat Islands are the options within the Gulf. Diving centers are mainly located around Playas del Coco and Playa Flamingo. Out of the three options, Bat Islands is probably the most exciting as this national marine park is home to the often feared bull sharks. The dive site "Big Scare" allows divers the chance to dive face to face with these sharks and is also home to other large pelagics such as manta rays and the occasional whale shark.
Costa Rica has many surfing hotspots. The best time of year to surf is from November - August.
In the Guanacaste there are several beaches to choose from if you intend to go surfing. Among them, Playa Negra and Playa Grande are two stand out breaks. Playa Negra breaks over a shallow lava reef producing fast hollow waves for advanced surfers only. Playa Grande is the most consistent break in the area with surfable conditions most days of the year. It breaks over a sandy bottom and is good for beginner and experienced surfers.
Tamarindo is a good beach to learn how to surf, whilst Playa del Coco offers advanced surfers the chance to surf at Witches Rock and Ollie´s Point. On the Caribbean side there are beautiful beaches, but limited surfing prospects.
The southern Costa Rica area has two very good spots for surf: Dominical and Pavones Beach. Pavones Beach has thick, heavy waves which consistently barrel and can get really big. It's little known, but picturesque and untamed; Definitely not for the light hearted.
In the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma has one of the most beautiful beach breaks in the area, called Playa Grande. It's a short eastward walk from Montezuma village. The break is great for all surfers.
There's a good book on Costa Rica surf spots on Amazon: Surfing Costa Rica Surf Spots
Costa Rica has great mountain biking routes, particularly near Irazu, Turrialba and Arenal Volcanoes. There is popular dirt road that connects Irazu Volcano and the foothills of Turrialba Volcano that is perfect for mountain biking, as it traverses the mountain and presents great views of the Cartago Valley (weather permitting, of course).
Near Paraiso, Cartago, there is an amazing waterfall and biking tours around the valley
The area around Lake Arenal is also a great spot to bike. You can circle the lake in one long day, or break up the ride in two sleeping in Tilarán or Nuevo Arenal. The use of mountain bikes is a must, since the southern shore of the lake is unpaved.
The Nicoya Peninsula also has great riding, particularly the stretch between Sámara, Puerto Coyote and Malpais. There is a coastal road that connects these three beach towns.
Costa Rica is also know as a haven for some of the most lush, tropical golfing environments in the world. At any course, you can expect to an ensemble of exotic, indigenous animals; jungle; mountainous terrain; and a surreal, blue ocean painting a brilliant, seclusive experience.
There are many tournaments during the year that any traveler can participate in. Most courses offer shoe and club rentals.
Other active/extreme Sports
Wind surfing in the Tilarán area is some of the best in the world.
"Canopy tours" or zip-lines are very popular tourist activities and are found all over Costa Rica. These typically cost between USD30-50 depending on the company and use a series of zip-lines to travel between platforms attached to the trees, through and over the forest canopy and over rivers. The person is secured with harnesses to the metal cords, as some go very high off the ground. Be sure to ask about the zip-line certification before booking and be sure to take part in the safety briefing before participating.
Another form of canopy tour is via an aerial tram which are ski lifts modified for the rainforest. These trams are slower allowing the visitor to view wildlife in the canopy. Each tram has a guide who will explain the flora and fauna. The trams exist at adventure parks near Jaco Beach and just outside Braulio Carrillo National Park and are appropriate for all ages. The trams may be combined with ziplining and often have other attractions such as medicine gardens or serpentaria so guests may learn more about Costa Rica.
The local currency is the colón (plural, colones) named after Columbus (Spanish: Colón) (CRC).
As of December 2014, the exchange rate was 536 colones per US dollar. Money exchange is provided at most banks; however, it is recommended to do so at the state banks, especially the Banco Nacional, since they have lower rates. There is also a money exchange service at the airport, but it is outrageously expensive. But note that the use of US dollars is quite common; in the tourist setting, almost everything is priced in dollars (but sometimes prices are cheaper in colones). Note that when a price is quoted in "dollars", the speaker may be thinking of a dollar as 500 colones; so it is always worth checking whether this is what is meant.
You can find ATMs in most places. They normally dispense US dollars and colones. With Visa you get money at almost all ATMs. If you've got a MasterCard try the ATMs in the AM/PM supermarkets, they give you up to 250,000 colones (c. USD500). Another option are the ATH-ATM's but they just give you up to 100,000 colones (c. USD200) each transaction. EC-Cards (European) are accepted on all ATMs. The limit is usually only set by the Card. In addition, drawing money with your EC-Card will almost always give you a better exchange rate than changing cash in a bank.
It is also very common to pay even small amounts by Credit Card (Visa, Master Card, Amex is less common).
Keep in mind that most banks and credit unions charge not only fees to get money out of an ATM in a foreign country, but also a foreign exchange fee (usually 2% or 3%) for the amount of the transaction. So to withdraw USD100 worth of colones with your ATM (debit) card you could pay a fixed fee to the ATM operator (often USD3 or more), a fixed fee to your bank (USD2 or more), and then 2% to 3% of USD100, so you end up paying USD108 for USD100 worth of colones. Paying a merchant directly with your card only incurs the foreign exchange fee.
You might get a discount (such as between 5% and 10%) when paying in cash, but it is not common enough to be expected. Also, it is not really necessary to get colones at the airport because you can pay everywhere in USD and receive colones as change. Most places except smallest restaurants take credit cards and many places including the gas stations take American Express.
Traveler's checks are rarely used. When paying with traveler's checks, unless for hotel nights, change them first at a bank. Expect long delays with traveler's checks at the bank, lots of stamping, the higher up the official at the bank the more stamps they have. Dollars are easier.
The most common souvenirs are made from wood. Unless it's marked as responsible (plantation grown wood), it is most likely not and may be contributing to the deforestation of Costa Rica — or even Nicaragua or Panama!
Most visitors returning home are not allowed to bring back any raw foods or plants. Accordingly, the single most desirable commodity for visitors to take home may be roasted (not green) coffee,considered by many as some of the world's best. Numerous web sites explain the fine qualities of various growing regions, types of beans, types of roasting and sources for purchase. Best prices come by purchasing several (sealed) bags of 12 ounces or so, but you can also buy in larger quantity if you look hard enough (the Mercado Central in San José has a coffee vendor that sells many varieties, including organic, by the kilo). And experts definitely recommend buying whole beans (entero): in any kind of storage, they last longer, and ground coffee sold in Costa Rica often contains sugar because it preferred by locals -- if you want pure coffee without additives look for "puro" on the package. The stores in San José airport will sell you excellent coffee, but other good quality blends can be found in local supermarkets and direct from the roasters. It can be an expensive but delicious habit. If you're serious about your coffee, bring at least a partially-empty suit case and fill it with perhaps a year's supply (web sites explain how to store it that long). Take care with tourist outlets (especially at the airport) where small quantities may cost as much as ordering on the Internet.
Costa Rican cuisine can be described as simple but wholesome. The spiciness often associated with Latin America has typically originated in Mexico, most Costa Rican foods are not spicy, but, as they simmer in a large pot, the flavors are blended.
Gallo pinto is a mixture of rice and beans with a little cilantro or onion thrown in. While more common at breakfast, it can also be served at lunch or dinner.
Casado, which means married, is the typical lunch in Costa Rica, containing rice and beans with meat, chicken or fish, always served with salad and fried plantain.
Plato del dia, is the 'Plate of the Day' and is often a Casado, but has the meat or fish selection of the day. Usually around 5.00 USD and includes a natural juice.
Good, fresh fruit is abundant in variety and low in cost. Mercados provide an excellent place to sample fruit and other Costa Rican fare, with many including sit-down snack bars. You are encouraged to experiment because some of the local fruits do not "travel well" as they are bruised easily and or have a short shelf life. The mango found in store in North America are much more fibrous and less sweet than the mangos found in Costa Rica. The fingerling bananas are much more creamy and less tart than the ones found in North America.
Be sure to stop off at a rest stop along any of the roads: a Casado and beer will cost ~USD3.
Don't forget to try the Salsa Lizano that you will surely find at any restaurant. It is a mild vegetable sauce that has a hint of curry and is slightly sweet. It's often referred to as Costa Rican ketchup. It tastes good on just about anything! Bring some home with you! You can find smaller sized bottles at any market.
Also as per usual in Central America standard breakfast fare is a ham sandwich, so people averse to eating pork might be advised to check out a grocery market for something else. Many Ticos will go to a local bakery and buy a loaf of white bread.
Vegetarians will find it surprisingly easy to eat well in Costa Rica. There are several International cuisine options also. In addition to American style food, Italian, Mexican, Peruvian and Indian are also available. Indian food generally has vegetarian, vegan and gluten free dishes. Try Indian Naans & Curries dishes. They taste better in Costa Rica because of natural ingredients.
Don't forget to tip tour guides, drivers, bellboys and maids. Restaurant bills include a 10% gratuity but leave an extra tip for good service. North Americans often get better service because they are used to tipping separately, but it's not necessary.
The beef cattle are raised on grass; the meat will taste differently from corn fed cattle. The cuts of meat at the local restaurants are also different. The taste of chicken is not discernibly distinct.
Most places (such as cities) have potable water, so don't worry about drinking tap water. Bottled water is also available at low prices. Nevertheless, exercise caution about places with doubtful water sources. These places tend to be away from population centers or near the beach/coast.
Refrescos or simply frescos are beverages made from fresh fruit (cas, guayaba/guava, sandia/watermelon, mora/blackberry, fresa/strawberry, piña/pineapple, papaya), sugar and either water or milk (depending on the fruit). All sodas serve these. You can also easily buy the standard international soda pops; 'Fresca', 'Canada Dry' and the local 'Fanta Kolita' (fruit punch) are recommended.
Typical "refrescos" include: Agua de Cebada (Barley water) and Horchata de arroz.
A common drink is called "Cacique", which is made from fermented sugar cane. It is sometimes called "guaro", which can also refer to alcohol in general. It is similar to vodka, and is usually drunk with water and lemon. It is very inexpensive, however note that it's not a very "clean" liquor, so exercise caution.
There are approximately 8 different national beers available (and most international), which are sold in cans, bottles and even kegs. The most common beers in the country are Pilsen and Imperial: all bars and restaurants serve both. Bavaria, "Bavaria Negra" (dark) and Bavaria Light are considered higher quality but more expensive, Rock Ice and Rock Ice Limón (lemon flavor) has a higher alcohol percentage. Heineken is locally made under license and is more expensive as well.
Coffee in Costa Rica is of very top quality. It is common to have coffee, not only for breakfast, but during the afternoon as a little coffee break.
A typical drink here is called Aguadulce, which is a hot drink made of water and Panela (unrefined whole cane sugar). Aguadulce literally means "sweet-water".
You can find many places to stay all over Costa Rica, including hotels, aparthotels, condos, vacation rentals, and cabinas. Vacation Homes, Cabinas, and Condos can be less expensive than hotels and provide more flexibility in your adventure to Costa Rica. Costa Rica is known as a world leader for eco and sustainable travel and accommodations are often listed as 'eco-lodges'. They do tend to be more expensive though the government does have a well functioning certification program.
You can learn Spanish in Costa Rica. Reflecting the higher living standard, it's a little more expensive than other countries such as Guatemala, but then again, the education level of your teachers will be much higher.
Costa Rica is a great place to learn Spanish as the "ticos" have a dialect that is easy to understand and digest for someone just starting to learn the language. There are many language schools that provide intensive instruction with group classes lasting 4 hours per day, Monday to Friday. Almost all Spanish schools will also offer host family accommodations and possibly some alternative such as a student residence or discounted hotel rates.
The key factor when going to study Spanish in Costa Rica is to decide what is the right location for you. The beach locations tend to be on the touristy side so they do not necessarily give the greatest immersion experience, however there are many Spanish schools near the beach as students like to split their time between studying Spanish in the classroom combined with activities on the beach or just relaxing on their time away from work. There is a growing trend of these Spanish schools at the beach also offering Surfing or Photography classes due to the environment around the school and the proximity to good surf.
Studying in the San Jose area has many benefits. There is the luxury aspect of city life since it tends to be much more modern than the rustic beach locations. Host families and Spanish schools tend to have nicer facilities. The school Babylon Idiomas  offers good courses and personal service and is located not only in San José but also in three other places in Costa Rica. San Jose also has fewer tourists so it is great from an immersion point of view as you can practice your Spanish in a setting where people are not automatically switching to English to accommodate your native language. It is much better that you struggle with your Spanish and force your brain to think in a different language so your communication becomes much smoother.
There are also a number of language schools that can be found throughout the Central Valley, particularly in Heredia and its surrounding cantons. These language schools typically offer only Spanish to foreign students from the United States and Europe but some, including the Instituto Norte Americano in Heredia, offer Spanish to foreign students, and English and Mandarin to local ones. Many of these language schools are also instrumental in helping the surrounding community, either through monetary donations or educational opportunities that otherwise may not have existed for the local Costa Rican population. Schools such as IAC (Instituto de Aprendizaje de Costa Rica) in Manuel Antonio, La Escuela Armonía in Guanacaste, as well as the Instituto Norte Americano in Heredia have frequently acted as educational hubs for their surrounding communities, giving free English classes to teachers of nearby schools and helping to raise money for worthy causes. Similarly in the Guanacaste region, Spanish schools such as Instituto Estelar Bilingüe in Liberia work closely with volunteer organizations and non-profits in the area in order to help the local people and give back to the community. Students are able to volunteer their time in a variety of ways while studying Spanish and travelling.
Some hostels offer packages that include Spanish lessons and daily home-stays with the locals (in addition to your room and board).
Costa Rica is also a good place to become proficient in ocean sports like surfing and scuba diving. There are numerous surf shops, that provide surfing lessons and surf camps throughout the coastal areas.
Costa Rica has numerous private international K-12 schools where students are taught in either English or a mixture of English and Spanish. Education standards in these schools are comparable to that of private schools in countries such as the United States, at around a third of the cost. Lincoln School is one of the most highly regarded international schools in Costa Rica and Central America. Some of these schools also offer Spanish lessons for those who wish to learn.
The local newspaper, La Nación, has an extensive jobs listing every Sunday and Monday. You must be a resident or be sponsored by a company to work legally in Costa Rica. ESL teachers can find work in Costa Rica with Bachelor`s Degree and a TESOL certification. ESL teachers can expect to earn 226,700 - 566,750 CRC (monthly) and will usually teach 8 – 15 hours in a week. Contracts will usually not include accommodations (the employer may help), airfare, and health-care.
Costa Rica is an open business country and investors are always welcome, so if you or your company is interested in founding a new or buying a business in Costa Rica, it is best to contact a Costa Rican lawyer about your interest in investing.
There are several opportunities to engage in volunteer work in Costa Rica. Volunteer projects range from turtle conservation, building houses, teaching English and community development work. Some schools offer visits to Costa Rica as part of the World Challenge activity, which combines a Trekking expedition with some of the students time assigned to helping local people on community projects.
Costa Rica has one of the highest levels of social care in the world. Its doctors are known worldwide as some of the best. Many people from U.S, Canada and Europe go there to be treated, not only because the quality of the service but for the cost. First class Hospitals can be found in the capital. There is a public/private hospital system. There is excellent care in each. The public system has much longer waits, while the private system has shorter waits. If you are unfortunate enough to have a very sick child requiring hospitalization, the child will be transferred to the only children's hospital in CR, located in the capital. This children's hospital is public.
There have been outbreaks of dengue fever in some areas of the country and an outbreak of malaria was reported in November 2006 from the province of Limon but just a few cases. Protection against mosquito bites is very important, wearing lightweight long pants, long sleeved shirts and using insect repellents with high concentrations of DEET is recommended by the CDC. If you are going to be in very rural areas known to be malaria-infested areas, you might want to consider an anti-malarial med. However, most travelers to Costa Rica do just fine with updated childhood immunizations and taking preventative measures against mosquito bites (rather than take anti-malarial medication). The CDC has a complete list of recommended vaccines when traveling to Costa Rica.
Tap water in urban areas of the country is almost always safe to drink. However, being cautious may be in order in rural areas with questionable water sources.
With 1.9 million travelers visiting Costa Rica annually, travel is quite popular and common. Still, travelers to Costa Rica should exercise caution. The emergency number in Costa Rica is 911.
Marijuana traffic, distribution and commerce is illegal in Costa Rica, despite recreational marijuana use being quite popular among locals, as there is absence of law when you carry marijuana for personal use quantities only (a few joints) although police could try to get money from you or keep you in the local commissary for up to 12 hours. The United States DEA is also present in Costa Rica and they have been known to disguise themselves as tourists. There is a Costa Rican equivalent of the DEA as well. It is not advised to do illegal drugs in Costa Rica. It is also not advised to bribe a police officer. Do so at your own risk.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and can be a destination for those looking for more than sun and surf on their vacation. San Jose and Jaco are hot spots for this activity. As with any other sex destination, there are some tourists that hire minors. Prostitution with minors (less than 18 years old) is considered a crime in Costa Rica. The majority of sex tourists in Costa Rica are from the United States, and, if they engage in prostitution with a minor, are prosecutable by the Protect Act of 2003. This act gives the US government the power to prosecute US citizens who travel abroad to engage in sex tourism with children under the age of 18. Several other countries including France, Canada, the UK, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, and Australia have similar laws. Arrests, warrants and prosecutions are being made under these laws.
Bus travel tips
Below is a list of suggestions for traveling by bus in Costa Rica and neighboring countries. These are overcautious tips, but the bottom line is that they can help prevent being ripped off. Nearly all thefts on the bus are preventable thefts!
Beaches, weather and wildlife
The coasts of Costa Rica are known for strong currents and rip-tides in some areas but most of them are great to be with the family. Costa Rica has some of the best beaches in the world. The Atlantic coast is just five hours away from the Pacific one and both offer completely different views and landscapes. There are no signs indicating an unsafe beach due to riptides, so take precautions and listen to the locals on where it is safe to swim. The public beaches do not have life guards. A traveler should learn how to swim out of a rip tide and not swim alone. There are some active volcanoes in Costa Rica and they are dangerous, so follow the warning signs posted. The slopes of the Arenal volcano invite visitors to climb closer to the summit, but there have been fatalities in the past with unseen gas chambers. Also be wary of the climate of Costa Rica. It is very hot in the daytime, but in the morning and evening it becomes very cool, so you should bring a light weight jacket.
When you go to the Guanacaste beaches on the Pacific you can see some crocodiles over the Tempisque river. The bridge across this river was donated by the Taiwanese government. (Subsequently, China gave away a 35000-seat stadium after Costa Rica ended diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.)
Gay and lesbian
Costa Rica is a very conservative and traditionalist nation. The state's official religion is Roman Catholicism and its population is quite religious. Nevertheless, Costa Rica caters to the gay and lesbian traveller and his or her needs. There is a thriving gay scene in San Jose with many gay and lesbian options for night-life (La Avispa, Club Oh!, Bochinche among others). The Manuel Antonio, Jacó, and Quepos area is also a favorite spot with several gay hotels and bars.
There are a good number of Gay/lesbian or Gay-Friendly accommodations in Costa Rica. Accommodations seem to be of the higher quality offering a variety of services and of course, discretion. Many hotels, travel agencies, and resorts are run by gays and/or are gay-friendly.
According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, about 200 medical procedures are performed every month at the nation's hospitals for medical tourists. Among the procedures done are cosmetic surgery, knee and hip replacement, cataract removal and other eye treatments, weight loss surgery and dental care. Health care in Costa Rica is attractive for international patients because of the low prices, high care standards, and access to tourist attractions. For example, a hip replacement costs around USD12,000 and a tummy tuck costs around USD4,400.
The main medical tourism centers are CIMA Hospital, Hospital Clinica Biblica and Hospital Hotel La Catolica. In turn, these hospitals use medical tourism facilitators who can arrange every aspect of your trip from beginning to end.
The international calling code/country code for Costa Rica is 506.
The primary means of outside contact are through email and public pay telephones.
Internet cafes are fairly easy to find in tourist areas, with prices all over the place. Some of these offer long distance calls over the internet.
Public phones are accessed with calling cards (tarjetas telefonicas) which can be purchased at most shops, even in outlying areas.
There are four different types of pay-phones:
Both types of calling cards are typically available in pharmacies and other locations where you see the sticker on the door.
Domestic calls are quite cheap and the price is the same wherever you call. Calls to cellular phones are charged significantly more though.
International calls are fairly expensive. The cheapest way to make them is over the internet using a service such as Skype at an Internet café. But making short calls using the domestic calling cards (you can make international calls using these but the denominations of the calling cards are quite small so your call will be short!) or the international calling cards available within Costa Rica is the next best deal. Certainly better than credit card calls or using a US calling card generally.
Cell service in Costa Rica is provided using GSM technology at 1800 MHz and 3G data operating at 850MHz. Note that the GSM phone systems in the United States and Canada use different frequencies and that travelers from there will need a "world" handset, such as a tri-band or quad-band phone, if you want to use your existing cell phone. Most of the country has very good GSM coverage (including most of the capital). Roaming is possible with a GSM handset (i.e. using your regular cell number that you use in your home country) but can be extremely expensive.
If you want to use a local Costa Rica number, you can rent cell phone service, and of course anyone can buy a cell phone. You used to have to be a documented resident of the Costa Rica to own your own cell phone number, and even then you only got one if there are numbers available. You still have to be a resident if you want monthly billed service to an address (such as in the U.S.). But since the passage of the CAFTA treaty in 2009, the government cell phone monopoly has been broken and service is now provided by many operators, including Grupo ICE  under the Kölbi brand, TuYo Movil (reselling the ICE service), Movistar and Claro (the latter two also providing service throughout Latin America). Currently coverage on Kölbi is best because the network is the oldest and most built out (e.g. there is no Movistar service in Monteverde. Update: 2014-11-2 There is now HSPA+ Movistar service in Monteverde).
If you have an unlocked cell phone (either one from home or bought in Costa Rica -- all cell phones sold in Costa Rica must be unlocked), prepaid (prepago) SIM cards can provide a local number and service can be purchased throughout the country by anyone with a passport from any country, or a cedula (Costa Rican ID card). At the baggage claim at the San José airport is a Kölbi kiosk, and you will also see signs Kölbi, Movistar, Claro, and others throughout the country where service is for sale. Rates are set by the government and you can get a SIM for as little as USD2 (Movistart 2014-11-1) and 3G (or sometimes just EDGE) data service is also available by the day, week, or month for ¢300 or less a day. To add value you buy a recarga (recharge card), scratch off the card to get a PIN, and text the PIN from your phone to a special number. To keep the card active, it must be recharged at least once in a 120 day period. If it is not charged within a 120 days, you have a 30 day grace period before your SIM chip is deactivated and you lose your phone number. Also keep in mind that you may have trouble getting your SIM activated on Sunday, because like many things in Costa Rica, the SIM activation system may be shut down on Sundays. Also not all shops sell SIMs -- many just sell the recharge cards. Get your SIM at the airport if you can.
Most tourist areas (hotels, coffee shops, bars, restaurants) have Wi-Fi access for free. Just ask someone for the password. You can bring your smart phone loaded with skype or google phone and make calls to your home country. It is an easy way to stay connected with email and social media.