Costa Rica is Spanish for rich coast. As such, one can expect to find this place to be the ideal tropical paradise.
Juan Santamaría Airport (SJO) is located close to the cities Alajuela, Heredia and the capital San José.
SJO is currently under reconstruction. The dimly lit but otherwise pleasant airport features the normal assortment of duty-free shops but an inadequate selection of overpriced restaurants (Church's Chicken, Burger King and a fast-food pizza joint). SJO is serviced daily by American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines,Iberia, Thomas Cook, Martinair ,Spirit Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, Air Canada as well as Taca and Copa Airlines. Connecting the airport with cities such as: Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Chicago, Newark, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, Frankfurt, Bogota, Caracas, Lima, Guayaquil, Quito, and all Central America. Frontier Airlines is slated to begin non-stop service from Denver on November 30th, 2007 and will fly to SJO 5 days a week.
There is a US $26 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.
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, United, Continental, Air Canada, Sky Service (charter), and First Choice (charter). Connecting the airport with cities like: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Newark, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, London, etc.
The Interamericana (Panamerican 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. Virtually all travel out of the capital (except to the Caribbean side) will involve travelling this road. 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 30 km/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. Drivers also appear to flick their lights sometimes when someone has overtaken them. A speeding ticket is approximately 40,000 Colons (US $80), and although the police are generally congenial, foreign drivers are occasionally illegally offered an "on the spot" fine that is half that or less.
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 to North American drivers, one becomes quickly accustomed to 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.
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 3 hour journeys can turn into 5 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/hr is good over unpaved roads, you hit a resonance frequency where the damping factor of the suspension matches the undulations of the road and you have a smooth ride.
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; you are best to look at the names on the roadside food stores and restaurants to determine the place you are passing.
There are no formal street addresses in Costa Rica, but two informal systems 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 meters south, 50 meters 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 straighforward. 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 dollars or Colón(es). 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 land of the traffic circles so people from Europe should have no problem but North Americans should make sure they know how they work
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) and get a detailed schedule. 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. It is highly recommended! If using the bus routes within the country, some ability to speak and understand Spanish may be necessary, although most are friendly enough to be able to help you out.
There are some boat transfers available into Costa Rica from Bocas del Toro in Panamá.
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 $5, plus a $1 fee. The boats usually only run in the mornings.
Keep in mind the pet peeve most tourists have with tico kindness: often times when a tico has no idea where a certain destination you may have had in mind is, he or she will simply direct you to a random location. Often simply incomprehensible, these directions are a reflection on the cultural approach to kindness many Costa Ricans adopt. Ask for directions from several different people if you aren't convinced by the first answer you get.
Most major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are serviced by at least two daily buses from and to San Jose. The advantages of public transportation in Costa Rica are that tickets are cheap (rarely more than $7 US per person) and they cover most towns around the country.
For 350-700 USD a week you can rent a econocar/mid size 4WD. Insurance is the majority of this cost and it is not optional. 4 wheel drive is good for extensive traveling 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 15-30 MPH road. 4WD was also useful on the Nicoya coast.(above based on 2001 roads)
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 requires a guaranty deposit from 750 USD 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. For car rentals check this site which has tons of references from real people with real names and emails and many have telephone numbers orbitcostarica.com. A reliable company is Dollar (www.dollarcr.com) with competitive rates, great cars and good service.
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 (US$29 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. Official taxis are red with a yellow triangle on the side. 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.
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.
Spanish is the main language in Costa Rica. All major newspapers and official business are conducted in Spanish. English is used widely in areas populated by international tourists, and information for tourists is often bilingual or exclusively in English. A number of businesses operated by European proprietors can accommodate guests in Spanish, English and their native languages.
Some Costa Rican expressions:
A prevalent version of slang in Costa Rica, and other regions of Latin America, is called "pachuco" or "pachuquismo," and is used by across social classes and understood as a "friendly" way of speaking.
The "tu" form is not commonly used in Costa Rica (or in Central America generally). Some people use the alternate informal "vos" but others consider it impolite and simply always use the "usted" form even with close friends. "Vosotros" is practically nonexistent.
Costa Rica is world famous for having an incredibly high level of biodiversity in it's 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 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. Your experience will be greatly enhanced by having on hand the book "Birds of Costa Rica" by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch published by Cornell University Press or An Illustrated Field Guide to Birds of Costa Rica, illustrated by Victor Esquivel Soto. You can find these books at certain bookstores in San José or before you come 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, sold at gift shops. 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 neotropical 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. The best option for bird watching is in the southern Costa Rica area.
Costa Rica has many surfing hotspots.
The Pacific coast, particularly in central Puntarenas and Guanacaste, has some of the best surfing in Central America. Tamarindo is a perfect beach to learn 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. Provones Beach has thick heavy waves. Consistently barrels and gets big- real big. Little known, but picturesque and untamed. Definitely not for the light hearted.
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).
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 beachtowns.
Costa Rica it is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world and has a famous history of being a destination for horseback riding. Monteverde is famous for horseback riding. Sabine's smiling horses run by Sabine who speaks English, French, Spanish and German and offers a variety of treks, 2 or 3 hour to day trips and specialty tours including a Full Moon Ride. Several multi-day treks are also on offer. This outfitter has been highly recommended by readers year after year by several guidebooks. Visit at http:www.horseback-riding-tour.com
The local currency is Colón(es) named after Columbus (Spanish: Colón). The rate of change is about 515 Colones for 1 US Dollar (April 2007). But note that the use of US Dollars is quite common, in fact, in the tourist setting, almost everything is priced in Dollars (but sometimes prices are cheaper in colones).
You can find ATMs in most places. They normally dispense US Dollars and Colones.
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!
You might get a discount (usually between 5% and 10%) when paying in cash.
Travelers checks are rarely used. When paying with Travelers checks, unless for hotel nights, change them first at a bank. Expect long delays with Travelers checks at the bank, lots of stamping, the higher up the official at the bank the more stamps they have. Dollars are easier.
In Golfito there is the "Deposito Comercial de Golfito", a duty free area where you can buy mostly electrical appliances, home furnishings, perfumes, cloths, etc at the best price. Guanacaste and the North West
Costa Rican cuisine can be described as simple but wholesome. The spiciness often associated with Latin America has typically originated in Mexico.
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 3.00 USD and includes a frosty cold cerveza.
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.
Be sure to stop off at a rest room along any of the roads: a casado and beer will cost ~$3.
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 mercado.
Also as per usual in Central America standard breakfast fare is a ham sandwich, so people adverse to eating pork might be advised to check out a grocery market for something else.
Vegetarians will find it surprisingly easy to eat well in Costa Rica.
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.
Refrescos are beverages made from fresh fruit (cas, guanabana, sandia/watermelon, mora/blackberry, fresa/strawberry, granadilla/passion fruit), sugar and either water or milk. All sodas (mom and pop diners) serve these. You can also easily buy the standard international soda pops. 'Fresca' and 'Canada Dry' are recommended.
The national drink is called guaro, which is made from fermented sugar cane. It is similar to vodka, and is usually drunk with water and lemon.
The most popular beers in the country are Pilsen and Imperial: all bars and restaurants serve both. Bavaria, "Bavaria Negra" (dark) and Rock Ice are more expensive and therefore less common. Heineken is locally made under license and is more expensive as well.
For large groups, you may want to check out renting a villa. Many owners and rental managers offer extraordinary villa rentals.
You can learn Spanish in Costa Rica. Reflecting the higher living standard, it's a little more expensive compared to other countries such as Guatemala but then again, the education level of your teachers will be much higher.
Some Spanish schools
Some hostels offer packages that include Spanish lessons and daily home-stays with the locals (in addition to your room and board).
After Colombia, the Spanish spoken by the Costa Ricans is one of the clearest in the region
Costa Rica is also a good place to become proficient in ocean sports like surfing and scuba diving. There are numerous surf shops and dive schools throughout the coastal areas.
The local newspaper, La Nacion, 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.
The print and online versions of the Tico Times, the Yahoo! group "Costa Rica Living" and the online newspaper AM Costa Rica are other great resources for people considering long term stays in Costa Rica. There's also a book called Living Abroad in Costa Rica by Erin Van Rheenan that would be very helpful.
There are also several opportunities to engage in volunteer work in Costa Rica. Volunteer projects range from turtle conservation, building houses, teaching English and community development work. Affordable organizations such as Travel to Teachand Volunteer Visions are able to arrange work for international volunteers in Costa Rica and other countries in the region.
There have been outbreaks of dengue fever throughout the country and an outbreak of malaria was reported in November 2006 from the province of Limon. 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 meds).
Travellers in Costa Rica should exercise caution. Robbery at knife point is not uncommon. Women should never travel alone, and neither should men for that matter. There is no army in this country and the police have been known to be corrupt.
Traffic in Costa Rica is dangerous, so be careful. Pedestrians in general do not have the right of way. Roads in rural areas may also tend to have many potholes. Driving at night is not recommended.
Like any other tourist destination, watch out for pickpockets. Purse snatchings, armed robberies and car-jackings have been on the rise lately. Stay alert and protect your valuables at all times, especially in the San Jose area. "Smash and grabs" of car windows are very common all over the country so do not leave valuables in your vehicle. Another common robbery scheme includes slashing your tires, then when you stop to fix the flat, one or two "friendly" people stop to help and instead grab what valuables they can. If you are motioned to pull over by anyone, do not do so until you are at a well-lit place.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and can be a destination for those looking for more than sun and surf on their vacation. Unfortunately, some of the sex tourists coming to Costa Rica sexually abuse children who are held hostage in the sex tourism industry. The majority of sex tourists in Costa Rica are from the United States, and 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 and Australia have similar laws. Arrests 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!!!!
-Travel with someone else when possible. A trusted friend is best, of course - not just someone you met last night at the hostel, but he or she will do in a pinch. (Trust your gut feeling with new friends – most are great, but some may be con artists!) Traveling with a friend makes the journey more entertaining and more fun... you can talk and share travel stories and each of you can take turns sleeping on long bus rides. Also, there is the fact that "two heads are better than one" and it's always good to be able to brainstorm if you aren't sure what the answer to your travel question or concern is.
-Make sure to wear a money belt with your passport, cash, credit/debit cards and ticket (bus or plane). Even if all my other belongings are stolen, you would still be able to get to your next destination. The waist belts are best; a neck pouch can be lifted while you are asleep. A thief would really have to disturb you and your personal space to get a waist belt.
-On any bus ride (1st, 2nd, 3rd class, whatever!) try to sit above the luggage compartment so that you can watch that your bag doesn't "walk away" when others get off the bus.
-Try not to fall asleep or take turns with a travel partner (when you are lucky enough to have one.)
-Make conversation with locals on the bus so that they can see that you are competent in Spanish and comfortable in the Spanish speaking environment. (You'll enjoy yourself plus this may make them want to make them feel friendly towards you and more willing to alert you if someone is snooping in your stuff. Or it might warn them that if they steal from you, you and and will talk to the bus driver and police and make a full report.) Even some Spanish is better than none – use what you have! It's great practice and the more you improve the safer you'll be!
-Don't bring anything that you are not willing to lose. Keep your day pack attached to you at all times when traveling – the straps get wrapped around your leg and the bag squeezed between your knees or feet. You don't want to lose your travel notes, camera, etc.
-Make use of hostel or hotel lock boxes if they are really secure – this is great when you want to swim or kick back and really not worry.
-Do have a few beers and enjoy yourself, but never drink so much that you won't be alert and aware of what's going on.
-On a long trip, it's advised that you make back-up CDs (or DVDs) of your digital photos and send a copy back home. In the event that you are robbed, you will thank yourself!!!
-When encountering a new currency, learn the exchange rate from a reliable source (online ahead of time or a local bank, preferably) and create a little cheat sheet converting it to US dollars or the other Central American currency you are comfortable with. Travel with small denominations of US dollars (crisp 1s, 5s, 10s) as back-up... usually you'll be able to use them if you run out of local currency.
-Go to a bank to change money when possible and practical. If you find yourself needing to use the services of a person who is a money changer (Sunday morning at the border, for instance) make sure to have your own calculator. Do not trust money changers and their doctored calculators, change the least amount of money possible and take a hard look at the bills – there's lots of false ones out there. Always insist that your change be in small bills – you'll lose more at one time if a large bill is false, plus large bills are hard to change (even the equivalent of $20 USD in Costa Rica or $5 USD in Nicaragua can be difficult in some small towns, believe it or not!)
-Traveling alone is fine and generally safe in Costa Rica, but carefully consider what kind of risks (if any) you are willing to take. Always hike with other people and try to explore a new city with other people. On solo forays, if you feel uncomfortable seek out a group of other people (both women and men). A well lighted place with people you can trust is always a plus... usually a busy restaurant or hostel is a great source of local info as well as a great place to relax and recharge.
Beaches, weather and wildlife
The coasts of Costa Rica are known for strong currents and rip-tides. There are no signs indicating an unsafe beach due to riptides, so take precaution and listen to the locals on where it is safe to swim. 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 heavy jacket.
Gay and lesbian
Gay Costa Rica: Costa Rica is widely known as the most tolerant of Latin American countries for Gay and Lesbian travelers but caution should still be exercised. More and more Costaricans are getting out of the closet. There is a thriving gay scene in San Jose with many gay and lesbian options for nightlife (La Avispa, Club Oh!, Bochinche among others). The Manuel Antonio and Quepos area is also a favorite spot with several gay hotels, a gay bar and a nude mostly gay beach, Playita.
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 three 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 but vary with distance. 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 with be short!) or the international calling cards available within Costa Rica (all from the government phone monopoly ICE) is the next best deal. Certainly better than credit card calls or using a US calling card generally.
Mobile phone service in Costa Rica is provided by Grupo I.C.E. using GSM technology at 1800 MHz. Roaming is possilbe with a GSM handset but can be expensive. 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. You should check with your provider beforehand. Prepaid Sim cards are not available in Costa Rica.
All reports indicate that most of the country has very good GSM coverage (including most of the capital), and that TDMA coverage is much better. Non-residents may rent cell phone service, and of course anyone an buy a cell phone, but you must be a documented resident of the country to own your own cell phone number, and even then you will only get one if there are numbers available. There usually are not. Prior to establishing residence a corporation can be formed and the corporation can recieve a number. The fee for esablishing a corporation should be no more than 300 dollars. Grupo ICE is a government-sanctioned monopoly, and they prefer not to overextend their resources.