Costa Rica’s national parks are its greatest glory. The Costa Rican authorities have set aside one-third of the country as protected areas, and dozens of private wilderness reserves have helped elevate Costa Rica to star status for eco tourism. The country has a stunning variety of landscapes, micro climates, and flora and fauna, and nature lovers will not be disappointed by the superb wildlife viewing. Visitors looking for an active holiday are spoiled, with options from whitewater rafting to surfing. In urban areas, the country’s Spanish heritage provides the main features of interest, although sites are relatively few.
Costa Rica, lying between Nicaragua and Panama, is a complete coast-to-coast segment of the Central American isthmus. Its width ranges from 119km to 282km (74 to 176 miles). A low thin line of hills that rises between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean in Nicaragua broadens as it enters northern Costa Rica, eventually forming the high, rugged, mountains of volcanic origin in the Pacific Northwest and the center of Costa Rica. The southern half of the country is dominated by mountains of tectonic origin; the highest peak is Chirripó Grande, which reaches 3,820m (12,530ft). More than half the population live on the Meseta Central, a plateau with an equitable climate. It is the setting for the country’s capital, San José. There are lowlands on both coastlines, mainly swampy on the Caribbean coast, with savannah and dry forest on the Pacific Northwest merging into mangrove and rainforest southward. Rivers cut through the mountains, flowing down to both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
The capital was founded in 1737 and is a pleasant mixture of traditional and modern Spanish architecture. Places of interest include the Teatro Nacional, the Legislative Assembly building, and the Parque Central, east of which is the Cathedral. The National Museum and the Museum of Gold are also worth a visit. There are numerous other parks in the city, including the Parque Nacional, the Parque Bolivar and the Parque Morazán.
San José is a good center for excursions into the beautiful Meseta Central region. The nearby town of Cartago was founded in 1563, but there are no old buildings as earthquakes destroyed the town in 1841 and 1910. However, some of the reconstruction was in thecolonial style. Excursions can be made from here to the crater of Irazú and to the beautiful valley of Orosi, with its colonial church.
There are numerous beaches, ports and towns worth visiting. The biggest is Puerto Limón; others include Guapiles, Tortuguero, Barra del Colorado, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. Pacific Coast Costa Rica’s principal Pacific port for freight is Puntarenas. The beaches around it are rather poor, although San Lucas Island, just off the port, has magnificent beaches. Another island worth a visit is Isla del Coco where a great hoard of treasure is supposed to have been buried by pirates. Puerto Caldera, a few miles south of Puntarenas, has recently become the country’s premier port of call for cruise liners. Quepos, Nicoya, Liberia and Samara are the region’s other major towns. There are beautiful beaches in the Guanacaste area, near Quepos in the Central Pacific and near Golfito in the South.
Well-kept and well-guarded national parks and nature reserves cover nearly 26 per cent of the country’s territory. Information and permits can be obtained from: Fundación de Parques Nacionales, 300 Metros Norte, 175 Metros Este, Iglesia Santa Teresita, San José (tel: 257 2239; fax: 222 4732; e-mail: email@example.com; website: www.fpncostarica.org). In addition to the following, Manuel Antonio National Park and the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge are worth a visit, and many of the tiny islands in the Gulf of Nicoya, near Puntarenas, are ‘biological protection areas’.
Braulio Carrillo National Park
Located in the central region of the country just 23km (14 miles) north of San José. It has five kinds of forest, some with characteristic rainforest vegetation. Orchids and ferns, jaguars, ocelots and the Baird tapir may be seen here. There are trails through the park and many lookouts.
Poás Volcano National Park
As the name suggests, this park contains the smoldering Poás Volcano. It contains the only dwarf cloudforest in Costa Rica. The crater of the volcano is 1.5km (1-mile) wide and contains a hot-water lake which changes color from turquoise to green to grey. Access is possible by road.
Tortuguero National Park
This park protects the Atlantic green turtle egg-laying grounds; it is in an area of great ecological diversity. Its network of canals and lagoons serves as waterways for transportation and exploration. There are camping facilities and lodges.
Santa Rosa National Park
The last large stand of tropical dry forest in Central America can be found here. There are 10 habitats including extensive savannahs and deciduous and non-deciduous forests. In addition to its abundant wildlife, recreational facilities are provided on some of the beaches.
Corcovado National Park
The virgin rainforest in this park contains many endangered species. It has the largest tree in Costa Rica, a ceibo which is 70m (230ft) high. Additionally there is Cano Island Biological Reserve, a bird sanctuary.
Cahuita National Park
This park protects the only coral reef on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastline. Its other attractions include howler and white-faced monkeys, raccoons and 500 species of fish.
Chirripó National Park
The centerpiece here is Costa Rica’s highest mountain. Most notably the park is home to the quetzal, said to be Latin America’s most beautiful bird.
Partly in order to continue to encourage ecotourism, the Costa Rican authorities have set aside a large proportion of the country (around 26 per cent of the total land area) as national parks and protected areas. There is good road access to most of these areas, and public transport is available. Nature trails and tracks are well developed. The country has a stunning variety of landscapes, micro-climates, flora and fauna, and nature lovers will not be disappointed. The highland area in the center consists of four mountain ranges. Some of the country’s great attractions are its eight active volcanoes. The sight of Arenal, in the Sierra Volcánica Guanacaste in the northwest, erupting at night is truly spectacular. In the foothills of Rincón de la Vieja, the mud pools bubble permanently. It is possible to bathe in the hot springs in this area. The central highlands are the most accessible for the visitor, and feature Poás, whose crater contains a boiling sulphurous lake, and Irazú, its desolate landscape resembling the surface of the moon. The country’s tallest peaks are in the non-volcanic Cordillera de Talamanca near Panama, and include the impressive Chirripó (12,533ft/3828m). The upper slopes of the mountains are often covered by cloudforest, characterized by the algae, mosses and lichens on the permanently wet surfaces. Numerous orchids and ferns grow here, but the forests’ most notable inhabitant is the Resplendent Quetzal (a bird). Lower down is the rainforest. Best visited in the company of an experienced guide (in part, because it is so easy to get lost), these forests are filled with elusive wildlife. Among the creatures they harbor are monkeys, armadillos, sloths, crocodiles, and birds such as toucans, parrots and macaws. Sea turtles can be observed in the Tortuguero region at certain times of the year. Depending on what the visitor wants to see, it is best to visit in the dry season (from December to April). For further
information, see the Climate section.
The most popular adventure sport is white-water rafting. Outfitters and guides can arrange trips. The Reventazón River (class III) is suitable for beginners, while more experienced rafters can tackle the Pacuare (class IV) and the Pascua (class V) rivers. The best times to go are from May to November. Lake Arenal was recently voted one of the world’s top windsurfing spots. Situated at 5580ft (1700m) above sea level, the lake offers its best windsurfing between April and December. Puerto Soley on the northern Pacific coast offers good ocean windsurfing. Kayaking and ocean kayaking are gaining in popularity. Surfing is possible at many beaches, being especially popular at Pavones on the Pacific coast and at Playa Naranjo in the northwest. This part of the country also offers excellent diving and snorkeling, with more than 20 local dive sites. Tuition and equipment hire are widely available. Cocos Island, praised by Jacques Cousteau, and Caño Island off the southwest coast, are also good diving areas.
The Pacific coast, from the Gulf of Papagayo to Golfito offers excellent sport fishing. Sailfish, marlin, tuna and wahoo are among the catches. The Tortuguero Canals and the area around Barra del Colorado offer good freshwater game fishing, while trout can be caught in the country’s mountain streams.
Mountain biking can be done on the trails in the forests and national parks. Hotels have equipment for hire and some specialist operators organize trips. Horseriding is also easily arranged. Because a different type of saddle and stirrups are used, even experienced riders may need to take some time to get used to their mounts. Beginners should arrange to have tuition beforehand, as working ranch horses are often used on rides. Canopy touring is becoming popular as well it entails being attached to a harness and ‘flying’ through the jungle canopy via a series of cables. Bungee jumping and ballooning are also available.
Language: Spanish is the official language, but English is widely spoken.
Currency: The Costa Rican Colón (CRC) is divided into 100 céntimos and is the official currency, although US Dollars are also widely accepted. US Dollars and
travelers cheques can be exchanged in banks and many hotels. Banks charge a service fee for cashing travelers cheques and currency other than US$ is difficult to exchange. Using black market exchange options is risky as they have been known to pass on counterfeit bills printed in Colombia. Banks close anywhere from
3pm to 6pm. Major credit cards are widely accepted, although American Express and Diners Club might be more limited. ATMs are available in major towns
throughout the country, but it is advisable to always have some local cash handy.
Time: Local time is GMT -6.
Electricity: Electrical current is 120 volts, 60Hz. Flat two-pin plugs and three-pin (two flat blades with round grounding pin) plugs are in use.
Communications: The international access code for Costa Rica is +506. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City codes are not required. Costa Rica has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America. The cheapest way to phone internationally is a direct call using a phone card. Mobile phone operators use GSM 1800 networks. Internet cafes are available in the main towns.
Duty Free: Travelers to Costa Rica over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 3 liters of alcohol; 500g of tobacco or 400 cigarettes or 50 cigars. Perfume for personal use is allowed provided it is a reasonable quantity.
Being tropical, there is little difference in temperature throughout the year, but there is a lot of rainfall, particularly from May to November. Temperatures along the coast are hotter, averaging 89°F (32°C), although they are tempered down by sea breezes.
The highland areas are warm during the day and can be quite cool at night. The green season May to November means lower
prices across the country with the exception of peak summer month of July.
All visitors must hold an onward or return ticket and sufficient funds. An exit visa must be obtained from the Immigration Department for all passengers staying in the country for longer than 30 days. Passports must be valid for at least 30 days after date of entry for visa exempt nationals and for six months for those requiring a visa. Admission to Costa Rica is refused to gypsies of any country and anyone with insufficient funds. Indecent clothing and long, unkempt beards and hair is prohibited. Americans: US nationals do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days. A passport valid for 30 days after the date of entry is required. An extension can be
organized on arrival.
UK nationals: UK nationals must have a passport that is valid at least 30 days after the date of entry. A visa is not required for a stay of up to 90 days provided the passport is endorsed with British Citizen, British National (Overseas) or British Overseas Territories Citizen. Extensions can be arranged on arrival. In all other cases, a passport must be valid beyond six months and a visa is required.
Canadians: Canadians must have a passport that is valid at least 30 days after date of entry. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days. Extensions can be organized on arrival.
Australians: Australians must have a passport that is valid at least 30 days after the date of entry. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days. An extension can be organized on arrival.
South Africans: South African nationals must have a passport that is valid at least 30 days after the date of entry. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days. An extension can be organized on arrival.
Irish nationals: Irish nationals must have a passport that is valid at least 30 days after date of entry. A visa is not required for a stay of
90 days. Extensions can be organized on arrival.
New Zealanders: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid at least 30 days after the date of entry. A visa is not required for a stay of 90 days. Extensions can be organized on arrival.
There are no vaccination requirements for Costa Rica. There is a risk of malaria in some areas all year round and advice should be taken on precautions. Water in cities is generally safe but it is advisable to buy bottled water, especially outside the main towns where there is a risk of contamination. Dengue fever is one of a number of diseases carried by insects that also occur in this region, especially during the rainy season; protection against insect bites is the best prevention. Medical services are reliable in cities and the standard of hygiene and treatment is very high.
There is no history of terrorism in Costa Rica, however there are incidents of violent crime, occasionally targeting tourists. There has been an increase in attacks on tourists leaving the airport in hired cars in San Jose. Belongings should be watched carefully at all times and in all places, particularly in bus stations and on public transport. Theft of, and from, cars is common. Do not be suspect to locals offering help to fix flat tires as they may have purposely flattened your tire and will have an accomplice rob your vehicle while getting assistance. This is a group theft scam. Do not wear jewelry or carry large amounts of cash and avoid street moneychangers. Strikes, protests and blockades have recently taken place without warning and further demonstrations could disrupt travel on main roads, particularly those connecting San Jose with the coast. Do not travel outside the airport after 10pm or to San Jose after this hour if possible as this is a time where bad situations may arise.
Getting Around By Air
SANSA (website: www.flysansa.com) operates services between San José and provincial towns and tourist resorts, including Tortuguero, Tamarindo, Quepos and Golfito. A bus is provided from the airline offices in San José to the airport. SANSA’s main rival is Nature Air (website: www.natureair.net), which is considered to have more reliable service and has identical routes. Both use a variety of aircraft carrying up to 35 passengers. A number of companies also provide internal charter flights using small planes.
Getting Around by Rail
There is a train that goes once daily from San José to Caldera, near Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast. Contact the national rail operators INCOFER (tel: 233 3300) for more information. The 4-hour journey is operated as a scenic ride. Local service (tel: 257 6161) connects San José to Pavas and San Pedro, in the western and eastern suburbs, respectively.
Getting Around by Road
Traffic drives on the right. The standard of the roads ranged from generally very good in the highlands to abysmal in many rural regions. Potholes are frequent, many roads remain unpaved, and during wet season landslides are common. There are 35,583km (22,110 miles) of all-weather highways including 663km (412 miles) of the Inter-American Highway and highways linking San José with the other principal towns.
There are regular and inexpensive services to most towns using modern air-conditioned, but buses are often crowded so pre-booking is advisable. Numerous bus companies compete. Interbus (tel: 283 5573; website: www.interbusonline.com) and Grayline Fantasy Bus (tel: 220 1226; website: www.graylinecostarica.com) operate scheduled services connecting key tourist destinations with each other and with San José.
Numerous and inexpensive in San José. The taxis are colored red (except those serving the Juan Santamaría International Airport, which are orange). Taxis are usually metered, but few drivers use the meters as they figure they can extract more money from tourists by not doing so. Ask your hotel concierge how much a fare should be, and negotiate with the driver to an agreed amount before setting off.
Major international car hire companies as well as local firms have offices in San José.
A speed limit of 88kph (55mph) is enforced on most highways. However, Costa Ricans are notoriously dangerous drivers who pay little heed to speed limits and traffic regulations. Use of seat belts is mandatory.
Drivers must have a national license or International Driving Permit. You must be 25 years of age to rent from most car rental agencies. Most agencies require a $1000.00 to $1500.00 collision damage deposit and if using a debit card will block your account. Check the damage deposit regulations for renting the vehicle.