Situated in the very heart of Central America, Costa Rica lies between two idyllic coastlines - one lapped by the Caribbean Sea and the other exposed to the legendary waves of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a destination where biodiversity is king, with a firmly-rooted sustainable tourism industry that’s supported by the country’s progressive green energy initiatives.
When you travel to Costa Rica, you’re opening the doors to an abundance of wild experiences, from bathing in hot springs at the base of volcanoes to hiking through untouched forests inhabited by monkeys and sloths. Blissful beaches await around every corner while meandering waterways invite you to kayak alongside caimans and manatees.
Our adventure-filled tours to Costa Rica will see you immersed in breathtakingly beautiful cloud forests and wildlife-rich wetlands while drinking some of the best coffee the world has to offer.
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History of Costa Rica
Costa Rica's indigenous population reaches back between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. Small groups of hunter-gatherers eventually set up main tribes that controlled the area prior European influence arriving in the 16th century. Columbus, famed for "discovering" the New World was also responsible for "discovering" Costa Rica.
Spanish influence directed much of happened between the years 1500 and 1800. Disease and conflicts with the indigenous tribes nearly wiped them out completely. Cultural forms of view shifted to a more European way of life. Compared to the surrounding countries, relatively few sought after Costa Rica's resources, sparing its people and land from total devastation.
Circumstances in Costa Rica have changed drastically over the last half-century. Colonization, slavery, civil war, and the eventual achievement of democratic peace have Costa Rica primed as a global model for ways to forward without much tension. Technology has increasingly made its way in Costa Rica's mountainous region, alongside the continued propagation of important natural resources, coffee and bananas, that are shared to the world!
Costa Rica's Indigenous Peoples
Between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago, small groups of nomadic individuals traveling through Central America decided to break off and make a go of living permanently in what would become modern-day Costa Rica. Several named factions, each ruled by a "king," or cacique, found stability here. After colonization in the 1500s, a majority of the indigenous peoples lost their lives, nearly having their entire cultures wiped away.
The Guaymies wore a traditional garb of colorful and handcrafted fashion. They used coloring from natural fibers found in Costa Rican plants and tree bark. Huetares, Borucas, and the Bribri tribes were also very interested in their color schemes and dye patterns. Individuals in the Borucas tribe have also been able to trace back to their intricate painting of wooden masks for the three-day "Fiesta de los Diablitos" every new year.
Other distinct tribes are the Cabecares, Terrabas, Malekus, and Chorotagas. Each of them were nearly destroyed completely through the history of Spanish colonization of Costa Rica, but each of their cultures has summarily affected the continued way of life in the region. Malekus and Cabecares still have surviving languages that are spoken among the small populations of tribal members, and have even been taught to nontribal members.
The Perpetuation of Indigenous Culture
Agricultural subsistence was the mainstay of each tribe during their heydays. Unique pottery and storage of bees, beans, coffee, pigs, and other fruit and vegetable gardening among the different landscapes from sea to mountainside were refined over the centuries before Spanish arrival. There are still areas in Costa Rica that the traditional ways of life are being pursued without much influence from today's society. Some tourists even make special arrangements to view these areas.
Another very unique addition to the local tribes from the past left behind are the stone spheres discovered in the south of the country in the 1930s. "The Balls," as they are locally referred to, have had a number of theories cast in their direction, but no certain history as to their former use has been passed down. Aliens, astronomy, and social order three of the most prevalent considerations. One thing is known, these great rocks are almost perfectly round and they make for a wonderful destination.
Roughly 1% of the population in Costa Rica today is of indigenous background. The ways of life experienced by those who came before the Spanish are still prevalent in the culture today, however. Reliance on natural resources in this wild country will always be high, so it is refreshing to know that the ways of the past will never completely fade away.
Columbus and Colonization
The Spanish and "The Rich Coast"
Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World for the fourth and final time of his service in September 1502. His ships got caught in a storm, ending up with him "discovering" a land eventually named Costa Rica, meaning The Rich Coast, based on his descriptions of the adornments worn by indigenous people he encountered. His reports of estimated value proved as nothing but a disappointing flame to the moth-like explorers who set out to chase them down.
The domination of Central America by Spanish forces worked south from Mexico and North from Panama throughout the 16th-century. Both Pacific and Caribbean coast lines proved more difficult than the central valley. Tropical disease and unforgiving land features only allowed overtaking forces to move slowly. Unfortunately, communicable viruses not native to Costa Rica were spread by the troops to the indigenous people, causing even worse decimation of life. Just over 100,000 natives remained in the central valley by the time it was fully occupied by the Spanish. That number would drop as low as 7,000 before populations stabilized.
Conversion and Cultural Occupation
Religious conversion was a main cause of Spanish rule. Indigenous folks were inundated with the requirement to accept Catholicism or die. It was a cultural overthrow as much as a workforce situation.
Subsistence farming and slavery on plantation style farms was the status quo in Costa Rica in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since there was a dearth of wealth produced in the area, slaves carried a higher value per individual, and human life was deemed more important because the natural resources were not bringing in money. Very little outside trade continued. Costa Rica was able to create a unique society since there was very little outside pressure during this timeframe. Cacao beans were even used for trading purposes as currency.
The only part of Costa Rica that was much different during the colonization period was the Guanacaste. Relatively little rain falls in this region, allowing for a better ranching climate. Differences in cultural climate persist today because of the more definitive class structures that were put in place centuries ago.
Independence and Identity
An Independent Political State
Costa Rica avoided most of the bloodshed involved with becoming its own political state. The majority of the war for independence took place north of them, in Mexico, and it actually took two months after the Central American victory for new to reach San Juan. Small civil wars between the aristocratic and liberal populations of the main towns in the central valley were repeatedly won by progressives favoring independence over joining Mexico. Juan Mora Fernandez was chosen as Costa Rica's first Chief of State in 1824.
Improvements to the nation's infrastructure, and a growing coffee business, were not enough to keep everyone happy. Skirmishes continued to erupt over time and across Costa Rica. These developed into a full-blown "War of the Leagues" in 1835. Conservatives were yet again shut down and a benevolent dictator, Braulio Carrillo, took the political reins. His actions help to unify the country, and with the failure of the Central American enterprise, Costa Rica became solidified as an independent republic in 1848.
Rise of the Coffee-Presidents
A new trade agreement with England made coffee into the staple of Costa Rica's economy. New cities grew with the number of plantations and farms coming together to use the limited space available for growing the beans. Landowners grew in power while laypeople and indigenous tribes were less fortunate. To avoid a major breakdown in the system, farmworkers were set up with what amounts to being shareholders in the crops they were helping produce. This helped create a smooth transition into the politically advanced world of democracy.
Several "coffee-presidents" were given the lead in the Costa Rican government. Landowners and businessmen knew the importance of having the right person at the top, so these appointments were not always selected justly. Costa Rica is lucky, though, and has had each of their top figures do good things. The first of these presidents, Juan Rafael Mora, helped to bring about the end of a major Central American historical conflict with the US: the William Walker incident. Juan Rafael Mora's army swiftly exiled the crazy American from their borders, but brought back a cholera plague that killed as many as 10% of Costa Rica's population. Mora was stripped of his title and sentenced to death by firing squad after trying to overthrow a subsequent president.
Real change began in 1870, when Tomas Guardia Gutierrez ran a successful coup against elected president Ramirez. Liberal agendas on education, public health, transportation infrastructure and economic advancement for all were promoted by Gutierrez and his subsequent leaders. Free market economy, driven in a capitalistic manner, was promoted as the path to being a successful country. It was an elaborate trick to keep the elite in power while keeping the poor happy. It seemed to work until after the turn-of-the-century brought major political unrest.
The beginning of the 20th century in Costa Rica unveiled more civil unrest than was customarily apparent. The coffee elite had been running a system for 50 years that the public was starting to see through. Other exports began spreading the wealth through the landowners, primarily bananas, and labor disputes occurred. Sociological ideals that included an educated populace were backfiring on those in charge.
Political expansion actually led to the formation of a Communist and Reformist Party. These parties garnered enough interest to the public to actually compete in elections and gain some footholds in the government during the depressive years of the 1930s and 40s. This was not a power-hungry dictatorship, however, as the rulers took charge fought for social reform and furthered equality. Based on the leader of the Communist Party in Costa Rica, the brand of communism is referred to as Tico-Comunismo.
The Great Banana Strike of 1934, a month-long event where 10,000 workers demanded better living and working conditions, ultimately had to be resolved with military force. One of the organizers was aligned with the Communist Party, and the inclusion of the event led to eventual banishment of communism in Costa Rica. The seeds of unrest had been planted, though, and conflict was on the horizon.
Rafael Angel Calderon became president of Costa Rica in 1940. The people of the working class loved him. A social agenda of education, including the formation of Costa Rica's first university, and healthcare for all, really burgeoning for the commoner, solidified his popularity. The rich and elite members of the coffee industry in Costa Rica were put off. War maneuverings during WWII, including the internment of members of the coffee trade thought to be aligned with the German cause, led to a major split from the conservative crowd.
Civil War and the Trade of Tourism
Civil war hit Costa Rica in 1948. The country of roughly 150,000 ended up losing 2,000 individuals to the fighting. Most of the fighting occurred in San Isidro. It was spurred on by formerly exiled José Figueres Ferrer. His army took advantage of the contested election that year between Calderon and Ulate helped him take a contingent hold on the presidential seat. His strong arm tactics actually helped transition laws that are still in place today, including the abolishment of a national army, and eventually gave leadership to the winner of that year's election: Ulate. These three men would shift presidential command, through elective choice of the people, through 1970.
Trade problems and land hoarding by the wealthy eventually led to Costa Rica's bankruptcy in 1989. Import needs for a better infrastructure and the Nicaraguan civil war put too much pressure on the country with not enough resources to keep everybody working. Officially, Costa Rica is a neutral republic. While there has not been further violence, especially as compared to other Central American countries, Costa Rica has been in a declining economy for some time now.
Tourism and technology hold the keys for a better future in Costa Rica. Manufacturing and information services for computer companies, especially if free-trade agreements are ratified, can bring new money into the country, allowing for export to be less about what the land can provide and more about how the people can help each other. This frees the land resources and natural beauty of Costa Rica to be more available to tourists and vacationers from around the world!
Animals of Costa Rica
With a biodiversity greater than most countries in the world, Costa Rica hosts a plethora of animals. From invertebrate to mammal, birds to reptiles, amphibians to fish, there are representatives from nearly 5% of the species that live on planet Earth found in Costa Rica's border. And those animals that swim through the marine borders are not to be forgotten either.
The food chain shows itself off in grand array here. Hundreds of thousands of different insects provide a base for those higher up, and those higher up help to support some of the greatest carnivores in the Western Hemisphere. Of course, humans can really mess up the chain, so it is very important for continuing conservation efforts. There are several endangered species in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica boasts 10% of the world's species of bird! 630 resident and 220 migratory variety have been viewed inside its borders. Specific companies have been set up to guide visitors who happen to be bird enthusiasts on tours.
There are four zones of bird habitat within Costa Rica: the northern Pacific lowlands, the southern Pacific lowlands, the Caribbean lowlands, and the Central highlands.
Food preferences for different species range from fruits and nuts to insects to small reptiles, mammals, and fish. Some of the birds in Costa Rica even eat other birds!
Toucans and Aracaris
Some of the more recognizable birds in Costa Rica sport a large bill and have been popularized into a character named Sam in the United States: toucans. 6 individual species of this banana shaped and brightly billed bird type can be found across the country. The largest of them grows to nearly 2 feet in length, and the distinctive aracaris, a member of the toucan family, are known for their bright plumage yet less dramatic features.
Parrots and Macaws
Parrots are another brightly colored and recognizable family of bird in Costa Rica. The largest of them, sometimes called the King of the species, is the macaw. 16 total macaw species can be found year-round. The Buffon's Macaw remains one of the rarest birds in the world, with an estimated 50 breeding pairs or fewer remaining in the wild. Costa Rica's impressive wilderness protection laws, with 27% protect, is imperative to the survival of species such as this.
50 different birds of prey, or raptors, can be found in Costa Rica. In fact, the largest species of eagle is among them: the Harpy Eagle. It is critically endangered, but any surviving individuals might be seen tracking down prey of monkeys and sloths. Osprey, falcons, and hawks are other types of predator birds that may be encountered.
Arguably the most unique species in Costa Rica is the quetzal. One of the reasons the quetzal is so prevalent in Costa Rica is the fact that its habitat consists primarily of cloudforests. Historically, European travelers were wowed by its plumage and its feathers became a prized possession. In fact, traveling back through native Costa Rican history, the serpentine God with quetzal feathers called Quetzalcoatl was believed to have blessed tribes and their crops.
Mammals, reptiles, fish, insects, and birds are all just as home off the beach in Costa Rica as they are within the country's borders. Warm Pacific and Caribbean currents mean that the amount of life encountered in the saltwater around the country is as diverse and in as great a number as on land. Scuba divers, fishermen, and anyone who happens to go out for a pleasure cruise will be able to attest to this truth.
Marine Life Conservation
Endangered wildlife in the ocean have also been granted areas of refuge where the government holds sway over territorial waters. This is especially important off of Cocos Island, where large schools of hammerhead and more solitary whale sharks are at risk.
Tortuguero was named for its sea turtle population. Several species of the marine going variety will lay their eggs here and call the waters just offshore home.
Sea Turtles share these waters with saltwater crocodiles. Another reptile worthy of the sea are the ocean living venomous serpents that can be found in the area.
Whales and Dolphins
Manatee, whales of varying species, and a multitude of dolphin/porpoise, are native to Costa Rica. Especially off the Nicoya Peninsula, you can see humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, and common dolphins.
Oceanic bugs are any sort of unique arthropod that defy other classification. Crustaceans, especially, fit this bill. And oh the birds that devour them. Choppy seas must be created over the flap, flap, flap of the flocks of ravenous seabirds in the area.
Costa Rica's mammalian population is outstandingly diverse! There are flyers, crawlers, creepers, loungers, predators, and prey. A total of 212 species, also varying in degree of status between secure and threatened, share the ground, trees, mountainsides, skies, and seas.
Monkeys are another frequently encountered mammal in Costa Rica. The four species that live here are the squirrel, howler, capuchin, and spider monkeys. These are generally social animals among their own groups, except for the spider monkeys, and some sometimes be seen in numbers of up to 40 at a time. Howler monkeys can be heard up to a mile away and weigh up to 12 pounds. Capuchin monkeys are generally the ones most encountered and are winning the competition with squirrel monkeys over habitat.
The pair of sloth species present in Costa Rica, two fingered and three fingered, both prefer to stay high in the trees. This is where their food is found, and commonly they only come down to defecate.
Tapirs are an endangered species that look like a mix between an elephant and an anteater. They only reside in protected areas, and have learned to fear man, remaining secluded deep within the forests.
There are six species of cat living wild in Costa Rica, with the jaguar being the most famous. Powerful enough to take down a cow, the jaguar is an endangered species that is being helped back to a stable population through the assistance of preservation land. They are generally yellow with identifying black marks across the body. The other large cat that can be found in Costa Rica is the puma, or mountain lion. Ocelots, margay, oncilla, and jaguarundi round out the full list of cats here, all of which are endangered.
Peccaries, anteaters, deer, rodents, foxes, and weasels are among the other mammals in Costa Rica. They all serve their purpose well in the food chain and are generally leery of humans. All have been hunted for their meat, but none of these are considered endangered.
Unlike the endangered cats, bats represent half of the mammal species in Costa Rica! There are several varieties of fruit bat, the very specific and ridiculously feared vampire bat, and even a species of bat that catches fish for food. The only direct threat that these animals caused to humans are sickness oriented. They can be cool to watch and do wonders on helping to control the massive insect population, but are best left alone.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Teeth are well represented among the 200 reptiles of Costa Rica. More than half of these species, 138 to be exact, are snakes. Costa Rica is also home to iguanas, lizards, turtles, caiman, and crocodiles. The richness of food sources available allows all of these species a plethora to feast upon.
Tourists to the lowlands frequently see crocodiles and caiman in the lagoons and lazy rivers. Fish populations are held in check naturally by these predators, and it is with caution that people take to the waters. Bites are not common, but can be devastating. The Tarcoles River has a high density population of American Crocodiles, up to 240 per mile. Conservation efforts are paying off.
Snakes are one of the most common phobias of humans in the world, and those humans probably should not visit Costa Rica. They are not commonly seen, but even the majority of them that are not venomous can be more than just interesting to look at. Boa constrictors growing past 10 feet in length are aggressive to bite and can cause significant harm to anyone who may be struck at. 18 venomous species live in Costa Rica, including the hognosed pit viper, and plenty of them are capable of delivering fatal bites. These bites can be delivered from the highly aggressive fer de lance, which grows to nearly 10 feet, or the brightly colorful and significantly smaller coral snake. Take caution to watch for snakes on the ground or in the trees, and certainly give them space if you do see one.
All of the turtles, iguanas, and lizards in Costa Rica have close relationships with the water. Lowlands offer the best places to find any of them, and it should be noted that they deserve their space. To get away from anything of it as a predator, all of these will move toward water… Most of them to swim away, but the Jesus Christ lizard will simply sprint across its surface.
No such thing as a quiet evening in Costa Rica, where the roughly 160 species of amphibians, dominated by frogs and toads, are all calling to each other under the cover of darkness. Noises ranging from meows to outright whoops can be traced back to all sorts of hopping along creatures. And not all of these frogs and toads can safely be dealt with if they are found.
20 of the species of amphibians are actually toxic to people. These species are referred to as the poison dart frogs. Native tribes would run the tips of their arrows across the frogs before shooting their prey, causing instant paralysis if the animal was not killed by the shot. Do not touch these brightly colored beauties.
Tadpoles are frequently found in collected water high in the trees, or in the streams above roughly 4500 feet elevation. Fish predation is high, and these precautions help to avoid an early end to life before it begins. And what a shame it would be to lose any of these varied lives!
Freshwater game fishing is an underutilized resource by tourists in Costa Rica.
Rainbow Bass, Gaspar, Mountain Mullet, and Atlantic Tarpon can all be caught without getting salty. These fish are all native to the area, while a couple of invasive species are also available: tilapia and rainbow trout. Piranha have been caught as well. All of these invasive species threaten not only the native fish, but other wildlife as well.
Skilled captains of saltwater fishing expeditions keep an eye on the birds to find out where to point their hulls. Big game fishing is always best where there is plenty of activity on the water, as that is indicative of a feeding frenzy. Marlin, Sailfish, Tarpon, and other sought after denizens of the dinner table can be dragged out of Costa Rican waters.
Nobody really knows how many different species of insect there are in Costa Rica. The popular number to describe the diversity sits at 4000, but that seems extremely low according to several scientific claims. Another number that has been published is 300,000 different species, and while that seems ridiculous in comparison, it may be closer to the truth. Different species are being discovered every day, and the number of migrations going on at such a small level, in size relation to humans, are almost impossible to track.
Ants are the most predominant species of insect in Costa Rica. More species litter the ground than any other six legged creature, and they can be found across all regions of the country. 100 square acres of rain forest, a hectare, contains an average of 9 million ants. Army ants are the most voracious single species, partly proven by the fact indigenous peoples would use their bite to help suture wounds, discarding with the body of the ant once the pincers had clamped on.
Butterflies are a more lovely style of insect to discuss. Nearly 1000 species of these can be found in Costa Rica. Their brightly colored stylings are used as sexual attractants as well as to keep predators at bay. One thing is for sure, the number of butterflies in Costa Rica certainly draw in large numbers of enthusiastic tourists to seek them out. The scarabs, beetles, bees, stick bugs, and other crawlies just happen to be there as well.
Spiders are another major player in Costa Rica. These arachnids are as varied and intense as any other creature around. Several species are harmful to people, whether that means leaving them in severe pain or possibly killing them is another part of the question. Brazilian Wandering Spiders, alongside species related to Black Widows, have lethal reputations. Mostly, though, if you see something with eight legs, it is probably not harmful to anything but your ego if you happen to scream when you see it.
Flora of Costa Rica
Costa Rica has more plant varieties than can ever be described. There are over 9000 identified species, including over 800 more ferns than North America and Mexico combined. Some stands of trees have been recorded as having over 90 separate types growing within them. That is saying anything about the number or variety of flowers that are present. Tropical rainforests, lowlands, cloudforests, and even high elevation spaces offer a unique array of life to take root.
High canopy forests don't allow much light in, so the under brush is frequently not as thick as depicted in popular culture. These canopies, however, can be gardens of the most splendid variety. Seeds will end up 200 feet in the air from birds or other animal deposits and the diversity of life elevation can be greater than on the ground level.
Mosses, lichen, and fungus are three of the most common growers beneath the canopy. These help to break down any organic material that stays stagnant on the ground too long. Decomposition is an active process in tropical rainforests. Shallow root systems are quick to pull the newly digested molecules back into the system.
Air breathing, light needing plants are referred to as epiphytes. Vines, ferns, and flowers are other epiphytes in the Costa Rican tropical rainforest. Orchids are one of the most common, and frequently the most beautiful of these. They come in many sizes, colors, and smells. Some orchids grow to 25 feet long!
Strangler figs can be a menace to other forest trees. They are planted in the canopy through the coming and going of animals, and grow downward until their branches grow into the soil. Nutrients are then stolen from the host tree from the top and bottom, eventually killing the tree that will then decompose and leave a hollow shell of the strangler fig standing in its place. Even the plant fights for survival in a tropical rainforest.
Mangrove forests line coastal reaches of Costa Rica. These are wildly important habitat for all sorts of wildlife from land-based cats to marine fishes. The estuaries are overrun by tangled root systems that are frequently covered with herbaceous growth. Plants on plants is the theme of Costa Rican floral activity. Wherever there is enough space for one thing to grow, nine things will attempt to grow there. Thankfully, most of the remaining mangrove forests are protected by law from being torn out so the land can be developed.
These represent the wettest of wet zones. Moisture moves up from the lowlands to collect in dense clouds that hover against the hillsides. These constantly precipitated reaches are under direct threat from global warming as the difference in one or two degrees is all it takes for evaporation to begin. The elevation of cloudforests today, and their unique floral arrangements of mosses, ferns, and trees, has risen from the recent past, and is quickly running out of real estate to advance higher. There is less diversity here, but there is also more at stake for being lost full-time.
The northwestern stretch of Costa Rica receives significantly less rain than the rest of the country, and the floral climate is recognizably different. Typical stretches of dense forests, of the highest diversity in the country, have been knocked down for "progress." Only 2% of these forests remain, and thankfully they are protected. Since there is not as much rain here, grasses and other plant life that requires deeper root systems have a chance to survive. The trees are smaller, but the openings they provide for light reaching the forest floor are bigger. Scarily, when a fire hits these regions, it is not forest that grows back, but savanna style grasses and shrubs. Certainly there is a lot at stake in Costa Rica's temperate zone!
Conservation in Costa Rica
Costa Rica plays host to 5% of the worlds biodiversity. It is only .03% of the Earth's land space, but upwards of 27% of that land is protected by law.
By the early 19th century, Costa Rica recognized that steps would have to be taken to protect nature as settlements began to grow, and in 1828 the government was charged with the need to govern reforestation. Over 100 years later, in 1949, 11 distinct areas of conservation were set up across the country.
Today there are nearly 20 groups, both national and international, that are working to keep Costa Rica wild. Ecotourism is a booming industry founded on teaching people about the land they are visiting, and encouraging them to help make it better so future generations will also be able to enjoy it.
Global warming is a battle that is being caught on a larger scale that directly affects Costa Rica. Higher temperatures increase evaporation, threatening the cloudforests of Costa Rica. These diverse landscapes deserve to exist beyond the next decade or two, so work is underway now to protect them.
Geology of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a naturally formed volcanic land bridge between North and South America. Part of the Ring of Fire, there are several active volcanoes within the country's borders. It is truly a geologist's dreamland, as many of these volcanoes have roads that take tourists right to their rims.
It is believed that Costa Rica was formed quickly, taking only 50 million years to appear, and appearing a mere 3 million years ago. Two of Earth's major plates, the Cocos and the Caribbean, are responsible for the movement that created this land. Continuing movements in the plates over the years is visible in the distance between the mainland and islands that are now far out to sea.
Volcanoes do a great job of creating rich soil, and that has led to an incredible biodiversity. There are 6 classified active volcanoes and 60 classified dormant in the country. Costa Rica hosts as much as 10% of Earth's biodiversity! It must be true that greatness is born from the furnaces!
The northwest coast of Costa Rica is situated directly above the subduction zone. Cocos plate is being overtaken by the Caribbean plate, and active times are close at hand. Earthquakes are the primary concern for this region. In 1950 there was a 7.7 and in 2012 there was a 7.6 with an epicenter only 12 km offshore. Public outreach and education regarding the possibility of these quakes saved innumerable lives, and only two people died in the 2012 event.
The end of the Middle America Trench is situated just off the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. It goes to depths of over 21,000 feet and is seen as a rapid point of subduction in plate tectonic terminology. With a blazing fast average movement of 9 cm per year, it is no wonder the triggered earthquakes are referred to as megathrust.
Volcanoes: Active and Extinct
The last major volcanic eruption in Costa Rica took place in 1910. Poas Volcano is anything but dormant, though, as visitors frequently report seeing geysers explode out of the craters. The highest measured in the last 100 years has been over 800 feet. These are not lava eruptions, but acidic lakes of captured rainwater venting sulfuric gases. Evacuations have been mandatory because of the severity of some of these occasions. It is 8885 feet high. Irazu Volcano is Costa Rica's highest, at 11,260 feet. Both of these are located in the Central Highlands.
Guanacaste, the northwestern region in Costa Rica, is home to some of the most recent volcanic activity in the country. Rincon de la Vieja National Park holds nine craters, including the Santa Maria Volcano. A hike up this difficult peak rewards achievers with stunning vistas of the surrounding terrain. Tenorino Volcano offers another unique hiking experience in this region. Each of these mountains is less than 6300 feet in altitude, but difficult to champion.
Costa Rica's most famous volcano, Arenal, is located in the north central region of Alajuela. It erupted back to life in 1968, killing 87 people and caused major disruption to towns of Pueblo Nuevo and Tabacon. Consistent lava flows called innumerable tourists to the area until 2010 when a significant decline in activity occurred. The mountain is still classified as active, some placing it in the top 10 most active in the world.
Tropical Forest Soil
Costa Rica is a relatively young landmass. It has only been fully formed, according to volcanic dating, for roughly 3 million years. Over that timeframe, several eruptions per century have continued to add to the topsoil and terrain. According to the pH balances, it is no wonder the biodiversity here is so great as compared to other tropical climates. Higher acidity in older soil keeps growing options more limited, but soils in Costa Rica are closer to neutral, comprised of inceptisols and entisols. These are of a much richer organic quality, carrying more minerals near the surface than ultisols. These rich soils are also found higher in elevation than in other tropical locations, creating "cloudforests." Richly diverse flora and fauna covered lands are rarely found so high up mountains as in Costa Rica.
Culture in Costa Rica
Costa Rica's cultural divides exist mostly across geographic regions of existence.
Central valley residents maintain a much more urban lifestyle of Spanish influence than the mountainside communities, which are generally more indigenous and reliant on natural resources, or the beach communities on the Pacific or Caribbean coasts, which carry somewhat of an Islander vibe. There is also quite the lifestyle division between social classes based on income. Tourists and full-time residents also have different experiences of being in Costa Rica, which is important to note in a country so reliant on tourism for economic purposes.
Central Valley Life
Nearly 3.5 million of Costa Rica's almost 5 million people live in a region called the central valley. As there are no street names in Costa Rica, that is a lot of folks moving around spaces that are defined only by verbal direction based on landmark. One of the ways that people are still able to navigate without getting lost is by the fact that every church faces west, all the towns have a soccer field and small store, and subdivisions are all named based on different developments in their heritage.
Catholicism is the religion of choice, as claimed by 76% of current Costa Rican residents. This came mostly from the Spanish settlers who took over in the 1500s, primarily landing in the central valley because of the available land for natural resources. Today there are community squares, celebrations and holidays, all marked by pura vida.
Like "aloha" in Hawaii, there is a common greeting, goodbye, and general colloquialism shared among individuals here: pura vida, which translates into "pure life." It is an absolute wonderful feeling to share with neighbors and friends, frequently adding comfort to interpersonal encounters. This flair of speech has been around since the middle of the 20th century.
City life is modern, with dining and shopping and hustle and bustle, especially considering 1.5 million people live in the San Jose metropolitan area. Here is where 4 of Costa Rica's 7 "states" come together as cities that bear the names of the larger areas bordered together. They are San Jose, Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela. Though separated by lines on a map, these places truly create one single urban hotspot.
Tourists are recommended to have a reservation in advance, especially during the months of December and May. Central valley visits offer easy drives to other locations around Costa Rica, but also have a plethora of options cities and nearby suburbs. Whether it is the hustle and bustle, or the local plantation coffee growers, there is plenty of Costa Rican life to experience here!
This is Costa Rica's active country! Towns may be separated by miles of unforgiving terrain and dirt roads but they carry a full ration of amenities once there. With plenty of opportunities to explore running rivers, zip line through the rain forests, or simply take in the volcanic vistas offered by rim route roads, tourists can really make an adventure out of getting away from the central valley or beach areas.
While only 1% of Costa Rica's population is of indigenous descent, there are some pockets in the hills where life has seemingly gone unchanged over the past several hundred years. The most accessible are the Boruca. Some items in the village are for sale at small stores, a museum, and straight from the artists in the village. Most prized are their intricately created and painted masks. One of the most popular times to visit the Boruca is during the new year celebration festival, Baile de los Diablitos: a three-day retelling of the war between indigenous Costa Ricans and the Spanish.
Monteverde, Buenos Aires, and San Ramon are three major cities that can be found in this higher elevation region. All of them offer shopping, dining, and lodging, as well as tours into the surrounding wilderness.
The Irazu Volcano National Park really ought not to be missed. It is classified as an active volcano, but the last activity it showed was in 1996. Another active volcano worth visiting is Poas. The massive crater with sulfur pool visible at the bottom draws thousands of visitors every year. Its last major eruption was in 1910. Don’t forget, Costa Rica is part of the Ring of Fire!
Pacific Coast Ways
Running along Costa Rica about 500 miles north to south lies the varied terrain of semiarid beaches, tropical cliffs and wild islands. There is no denying that where the sun sets is a wonderful place to be in Costa Rica. Saltwater invites residents to depend on its rich habitat for food as well as tourist opportunities. The burgeoning resort industry is starting in the north, while further south along this coastline remains removed from passing time.
The uppermost section of Pacific Coast in Costa Rica is the Nicoya Peninsula. So much construction has gone into this area that there are towns where almost no native Costa Ricans live. The culture is literally being defined by new waves of people who want to live here!
Mountainous terrain between each town keeps isolated villages from expanding and gives each of them a unique ambience. Some of the constants between all of them are outstanding sightseeing and the possibility of being involved with nature. Scuba diving, boat tours, hiking the jagged coast, and feeling transported from the rest of the world are some of the major reasons to visit this region.
Being pampered in the northern section of Pacific coastline gives way to feeling freed from modern society near the south end. Well-maintained roads are washed out along the southern cliffs and eventually turn to dirt only. The south embodies a much more "back to the land" vibe, and there is even an indigenous village way down near the Panama border. This area truly carries a sweetness about it that must come from the translation of the name “Sweet Gulf."
Caribbean Coast Confusion
The Caribbean coast and its province of Limon is the most diverse region of Costa Rica. Roughly 1/3 of the population is of Jamaican slave heritage. There are also larger populations of the indigenous Bribri tribe here than across the rest of the country. Rounding out the diversity is a huge "Tico" influence. Costa Ricans refer to themselves as being Tico because of their highly mixed genetics over the past 500 years. It means, "a little bit." This region more than a little bit happening!
Limon is only 125 miles long, compared to the 500 mile stretch of Pacific coastline, but it contains a similar relaxing ambience. The northern Caribbean coast, near Tortuguero, is a swampy, forested, nature lover's dream. No roads can make it back in there, so a small plane or boat ride is necessary. This is where rain becomes part of the main culture, as it is the wettest spot due to precipitation in Costa Rica. Well over 200 inches per year falls here.
Banana plantation culture dominated the upper middle section of Caribbean coastline for years. There is history to be found here, as well as the surviving farms that are still working. Guapiles is the city most utilized for accessing this stretch of the region.
The port of Limon provides a near midpoint on the stretch of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. This is not a typical tourist town, but with 85,000 people of mostly Afro-Caribbean descent, museums, and a vibrant, active atmosphere thriving right next to the ocean, there is not much more unique of a setting to be found in Costa Rica. To the north are the thickest, wettest rain forests in the country; to the south some of the most laid-back beaches in Central America.
Puerto Viejo and Cahuita are wonderful, vibrant cities along the southern coast. Costa Rica has really taken a long time to take pride in promoting this area for tourism because it is so wildly different than the rest of the country. The food is primarily influenced from the Islander descent. The language spoken in this region is an English-Creole mix. There are great beaches, great opportunities to get on the water, and easily accessible rain forest at every turn.
Geography of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a small country in Central America that covers 0.03% of the globe. It is surrounded by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. There are less than 20,000 square miles in this country that hosts over 65 active and dormant volcanoes, 14 river systems, and nearly 6% of the entire Earth's biodiversity! Less than 5 million people live in Costa Rica.
Low lands along the coast, as well as in the north and central regions, support rich growth of bananas, coffee, and even pineapple. This is also where nearly 75% of the country's population can be found. Outside of these more populated areas, over 25% of the land in Costa Rica is legally protected. A majority of this land is mountainside rain forest, including some of the world's only cloudforests, so named because their elevation keep them surrounded by clouds most days. Ecotourism is big business to this country that makes a point of keeping its defining state of naturalness in place for generations.
There are 7 provinces that further breakup the small spaces here. Most of them share defining characteristics of landscape, but a couple of them are very unique. For example, the Nicoya Peninsula is a part of the Guanacaste province, a more arid, ranching locale than the rest of the country.
Costa Rica makes for a wonderful place to visit developed cities, like San Jose, while also being right on the edge of undeveloped wilderness. Make sure and do a little planning to focus on the area you would like to visit best, or spend a little longer and see it all!
Money in Costa Rica
Colones(₡) are the official currency in Costa Rica.
Travelers from the US need not worry about getting their hand on colones before making the trip. The American dollar is accepted almost everywhere and fair trade rates are used when giving change.
Bills larger than $20 are not accepted because of the ease of counterfeit. Customs gives a bad exchange rate when leaving Costa Rica, so make sure all of the colones in your possession have been spent.
Credit Cards & ATMS
ATMs can be found throughout Costa Rica, and credit cards are wildely accepted with the exception being in some rural areas or small towns.
Health & Safety in Costa Rica
Travel Happy and Healthy
Costa Rica poses no particular health or safety risks for travelers. However, it’s always advised to take reasonable precautions and be aware of your surroundings. We advise you to pack a personalized medical kit including any prescription drugs and painkillers that you might need while traveling in Costa Rica.
U.S. citizens require no vaccines to visit Costa Rica.
However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that travelers should be up-to-date on routine vaccinations.
Other advisable inoculations include: yellow fever, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies.
Food and Water
While Costa Rica's water is generally safe--particularly in larger cities--it’s always helpful take precautions about what you eat and drink. If you want to ere on the side of caution, avoid drinking tap water and drink bottled water instead; you may also see if the offered water has been boiled. Regarding food, street food presents travelers with the highest risk as an authorized regulatory organization may not have ensured proper hygiene.
With Costa Rica's high summer heat and humidity, sun and heat exposure as well as dehydration may present health risks. Drink lots of water, use sunscreen liberally and limit sun exposure when possible.
Taking out an insurance policy before traveling protects against injury, illness, loss and theft. Many travel insurance policies exclude activities listed as “dangerous sports” unless you pay an additional premium, so it's best to read the policy thoroughly and consider your itinerary.
The CDC has reported Zika outbreaks in Costa Rica and advises travelers to practice enhanced precautions. Check out the CDC's website for updated travel alerts, and please review our prepared Zika Virus Travel Tips on the Health & Safety dropdown menu to help you travel healthy.
Costa Rica is generally safe travelers, though petty theft remains the most common safety threat. Vigilance and preventative measures will help keep your items safe.
U.S. citizens require a passport valid for at least six months beyond your planned departure date to visit Costa Rica. A visa is generally not required if you hold a valid U.S. passport and travel for tourist or business trips that last less than 90 days within each 180-day period.
Costa Rica officially requires travelers to have an onward ticket out of Costa Rica before entering, though this regulation is rarely enforced.
Internet & Phone Service in Costa Rica
If you plan to bring your mobile phone to Costa Rica, be aware of the international data roaming charges and any call costs. Also, ascertain if your phone is equipped for Costa Rica's frequency before travelling and make sure to unlock your phone.
If you don't require your own personal cell phone, travelers often find it efficient and cost effictive to purchase kits with phone equipped with a prepaid SIM card.
Or, alternatively, if your personal phone is compatible and unlocked, you can purchase a pay-as-you-go SIM card in Costa Rica through a start-up package offered by Croatia’s mobile phone operators.
Costa Rica's four cellular providers are: Claro, Movistar, TuYo, and Kolbi. While Kolbi provides the best coverage in remote regions, Movistar provides the most limited.
Tablets and smartphones, with their ability to use ethernet connections as well as services like Skype, are often the most easiest and cost-efficient methods of communication.
A growing number of hotels, cafés, and hostels offer customers wi-fi access, though sometimes at a cost. Internet cafes, however, are beginning to disappear.
Power in Costa Rica
Costa Rica's wall sockets operate at 120/60hz and accept the standard Type A, flat two-prong plugs and the Type B 3-pronged plugs.
Getting to Costa Rica
There are only 2 major airports used for travel between the United States and Costa Rica: San Jose and Liberia.
- San Jose is located in the central valley region and provides an opportunity for travelers to rent vehicles and explore almost the entire country.
- Liberia is located in the northwest region of the country, just north of some recently renovated beach resorts that are popular among tourists.
A plethora of smaller airports are available to get people where they want to go faster than taking a bus or renting a car. With so many different sites to be seen, destinations to be explored, and secluded spots that require off-road navigation, it is important to familiarize oneself with the best way to get to where they want to go.
Meet Our Guides
There are no required vaccinations for visiting Costa Rica, however, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that travelers should be up-to-date on their routine vaccinations. This includes tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, diptheria, and typhoid. You might also want to consider getting vaccinated against rabies if you will be in close contact with animals.
Anyone traveling from a yellow fever-affected country in South America or Africa must show a record of having been vaccinated at least one week prior to entering Costa Rica. As with most countries, Costa Rica will introduce policies for Covid-19 vaccinations in 2021.
Yes, it is generally safe to drink tap water in Costa Rica, except in some of the more remote and rural parts of the country. If you prefer to be cautious, you can easily find bottled mineral water in all towns and villages. Most restaurants in Costa Rica have high hygiene standards when it comes to food preparation, so eating raw vegetables and/or salads is considered safe.
In Costa Rica, the currency is the colón (CRC), with $1 USD equaling around ₡600 at the time of writing. Banknotes come in 50,00, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000 and 1,000 colónes while coins are available in 500, 100, 50, 25, and 10 colónes.
US Dollars are readily accepted throughout Costa Rica, although you should bring rip-free bills to ensure they will be accepted. Colones are the preferred form of payment in small towns and if you’re paying for local bus fares. In urban and tourist areas, you’ll find plenty of ATMs, many of which will dispense USD. If you’re traveling to more remote regions, ATMs are not so widespread and it’s best to carry cash with you.
Banks are generally open from 9:00 to 17:00 Monday to Friday, with some also open on Saturday mornings. Almost all banks will exchange US dollars and some will also exchange Euros and British pounds. Credit cards are widely accepted at midrange and high-end hotels, as well as by most travel agencies and tourist-oriented restaurants.
Costa Rica is on Central Standard Time (GMT-6) and does not observe daylight savings time.
Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica, although it is spoken with a distinct accent and with some peculiarities that set it apart. At least five indigenous languages are also spoken by the descendants of pre-Columbian people, including Maleku, Guaymi, Bribri, Cabecar, and Buglere. In Limon Province, the English-based creole language of Mekatelyu is also spoken by some people.
English is the main foreign language studied at school in Costa Rica and is widely spoken throughout the country. You won’t have any difficulty finding someone who speaks English, particularly if you’re visiting the more popular tourist destinations.
A passport with at least six months validity is required for entry into Costa Rica and you should have at least two free pages for entry and exit stamps. Provided you don’t plan on staying more than 90 days, visas are not required to enter the country for citizens of most European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, a return ticket is required as proof that you are leaving the country within 90 days.
As of January 2021, it is compulsory to have travel insurance when visiting Costa Rica and to fill out the online HEALTH PASS, which is made available to passengers 48 hours before boarding their flight. Even if the requirements change, we recommend that you take out a travel insurance policy to protect against injury, illness, loss, and/or theft. Before purchasing a policy, always double-check what is covered and what’s not, such as any “known events” or “dangerous sports” that you may be participating in.
Costa Rica’s two main domestic carriers, Sansa and NatureAir, have flights between the capital, San Jose, and many of the country’s regional areas and beach destinations. Otherwise, buses are the most affordable way of getting around, although they tend to come and go only from San Jose, so you may find yourself backtracking to the capital multiple times. Local buses connect most of Costa Rica’s towns and villages while air-conditioned shuttle buses are available for accessing many of the country’s tourist destinations. They cost a lot more than the local buses but are generally faster and more comfortable.
Many visitors opt to rent a car for exploring Costa Rica, which allows you to experience the country at your own pace and without having to worry about bus schedules. You might want to consider a 4WD if you plan on visiting some of the more remote national parks where unsurfaced roads are common.
Most car rental companies are located in San Jose or at Juan Santamaría International Airport, with local agencies offering better prices than the international companies. If you’re visiting during the dry season, it’s best to reserve your car well in advance.
Taxis are another option for both short and long-distance trips and are particularly affordable if you’re traveling in a group.
The best time to visit Costa Rica is generally considered to be during the dry season, which extends from mid-December to April. The sunny days are ideal for being out and about exploring or lazing on the country’s idyllic beaches. However, the dry season is the most expensive time to visit Costa Rica and you’ll need to secure your accommodation and/or tours in advance.
May to early December is the wet (or “green”) season in Costa Rica when you can expect daily downpours across much of the country. If you don’t mind getting a little wet, this is a great time to visit to avoid the crowds and take advantage of discounted accommodation rates. Some unpaved roads may become impassable, so you will need to be flexible with your travel plans. In July and August, there’s often a short pause in the showers, so these are good alternatives to the dry season.
Throughout Costa Rica, electricity is supplied at 110 volts, with the same two-pronged flat plugs that are used in the United States.
Tipping in Costa Rica is not mandatory but has come to be expected in recent years. In restaurants, a 10% surcharge is usually added to bills but you might consider offering a tip if it isn’t. For guides, we recommend tipping between US$5 and US$15 per person per day while you might consider giving about half that to tour drivers. Around US$1 or US$2 a day is suitable for housekeepers at high-end hotels while porters will probably expect US$1 per bag. It’s not necessary to tip taxi drivers unless a special additional service is provided.
Costa Rica has managed to escape a lot of the gang violence that has impacted other Central American countries and is a generally safe country to visit. That being said, you should remain vigilant in San Jose where petty crime is not uncommon and don’t walk around isolated areas by yourself, particularly at night.
To avoid unwanted attention, don’t flash around expensive jewelry or electronic equipment and always use authorized taxis so you aren’t the victim of any scams. If you are concerned about safety, we recommend traveling with a reputable tour company and check any current travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State prior to leaving home.
In Costa Rica, men usually greet other men with a handshake or one-armed hug while women will kiss one another on the cheek lightly. Maintaining eye contact during greetings and conversations is considered polite. Placing your feet on furniture or pointing at someone is considered rude, with it best to use your entire hand if you want to gesture at something.
“Tico Time” refers to the relaxed nature with which Costa Ricans view punctuality and it’s socially acceptable to be a little late. This is not the case, however, with business meetings or in the tourism industry where it’s considered courteous to keep to a schedule.
With its mild flavors and heavy reliance on fresh fruits and vegetables, Costa Rican cuisine is nutritionally healthy and well balanced. Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean influences can be seen in many of the dishes while rice and black beans are a staple of most traditional meals.
The Spanish conquest of the country had a significant impact on the cuisine that developed, although the importance of maize in indigenous diets is still evident in dishes such as tamales. These are usually filled with meat, rice, and vegetables before being wrapped in a plantain leaf.
The national dish of Costa Rica is gallo pinto (“painted rooster”), which is centered around rice and beans that are sometimes complemented by fried or scrambled eggs. Casado is a popular midday meal, with rice and beans accompanied by salad, plantains, and either fish, chicken or beef. In some instances, you’ll find fries, tortillas or a picadillo vegetable stew served on the side. Olla de carne is a meat-based stew that features cassava, taro root, and other vegetables while sopa negra is a good option for vegetarians thanks to its reliance on black beans for protein.
Along the coastline, you’ll find the Costa Rican version of ceviche (often prepared with tilapia) and the Caribbean version of rice and beans that’s cooked in coconut milk. For a snack on the go, look out for chifrijo - a layered dish of fried pork rinds, beans, and pico de gallo that’s served atop a bed of tortilla chips.
In San Jose and many of Costa Rica’s major tourist destinations, you’ll find restaurants serving cuisine from across the globe. Chinese and Italian food are among the most popular with locals.
When it comes to Costa Rican desserts, one of the most common is tres leches (“three milks”), a wet cake featuring whole milk, evaporated skim milk, and sweetened condensed milk. Tropical fruit salad is also popular, with papaya, pineapple and cantaloupe making regular appearances.
Coffee is a staple beverage in Costa Rica due to the abundance of plantations and high-quality beans. People in the highland regions also drink agua dulce - raw cane sugar dissolved in hot water. Everywhere you go you’ll see frescos, which are made by blending fresh fruit with either milk or water.