COSTA RICA

Costa Rica's diverse natural landscape, coupled with an abundance of outdoor activities and a focus on environmental sustainability and preservation, make it no surprise that the country has been rated as one of the happiest places on Earth.

Geography

A small country—just 75 mi separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean Sea at the narrowest spot—Costa Rica still has some of the most diverse scenery in the world. Its coasts have both sandy beaches and marshy swamps, and its interior is dotted with volcanoes and rugged mountain chains, dense rain forests and abundant, unusual flora.

Its geographic diversity and elevation, ranging from sea level to more than 13,000 ft atop Cerro Chirripo, have blessed the nation with 12 distinct life zones. The most secluded area in Costa Rica is the Oso Peninsula in the southern part of Puntarenas Province. It is true jungle rain forest, and it has one of the most diverse ecocultures in the world. It is difficult to traverse, and tourists have to receive permission before they are flown in to visit the area.

Approximately 25% of the country's land has been set aside in protected areas, earning Costa Rica a reputation as an environmentally sensitive country and leader in ecological conservation. However, nonprotected areas have not fared so well: During the past few decades, Costa Rica has had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. The country is now coming to terms with the large resorts being built to serve the growing numbers of travelers and a condominium construction boom that has been spawned in its wake.

History

Columbus first saw this portion of Central America in 1502 during his last trip to the New World. But Spanish settlement did not begin until the mid-1500s because early expeditions were beset by disease and resistance from the indigenous people. The Spanish did find some gold in the area—inspiring the name Costa Rica (Rich Coast)—but not the large reserves they sought.

Colonization proceeded slowly along the east coast until the Spanish finally moved to the cooler, fertile valleys and mesas of the interior, known as the Central Valley. The predominantly mountainous terrain kept the plantation system, with its attendant slavery, from developing in Costa Rica (an exception was the far northwest plains). Instead, the colonists gathered near the indigenous communities and built smallscale subsistence farms. Towns grew slowly and evolved intense rivalries for political dominance.

Such independence and self-reliance are thought to be the reasons democracy came more naturally to Costa Rica than to its neighbors when the country gained its independence in the early 1820s. Brief civil wars erupted among the major cities in which the more liberal forces of San Jose emerged victorious, moving the country toward fair, democratic elections in the late 1800s and establishing San Jose as the undisputed capital.

In the 1940s the country became politically polarized, and civil war broke out once again. Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948 and invested in education and public-health facilities, actions that helped prevent a flood of rural poor into the major cities. These measures have prompted many to view Costa Rica as a model Latin American country, although it has had its share of economic problems that accelerated in the 1980s and continue today. Costa Rica has cut back on its extensive social programs to deal with a large national deficit, massive internal debt and a massive influx of Nicaraguan refugees and unemployed. Costa Rica has, in illegal Nicaraguan neighbors who are seeking the "Costa Rican dream," a problem similar to that of the U.S. with illegal aliens seeking the American dream.

 
 

Dos & Don'ts

Do know what pura vida (pronounced POO-ra BEE-da) means. The often-heard phrase literally translates as "pure life." Costa Ricans use this to say hello and goodbye and to express general happiness.

Don't pick plants or pick up seashells, and don't damage trees or foliage. In many areas, trees are protected by the government, and individuals must obtain permission to remove or trim a tree, even to prevent damage to a house.

Don't be surprised to see male vacationers in the company of prostitutes, notably in downtown San Jose and in Jaco. Although Costa Rica is a staunchly Catholic nation, prostitution is legal and, although frowned upon in respectable circles, is an accepted part of the social landscape.

Do take a nice supply of U.S. dollar bills. It's an easy way to provide that extra tip for good service at a restaurant, or to reward extra service from the bell staff or drivers.

Do carry a big umbrella, especially in the "green" season. It does rain. A lot.

Don't plan museum visits for Monday. Most are closed.

Do try to speak Spanish, no matter how limited your vocabulary. Costa Ricans appreciate the effort, and they love to help you learn new phrases or improve your language skills.

Do reconfirm airline reservations out of the country. Reservations are frequently canceled (particularly during the December and January holidays) if they're not confirmed at least 72 hours in advance. Car rental reservations also may be canceled if you arrive late—unless you let the rental company know that your flight is delayed.

 

 

Weather

The best time to visit is the relatively dry period of December-May, but we suggest avoiding the Christmas and Easter holidays. (Businesses are shut down, and all the hotels are full.) January is a great time to go, but Costa Rica is really a year-round destination.

Tourism promoters are trying to encourage travel in the rainy season (June-October) by selling it as the "green season." The vegetation looks nicer then, and prices are lower, but you can almost be guaranteed at least a brief thunderstorm every day in late afternoon or early evening.

Temperatures in San Jose and the Central Highlands are moderate to springlike (and even alpine and cool at higher elevations), and a breeze almost always blows. The mountains can be quite cool at night. Coastal areas tend to be hot and steamy, but hot and dry in the Pacific northwest.

Guanacaste has a pronounced dry season and can be insufferably hot in summer away from the shore. Along the coast, humidity generally increases southward. An umbrella and other rain gear are necessities no matter when you visit.

Geostats

Passport/Visa Requirements: U.S. and Canadian citizens need passports but not visas. Proof of sufficient funds and onward passage are also required. There is a departure tax of about 14,000 CRC.

Population: 4,953,199.

Languages: Spanish and English.

Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic).

Time Zone: 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-6 GMT).

Daylight Saving Time is not observed.

Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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