Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. It's tucked into a small geographic area, and visitors have huge opportunities to experience nature in its many forms. With flights available throughout the country as well as fast and efficient shuttle services, it's possible to visit Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean one day and Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula the next. Other spectacular parks, wildlife refuges and biological reserves in Costa Rica include Manuel Antonio National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge.
Costa Rica is also home to a variety of historical sites. Many of these can be visited in one day from San Jose, including a historic tour of Cartago, former capital of Costa Rica and home to one of the country's most important religious sites; Orosi, where you can visit the 18thcentury Iglesia San Jose de Orosi and its adjacent museum; and Turrialba, whose foothills shelter one of the country's most important archaeological sites, Guayabo. Be sure to also make a stop at the Lankester Botanical Garden, as well.
An English-language guide to the museums of Costa Rica is available at tourist information centers.
Good Costa Rican cuisine is available in many venues throughout the country, from fine-dining establishments to small restaurants that carry a mixed menu to modern-mall food courts to small local, family-run places called sodas.
San Jose has some excellent restaurants, and many of them are found in the small hotels that have been created from old coffee-baron mansions. This includes the wonderful Hotel Grano de Oro and El Oasis Restaurant in Hotel Santo Tomas. The Amon District has any number of these great small-hotel restaurants.
Of course, there are many great stand-alone restaurants throughout the San Jose metropolitan area and the four- and five-star hotels and resorts that have sprung up all over Costa Rica provide some terrific gourmet restaurants.
One of Costa Rica's delightful peculiarities is that, because the country is a magnet for Europeans, there are superb international restaurants, even in out-of-the-way places. German, Swiss, Italian and Greek eateries abound, with good food at reasonable prices. You'll also find a wide variety of international cuisine, including excellent Chinese and Italian food, in San Jose.
A casado (which means "married") is a set-price meal, often eaten for lunch. It typically consists of black beans, rice, picadillo (diced vegetables and sometimes meat), meat and either yucca or maduro (fried banana). Gallo pinto (black beans and rice alone) becomes addictive and is the national dish, especially popular at breakfast. Salsa lizano is a typical breakfast condiment and common ingredient in gallo pinto. On the Caribbean, gallo pinto is flavored with coconut.
Other local specialties are palmitos (hearts of palm, usually served in a salad) and cajeta (a thick dessert made of milk and sugar). Bocas are appetizers—ranging from fried potatoes and yucca to broiled steak and fish—that are served with beer or cocktails. The tamales and corvina (sea bass) are especially good. Don't order mondongo unless you like tripe.
Meals in Costa Rica are even nicer when accompanied by fresh juice, and there are all kinds of wonderful tropical fruits, including mangoes, papayas, pineapples that rival Hawaiian fruit, sweet ripe melons and zapotes (a fruit with an orangelike pulp that resembles an avocado). These fruits find their way into delicious and refreshing batidos (shakes) made with milk or water.
A nice way to savor Costa Rica's coffee is to take a tour of the Cafe Britt Coffee plantation in Heredia, where you can sample blends from local beans. It has a large gift shop and restaurant, as well. There are Britt gift shops throughout Costa Rica in airport terminals, resorts, hotels and tourist attractions, where they freely dispense samples of coffee, chocolate and chocolate-covered nuts and fruits.
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.
The best time to visit is the relatively dry period of December-May, but we suggest avoiding the Christmas and Easter holidays because everyone seems to go to the beach. (Businesses are shut down, and all the hotels are full.) January is our favorite 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.
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.
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.
Telephone Codes: 506, country code. All phone numbers in Costa Rica now have eight digits. Seven-digit numbers must now add the prefix 2 (land line) or 8 (cell phone). Emergency numbers and 800 or 900 numbers remain the same;
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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