Costa Rica Travel Guide

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Area

Name: The Republic of Costa Rica
Capital City: San José
Country size: 51,000 square kilometers or 19,632 square miles.
National Bird: Turdus grayi (Clay colored Robin) “Yiguirro”.
National Flower: Guarianthe skinneri (Orchid) “Guaria Morada”
Army abolished: 1948
Highest non-volcanic Mountain: Chirripo 3,820 m.
Highest Volcano: Irazu 3,432 m.
Number of active volcanoes: 9 (Orosi, Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, Tenorio, Arenal, Poas, Barva, Irazu, and Turrialba). 

With an extension of 19,632 square miles (51,000 square km), Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua on the north, by the Caribbean Sea on the north-east, by Panama on the south-east and by the Pacific Ocean on the west and north-west. San Jose, the Capital City, where most of the population is concentrated, lies within a tectonic depression of 2,000 square miles called the Central Valley, an agricultural and cattle zone. The country is divided into seven provinces: San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago, Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Limon.

Buses

There is an extensive network of bus routes within the country with reasonable fares. Departures are very punctual, though routes often take longer than expected. The bus system is a safe and even fun way to see a lot of the country cheaply. Most major tourist destinations in Costa Rica are serviced by at least two daily buses from and to San Jose. However, nearly the entire bus system is based on routes in and out of San Jose and this can add significant travel time. Buses cannot be booked in advance so it can be possible not to have a seat on popular routes, specially during local holidays.

Climate

Costa Rica has a hot dry season (summer) from December to April, and a rainy or green season (winter) from May to November. The rainy season is not constantly wet: July invariably brings a temporary abatement and, in general mornings are clear. There are plenty of microclimates, too, with temperatures descending as altitudes rise.

In the dry season, San Jose and other Central Valley towns enjoy a fresh, breezy, spring-like climate requiring a jacket or sweater in the evenings, while Guanacaste’s arid interior endures stifling temperatures. Rain still occurs in high mountainous areas, and above all, in the Caribbean lowlands, where downpours can last for days – or break into brilliant sunshine after a couple of hours. When the green season starts, it is the southern zone around the Golfo Dulce and Osa Peninsula that gets the most rain.

All year round, the sun rises dutifully at about 5:20-5:45 am and sets about 12 hours later. Summer brings an increase in temperatures from the plains to the highlands of Costa Rica, which has many microclimates due to the heterogeneity of its land and its diverse characteristics.

During the rainy season you can expect rainy afternoons in the Central Valley, but weather in the tropics is very unpredictable. During the day temperature in San Jose is around 74-82Fo, at night 68-72F˚.  In the Northern region where Tilajari is located, temperature might vary between 78-82Fo and at night between 73-77Fo approx.

Cruise Ships

Costa Rica has three main ports : Puerto Limon in the Caribbean coast and Puntarenas and Caldera in the Pacific coast.

Puerto Limón has a privileged location in the Caribbean thanks to its proximity to the Panama Canal, the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern part of the United States. At 160 kms from San José, this port is run by JAPDEVA (Port Authorities for the Atlantic Region). Located at 9°, 59´, 30” latitude to the North, and 83°, 01´, 48” latitude to the West, Puerto Limón has a 280 meter long and 70 meter wide breakwater, with a new multipurpose quay. Works to dredge a new harbor are presently under way. It will be 14 meter deep with a 500 meter turning diameter.

The cruise terminal and the roll-on/roll-off post were built in 1997, and modernized in 2003, to meet the requirements of passenger ships. It is 10 m deep, 295 m long, and 16 m wide, and it also has a tourist terminal. The port complex offers all the necessary services for an adequate operation, such as drinking water, fuel, pilotage, medical services, and others.

Distinguished cruise companies, such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Premier Holland America, and many others come to Puerto Limon during cruise season runing from October through April.

Puerto Limón, the most important spot in the Caribbean for cruise calls, awaits visitors with an exuberant vegetation and its friendly Afro-Caribbean culture. When you arrive in Limón, you will find many options to enjoy your visit. In the Northern Caribbean region you can be more in contact with nature while visiting the Tortuguero National Park. This zone offers bird watch, turtle watch and sailing along canals. The Southern Caribbean region has beautiful beaches. Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Gandoca Manzanillo are the villages that best represent the Caribbean flavor, shown in their architecture and cuisine.

All this scenic beauty is complemented by excellent tours such as Canopy tours, horseback tours, nature observation, visits to pineapple, tropical flower or banana plantations or sugar haciendas.

Puntarenas and Caldera are the two main ports in the Costa Rican Pacific coast. These two ports are run by the INCOP (Port Authority for the Pacific Region ). Leaving from Puntarenas or Caldera, tourists will be less than 2 hours away from the many exciting tours of the zone: National Parks in the Middle Pacific region, like Manuel Antonio and Carara. In the Central Valley, there is the awesome Poas Volcano and Sarchí, where tourists will find a wide display of the work of local artisans at affordable prices. San José, the capital city, is approximately 2 hours away from Puntarenas. The Central Pacific region has numerous interesting options, like: tours on Horseback, alligator watch, aerial trams, white water rafting, and walks along bridges suspended from the tree tops.

Base ships, which are those cruises with Costa Rica as their final destination, come to Puerto Caldera. Passengers then fly back to their country, or they sometimes choose to visit the country for a few more days.

This port has a marginal wharf with a 490 m- long docking area.The port of Puntarenas is located at 9°, 58 ´ latitude to the North. It has a jetty, divided in two sections: the first one starts on the coast shore, with a 207 m- long access bridge. The second one is a docking platform, with fenders on both sides and bollards for mooring. A 16 x 8 cluster of piles for docking and mooring, and an 8 x 8 m cluster of piles for mooring connected by two zinc-coated steel bridges. It also has two 265 m – long docking areas, with a 14 m- wide floor. Average depth is 10.5 m and the ocean current is at two knots. The port also has pipes for a good supply of drinking water, fuel, cables for power supply and telephone lines, plus all the necessary services to suit large cruise companies, such as: Carnival, Princess Cruises, Crystal, and Norwegian among others..

Customs & Immigration

No customs duties are charged on personal luggage, which includes an array of items for personal and professional use, as long as they do not appear in quantities that suggest commercial intent. Costa Rican law requires that baggage be examined and that travellers submit customs declarations listing all articles acquired abroad, including fruit, vegetables, meat, meat products, biological products such as vaccinations, serums, etc. In the case of families, the family head can fill out one declaration. For example, one person can bring in 200 cigarettes or 500 g of tobacco, 2 litres of liquor or wine and up to six rolls of film. Normally on international flights each passenger is allowed two bags up to 31 kilos total plus one piece of hand luggage. Baggage allowance should be confirmed with the airline before departure. Surfing and diving equipment which exceeds 31 kilos is excess baggage. Weight allowance on domestic flights and tour packages to Tortuguero and Corcovado is up to 25 pounds. On shuttle transfers each passengers is allowed ONE bag and one piece of hand luggage.

Diving

Costa Rica's underwater wonders range from coastal coral reefs to offshore islands. Those varied dive spots contain diverse and beautiful marine life that includes giant manta rays, timid sea turtles, colorful angel fish, intricate coral formations, psychedelic sea slugs, spiny puffer fish, delicate sea fans, curious dolphins and, on rare occasions, whales. Though the country's waters contain enough marine life to please the most experienced of divers, you need be little more than a curious swimmer to catch a glimpse of some of its underwater sights, since there are plenty of spots that are perfect for snorkelling. Costa Rica is also an excellent place to learn how to scuba dive, since most dive centers offer inexpensive certification courses in English that can be completed in less than a week.

There are several excellent snorkelling areas along the southern Caribbean coast. The country's largest coastal reef is protected within Cahuita National Park, south of the town of the same name, where you can rent snorkelling equipment and hire people to take you out in boats. The point at Puerto Viejo, south of Cahuita, also has a coral reef wrapped around it that makes for convenient diving. Punta Cocles and Punta Uva, two points to the south of town, have healthier coral formations with plenty of fish around them.

Manzanillo, a small fishing village a few miles further south, also has some decent diving off shore. There are also a few good dive spots near the city of Limon, such as the water surrounding Uvita Island. The best visibility in the Caribbean is from March to early May and from mid August to mid November, but water quality can change from day to day.

The Pacific has the country's best diving, with less coral, but plenty of big fish. The most popular Pacific diving area is the Northwest, where dive centres in Playa del Coco, Ocotal and Hermosa offer trips to several spots in the Culebra Bay and the Bat Islands (Islas Murcielagos), to the Northwest, where divers often see sharks and manta rays. The dive centre in Flamingo usually takes people to Santa Catalina Island, about five miles off shore, which is another good spot to see sharks and other big fish. The best visibility and water temperatures in the Northwest are found from June to September, though the conditions can change from day to day. There is good snorkelling in Curu National Wildlife Refuge, and near the beach resorts of Tambor and Montezuma. There is also usually good snorkelling off the second beach in Manuel Antonio National Park, and around the points and islands between Dominical and Marino Ballena National Park. However, the best diving off the Pacific coast is found at several underwater reefs near Caño Island, which can be explored on dive trips offered by some of the lodges in nearby Drake Bay. Contrary to the Northwest, the best visibility in the waters around Caño occurs during the dry season, though the water tends to be pretty clear year round.

Cocos Island, a national park located some 330 miles Southwest of the Costa Rican mainland has the country's best diving by far. While the Island is covered with virgin forest, the ocean that surrounds it contains abundant marine life, and the visibility is good year round. Divers at Cocos Island regularly see such impressive animals as manta rays, dolphins and hammerhead sharks, which sometimes gathering in schools of 30 or 40 animals. It takes about 36 hours to reach Cocos Island, and some companies have ships that run regular dive cruises there, which last ten days.

Dress

What to take
The following items are recommended: camera equipment (including spare batteries), binoculars, insect repellent for Jungle trips, personal first aid kit if needed, sun lotion/sun block, Spanish-English dictionary/phrase book, earplugs if needed and a small back pack.

In most restaurants shorts or beach wear is not allowed. In some better nightclubs and Disco's you may be refused entrance when wearing shorts, sandals or sloppy clothing.

Generally, the dress code is casual with cotton and linen clothing ideal. Shorts and beach wear may not be allowed in most restaurants and the better nightclubs, while topless sunbathing is prohibited in public.

What to wear
Lightweight cotton clothing and shorts are recommended for the hot and humid conditions. Warm clothing and rain gear will be needed if visiting the highlands and cloud forests. For beach/water trips a sun hat/baseball cap, sunglasses and waterproof sandals are a must. A rain jacket and sturdy walking-shoes are recommended especially if undertaking hiking and trekking.

Food & Drink

Costa Rica offers a wide variety of restaurants and bars for almost every taste. Thanks to tropical weather, vegetables, roots and fruits are very tasty; this is why, Costa Rican food is so delicious, often mild, seldom spicy or hot. In addition to a wide variety of international gourmet restaurants, there are also local small cafeterias (called "sodas") and fast food options all over the country.

Costa Rican specialties include "arroz con pollo" (chicken with rice), ensalada de palmito (heart-of-palm salad), sopa negra (black-bean soup), and casados (a combination of rice, black or red beans, vegetables, fried plantains, salad, cheese, and a selection of fish, chicken or meat… all served in the same plate). The popular "gallo pinto" has to be mentioned as visitors will find it in almost every hotel and restaurant for breakfast.  It is prepared with rice and beans with onions, sweet pepper, garlic, fresh coriander and the famous "Salsa Lizano". The most popular fish in our menu are "corvina" (seabass) and "dorado" (Mahi-Mahi).

Our local and very good alcoholic drink is the "Guaro", made of sugar cane, like a light rum, excellent for a large variety of cocktails.

Wherever you eat, dress is casual and meals tend to be taken earlier than in other Latin American countries as only few restaurants serve past 10 pm.

The 13% sales tax and 10% service fee are already included in every menu price, but if you are 100% satisfied, an extra gratuity of 5% to 10% is sometimes expected by waiters on pricier restaurants.

Electrical Current

110 volts, 60 cycles AC using flat–pin US plugs. Europeans will need to bring adaptors.

Health & Insurance

Hygiene standards are high and medical services excellent. Tap water is drinkable all around Costa Rica. Uncooked fruits and vegetables should always be washed, but most restaurants prepare food hygienically.

There are no vaccination requirements for visitors entering Costa Rica. Check with your doctor or travel health clinic before being vaccinated, but malaria tablets and yellow fever inoculations are advised, despite malaria has been virtually eliminated.

Language

The official language is Spanish, but English is spoken in all pricier hotels and restaurants.

Media

Costa Rica has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America, with telephones and fax machines all over the country, and an increasing number of businesses on line. To call or fax Costa Rica, dial the country code 506 before the number. There is also reliable mail service in the country, and an ample selection of courier services in San Jose. Most large hotels in the San Jose area have cable television, which has US and European stations. Newspapers and magazines from North America and several European nations are sold in many shops and hotels in and around the capital.

Money

The official currency Costa Rica is the colon (¢), but US dollars are accepted in most hotels, restaurants and shops. US dollars and traveller’s checks can be changed in banks and hotels. Major credit cards are widely accepted, and cash advances can be obtained in most cities. There is an ample selection of state and private banks in San Jose, and at least one major bank in every large town. For European visitors, it is advisable to change Euros and Sterling Pounds to US Dollars before departing to Costa Rica.

Banks & Credit Cards

Government offices are generally open from 8 AM to 4 PM, while banks close anytime between 3:00 and 6:00 PM, according to the branch. Most shops are open from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM, while some open at 8:00 AM and others close at 7:00 PM; most grocery stores close at 8:00 PM. Some shops also close for lunch, between noon and 1:00 or 2:00 PM.

Population

Costa Rica has approximately 4,509,392 inhabitants (2009 estimated).

Public Holidays

January 1st: New year and end of festivities in San Jose.
Holy Thursday & Friday: Religious activities & processions.
April 11: C.R. national Hero Juan Santamaría (Rivas Battle).
May 1st: Labour Day.
June 29: Saint Peter and Saint Paul
July 25: Annexation of the province of Guanacaste to C.R.
August 2: Virgin of our Lady of Los Angeles (Patroness of CR).
August 15: Mother’s Day.
September 15: Independence of Costa Rica (Central America).
October 12: Columbus Day and Limon Province’s Carnival
2nd Saturday of December: Lights Festival (Commence of Christmas time).
December 25: Christmas Day (Starts the San Jose Festivities).
December 26: Horse parade in downtown San Jose.
December 27: Carnival in downtown San Jose.

Railways

The rail system is fairly extensive but subject to delays and breakdowns.

Taxis

Taxis are available in most large cities. The meter is called "la maria"; ask the driver to turn it on immediately upon getting in the car, or he may leave it off and make up his own, more expensive, price when you get to your destination. Official taxis are red with a yellow triangle on the side.

Telephone Services

Public phones are accessed with calling cards (tarjetas telefonicas) which can be purchased at most shops, even in outlying areas. Domestic calls are quite cheap and the price is the same wherever you call. Calls to cellular phones are charged significantly more though.

International calls are fairly expensive. There are international calling cards available within Costa Rica from the government phone company, I.C.E. Mobile phone service in Costa Rica is also provided by Grupo I.C.E. using GSM technology at 1800 MHz and 3G operating at 850MHz (this is not a standard 3G frequency in many countries - if you want to use 3G make sure your phone has that capability). Prepaid Sim cards are now available in Costa Rica, at the ICE kiosk in the arrivals area at the airport and from ICE offices in Costa Rica. Prepaid SIM cards expire in 30 days. Non-residents may also rent cell phone service.

Time

Costa Rica time is the same as US Central Standard Time, GMT –6.

Vaccinations

Yellow Fever requirements
All visitors to Costa Rica arriving from any of the following countries (Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, French Guyana, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Gambia and Sudan) are now required to produce an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis documenting yellow fever vaccination before entry to Costa Rica will be granted. Certificates are valid 10 days after the date of vaccination.

Visas

Citizens holding valid passports from the following countries are permitted to stay in Costa Rica for 90 days without a visa: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France and dependencies, Germany, Greece, Holland and dependencies, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latonia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Saint Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad & Tobago, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay.

Citizens holding valid passports from the following countries are allowed to stay in Costa Rica for 30 days without a visa, though once in the country: Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Belize, Bolivia, Dominique, El Salvador, Fiji, Granada, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Kiribati Republic, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Maurice Islands, Nauru, Palau, Philippines, Russia, Saint Thomas & Principe, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Salomon Islands, Samoa Islands, Singapore, Surinam, Taiwan, Tonga Islands, Turkey, Vanuatu, Venezuela.

Citizens from the following countries must obtain a Visa from a Costa Rican embassy or consulate before arrival, for a maximum of 30 days: Albania, Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Benin, Bhutan, Bosnia, Botswana, Brunei, Burkina-Faso, Burundi, Byelorussia, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Comoros, Congo Democratic Republic, Congo Republic, Côte-d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Equatorial, Guinea-Bissau, Indonesia, Jordanian, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kisiquistan, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritania, Moldavia, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Qatar, Rwanda, Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leona, Sudan, Sultanate of Oman, Swaziland, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand , Togo, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Wester Timor, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Citizens from the following countries must obtain a Restricted Visa from the Costa Rican General Director of Migration, consulted by a Costa Rican embassy or consulate before arrival: Afghanistan, Birmania, China, Cuba, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Palestine, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria.

Driving

Driving in Costa Rica can be a challenge to the newcomer. Until travellers get used to the roads and local driving habits, it is best to avoid driving at night, especially outside the city, never leave anything of value in a parked car (even if it’s in the trunk and the car is locked), and always drive defensively. Hazards include pedestrians, animals on the road, huge path holes, pavement that suddenly ends, unlit vehicles, sudden fog in mountain areas, torrential rains, and reckless drivers. The majority of the car are manual transmission (stick shift); among some models you will be able to obtain cars with automatic transmission. Conditions for renting cars as follows:

Minimum 21 years of age.
Present passport and a current valid driver’s license from your country of origin.
The rates include unlimited mileage for rentals of more than three days.
The insurance for collision, turning over, and responsibility for damage to third party is required by law.
The daily rental rate does not include the deposit, gasoline, additional driver, or other insurance options.
A credit card should be presented with a minimum availability of US$1,000 for the deposit.
The laws of Costa Rica require that the driver and passengers use safety belts.

Shopping Hours

Shopping hours are from 8:00 AM until 7:00 PM, Monday through Saturday. Most stores close on Sundays although shopping malls (centros comerciales) and tourist shops are open on Sundays and later in the evenings during weekdays.

Bargaining & Tipping

Bargaining is acceptable in most tourist souvenir shops. Tipping is based on the level of service but restaurants and hotels already include 10% service tax on meals. Tipping is recommended for porters and bell-boys (depending on the number of bags) and cloakroom attendants. Taxi drivers do not normally receive tips. Tour guides and drivers generally expect a few dollars’ tip.

Taxes & Fees

International Departure Tax is US$26.00 per person. All National Parks & Private Reserve’s entrance fee are included on Travel Excellence tour prices as well as lodging and food taxes where specified.