When you think of Costa Rica, most people think of sun, sand and piña coladas on the beach. Sure, that is a valid description for many parts of this tropical paradise, but a closer look uncovers an untamed land ripe for exploration and adventure.
A Short History of Costa Rica
The first Europeans to discover Costa Rica came from Spain. Christopher Columbus set foot on the eastern shores near what is now Limón on September 18, 1502, seeking respite for his battered ships and crew.
There they found around 200,000 natives, divided into several independent tribes. These indigenous people were masters of ceramics, weaving and metal work, and were living very well off the land.
It wasn’t until 1562, after much turmoil, that Costa Rica began to see any signs of modern colonization. Cartago Valley was the first successful settlement started by the Spanish.
In 1821, Costa Rica declared its independence from Spain; and in 1824 San Jose was named the new capitol of Costa Rica, and remains so today.
Vignettes of the Areas of Costa Rica
North Caribbean: From the San Juan River to Limón city lies the North Caribbean are of Costa Rica. The city of Limón provides stop over accommodations for many tourists on their way to other areas of Costa Rica. It also functions as touring center as well as handles much of the distribution in the area.
South Caribbean: The South Caribbean area of Costa Rica runs from the city of Limón over to the Panama border. The South Caribbean is where you will find a beautiful collage of beaches surrounded by stunning mountains and the soothing sound of the waves crashing upon the shore. The South Caribbean is a brilliant mixture of sun kissed beaches and majestic mountain tops.
San Jose Region: The San Jose region often gets a bad rap because of its status as the main stop over for Costa Rican vacation destinations. However, San Jose is a sophisticated and lively city in its own right. From its modern shopping malls to its vibrant and colorful nightlife, San Jose is a vacation destination not to be over looked.
Monteverde Region: Monteverde means “green mountains” in English, and a truer description could not be said. The region is rich with lush green forests and wildflower covered mountainsides. It is truly a breathtaking sight to behold. Each of this region’s stunning reserves is actually owned privately and cared for by private citizens who are dedicated to keeping the beauty and natural vistas of the region intact.
Northern Region: The Northern Region is the northern most tip of the tourism region in Costa Rica. It’s known for its fierce and fiery Arenal volcano, which is the most active volcano in Costa Rica, and one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world, and its equally thrilling white water rafting. The area also boasts abundant wildlife with over 600 species of birds and numerous butterflies and mammal species. It is quickly becoming a favorite destination of eco-minded travelers.
North Pacific Region: The North Western region of Costa Rica, from the Nicaraguan border to the central port town of Puntarenas up to, and including the Nicoya Peninsula, is called the North Pacific Region. This area is largely undeveloped and as such, is home to some of the most pristine and secluded beaches in Costa Rica. Volcanoes, dry tropical forests and of course, undeveloped ocean beaches all share this region. The Taiwanese government is developing some transportation systems to allow for easier travel to the region, but on the whole it has been left untouched.
Central Pacific Region: The Central Pacific Region sets the scene for a perfect getaway. With its quiet and quaint seaside towns and villages, to its idyllic beaches surrounded by picturesque bays and coves, one can see why it is a popular vacation destination. Appealing to the touristier crowd, you will find many restaurants and shops, in addition to its many beaches.
South Pacific Region: The South Pacific region is popular for its remote beaches, dolphin and whale watching, fishing and its abundant wildlife. Costa Rica’s indigenous people reside mostly on Indian reserves in the Talamanca mountain range in this region. These tribes have existed in Costa Rica for nearly 400 years and continue to practice their customs, separate and apart from the “outsiders” that have now come to inhabit most of the land.
Handy Tips for Traveling in Costa Rica
Medical: There are no shots required for travel in Costa Rica, however, it is always best to make sure that you are up to date on all of your shots, including tetanus, before traveling abroad. Also be sure to bring plenty of bug repellant. Although not a major problem, Dengue Fever, contracted from mosquitoes, is a possibility when traveling anywhere in South America.
Water: Unless specifically stated (commonly marked “not potable”), the water is safe to drink.
Time Zone: Costa Rica is in the Mountain Standard Time time zone during US Daylight Savings time, the rest of the year it is the same as Central Standard Time.
Forms of Payment: In the tourist areas, major credit cards are widely accepted; however, once you step off the beaten path you should expect to pay cash.
Tipping: On your restaurant bill, look for I.V.I.; this will let you know that a 10% tip and 13% sales tax have already been added to your bill. As far as bellhops, tourist guides etc., customary tips similar to the states are just fine.
Prostitution: Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica.
Bathrooms: Most sewer systems in Costa Rica are unable to handle toilet paper. If there is a basket next to the toilet, consider that a signal not to flush the toilet paper, but to throw it in the basket.
Highlights of Costa Rica
Arenal and La Fortuna de San Carlos area: Any adventure lover would be remiss if they didn’t get to experience the region’s most active volcano, the Arenal Volcano. During the rainy season, if you catch it at dark, you can watch as the volcano creates its own weather in the form of a lightning storm.
Tamarindo Beach: For those who want to kick of their shoes, dig their toes in the sand and get away from it all, Tamarindo Beach is the place. Love to surf? Look no further, some of the best surfing in Costa Rica is in this area. If food is your thing, make sure you venture outside of the resorts and try some of the local restaurants, you will not be disappointed.
Coffee Plantation Tour: Did we mention that this is coffee heaven? Take a few hours and check out one of the many coffee plantation tours, it’s quite fascinating to see!
Monteverde Cloud Forest: More than 8 miles of trails are available to explore this wonder. If you are the adventurous type, you may want to give zip lining a try. However you explore this incredible nature filled habitat, do so.
Like many of the countries found in the Caribbean and Equator regions, there are two seasons in Costa Rica, wet (rainy) and dry. The wet season begins in May and goes into November, with the dry season beginning in December and ending in April. Average temperatures can drop as low as 70 degrees during the day in the cooler months of November through January, up to an average of 81 degrees the rest of the year.
Make sure you bring an umbrella during the wet season, as Costa Rica averages about 100 inches of rain during the year. For those who enjoy the rain, some areas in the mountains can get as much as 300 inches of rain during the year. For those concerned with working on their tan, don’t fret. Being so close to the Equator, Costa Rica averages about 12 hours of daylight all year long.
Costa Rica has six separate weather zones, each having some unique conditions. The zones are broken down into the North, Northern Pacific, Central Pacific, Central Valley, Southern Pacific and the Caribbean. The lowland areas tend to be drier and warmer, while higher regions get more rain and cooler temperatures. The Central Valley averages about 72 degrees, thanks to cool coastal breezes.
While the proximity to the Equator and its varying elevations are the major factors in Costa Rica weather, the trade winds also have a significant impact on the weather. The trade winds are tropical winds near the Equator, blowing from the northeast to the southeast.
Early sailors from Europe used the trade winds to sail the oceans. These winds, strongest in December, January and February, bring moisture to the forests during the dry season, but are blocked by warm air masses during the wet season, creating calmer wind and rain.
Fly a helicopter over an active volcano, hike through the rainforest, discovery the lush green lands of a mountainside on horseback, or live it up in the sun and surf; whatever you decide, Costa Rica has something for everyone.