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Tourist Profile: Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the second smallest country in Central America after El Salvador and lies between Nicaragua and Panama and has coastlines on the Caribbean and the Pacific. Costa Rica, is Spanish for "rich coast" and not surprisingly for a country which is mostly coastline, Costa Rica has some of the region's best surfing, plenty beaches and a climate that encourages laziness in all forms. It has a reputation for being an oasis of calm among its turbulent neighbours and its natural attractions, wildlife and inhabitants draw tourists from all over the world. Governments have made a real effort to preserve the country's image as an eco-tourism heaven, making Costa Rica one of the best places to experience the tropics naturally and with minimal impact. Costa Rica is called the Country of Eternal Spring. All through the year the fauna flowers and grows. Besides the beautiful coastlines 25% of the country exists of national parks. The Ticos, the Costa Ricans, are famous for being hospitable, and are quite happy to live up to their reputation. It has been said the Ticos are their nation's greatest asset, and once you've experienced their friendliness and spontaneity, you'll no doubt agree.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

Costa Rica can exists of 7 provinces Set in the heart of the country, in its province of the same name, surrounded by towering green mountains, is San José, the capital city and center of cultural life in Cost Rica with a population of 336,537 (1998 estimate).Most visitors start and end in San José. Visit the many museums like the Museo Nacional, Museo del Oro Precolombino and Mudeo de Jade. Don't miss the Teatro Nacional, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the post office building and other most exciting places. The best market is Mercado Central, which bustles rather than buzzes, but has a range of goods from live turkeys to leatherwork, and some of the cheapest meals in town. Nightlife in San José is vibrant and international restaurants are plentiful.

There are many parks which you can visit, but the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa you have to see. It's the oldest and one of the best developed national parks in Costa Rica. It covers most of the Península Santa Elena. It protects the largest remaining stand of tropical dry forest in Central America. Another park you really ought to visit is Parque Nacional Tortuguero (tortuguero means turtle catcher). The remote Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean Coast near the fishing town of Tortuguero, is known for its turtle nesting. At various times of the year, green, hawksbill, loggerhead, and giant leatherback turtles lumber up the beaches here and deposit their eggs for safe keeping. In the park you may see freshwater turtles, crocodiles, manatees, tapirs, jaguars, anteaters, ocelots, howler monkeys, and other animals.

If you are a animal lover, the Monteverde Reserve, most famous forest, home to more than 400 species of birds, 100 species of mammals, 490 species of butterflies, and thousands of species of plants, is the place to be. Most people come hoping for a glimpse of the forest's most famous bird, the resplendent quetzal, regarded by many as the most beautiful bird in the Americas. As little is Costa Rica may seem there are many more attractions you can pay a visit to e.g. Puerto Limón, (a trading centre and one of the country's principal ports, you'll find a taste of Caribbean cultures.). In the beautiful cattle-raching province of Guanacaste with many gorgeous beaches, volcanoes (e.g. Rincón de la Vieja) and a tropical climate you can have a taste of the sabanero (cowboy) culture which dominates here, with exuberant rag-tag rodeos and large cattle haciendas. Go surfing, wind-surfing, snorkeling, diving, deep sea fishing or just the ordinary swimming at one of the many beaches.

Costa Rica's weather is influenced by altitude. The Pacific coast is drier while the Atlantic coast has the most rainfall - about 300 days a year. The temperature from a high of 24-27 º C, to a low of 14-16 º C. The wet season is from May to October. The hottest months are March and April. The late-December to mid-April dry season is the most pleasant. But of course, this is when everyone else goes, so prices are up and hotels are full. Although some roads are impassable in the wet season, it's still worthwhile to visit at this time, and things are much quieter. April, May and mid-October to mid-December should give you the best of both worlds.

Currency: Costa Rican colón

Meals
  • Budget: US$5-10
  • Mid-range: US$10-20
  • Top-end: US$25 and upwards
Lodging
  • Budget: US$5-15
  • Mid-range: US$20-30
  • Top-end: US$50 and upwards

If you're coming from one of the poorer neighbourhoods such as Nicaragua or Honduras, Costa Rica can strike you as the rather well-to-do Central American cousin with a proportionately high-dollar lifestyle. In reality, it's a fast-developing country with an unabashed interest in the tourist dollar that, nevertheless, still has hotels and nosheries for the shoe-string traveller. If you're traveling with someone else and don't mind a bit of grunge living and a few low-rent meals, you should be able to scrape by on US$20 a day. If you're planning to have your own bathroom, eat decently and catch an occasional plane, US$30-60 should cover your needs. Travelers expecting to be very comfortable can easily spend US$100-150 per day, depending on their definition of comfort. The best tours cost upwards of US$200 per day, but these include flights and first-class accommodations and services. If you want to change cash, stick to US dollars (but make sure they're in decent condition and avoid US$100 bills - due to a counterfeiting scam, most Costa Ricans won't touch them).

US dollars are your best bet for traveler's checks as well, as other currencies will rarely be accepted - any of the major brands will do. If you buy colones with your credit card, expect to get hit with a huge interest bill. Banco Popular, ATH and Credomatic have the largest number of ATMs and their networks often extend as far as the smaller towns and cities. Some banks though, like branches of Banco Nacional, accept cards held by their customers only. Visa and Mastercards are the most widely-accepted credit cards; you may have some trouble with American Express. You don't usually need to bother with tipping at restaurants, as most add a 10% tip (plus 15% tax) to the bill. You should tip bellboys and room cleaners about US$0.50, tour guides US$1-5 a day per person. Of course, if the service is excellent or lousy you should use your own discretion.

Mystery shrouds pre-Columbian Costa Rica: Few archaeological monuments and no proof of a written language have ever been discovered. Recorded history tends to begin with Christopher Columbus, who stayed for 17 days in 1502, and was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, 'the rich coast'. Despite the lure of untold wealth, colonisation was slow to take hold and it took nearly 60 years for the Spanish settlers to make a dent in the tangled jungle. Once the process had started, however, Costa Rica, like its similarly-colonised neighbours, suffered the effects of European invasion.

The indigenous population did not have the necessary numbers or organization to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases. Adding to its initial ignominy, the hoped for hoards of gold never materialised and Costa Rica remained a forgotten backwater for many years. The 18th century saw the establishment of settlements such as Heredia, San José and Alajuela but it was not until the introduction of coffee in 1808 that the country registered on the radars of the 19th-century white-shoe brigade and frontier entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. Coffee brought wealth, a class structure, a more outward-looking perspective, and most importantly independence.

A bizarre turn of events in 1856 provided one of the first important landmarks in the nation's history and served to unify the people. During the term of coffee-grower-turned-president Juan Rafael Mora, a period remembered for the country's economic and cultural growth, Costa Rica was invaded by US military adventurer William Walker and his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized an army of 9000 civilians that, against all odds, succeeded in forcing Walker & Co to flee. The ensuing years of the 19th century saw power struggles among members of the coffee-growing elite and the institution of the first democratic elections which has since been a hallmark of Costa Rican politics. Civil war, however, did raise its ugly head in the 1940s when ex-president Calderón and his successor, Picado, lined up against the recent ballot-winner Ulate (whose election win was not recognized by Picado's government) and José Figueres.

After several weeks of warfare Figueres emerged victorious, formed an interim government and handed the presidency to Ulate. The constitution of 1949 finally gave women and blacks the vote and, controversially, dismantled the country's armed forces - giving Costa Rica the sobriquet of 'the only country which doesn't have an army'. President Oscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his attempts to spread Costa Rica's example of peace to the rest of Central America. The peace has, in recent years, been disturbed by upheavals of a different kind. In July 1996, Hurricane César resulted in several dozen deaths and the cutting off of much of southern Costa Rica from the rest of the country. The Interamericana Highway was closed for about two months and the overall damage was estimated at about US$100 million.

The ill-famed Hurricane Mitch of November 1998 caused substantial damage to Costa Rica, but the most catastrophic events occurred in the countries to the north, especially Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In February 1998 the Social Christian Unity Party's Miguel Angel Rodríguez won the presidency with almost exactly 50% of the vote. A conservative businessman who made the economy his priority, he went on to privatize state companies and encourage foreign investments in an effort to create jobs. By the time the February 2002 elections rolled around, however, ticos were mumbling about a lack of government transparency and shady deals between political mates. These grass-roots misgivings resulted in a 'no win' election, and pollsters returned to the ballot box in April 2002. Rodríguez's successor, Abel Pacheco of the conservative Social Christian Unity Party, was elected to step up to the president's ring.

Costa Rica is noted more for its natural beauty and friendly people than for its culture. The overwhelming European influence erased almost all indigenous culture, and because Costa Rica was a country of subsistence agriculturalists until the middle of the 19th century, cultural activity has only begun to blossom in the last 100 years. By some estimates, over 90% of the country is Roman Catholic, at least in principle. In practice, most church attendance takes place at christenings, funerals and marriages. Blacks on the Caribbean coast tend to be Protestant, and there is a sprinkling of other denominations in San José, including a small Jewish community.

Spanish is the official language, though English is understood in touristed areas. Many Caribbean blacks speak a lively dialect of English, known as Creole. Indian languages are spoken in isolated areas, primarily Bribri, which is estimated to be understood by about 10,000 people.

No one goes to Costa Rica for the cuisine. Although traditional dishes run to the South American staples of beef, chicken and fish dishes, with rice, corn or beans and fresh fruit as supplements, most of this fare has given way to the ubiquitous pizza and burger option. And even these can only be included in 'cuisine' by stretching the definition to its breaking point. Also be warned that ticos love to spice up European dishes with salt - lots of it. We're talking lip-puckering, instant-dehydrating, body-shuddering proportions. On the positive side, their coffee is sublime. Even the coffee that accompanies the limp burger from the fast food joint is a cut above your average North American cup of coffee.