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Gorgeous Costa Rica is known for its spectacular natural beauty and biodiversity, and contains 15 different ecosystems. All enjoy dramatic changes in landscapes, climate, and nature, with magnificent beaches stretching for miles along unspoilt coastline. Pristine cloud forests high on the mountains are alive with mysterious sounds while below splendid rainforests are packed with life.
The country is famous for its progressive approach to conservation. Indeed, it is the prime eco-tourism destination in Central America due to its wealth of protected areas. Over 25 percent of the country consists of these regions, spread between 75 different national parks, wildlife refuges, and biological reserves.
In such a small geographical area, it is surprising how much there is to see and do. A holiday in Costa Rica offers activities to suit all travellers and any mood, from action to relaxation. These include surfing, snorkelling, sunbathing, horse riding, hiking, wildlife-spotting, deep sea fishing, and river cruises. Alternatively, one can also simply enjoy a soak in the hot springs.
Costa Rica's wealth of attractions will enchant even the most jaded of travellers, with stunning national parks, wildlife refuges and biological reserves accounting for no less than 25 percent of the land. Adventurous visitors can be assured of many opportunities for world-class surfing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, white water rafting, canyoning, climbing, and zip-lining, and those inclined to relax will find sun-tanning, swimming, and snorkeling galore on the destination's beautiful beaches.
The northwest region of Costa Rica is famous for two spectacular national parks: the Arenal Volcano National Park, with the active Volcan Arenal at its heart, and the world-renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a unique and awe-inspiring wilderness area that dazzles visitors with its mystical atmosphere. Fortuna is a good base from which to explore the region, and a visit to the Monteverde community, spread in the hills of the cloud forest, is a fascinating excursion.
The Pacific coast is well developed for tourism and is scattered with picturesque villages and great beaches. Jaco is a beach resort town that is perfect for surfing, sunning, and partying.
Puntarenas, the largest town in the region and a popular stop for cruises, is also a good base for exploring the area. The Manuel Antonio National Park is the most celebrated reserve of the region and, here, travellers will find a captivating variety of wildlife, as well as the chance to enjoy numerous adventure activities.
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is becoming increasingly popular, thanks to its more relaxed atmosphere and less-developed infrastructure for tourism. It exists as a beach haven, its local communities generally friendly towards tourists. Puerto Limon is a bit rundown, but receives regular cruise passengers and acts as a doorway into the stunning coastal areas and pristine rainforests of Caribbean Costa Rica.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a popular tourist destination nestled on the coast. The best parks in this area are the Cahuita National Park, which protects a wondrous coral reef and is a treat for divers and snorkellers, and the Tortuguero National Park in the north, a famous breeding ground for sea turtles.
San Jose sits in the middle of this natural wonderland of a country, and is a lively and modern city with good shopping, restaurants and nightlife. It has some architecturally beautiful colonial areas and a few great museums. From this urban centre, visitors will find a magnificent list of things to see and do in Costa Rica.
The Arenal Volcano National Park is situated in what is known as the 'Energetic Heart of Costa Rica'. At its centre is the 5,356 foot (1,633m) Volcan Arenal, a typically cone-shaped volcano despite being highly active, with some huge eruptions and larva flows that killed thousands of people in 1968. Although perpetually active, the degree of activity is unpredictable, ranging from rumbling and ground shaking to a smouldering red glow best visible at night. Sometimes visitors are treated to a fiery display of red-hot rocks being thrown into the air. The park has some good trails that go through forests, passing through the area that was flattened in the 1968 eruption, or across lava fields, but fences are in place to stop people from venturing too far up the dangerous slopes. There is also a good chance of seeing some of the wildlife in the forest. The Visitor Centre has video displays of the volcano's more exciting activity. It is not possible to stay overnight in the park or visit it after dark unless on one of the night tours from Fortuna.
Despite its isolation on the northern part of the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park is an extremely popular destination and one of the most important nesting sites of the green sea turtle, which lays its eggs here between July and October each year. Three other turtle species also use the beach as a nesting ground, namely the giant leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles. The park covers an area of over 120 square miles (189 sq km), protecting not only the turtle beach, but also wetlands, swamps, forests, and one of the most developed reefs in the country. Nature trails in the park offer opportunities for wildlife viewing and birding and a network of waterways serves as an alternative method of transportation and exploration. Approximately 50 percent of Costa Rica's bird and reptile species are found in the park along with a diversity of flora and fauna, including endangered mammals such as the jaguar, sloth, tapir, and manatee. Most visitors come to watch the spectacular sight of thousands of marine turtles laying their eggs or to observe the hatching.
The only coral reef on the Costa Rican Caribbean coastline is found within this national park and, with 500 species of fish, it affords excellent opportunities for snorkelling. Apart from the vibrant underwater colours and fish, there are two sunken ships to explore as well. The park was established in 1970 to protect the coral reef, but unfortunately it is still seriously threatened. While the land area of Cahuita National Park is small, it has stunning beaches and is good for both land and water activities, making it one of the most visited parks on the Caribbean coast. A well-defined trail runs through the coastal rainforest and howler monkeys and sloths are among the wildlife attractions. The area is also great for bird watching and may reward visitors with sightings of the striking blue butterflies found in the jungle. The hike to the beach is flat and the path is easy to follow and winds through wonderful jungle scenery.
Manuel Antonio is the smallest national park in Costa Rica but also one of the more popular because of its beautiful white beaches, rocky headlands, and tropical rainforest. Among this varied landscape are typical Costa Rican animals such as sloths, agoutis, monkeys, and iguanas. It has a well-developed trail system for solo explorers, but knowledgeable local guides are also available at the park entrance. Picnic areas are situated along the coastal trails, and visitors can admire the views from clifftop lookouts. Friendly Quepos is the nearest town to the park and is also the sport-fishing centre in the region. Sailfish and marlin are the sought after deep-sea prizes. Apart from fishing, there are zip line tours of the jungle canopy, which are thrilling and fun, and there is even a surf school located in the park. There are also a few spas located on the outskirts for those who want some pampering after an active day in the jungle.
Fortuna is the nearest village to the spectacular Volcan Arenal. It has uninterrupted views of the volcano and provides a comfortable base for visiting the national park and other attractions. There are many tour operators in town offering night trips to see the red-hot volcanic activity from up close. Other tours provide a luxurious soak in the hot springs while taking in the astounding show of bright red larva coursing down the slopes. Visitors don't need a guide to enter the park and hike in the area but must have a guide to visit at night. Trips to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, and the Arenal Butterfly Conservatory, are also popular excursions, as is horse riding to the nearby waterfalls and their pools. Close to Fortuna is Lake Arenal, a picturesque lake offering watersports, fishing, and stunning scenery. There are also some rivers close by: the Pena Blancas River is great for relaxing cruises, and, for the more adventurous, the Rio Toro River boasts some impressive white water rafting through deep gorges and big rapids (class 3 to 4).
Monteverde is a small community scattered along several kilometres of road that leads to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Originally bought for dairy farming, the reserve today is an integral part of Costa Rican society, known especially for their distinctive cheese that is sold throughout the country. After more hectares were added, it became the famous cloud forest reserve now so popular with tourists today. The village of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the reserve and has a cloud forest reserve of its own, although much less visited. Monteverde has a number of other attractions, such as the Butterfly Garden, the Serpentarium, a cheese factory, and art galleries. CASEM Handicrafts Cooperative, made up of 140 local artisans, sells handmade goods and the profits go towards supporting the local community. There is also the Hummingbird Gallery near the entrance to the reserve that has feeders attracting several species of hummingbird. Several nature and hiking trails allow visitors to amble through coffee and banana plantations or up onto the hilltops for views of the cloud forest. On a clear day, you might get a chance to spy Arenal Volcano, and lots of birds and wildlife.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, known to locals as Puerto Viejo (not to be confused with Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí in the northern lowlands), is a dusty little village lying between the forested mountains of Talamanca and the sea. The little town offers excellent surfing, an interesting mix of Afro-Caribbean and Bribri indigenous cultures, and delicious local food. The seven miles (12km) of coastline between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo further east is one of the most stunning stretches in Costa Rica, featuring popular beaches such as Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita and Punta Uva. There are many other activities in the area, including fishing and horse riding, cultural tours and home stays, as well as excursions to the nearby Cahuita National Park. Puerto Viejo has a vibrant nightlife and great local music, meaning it's a good base for those who enjoy a party.
Puerto Limon is known less for its sights than for its proximity to some of Costa Rica's top natural attractions. Many cruise liners lay over in the port to allow passengers the chance to take excursions, and independent travellers come here from San Jose, along the scenic Guapiles Highway, to use Puerto Limon as a base for exploring the coast. Just south of the city is the popular and beautiful beach of Playa Bonita, easily accessible by taxi or bus, and inland there are myriad scenic excursions to appreciate the volcanoes, lush valleys, tropical rainforests, and national parks. Travellers and cruise ship passengers can organise trips from Puerto Limon on an aerial tram that traverses across the rainforest canopy in the Braulio Carrillo National Park. They can also travel to Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, passing through exotic scenery en route. The more active can opt for white water rafting on the Reventazon River, or a horseback trek from a nearby ranch through the jungle. One of the most popular outings is a boat trip up the Tortuguero Canal, which runs parallel to the coastline from Puerto Limon to the Nicaraguan border, affording the chance to enjoy some spectacular scenery and get close to wildlife.
Located 135 miles (220km) northwest of San Jose, Liberia is not so much a tourist destination as a convenient travel hub and gateway to the stunning beaches of Northwest Costa Rica. Liberia is often called 'La Ciudad Blanca' (the White City) because of the pale gravel used to make its roads and the prevalence of white colonial buildings. One of its main attractions is the nearby Rio Negro Hot Spring. In fact, most of its prime attractions are located just outside of Liberia. It's ideally situated to explore some of the stunning national parks in Costa Rica, including Rincon de la Vieja Volcano and Santa Rosa National Park. Home to Costa Rica's second largest international airport, many tourists travel through Liberia on their Costa Rica holiday.
Costa Rica has a typically tropical climate, which means that the seasons are not distinct. There is little difference in temperature throughout the year, and there is a lot of rainfall, particularly from May to November. However, December to April gets significantly less rain.
Temperatures along the coast are hotter, averaging 89F (32C), although they are tempered down by welcome sea breezes. The highland areas are warm during the day and can be quite cool at night. The sun shines year round in Costa Rica and there is no real winter, which makes it a year-round holiday destination. The coolest months of the year are November, December and January, and the hottest months of the year are March, April and May, but there is not a big difference. Peak tourist season in Costa Rica is from November to April, but the weather is good all year round, so for those looking to avoid the crowds, it is better to visit out of season.
The Costa Rican colon (CRC) is divided into 100 centimos and is the official currency, although US dollars are also widely accepted. US dollars can be exchanged in banks and many hotels, but currency other than US dollars is difficult to exchange. Using black market exchange options is risky, as these unofficial outlets have been known to pass on counterfeit bills printed in Colombia. Banks close anywhere from 3pm to 4pm. Major credit cards are widely accepted; ATMs are available in major towns throughout the country, but it is advisable to always have some local cash handy.
Spanish is the official language, but English is widely spoken.
Electrical current is 120 volts, 60Hz. Flat two-pin plugs and three-pin (two flat blades with round grounding pin) plugs are in use.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Costa Rica. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Costa Rica. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days, provided the passport is for an endorsed British Citizen or British Overseas Territories Citizen. A British National (Overseas) does not require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Costa Rica. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Costa Rica. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Costa Rica. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Costa Rica. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid upon their arrival in Costa Rica. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
All foreign passengers to Costa Rica must have return or onward tickets, the necessary travel documentation for their next destination, and proof of sufficient funds to cover their stay in the country. Extensions of stay for those who are visa-exempt can be arranged on arrival. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required if visitors are arriving in Costa Rica from a country where yellow fever occurs, excluding Argentina and Panama, or if they are coming from Tanzania or Zambia. It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid are recommended, and a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required if visitors are arriving from a country where yellow fever occurs, excluding Argentina and Panama, or if they are coming from Tanzania or Zambia. There is a year-round risk of malaria in some regions of Costa Rica and advice should be taken on what areas are currently risky places to visit. Travellers should also find out the precautions and medication they must take to protect against the disease. Water in cities is generally safe but it is advisable to buy bottled water, especially outside the main towns where there is a risk of contamination. Dengue fever is one of a number of diseases carried by insects that also occur in this region, especially during the rainy season; protection against insect bites is the best prevention. Medical services are reliable in cities and the standard of hygiene and treatment is very high.
Hotels add a 10 percent service charge and a three percent tourist tax to their bills, and a tip of 10 percent is usual in tourist areas and at upmarket restaurant. Taxi drivers are not normally tipped but passengers can use discretion if it's been a long trip or there was intense traffic. People will often round off the fare to the nearest Costa Rican colon or US dollar. Tour guides, on the other hand, are normally tipped. In general, staff will appreciate a five to 10 percent tip if service has been particularly good.
There is no history of terrorism in Costa Rica, though there are incidents of violent crime that occasionally target tourists. There has been an increase in attacks on tourists leaving the airport in hired cars in San Jose, so visitors should watch their belongings carefully at all times and in all places, particularly in bus stations and on public transport. Theft of, and from, cars is common. It's advisable not to wear jewellery or carry large amounts of cash, and to avoid moneychangers on the street. Strikes, protests and blockades can take place without warning, and demonstrations could disrupt travel on main roads, particularly those connecting San Jose with the coast. Visitors should check local information and plan their trip carefully, so as to stay well away from these incidents where possible.
Costa Ricans are conservative when it comes to family values, and roles between male and female are expected to be traditional. Machismo is a key characteristic of Costa Rica culture, although women are quickly becoming more empowered in Tico society. The population is largely middle-class, Catholic, and ethnically homogenous.
Costa Rica has a formal business environment, where men and women wear conservative suits, appointments are made and meetings begin on time. Business projects can be slow, however, as Costa Ricans are conservative in their approach to new ideas and keen to avoid risk. Spanish is the main language, but most business people speak English. Nevertheless, it is polite to have business cards as well as other promotional material printed in both English and Spanish. A lot of women have high profile jobs but the business world, like the society in general, is still male dominated. Visiting businesswomen will be treated with respect once their ability and authority is clearly established. Hours of business are generally 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday with a two-hour lunch break from 12pm.
The international access code for Costa Rica is +506. Costa Rica has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America and WiFi is available in most hotels, restaurants, and cafes.
Travellers to Costa Rica over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 3 litres of alcohol; 500g of tobacco or 400 cigarettes or 50 cigars. Perfume for personal use is allowed provided it is a reasonable quantity.
Costa Rica Tourism Board, San Jose: www.visitcostarica.com
Embassy of Costa Rica, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 499 2991.
Embassy of Costa Rica, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0)20 7706 8844.
Embassy of Costa Rica, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 562 2855.
Costa Rica Consulate-General, Sydney, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 2 9262 3883
Honorary Consulate of Costa Rica, Johannesburg, South Africa: +27 (0)11 486 4716.
United States Embassy, San Jose: +506 2519 2000.
British Embassy, San Jose: +506 2258 2025.
Canadian Embassy, San Jose (also responsible for Australia): +506 2242 4400.
South African Consulate-General, San Jose: (+506) 222 1470
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