First Impression: A seductive tropical oasis snuggled into exotic natural surroundings. Active travelers will not be disappointed, whether bird-watching and hiking or fighting raging rapids, touring a volcano and exploring two totally diverse ecosystems and cultures that are all in one region. With generous locals and year-round warm weather, and an area small enough to explore by car, there’s no over shooting in Costa Rica, no matter the time of year or “season.” Let the adventures begin.
Currency & Exchange: Travel costs are higher in Costa Rica than in most Central American countries, but cheaper than in the United States or Europe. Prices in Costa Rica are frequently listed in U.S. dollars, especially at upmarket hotels and restaurants, where you can expect to pay international prices. Some of the more popular tourist areas like Monteverde, Jacó, Manuel Antonio and many of the beaches on the Península de Nicoya are also more expensive than the rest of the country. Most types of tours are charged in U.S. dollars, which are widely accepted. But the standard unit of currency is still the colón (plural being colones), named after Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus). In general, paying with U.S. dollars should be hassle free. Major credit cards are widely accepted, typically with a transaction fee attached, at some midrange and most top-end hotels and restaurants. All car rental agencies accept credit cards. All banks will exchange U.S. dollars, and some will exchange euros and British pounds—other foreign currencies are more difficult—with no commission charge. Expect long lines, especially at the state-run institutions like Banco Nacional, Banco de Costa Rica and Banco Popular. Private banks like Banex, Banco Interfin and Scotiabank tend to be faster. Just make sure the dollar bills you want to exchange are in good condition or they may be refused. Taxes And Tipping: There’s a 13.39% sales tax at midrange and top-end hotels and restaurants, while hotels also charge an additional 3% tourist surcharge. Everybody must pay about U.S. $26 airport tax upon leaving the country. It is payable in U.S. dollars or in colones, and major credit cards are accepted. Tipping also is customary for bellhops, housekeepers at hotels, tour guides, bus drivers, taxi drivers, etc. When dining at top-end restaurants, be sure to check you bill for a possible 10% service charge already added onto the bill. Most banks and exchange bureaus will cash traveler’s checks at a small commission. Some hotels will accept them as payment, but check policies carefully because many hotels will not. U.S. dollar traveler’s checks are preferred, and it may be difficult or impossible to exchange cashier’s checks of other currencies.
ATM Machines: It’s becoming easier to find ATM’s, cajeros automáticos, in Costa Rica, even in the smallest towns. The Visa Plus network is the standard, but machines on the Cirrus network, which accepts most foreign ATM cards, can be found in larger cities and tourist towns. Specific ATMs in these areas also dispense US dollars, which is convenient for payments at top-end hotels and tour agencies. Throughout Costa Rica, you can pay for tours, park fees, hotel rooms, midrange to expensive meals and large-ticket items with U.S. dollars, but at local establishments, intimate boutiques, bus fares and small items in general should generally be paid with colones.
Getting There: A few people arrive in Costa Rica by sea, either on fishing or scuba charters or as part of a brief stop on a cruise. Others travel in by bus from neighboring countries. But the vast majority of travelers land at the airport in San José, with a growing number arriving in Daniel Oduber airport in Liberia, 20 minutes from Guanacaste, or The San Juan Airport (SJO) that's approximately 4 hours away, but may offer many more flight options and often better prices. International flights arrive at Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría, 17 km northwest of San José, in the town of Alajuela. Citizens of most nations are required to have a passport that is valid for at least 30 days beyond the date of your arrival in Costa Rica, and it will be stamped upon arrival. (See the Costa Rica Embassy website for specifics.) The law requires that you carry your passport at all times during your stay in Costa Rica. Numerous airlines fly to and from Costa Rica, Airline fares are usually more expensive during the Costa Rican high season (from December through April), with December and January the most expensive months to travel. Cruise ships also stop in Costa Rican ports, dumping passengers for a quick foray into the country. Ships typically dock at the Pacific port of Caldera (near Puntarenas) or the Caribbean port of Puerto Limón. To enter Costa Rica by car, you’ll need several things, including registration, proof of ownerships, a valid license and plates, and much more. See the Costa Rican guidelines for full details.
Getting Around: It's a good idea to consider your transportation needs early and often when planning travel in Costa Rica. It might seem that getting from place to place in such a small country would be a trivial task, but that isn’t the case, especially given the typography, ecosystems and the climate. You can avoid the pitfalls with pre-planning. There are many ways to get around Costa Rica, including numerous ferries, water taxis, car and/or motorcycle rental, and local bus services that are cheap but slower. But if you really want to explore Costa Rica, you’ll want to rent a car or motorcycle. Most car-rental agencies can be found at the airports, in San José and in popular tourist destinations on the Pacific coast (Tamarindo, Jacó, Quepos and Puerto Jiménez). Many agencies will insist on 4-wheel-drive for extended travel, especially in the rainy season, when driving through rivers is a matter of course. To rent a car you need a valid driver’s license, a major credit card and a passport. The minimum age for car rental is 21. Inspect the car and note any prior damage on the rental agreement, and if your car breaks down, call the rental company. Don’t attempt to get the car fixed yourself; most companies won’t reimburse expenses without prior authorization. Rental rates fluctuate, so make sure you shop around before you commit to anything. Some agencies offer discounts if you reserve online or if you rent for long periods of time, and rental offices at the airport may charge a fee in addition to regular rates. All of the major international rental agencies have outlets in Costa Rica, but sometimes you can get a better deal from a local company. Motorcycles (including Harleys) can be rented in San José and Escazú. Keep a daypack with important documents on you at all times, and never leave them or anything important in your rental car, which thieves cans easily spot. When possible, park in guarded garages rather than on the streets and always lock the car!
When to Go: Costa Rica has two seasons: Summer (vernal) and winter (environ), which are also known as the “dry season” and “rainy season” from a meteorological perspective, or the “high season” and “low season” in the tourist industry. Most beaches have warm water throughout the year, so you can enjoy Costa Rica any season you prefer. Costa Rica's high season for tourism runs from late November to late April, which makes it a perfect escape from the chilly winters in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. The high season is also the driest season, which makes beach days spot on and sun kissed. But prices are higher, attractions are more crowded, and reservations need to be made in advance since Costa Rica is a Roman Catholic country and the holidays are in full throttle. Locals call the tropical rainy season (May through mid-Nov) the "green season," as even the temporarily brown and barren Guanacaste province becomes lush and verdant green. There are far fewer fellow travelers, and the rain is often limited to a few hours each afternoon – plus, rates are lower. Some of the country's rugged roads can become completely impassable without four-wheel-drive during the rainy season. In general, the best time of year to visit is in December and January, when everything is still green from the rains, but the sky is clear. If you don’t mind some spots of rain and an erratic climate, the year-round warm beach weather makes visiting Costa Rica an ideal option any time of year.
Weather: Costa Rica is a tropical country with multiple ecosystems. It has distinct wet and dry seasons, though it can be temperamental. Some regions are rainy all year, while others are very dry and sunny for most of the year. There are advantages to the high dry season, but many travelers actually prefer the low “rainy season.” Temperatures vary with elevations, not with seasons: On the coasts, it's warm to hot all year long, making it ideal for year-round visits. In the mountains, it can be cool at night any time of year. Frost is common at the highest elevations. Costa Ricans call the the rainy or “green” season from May to mid-November their “winter,” with average daily temperatures run 82- 94 Fº. June through October temps average 70-91 Fº. The dry season, considered “summer” by Costa Ricans, is from mid-November to April. In Guanacaste, the dry northwestern province, the dry season lasts several weeks longer than in other places, which is great for beach lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Even in the rainy season, days often start sunny, with rain falling in the afternoon and evening. On the Caribbean coast, especially south of Limón, you can count on rain year round, though in September and October it actually manages to get less rain than the rest of the country. Weather-wise, the best time of year to visit is in December and January, when everything is still green from the rains, but the sky is clear – beautiful and dry for daily adventures.
Local Flavor: Costa Rica offers tremendous variety of international cuisine on the menus in the more touristy areas, as well as regional staples best found off the beaten path. Rice and beans are the bases of Costa Rican meals—all three of them. At breakfast, they're called gallo pinto and come with everything from eggs to steak to seafood. Popular appetizers include bocas like gallos (tortillas piled with meat, chicken, cheese, or beans), ceviche (a marinated seafood salad), tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves), patacones (fried green plantain chips), and fried yuca. San José is the gastronomic capital of the country, as well as tourist driven regions. Global cuisines of the world are served at moderate prices in Guanacaste and in San José, where it gets even cheaper outside the city. You can find several excellent French, Italian and contemporary fusion restaurants, as well as Peruvian, Japanese, Swiss, and Spanish establishments. Less-expensive Costa Rican, or típico, food is primarily served in “sodas,” the equivalent of a U.S. “diner.” Outside the capital and major tourist destinations, your options get very limited. But you can find fun flavors for all tastes in these areas with an eclectic culinary scene that includes everything from down-home local cooking to American, Spanish, Asian, Italian, Pan-Asian, Southwestern American and Pacific Rim fusion cuisines. The gastronomy of Guanacaste, which has a strong Native American influence, is also memorable. The products of the area are mainly based on maize, some of them are bizcochos (or biscuits), tortillas, pozol, and rice with maize. Satisfy your sweet tooth with the popular cajetas, a caramel treat. In the central area you’ll find many appealing places, like Puntarenas and its cruise-ship landing pier. Famous gastronomy includes well-known and varied seafood dishes, like ceviche (marinated/pickled fish in lemon and/or vinegar) and baked whole fish. Other specialties of the region are the churchil, made with frappée ice and different flavors, condensed and powdered milk and ice cream, "mate" and fruit salads. Restaurants billing a “mirador” mean they offer a view. You just may find a spot to have a cocktail and a scenic view worth it’s mileage in pictures and memories alone.
Nightlife: Costa Rica is a decidedly open-minded, very casual yet eclectic destination, with a plethora of nightlife options on deck after the sun sets. There a wide variety of bars and outdoor cafés among the many areas of Costa Rica, including jazz or live music venues, hip-hop clubs, rock outfits, surfer joints, dancing spots and your typical restaurant/bar type scenes and outdoor cafés. Puerto Viejo is a small beach town on the southern end of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast is one of the most active after-dark scenes in the country. There are several hot spots, as well as a few after-hours beach bonfires and jam sessions.
Coffee Culture: No beans about it, Costa Rica is famous for its coffee. Since the middle of the 19th century, the coffee bean and coffee production has played important social, economic, even political roles, and it still does today as the country’s number three exporter. Although coffee plantations are scattered throughout Costa Rica, the fertile highland areas surrounding San Jose and the Tilaran Mountain range extending to Monteverde are ideal climates for bean farming. It’s famous for its gourmet coffee beans, with Costa Rican Tarrazú among the finest Arabica coffee beans in the world used for making espresso coffee, along with Jamaican Blue Mountain, Guatemalan Antigua and Ethiopian Sidamo. Costa Rica even hosts an annual festival in honor of National Coffee Day to pay homage to the bean and the very important coffee industry. Awarded is a Cup of Excellence for the highest quality of coffee produced in Costa Rica. Plantation tours are a can’t-miss and packed with culture and history, and typically include visits to the coffee fields, roasters and cafés for a great cup of java.
Retail Therapy: In Costa Rica you can just about find everything from large shopping malls, marketplaces, trendy boutiques, small hide-away shops and street venders. Some of the largest places to shop include Multiplaza in Escazu, Mall San Pedro, Paseo de las Flores in Heredia and TerraMall in Tres Rios (on the way to Cartago from San José). Most of these malls are a lot like U.S. malls with large food courts. Throughout the Central Valley and tourist beaches, there are many other shopping centers, many with great local restaurants and other common living conveniences. One of the largest draws is the San José Central Market, but it’s crowded and filled with small booths selling everything under the sun. TIP: Always keep a good grip on your purse and put your wallet in the front pocket. When possible, it's highly recommeneded to avoid wearing any expensive looking jewelry.
Blue Flag Beaches: There are 762 miles of breathtaking Costa Rican coastlines along the Pacific and the Caribbean that are part of a complex pro-nature system known as the Ecological Blue Flag, an award given to 56 of its beaches throughout the territory. This program was implemented because of Costa Rica´s commitment to sustainability and environmental protection. This means, you are guaranteed to spend your time on beautiful, clean and safe beaches during your visit. The beaches of Costa Rica vary in looks and what they offer. Many are surrounded by forestry with great natural diversity, and there’s easy access to both coasts. Each offers different shades and textures of sand—white, yellow, gray and black, the product of the constant crashing of seashells on coral reefs. Many have beautiful coral reefs teeming with marine life that you can dive and explore, and depending where you visit, there’s also hikes to mangroves, diving, surfing, sport fishing, hiking on trails or horseback rides.
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