Central / South America

Costa Rica: “Pura Vida”

Walking through a beautiful rainforest in Costa Rica | Photo credit: Délirante Bestiole

Costa Rica was, at one time, a lesser-known country in Central America.

But no longer … It seems that every third person you speak with – be it neighbour, friend, relative or business associate – is about to go to Costa Rica “next week”. And with good reason. The country is hot, hot, hot … and getting hotter.

Costa Rica, which means “Rich Coast”, has now been “discovered” and is considered a heaven by many, even though it has only recently begun to see more and more visitors flocking to its rivers, rain forest canopies, and Spanish-influenced cities and towns.

Although most of the country lies in a tropical zone, twelve different climates make up part of Costa Rica’s natural diversity. And this accounts for the many reasons that people are spending time here. It’s all about the diversity of things to do.

Costa Rica occupies an advantageous area in the heart of Central America. While its territory of 50,898 square kilometres touches both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and is bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, the country is surprisingly accessible – one can travel coast to coast in just three hours by car.

In this small area of firm land, there are 1226 kilometres of coastlines, distributed alongside the Pacific and the Caribbean. The Caribbean region of Costa Rica stands out for its variety of aquatic ecosystems and its beautiful white and black sand beaches, providing an ideal setting for activities such as sport fishing, snorkelling, and just plain lazy sunbathing. The Pacific coast is where large concentrates of tourist centres are situated and its beaches are very popular for surfing. Offshore, along much of the coastline, there are beautiful coral reefs, where one can dive to one’s heart content. Costa Rica’s beaches are surrounded by forests, and have great natural diversity. In addition, depending on the areas visited, there are numerous activities such as hikes to mangroves or hiking the trails on horseback.

If you travel throughout the provinces of Costa Rica, you will notice variations in the landscape, and climate. Costa Rica’s territorial regions include seven provinces: San José, Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Limón. During your travels, you will find rainforests, volcanoes, rivers traveling through the mountains and magnificent natural resources safeguarded by an organization of national parks and forest reserves.

Here are some interesting tidbits about Costa Rica

The red-eyed tree frog is just one of Costa Rica's natural wonders | Photo credit: Matt MacGillivray qmnonic.tumblr.com

Costa Rica is home to a rich variety of plants and animals. While the country has only about 0.25 percent of the world’s landmass, it contains 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Approximately 25 percent of the country’s land area is in protected national parks and protected areas.

One national park that is internationally renowned among ecologists for its biodiversity (including big cats and tapirs) and where visitors can expect to see an abundance of wildlife is the Corcovado National Park. Corcovado is the one park in Costa Rica where all four Costa Rican monkey species can be found.

Tortuguero National Park (the name Tortuguero can be translated as “Full of Turtles”) is home to spider, howler, and white-throated Capuchin monkeys; the three-toed sloth and two-toed sloth; 320 species of birds; and a variety of reptiles. The park is recognized for the annual nesting of the endangered green turtle and is the most important nesting site for the species. Giant leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles also nest there.

Some seven hundred species of birds have been identified in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is a center of biological diversity for reptiles and amphibians, including the world’s fastest running lizard, the spiny-tailed iguana.

And on a lighter note …

  • “Pura Vida” is the most recognizable in Costa Rica. It reflects the Costa Rican way of life. Often, people walking down the street, or buying food at shops say hello by saying “Pura Vida” which means pure life or good life. A recommended response to “How are you?” would be “Pura Vida”.
  • Ticos (local slang for Costa Ricans) often give coffee to their babies and children.
  • Great Costa Rican foods include: gallo pinto (painted rooster), which is rice mixed with black beans and eggs.
  • Traditional ice creams come in flavours like wild blackberry, peanut, coconut, green mango and sour cream
  • Limes are lemons.
  • Costa Ricans have a fondness for 80’s action movies. Films starring Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme are frequently shown on local TV.

To get to Costa Rica, you will no doubt, fly into the San José International Airport, or as it is known, the Juan Santamaria International Airport, which is the first and oldest airport in Costa Rica. It was named after the brave drummer boy Juan Santamaria, who died in the Battle of Rivas in 1856 defending his country against the invading forces of American invader William Walker. The primary airport in Costa Rica, the San José International Airport is about a 20 minute drive to most major hotels and accommodations in the San José area. The airport also serves as a domestic flight terminal for those wishing to travel within the country itself.

When is the best time to visit you ask?

Photo credit: Raphaël Fauveau

Because Costa Rica is located just north of the Equator, the climate is tropical year round. However, the country has many microclimates depending on elevation, rainfall, topography, and by the geography of each particular region.

Costa Rica’s seasons are defined by how much rain falls during a particular period. The year can be split into two periods; the dry season known to the residents as summer, and the rainy season, known as winter. The summer or dry season is between December and April, and winter or rainy season is between May and November.

The high season in Costa Rica is from December through April. It is less likely that it will rain, and in some areas (notably Guanacaste) the wildlife is concentrated near shrinking water sources and easier to spot. During this period there are a extra few hours of sunshine every day as at this latitude the days are longer.

The rainy season (May through November) has been dubbed the ‘green season’. If you are thinking about a trip to Costa Rica during the green season, don’t let the weather inhibit your plans. After all, one of the reasons you may be visiting is the ‘green’.

Chances are you will spend some time first in San José, which is the capital and largest city of Costa Rica. Located in the Central Valley, San José is the seat of national government, the focal point of political and economic activity, and the major transportation hub of the country.

Founded in 1738, San José is one of the youngest capital cities in Latin America, though it was not named capital until 1823. Today, San José is a contemporary city with bustling commerce, brisk expressions of art and architecture and it is a popular destination for foreign visitors.

Some of the highlights to visit while in the capital are: When you are in San José, keep your eyes and ears open for Irazu, which happens to be almost right alongside the city just 30 kilometres away. Historically, Irazu is the most active volcano in the country. Irazu, which translated means “Mountain of tremors and fire”, reaches into the sky some 3,432 metres above sea level, has five craters and is also a national park. Its summit can be reached by car, and you can view the main crater of the volcano, and see a stunning, sulphurous, turquoise-green lagoon measuring more than a kilometre in diameter. The first recorded eruption of this volcano occurred in 1732 and its last active period ended in 1963. Irazu seems to be asleep now, but who knows for how long …

Other sites to see are The National Museum, which preserves the cultural and natural heritage, Our Lady of Solitude Church, which was constructed in the middle of the 19th century, the Metropolitan Cathedral, a statue of John Paul II, which was sculpted by Jorge Jiménez Deredia. (The artist sought to express the human aspect and close relationship that Pope John Paul II had with people. It was placed on the north end of the Metropolitan Cathedral in 2006), the Central Bank Museum, Central Park (Yes there are other Central Parks) and the Central Market.

World Heritage Sites

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seek to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. Currently, there are three World Heritage Sites in Costa Rica.

But Costa Rica is all about the eco-system and the renowned biodiversity of the country. After all, it’s probably one of the primary reasons that you want to visit … and you will not be disappointed!

Costa Rica is considered to be one of the twenty biodiverse countries in the world. Its geographic position, two coasts and its mountainous system, which provides numerous and varied microclimates, are some of the reasons that explain this natural phenomenon. So, when planning your trip, here is what to plan for based on your interests …

But, a Canopy Tour is a “For sure let’s do it honey” activity to plan for … The Canopy Tour is the closest experience to enable one to feel like a monkey travelling in the tree tops, and is also one of the unsurpassed ways to explore the richness of the canopy, where the prevalent amounts of the forest´s biodiversity is found. The tour consists of a series of suspended cables attached from tree to tree on which you can glide along using a pulley that is secured to alpinism equipment. Cables vary in length and end in small wooden platforms built in the tops of trees, which are located up to 100 feet above the jungle floor. Biologists were the first ones who, more than three decades ago, began using this technique to conduct their research. So successful and biologically safe are these tours that the techniques have been adapted to a great variety of environments and regions within the country, including mountains, canyons, rivers, waterfalls and other tropical forests. And then, keep your cameras at the ready! These birds cannot go unnoticed! Its plumage is mostly scarlet but its tail-covered feathers are light blue, making the Scarlet Macaw one of the most beautiful birds of the American tropics. Often seen in pairs, and sometimes in flocks of several hundred, these magnificent birds are a spectacle that is impossible to forget. One interesting thing about Macaws is that they are not only monogamous but also form only one couple in their entire life, meaning that if any of the two dies, the other remains alone, which could be a long time, taking into account that these birds can live as long as 50 years or more.

There is a place in Costa Rica where the energy of of the wildlife and visitors become one, and where the water is a mirror reflecting the abundant foliage all around. Surrounded by a system of natural canals and lagoons, Tortuguero National Park is without any doubt one of the most important areas in the world for the protection of the green turtle and home of other extraordinary species such as the manatee, the American crocodile and the Gaspar fish, which is considered a living fossil. Majestic birds such as the Great Blue Heron, the biggest heron in the country, and the Northern Jacana, famous in the animal world because the female protects the territory while the male nests the eggs, populate and thrive in this environment. The birds are so diverse that they account for approximately half of the species found in Costa Rica and surpass the number of species found in Europe. But Tortuguero is not only about nature. Being on the Caribbean side, it is one of the larger regions of Afro-Caribbean culture in the country. The majority of its population is of Jamaican origin and to this day maintain their roots and traditions.

The Arenal Volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the world | Photo credit: Scott Robinson

As part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Costa Rica’s volcanoes, often referred to as Costa Rica’s Marvels of Fire, are among the most fascinating in the world. The landmass known as Costa Rica is the result of complex volcanic activity that took place some 75 million years ago and continues still today. Counting every location or crater where an eruption has occurred within its borders, Costa Rica volcanoes boast a stunning 112 sites throughout the country. You will want to visit Arenal Volcano, listed among the 10 most active volcanoes in the world: this volcano regularly provides a spectacle, showing itself off with loud rumbling sounds and occasional rock avalanches, as well as smoke, ash and lava eruptions that descend its slope at speeds reaching 70 kilometres per hour. You can get only so close though … lava temperatures reach 1,000 degrees Celsius. Thermal hot springs are now the area’s main attraction, most of which boast feature trails and numerous lookout points.

The largest rainforest in Costa Rica is La Amistad International Park, which encompasses some 200,000 hectare. It is also the only bi-national park, created by the governments of Costa Rica and Panama in 1982. It could explain the name La Amistad, which means “friendship” in Spanish. In both countries La Amistad is nearly 400.000 hectares, which covers a great variety of humid, rain and cloud forests in the Pacific and Atlantic sides. The enormous cultural richness and extraordinary natural habitats was the reason the park was also designated a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Species in great danger of extinction such as the jaguar, the largest feline in the Americas and third largest world-wide habitat the park, as well as a great variety of wildlife, which includes 400 species of birds, 263 species of amphibians and reptiles and 213 of mammals.

Tourtles have inhabited our earth for more than 100 million years, surviving extreme climatic changes, including ice ages. Costa Rica has some of the most important nesting beaches in the world where it is still possible to witness this old survival ritual. Located on the Pacific as well as the Atlantic coasts, hundreds of female sea turtles representing five different species, arrive on on these beaches to carry out their tireless mission to guarantee their survival. Ostional Beach, on the northern Pacific coast, is considered the main nesting site for the Olive Ridley turtle, which is famous for its large mass arrivals.

A few local Customs and Etiquette

Say Hello. 
Men shake hands when greeting one another and maintain direct eye contact. 
At a first meeting a handshake will suffice and is sometimes combined with slight touches on the arms.

At a first meeting, women shake hands or give a light touch on the forearm. 
Friends and close acquaintances generally kiss each other once on the cheek.

At a first meeting a regular handshake will do. Friends, family and close acquaintances may share a light kiss on the cheek.

Don’t put your thumb in between your middle and index finger while making a fist. It is an obscene gesture.

Don’t put your feet on the furniture. It is considered extremely bad form.

Don’t get excessively drunk in public. It can be seen as impolite and people might think you are not a trustworthy person.

Costa Ricans are polite, non-confrontational people who treat even that perhaps they do not care for with respect.

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