Costa Rica often conjures up images of paradise, and even for the intrepid traveller, the reality does not often disappoint. It is a tiny nation, with great topographical and cultural variety. You can be in the volcanic mountainous selva in the morning and sunning yourself on golden sandy beaches by the afternoon. There are few places in the world that provide such a compact playground for the budding backpacker.
In recent times, Costa Rica has drawn over one million visitors each year, from tourists wanting to explore the historic capital San José, to surf enthusiasts looking for that perfect, once in a lifetime Pacific wave. Nestling between the beautiful central American states of Nicaragua (to the North) and Panama (to the South), with the Pacific ocean to the West and the Caribbean Sea to the East, Costa Rica is well worth a lengthy stop-over if you are en-route to Central America. It also merits a trip in its own right.
- Currency: Costa Rican Colon (¢), American Dollars accepted for many transactions
- Time: GMT/UTC -6 ()
- Language: Spanish (official), English widely spoken.
- Telephone Service: Dialling code +506
- Emergency Numbers: All services 911
Being close to the equator, Costa Rica experiences a tropical climate. Typically for an equatorial country, the climate is divided into a dry and wet season. During the wet season (May - Nov/Dec) conditions are hot and wet. The hottest average temperatures are felt from March to May and the coolest from November to January. Average annual temperatures for most of the country lie between 21.7°C (71°F) and 27°C (81°F).
Rainfall patterns vary greatly across geographical areas and are not solely dependent on the seasons. Some areas receive an amazing 6 metres (18 ft) of precipitation per year, while others get under 1.5 metres (4 ft). Most of the rainfall typically falls over a two week period, often as successive days of unabating, torrential rain.
Costa Rica is a relatively mountainous country and for this reason you can find much cooler temperatures at altitude. San José, the capital, stands at approximately 1170 meters above sea level and has a mean annual temperature of 20.6°C (69°F). Costa Rica's mountain range, which forms an upland belt through the centre of the country, affects climatic conditions both on the Pacific and the Caribbean slope.
Things to See and Do
Starting off in the capital can be a good way to find your feet when embarking on a trip, and also give you an insight into the character of a nation. San José (Chepe) affords you both. During daylight hours, the city markets are a great place to sample the vibrancy of Costa Rican culture - something of an assault on the senses! By night, the capital has much to offer in terms of eateries, and all forms of entertainment; nightclubs and bars are plentiful, many staying open until the early hours.
Don't spend all your time in San José, though - with so many spectacular sights on offer throughout the country, exploration outside the capital is compulsory. The highest peak in Costa Rica is Cerro Chirripó, which reaches 3820m (12,533ft) into the clouds. The mountain is found in the stunningly rugged national park of Cordillera de Talamanca, unmissable for its high alpine lakes and cloud forest. Conveniently, there is also a mountain hostel on the ascent that is ideal for weary trekkers.
One of the most exciting features to see when visiting Costa Rica is the looming, volcanic landscape. Perhaps the most spectacular of all volcanoes is 'Arenal', located in the Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal. It has not officially erupted since a devastating explosion in 1968, but the volcano continues to rumble - lava outflows, streamers of molten rock and clouds of ash are part of daily life here. The best views of the volcano are from the Arenal Observatory on its northern side. A night tour shows the volcano at its most impressive.
The early months of the rainy season (May to July), when temperatures are at their most pleasant, is one of the best times to visit Costa Rica. This is the time of year when the spectacular rains begin, but you avoid the extreme precipitation experienced in the later wet season.
If you are a surf enthusiast, the wetter the season the better. Swells increase on both coastlines during the peak of the wet season. This is sometime during September to October on the Pacific side, November to May on the Caribbean side.
Temperatures are more or less stable throughout the year in Costa Rica and therefore there is not really a bad time to visit. At the height of the rainy season, some roads can become flooded and cut off, and venturing far off the beaten track can prove tricky.
In the capital San José, the traveller can take advantage of all manner of accommodation, including hotels, hostels and private lodgings. Hence, prices can range from extremely cheap (usually in hostels) $5-25, to very expensive (luxury hotels) $100+.
Outside the capital, along the backpacker trail, it is easy to find cheap accommodation in one of the numerous travellers' hostels. These are much cheaper than hotels at around $20 a night.
In more remote locations it can be more difficult to find cheap accommodation. Venturing into the national reserve forest areas, and bedding down in a jungle lodge for the night is worth splashing out on - though if you are on a budget this will have to be an occasional luxury!
A good standard of medical care is available in San José, but when venturing outside the capital, it can be limited. In San José travellers usually go to one of the private hospitals; Hospital Clinica Biblica or Hospital Cima San Jose (addresses below). They are small hospitals, but have excellent facilities: a 24-hour emergency room, an intensive care unit, surgical and maternity services, CAT scan and MRI, and a 24-hour pharmacy.
Before travel, be sure you are up to date on all routine immunisations. Aim to see your GP at least 4–6 weeks before your trip, often this period of time is needed for vaccines to take effect. If you are due to depart in less than 4 weeks, you should still make an appointment with your doctor. It might not be too late to obtain vaccinations or medications, as well as other information about how to protect yourself from illness and injury while travelling.
Hepatitis A Hepatitis B For those travellers who expect to stay for a prolonged period (6 months+) and who will have intimate contact with local people. Typhoid
Malaria prophylaxis with chloroquine or proguanil is also recommended for the provinces of Alajuela, Limon (except for Limon City), Guanacaste, and Heredia.
Hospitals San José
Hospital Clinica Biblica Calle central y primera, Avenidas 14 16, Apartado 1307-1000, San José tel. 506-522-1000 Hospital Clinica website
Hospital Cima San Jose Prospero Fernández Freeway; tel. 506-208-1000 Hospital Cima website
Tourist Information Centre
Oficina de Información Turistica
Plaza de la Cultura
Avenida Central-2, Calle 5
Tel: (+506) 2221090
Fax: (+506) 2554997
UK Embassy in Costa Rica