A Small Guide to Visiting Costa Rica - Updated, January, 2014

Watercolor Painting of Tamarindo Bay by the author

Tamarindo Bay, the North Pacific Coast of Costa Rica
Tamarindo Bay, the North Pacific Coast of Costa Rica | Source

A Small Guide to Visiting Costa Rica

Introduction:

Online Research:

Politics:

Geography:

Economy and Money:

Climate, Weather, and Related Matters:

Culture:

A Very Brief Lesson in Spanish:

Food:

Getting to Costa Rica:

Local Transportation:

Roads & Driving:

Where to Go, What to Do, Where to Stay:

Animals:

Playa Conchal, Guanacaste Province, North Pacific Coast
Playa Conchal, Guanacaste Province, North Pacific Coast

Introduction

Right at the outset I want to invite anyone who has any questions about visiting Costa Rica to feel free to contact me. My email address is tomspurr@alumni.nd.edu . I own property in Costa Rica, I have traveled there many times, and I lived and worked there for 18 months in 2007-2008. I worked in real estate there so I'm very familiar with that information too. Please don't be shy. If you have a question or want some advice about a trip there, give me an email shout.

Costa Rica is a Central American country whose Northern/Western neighbor is Nicaragua and whose Southern/Eastern neighbor is Panama. Many mistakenly believe that Costa Rica is an island. That is incorrect. The country has both Pacific and Caribbean coasts although there is little of interest on the Caribbean coast for visitors, with one or two exceptions. Most of the resorts and other tourist attractions are on the Pacific coast or most easily accessed from the Pacific side. The capital city of San Jose lies approximately in the center of the country at about latitude10 degrees north and longitude 84 degrees west. The country is a stable, middle class democracy whose most recent Past President, Oscar Arias, is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The country has become a popular tourist destination over the past few years. Costa Rica is known for its attention to ecology and has been a sought after destination for years by backpackers and those seeking a more rugged experience close to the abundant nature the country has to offer. However in recent years resorts with a broader appeal have begun to appear, replete with golf courses, fine dining, and nightly entertainment, yet still offering day trips for those wishing to experience the beauty of Costa Rica’s abundant natural resources without getting too far away from the comforts of a fine hotel. The Pacific Coast, the primary tourist destination, is also known as one of the world’s premier locales for sport fishing and for surfing.

Two international airports serve the country, San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International (SJO) near the capital city, and Daniel Oduber International at Liberia (LIR), the capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Major airlines now serve both airports with non-stop flights from major gateways across the U.S..

Costa Rica is easy to reach, not expensive as tropical vacations go, and offers a very wide range of recreational opportunities. It can be safely said that this is an easy place to visit. There are no visa requirements or special inoculation requirements. While the native language is primarily Spanish (except on the Caribbean coast where it is English with a kind of Jamaican accent), many of the locals speak English and almost all airport, hotel, and tour guide personnel are fluent in both Spanish and English. Many are anxious to expand their knowledge of English and cheerfully exchange sentences half in English, half in Spanish with visitors who want to work on their Spanish. The county has its own currency, the Colon, but U.S. dollars are accepted most everywhere without question. Personal security is not an issue. Violent crime is very rare. You will be cautioned to exercise the same kind of common sense care for your belongings as you would most anywhere, e.g. don’t leave valuables visible in the car, don’t hang your purse over the back of a bar stool, etc.

If you’re lucky enough to have an upcoming trip to Costa Rica, look forward to a great trip with few hassles and little to worry about. It’s a great place with great people. About the biggest risk in planning a trip to Costa Rica is over planning. Read what’s in this little guide and just go. It’s easy.


Online Research

As a general precaution in doing additional research for your trip, avoid printed travel books, even the well known names such as Fodor’s and Lonely Planet. Also pay very close attention to dates on internet postings. The picture there is changing so rapidly and varies so much from one place to another as to make these sources of little use. For example, a comment, printed or online, about the condition of the roads from Liberia to Tamarindo or in Tamarindo, will be completely inaccurate if it is one year old. The road from Liberia was in terrible unpaved condition in the first part of 2007 but has been completely replaced with a lovely smooth blacktop road. We are not accustomed in this country to rapid, major changes to infrastructure and tend to assume without thinking about it that what we see is how it always is. This is not true in Costa Rica. Great change is happening fast. A road that was in rough shape a couple of months ago may now be in fine condition. Similarly, a road that might have been just fine last season may be closed or severely damaged this season after heavy rains. The tourism picture in Costa Rica has undergone positive rapid change and any so-called knowledge passed on by someone from a visit five years ago is virtually useless today. It is still an inexpensive trip compared to most tourist destinations but five years ago is was a downright bargain. Prices have surely gone up with the amount of tourist traffic.

Note that the creation/update date of this online booklet is included in the heading, This initial publication is dated March, 2011 and the most recent update is January, 2013.

Politics

Costa Rica has had a democracy for over 100 years with a couple of very brief lapses. In 1948 they abolished their military, thus allowing themselves to afford good education and healthcare.

They have an elected President and an elected uni-cameral house of representatives. The most recent Past President, Oscar Arias, holds a Nobel Peace Prize from a former term as President in the late ‘80’s when he made great strides in bringing peace to his neighboring countries.

The current administration clearly recognizes the economic power of tourism and investment by outsiders and cooperates openly with a number of trade partners including China and of course, the U.S. Costa Rica has now ratified CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. It was the last country to do so and internally required a referendum. President Arias had more or less hung his term on joining CAFTA and succeeded.

Geography

Costa Rica has long coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific. For meteorological, historical and cultural reasons, the Atlantic/Caribbean coast is virtually undeveloped and is likely to remain so for some years to come.

The country is about 50% larger than New England minus Maine. The population is about the same as that of Connecticut, 4,000,000 people. Costa Rica’s population density is 86 persons/sq. mi. Nebraska’s by comparison is 22 while Connecticut’s is more than 700. Three quarters of the population of the country lives in the central valley, in the mountains around the capital city of San Jose, roughly in the center of the country which is about 150 miles wide and 250 miles long. Costa Rica’s northern/western border is the country of Nicaragua while it’s southern/eastern border is the country of Panama.

Costa Rica lies between about 9 degrees latitude north and 11 degrees latitude north of the equator (around 500 miles). It lies between about 80 degrees west longitude and 90 degrees west longitude, roughly due south of Detroit, MI, Atlanta, GA, and Panama City, FL. It is 2,000 air miles from New York City to San Jose with Miami at the half-way mark. The flight time from NYC is 5 hours. From Miami, about 2 ½ hours. A little bit longer from Atlanta or Houston.

If one were to sail due west from the town of Tamarindo along the north Pacific coast, the first significant landfall would be the Philippines, well past the International Date Line, then bumping into Ho-Chi-Min City Vietnam, passing through southern Thailand, central Africa, and then hitting the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

The Continental Divide runs down the center of the country and reaches about 13,000 feet (3,820 meters) of altitude at the peak of Chiro Chiripo in the southern part of the country. There are five active volcanoes along the range of mountain peaks that form the center backbone of the country.

For a rather small country, the variance in the geography is something you will notice, ranging from open valleys, dry tropical forest, steep mountains, rain forest, and verdant agricultural areas.

Economy and Money

Traditionally, Costa Rica’s economy was driven by agriculture, mostly coffee and sugar, and in the past, but no longer, pineapple.

The country has a modern telecommunications infrastructure and a well educated population with many English speakers so in recent decades it has seen a great deal of growth in the technology sector with Intel leading the way. Today it is also becoming a hotspot for call center outsourcing.

However, tourism is rapidly becoming the leading economic engine. The Pacific Northwest Province of Guanacaste, in particular is being transformed by the forces of tourism and foreign investment.

Costa Rica is one of the most ecologically robust countries in the world. Comprising about 1% of the world’s land mass it nevertheless holds more than 5% of the world’s species. Because it lies in the middle of a land bridge joining the north and south American continents, it has been exposed to many species of plants and animals from both directions.

The people of Costa Rica long ago recognized the importance of their environment. They lead the world in several environmental categories including having more than 25% of their land in protected parks and in production of electricity from renewable sources including hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal generation of power. They generate very close to 100% of their electricity from renewable sources. They have set a goal to be a carbon-neutral country in the next decade or so.

As a result, eco-tourism has been a major factor in bringing visitors to their country and surely will continue to be, but a shift is underway. More and more visitors are seeing Costa Rica as a desirable tropical vacation spot and while most visitors still want to do a canopy tour or a white water raft trip or sport fishing, more and more are also playing golf, dining, and just going to the beach. This new kind of tourist brings a lot more money to spend than did the traditional back-packers.

The local currency is the Colon, plural Colones. As of early 2014, the exchange rate was about 500 Colones to the U.S. dollar. Generally speaking, goods in local stores such as a grocery, pharmacy, or souvenir shop will be priced in Colones. Some souvenir shops may price goods in dollars. Hotel rates and condo rental rates will usually be quoted in dollars as will rent-a-car rates. Real estate prices are always in U.S. dollars. For quick estimates, at the current exchange rate (500 C/$), to convert a price stated in Colones, say a meal in a restaurant, to dollars, move the decimal three places to the left, and multiply by two. For example, an entrée priced at 5,000 C would be (5 X 2) or about $10.00. The clerks in local stores will have no trouble converting for you and will not take advantage of you. If you hand a clerk in a grocery store a $10 bill, he or she will use either a calculator or the cash register to calculate your change. Usually you will be given change in Colones. Coins will be 5, 10, 20, 25, 50, 100, 200, and 500 Colones while bills will be 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, and 10,000. You won’t see notes larger than 10,000 Colones, roughly the same as a $20.00 bill. There is no need to exchange money for your trip. Just use your U.S. currency although it would be wise to avoid $50 and $100 bills. Likewise, traveler’s checks will be more trouble than they’re worth. You will wait in line to cash them in a bank and then pay an official exchange rate. The same is true at a hotel desk. You’re much better off just spending U.S. dollars. In addition, credit cards are widely accepted with the exception of a few restaurants. Visa and MasterCard will be the easiest to use. American Express will be fine at hotels, rent-a-car companies and the like but will be less frequently accepted at small shops and at restaurants. ATM’s are easy to find and as soon as the machine recognizes that your card is U.S. based it will generally offer instructions in your choice of Spanish or English and will dispense your choice of either dollars or Colones. Using the ATM is far easier than using traveler’s checks.

Any restaurant check will include a 10% tip and a 13% tax. The prices of items on a menu may or may not include these items but the menu will say somewhere whether or not they are included. Many menus will show the prices both ways. Since they don’t use or accept U.S. coin in Costa Rica you may end up paying a bit more in some restaurants if you pay in U.S. currency since they might just round up to the nearest dollar rather than provide change. Usually however they will just give you the change in Colones. Additional tips are welcome of course but not necessary. As with travel anywhere, tips are appropriate for taxi drivers, tour guides, airport valets, etc. but the wage scale in Costa Rica is much lower than in the U.S. so you needn’t tip as much as you would in the U.S. for such services.

Sunset on Nogui's is an original watercolor painting by the Author. This popular little restaurant is on the beach in the NW Pacific town of Tamarindo

Climate, Weather, and Related Matters

Costa Rica has a tropical climate throughout the country. Temperatures are moderated by local geography rather than by season. The difference in the high temperature (degrees Fahrenheit) on any given day from near sea level to a mountain town at 4,000 feet might vary by twenty degrees, say from 90 at sea level to 70 in the mountains, while the temperature difference for the daily high at a given point on the Pacific coast will only vary by about 7 to 10 degrees across 365 days.

At the beach, the temperatures will range each day from a low in the mid 70’s to a high in the high 80’s or low 90’s. Costa Rica uses the metric system and the Centigrade thermometer. There really is no reason to care about the temperature while you’re there but if you’re curious here are some tips to help you convert. 82 degrees F. is 28 degrees C. and roughly speaking, one degree C is a little less than two degrees F. So if someone tells you that the temperature will be 32 just subtract 28 and multiply the difference by 2 and add that to 82. So 32C is about ((32 – 28) X 2) + 82 or 90F.

Generally, locals talk about just 2 seasons, summer and “the green season” also called winter. Technically, the time of year that they call summer, from late November until about May 1, is really winter in pure geographic terms because the country lies north of the equator but local terminology uses southern hemisphere seasonal descriptions. There is no description of spring or autumn. In the northwest Pacific Province of Guanacaste, the heart of the burgeoning real estate and tourism markets, the period from around December 1 to late April sees virtually no rain. The “green” season entails typical tropical showers in the late afternoon and at night in May and June with a bit of a let up in July and August and then a more impactive amount of rain in September and October. Even then however, the sun shines most every day in the morning and until mid day. The mountains, the Caribbean coast, and the south see more rainfall year round.

The Province of Guanacaste, the focus of the growth, goes from a desert type look, similar to the area around Sacramento, CA in the dry season to lush forest and fields within a couple of weeks when the rains start coming in late April.

The local climates certainly play a role in the pace of development of the country as a tourist and retirement destination. Naturally the regions with the least amount of rain are most desirable for tourism and retirement.

There are no Atlantic hurricanes and Pacific hurricanes which occasionally threaten Mexico and Hawaii are not a threat. Costa Rica is simply too far east and too far south to be seriously affected by either Pacific or Atlantic hurricanes. No hurricane has ever struck this country. Heavy rains spawned by the storms have been experienced on occasion. The important point is that you can safely plan a summer (U.S. summer) vacation without worrying about your trip being interrupted by a hurricane. Of course if your travel plans involve a change of planes in Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, or Houston, four of the major gateways to Costa Rica, your air travel could be affected. Other than the seasonal heavy rains, mostly in September and October, the only natural disaster threats to Costa Rica are the possibilities of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. In 2011an earthquake that measured 6.5 on the Richter scale struck in the mountainous region just north of the capital city, San Jose. In September of 2012 a larger quake, measuring 7.6 struck along the Pacific coast of the Nicoya Penninsula in the Northwestern part of the country. There was damage to some roads and homes but just a few fatalities. The building codes in Costa Rica for earthquake related matters mirror those of Japan and California. Our condominium is probably less than 50 miles or so from the epicenter of this large 2012 earthquake but we suffered no damage. Occasionally one of the country’s five active volcanoes (Poás, Arenal, Rincón de la Vieja, Irazú, and Turrialba) experiences a major eruption but these are not near major population centers. Since volcanic eruptions are mostly predictable and therefore pose no sudden unexpected threat, visiting the volcanoes is a popular tourist activity.

Surprisingly, you will not find insects to be much of a problem. Although almost all dining is out of doors you will encounter few flies and fewer mosquitoes than you would on a summer evening at home. Almost all restaurants will have a can of insect repellent handy for those of us who seem to attract the critters more readily.

Guanacaste Fiesta
Guanacaste Fiesta
Saturday Famer's Market, Santa Cruz, Guanacaste
Saturday Famer's Market, Santa Cruz, Guanacaste
A Watercolor Painting done by the author from the Farmer's Market shown above.
A Watercolor Painting done by the author from the Farmer's Market shown above.

Culture

Most of the country has Spanish as a primary language and a “Latin” culture in terms of music, traditional dress, dance, etc. A fair number of people speak at least some English as well as their native Spanish. The Caribbean coast of the country has a different background in that its citizens are historically of African descent, having been brought in as slaves centuries ago to work the plantations. They speak a dialect of English that sounds to most of us like what we think of as a Jamaican accent. Their music, dress, and dance more closely align with Caribbean nations than with Latin nations. The majority of the country’s population is of mixed European and Native American descent.

The Province of Guanacaste, which is adjacent to Nicaragua, was once more closely aligned with Nicaragua and has a history and culture of it’s own with a special holiday to celebrate the day that the citizens chose to be a part of Costa Rica versus Nicaragua.. While the subtleties of the Guanacastican ways would not be apparent to us as outsiders, it is apparent to Costa Ricans, who by the way call themselves “Ticos” (or in the specific case of a girl or woman, “Tica”). That is not a derogatory term in any sense. Likewise they will refer to all North Americans, e.g. U.S. and Canadian citizens as “gringos” or gringa for a female. That is not a derogatory term either. They don’t like when people of the U.S. call themselves Americans at the exclusion of citizens of other countries on the American continents.

Guanacaste, once the poorest province is rapidly becoming the wealthiest province due to the rush of tourism dollars and related real estate development. It previously depended on agriculture and ranching for it’s economy and still has more of a “cowboy” feel to it as we would observe it. It is certainly not unusual still to see people working their cattle on horseback or using oxen to draw wooden carts or move timbers.

Ticos are peaceful people and don’t like conflict. This can lead to some challenges in business dealings in that they are likely at times to say “yes” when they mean “no.” They will go to lengths to avoid conflict, not always a helpful attitude in a business setting, but very pleasant for a visitor.

The country is 80% Catholic as is most of Latin America. Church Holy Days there, as in much of the world, now have as much secular atmosphere as religious though not as much commercial flavor as in more capitalistic countries such as the U.S.

While a casual observer might (and often does) get the sense that Ticos are “poor”, particularly in Guanacaste due to traditionally small houses and a rural setting, by real measures, they are not poor at all. They have good security, good national healthcare, a guaranteed education, and benefit from life expectancies and literacy rates that match the U.S., Western Europe, and prosperous Asian nations.

Ticos are friendly people who are very accustomed to U.S. visitors. In almost all situations, they will be most happy to help you, albeit sometimes expecting a tip. You won’t experience the kind of incessant efforts to hawk souvenirs or services that you may be familiar with from other international destinations.

If there happens to be a Fiesta going on in one of the nearby towns, be sure to visit. There will be a small wooden bullring and it’s fun to watch. They don’t do any harm to the bulls at all. Mostly a bunch of crazy young Vaqueros (cowboys) jump into the ring and let the bull chase them around.


A Very Brief Lesson in Spanish

Cow is Vaca. Bull is Toro. Horse is Caballo (Cuh-Buy-Oh). The Spanish term that we are familiar with, Caballero would translate literally “horseman” but it’s meaning from centuries ago is “gentleman” coming from a time when gentlemen rode horses while the common people were on foot. A horseman could be a Vaquero or cowboy. Dog is Perro. Cat is Gato. Lizard is Lagarto. Whale is Ballena (Bah-jay-nah). Fish is Pescado, when it’s food, pesce when it's still swimming around. Chicken is Pollo(Poh-yo). Beef is Carne. Lobster is Langosta. Shrimp is Cameron. A hamburger will be called hamburguesa, quesoburguesa for cheeseburger or maybe hamburguesa con queso. You might see Polloburguesa or Pescadoburguesa meaning chicken or fish on a bun. They will generally use that term to describe anything served on a bun. French fries are called fritas or papas fritas. Pequeño is small. If you saw a dish on the menu called Pasta con Camerones Pequeño, that’s pasta with small (baby) shrimp. It’s probably delicious and you can most likely order it with Salsa (sauce) rojo o blanco (red or white.) Beer is Cerveza. The local brands are Imperial and Bavaria which comes light or dark. Wine is Vino. Vino Blanco for white wine, Vino Tinto for red wine. A cup or glass is copa so a glass of water is una copa de agua. To order a second drink use either otra for “an other” or una mas for “one more.” To ask for the check, la cuenta, por favor.” To ask for a doggie bag, use para llevar (pah-ruh yay-var) which means literally “to carry.” In Costa Rica, instead of using De nada for “your welcome,” they say “con mucho gusto,” “with great pleasure.” That of course always follows “Gracias” the most important travel word of all. Bathrooms are baños. Hombres for men, Damas for women. Costa Ricans use the formal pronoun usted for “you” rather than the informal su or tu. So for example, “Do you have change, please?” would be Tienes usted cambio, por favor? A couple of driving words… No Hay Paseo is “One Way.” Derecha is “right” as in “right turn.” Izquierda is “left.” Alto is “stop.” No virar ala derecha is “no right turn.” Breakfast is Desayuno while lunch is Almuerza. Dinner has several words. Comida will work fine or Cena. Una mesa para cinco, por favor is “A table for five, please.” Una mesa para cinco circa la fuente, por favor is “A table for five by the fountain, please.” The term "eria" or a variation will be added to the end of a noun to describe a store that sells whatever the noun is. For example, the Spanish word for beef is "carne" so if you see a "Carneceria" that's a butcher shop. "Pan" is bread so a "panaderia" is a bakery, and so on. Just remember that most of the time in Spanish the adjective follows the noun, the opposite of English, so where we would say “blue shoes” they would say “zapatos azul.” That should do it. I think you’re ready to say hello to the animals, eat food, drink, and drive in Costa Rica.

Lola's a Fabulous Beach Front Restaurant in Playa Avellanas, south of Tamarnido
Lola's a Fabulous Beach Front Restaurant in Playa Avellanas, south of Tamarnido
A Couple of Menu Items From Lola's Kitchen
A Couple of Menu Items From Lola's Kitchen
A Local Pescador (fisherman) Showing Off His Catch, a Big Red Snapper (Pargo en Espanol)
A Local Pescador (fisherman) Showing Off His Catch, a Big Red Snapper (Pargo en Espanol)

Food

Costa Rican food is pretty simple. It isn’t like what we think of as Mexican food, which of course isn’t like real Mexican food anyway. The Costa Rican diet consists of a lot of fresh fruit which is plentiful, a lot of seafood along the coast in particular, a lot of rice and beans, and mostly chicken or pork for meat. A typical dish would be rice fried with chicken for example. You may see menu items identified as “tipico.” That refers to a typical Costa Rican rice, vegetable, and meat dish.

The food you’ll find in the restaurants however, at least those that cater to the tourists, will be all kinds of things and mostly very good. Unless a beef item specifically identifies Argentine beef, you may not be happy with it if you’re expecting a NY Strip or a Filet Mignon. The local beef has a different flavor and texture than what we’re familiar with. A hamburguesa will be just fine though. If they offer Argentine beef it is excellent. A beef item might appear on a menu as lomito. It is a cut of beef similar to a flank steak and will usually be prepared with a sauce of some kind. It can be quite good. Any seafood item was most likely caught locally a few hours before so the seafood is really good. Here are a few common types of fish that you might see on a menu. Pargo is Red Snapper. A menu item that says “Pargo Entero” is a whole Red Snapper, meaning head, tail ,the whole thing, served grilled or fried or with various sauces. Langosta is lobster. Cameron is shrimp. Tuna is simply Atun. Mahi Mahi is Dorado, the same as the word for “gold.” Sea Bass is Corvino. If you’re not familiar with Ceviche (Suh-vee-chay) you must give it a try. If you are familiar with Ceviche you must give it a try. Again the seafood is all very fresh and very delicious. You’ll find a number of varieties of Ceviche with different combinations of fish, shrimp, etc. It is an appetizer, although a portion could make a nice lunch or light dinner entrée by itself. It is made with fresh seafood marinated in lime juice and a variety of herbs, onion, etc. Mmmm, good.

The local fruit is wonderful and depending on season can include Mango, Papaya, Coconut, Pineapple, Apples, Melons, Oranges, and some that you may not recognize. For the most part, the Spanish names will look familiar. Coco is Coconut, Piña is Pineapple, Manzanilla is Apple. Naranja is Orange. Jugo de Naranja is Orange Juice. Limon is lime or lemon. You won’t find yellow lemons as we see them in the U.S. except perhaps in a high-end bar where they use them for garnish in drinks. There are two varieties of limes, one with the usual green pulp and one that is sweeter with an orange pulp. The fruit in the store or at a roadside stand or farmer’s market may not be as pretty as what you see in the supermarket at home but it’s far tastier. Bananas for example may not be just all perfect and yellow but they taste much better.

Getting to Costa Rica:

The following table will show you which U.S. cities have direct flights to Costa Rica's two International airports, Juan Santa Maria in San Jose, and Daniel Oduber in Liberia, Guanacaste.

I have made every attempt to find all gataway cities, that is cities with direct/non-stop flights to and from Costa Rica. This is not as simple as one might think. There is no one place online that I have found to get this information and of course it changes from time to time. As of January, 2014 I believe this is correct and complete information but....

Note that no all of the flights operate every day. Some will operate only on certain days of the week. Also note that some flights might not operate year round. Generally they will operate from mid-December to mid-April, the high season, for sure. Some will continue to operate through August or so but drop off in the rainy season, September through November. My best advice is to check the website of the airlines that you know to have operations in the city from which you would most likely depart in the U.S.


Getting to Costa Rica: - the gateway cities

To:
Airport:
From:
Airport
Carrier:
Days:
San Jose
SJO
Atlanta
ATL
Delta
7
 
 
Charlotte
CLT
US Air
 
 
 
Ft Lauderdale
FLL
JetBlue
 
 
 
Ft Lauderdale
FLL
Spirit
7
 
 
Chicago
ORD
United
 
 
 
Dallas
DFW
American
 
 
 
Denver
DEN
Frontier
 
 
 
Houston
IAH
United
 
 
 
Los Angeles
LAX
Delta
7
 
 
Miami
MIA
American
 
 
 
Minneapolis
MSP
Delta
 
 
 
New York
EWR
United
 
 
 
New York
JFK
Delta
7
 
 
Orlando
MCO
Jet Blue
 
 
 
Philadelphia
PHL
US Air
 
 
 
Phoenix
PHX
US Air
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Liberia
LIR
Atlanta
ATL
Delta
 
 
 
Charlotte
CLT
US Air
 
 
 
Chicago
ORD
United
 
 
 
Dallas
DFW
American
 
 
 
Denver
DEN
Frontier
 
 
 
Houston
IAH
United
 
 
 
Los Angeles
LAX
Delta
SAT
 
 
Miami
MIA
American
 
 
 
Minneapolis
MSP
Delta
 
 
 
New York
JFK
JetBlue
 
 
 
New York
EWR
United
 
Traffic Jam, Bandidos on the Road Around Lake Arenal.  These are harmless little fellows called Coatis.  They do like to stop the cars to be fed.
Traffic Jam, Bandidos on the Road Around Lake Arenal. These are harmless little fellows called Coatis. They do like to stop the cars to be fed.
Just Kidding, Sort Of,  but if you decide to venture off the main roads during rainy season you may very will find that the road and the creek bed got confused.  We drove on through without a problem.
Just Kidding, Sort Of, but if you decide to venture off the main roads during rainy season you may very will find that the road and the creek bed got confused. We drove on through without a problem.
Traffic Jam With Some Local Vacas.
Traffic Jam With Some Local Vacas.

Local Transporrtation

To rent or not to rent, that is the question. Rent-a-cars are plentiful and not too expensive, but the cost of insurance will often equal the cost of the car. Your U.S. based insurance policy is not effective in Costa Rica. Your credit card will cover some of the insurance cost but not all. In brief, an SUV capable of hauling around a family will end up costing about $1,000/week with all of the insurance coverage and the total coverage package is a good idea. If there are just tow of you a small car can be had for less than $400 for a week with all the insurance, gasoline, etc. If your trip is ten days or more and you’re splitting cost with another couple, it may be worth getting a car. Otherwise, it may be easier to stick with taxis and tour operators. You can even hire a driver and car to take you, say from the San Jose airport to a beach resort in the northwest for about $200 for a van that will comfortably accommodate your family. You’ll have a friendly, helpful guide, you won’t have to worry about directions or local driving conditions (it’s not like at home), and you can enjoy the scenery. With the resorts, you will probably have a number of days when you don’t venture off the premises. If you schedule a zip-line tour or a trip to a volcano or something, a guide and van will be included. Locally you can generally walk or grab one of the plentiful taxis. The restaurants that are near the resorts will pick you up and or drop you off at no charge. Sometimes it’s nice to walk to the restaurant and then have them drop you back at the resort after dinner.

If you choose to rent, do some shopping on line. You will find many agencies with names that may not be familiar. Examples would be Economy, EuropCar, Toyota Rent-a-car, Thrifty, Alamo, and others. There is nothing wrong with these companies and they might save you considerable dollars. You will also find the big names that you do know, Hertz, Avis, Budget, and National. Pay close attention to whether or not the quoted rate includes all of the mandatory insurance, some of it, none of it, full insurance, etc.

It will cost a bit more, but go with a 4X4. If you’re going to go off exploring, you’ll be glad not to have to worry about an occasional unpaved road or a stream you encounter.

In general the best choice is probably to use a taxi/van to and from the airport. If you want to venture off for a day or two there will be plenty of cars available at local agencies in the towns or resorts.

Driving at night is not recommended. It’s not a security issue. It is a safety issue for you and for the local people. The areas around many of the resorts are still rural communities. Many of the local folks will be on the road at night on foot, on bicycles, on horseback, etc. and they aren’t accustomed to thinking about reflective clothing and so on. Roads are often narrow and with little or no shoulder. There are generally no street lights in these rural areas. If you do find yourself driving home after dinner, go slowly and carefully. Under no circumstances should you plan to be traveling at night to or from the airport, or to or from one resort area to another.

You have daylight until about 6:00 pm year round. If your flight is scheduled into San Jose at 2:00 pm and you plan to pick up a car and drive for four hours or more to a resort destination, even a small flight delay means that by the time you get luggage, get your car, etc. you could easily be leaving at 4:00 pm. You won’t get more than 140 kilometers (70 miles) before dark. There is a lovely Marriott near the San Jose airport. Enjoy it and begin your trip in the morning.


See the next section on roads and driving.

Roads & Driving

The country’s main artery is CA1 which runs from the border with Panama in the south to the border with Nicaragua in the north. It is a two lane road for most of the way with a third passing lane in some mountain areas nearer to San Jose. As it goes through San Jose it resembles a U.S. interstate although access is not as limited as on a U.S. interstate. Cars in Costa Rica drive on the right as we do in the U.S. For the most part, language and signs are international and present no problem to an English speaking driver.

Other roads to the coasts and between the major towns and cities are paved two lane roads. Many of the roads in the country, particularly as one leaves the central valley, are unpaved and in some places impassable during the rainy season as they may cross streams and so on.

Everything in Costa Rica is in metrics. That means that speed limits are in kilometers per hour and gasoline is purchased in Liters. For a rough conversion of distance, 1 km is about 6 tenths of a mi. (There are 3.8 liters/gallon so if you want to know what you’re paying for gasoline in dollars, multiply the price by about 4 and then use the Colones::dollars conversion. So if the price of a liter of regular is 480 C, that’s about 480 X 4 = 1,920 C (round down to 1900 C, move the decimal three places left and multiply by 2, or about $3.80 per gallon. That rough estimate will be a bit high. A closer figure is $3.25.) The highest speed limits you will see are generally 80 kph, about 50 mph and the mountainous nature of many of the roads further reduces effective rates of travel. In general, figure that any given mileage will take twice as long to drive in Costa Rica as it would in the U.S. or Canada.

One more note on driving. Gas stations, depending on where you are traveling, will not be as commonplace as what you may be accustomed to. Don’t let the tank get too close to empty. If it’s at half a tank or less and you are in unfamiliar territory and pass a gas station, fill up. The price by the way is fixed by the federal government and all stations will have the same price.

There are inexpensive bus services such as a 6 hour, $35 offering between Tamarindo and San Jose stopping at major hotels, the airport, etc. There is also regular bus service for much less but it is also much slower. Many of the local folks use these buses regularly. Automobile ownership is not universal by any means.

Magpie Jay in Hibiscus, a Watercolor Painting by the author.
Magpie Jay in Hibiscus, a Watercolor Painting by the author.

Animals

This is certainly not intended as a comprehensive guide to the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. If nature is an interest of yours, and once you get there, it will most likely become one, even if you didn’t start out that way, pick up a good guide book to Costa Rican animals, insects, plants, birds, etc. You will find such guides in the book stores in the towns and in the airports. But this little section will give you a glimpse at some of the critters you’ll likely see.

A quick glance at a map of the Western Hemisphere reveals that Costa Rica lies on an obvious connection between the North and South American continents. It is easy to understand that in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, its animals migrate here. It’s less familiar to those of us who live in the north but once you think about it you will realize that the animals who live in the Southern Hemisphere will migrate here as well when it is winter there, our summer. As a result, Costa Rica and it’s Central American neighbors have amazing biodiversity. The country of Costa Rica comprises about 1% of the world’s land mass but contains about 5% of the world’s species.

A quick look at the more interesting critters you’ll likely see on your trip:

Violet Sabrewing, one of many hummingbirds that inhabit or visit Costa Rica
Violet Sabrewing, one of many hummingbirds that inhabit or visit Costa Rica
Brown Pelicans.  Watch them fly in a single line formation. low across the water
Brown Pelicans. Watch them fly in a single line formation. low across the water
Crested Caracara.  This large bird looks to me like the result of an amorous encounter between a hawk and a chiken.
Crested Caracara. This large bird looks to me like the result of an amorous encounter between a hawk and a chiken.
Great Kiskadee. You'll see and hear a lot of these Robin-sized birds.
Great Kiskadee. You'll see and hear a lot of these Robin-sized birds.
Scarlet Macaw.  One of the really spectacular birds you might get to see.
Scarlet Macaw. One of the really spectacular birds you might get to see.
White Throated Magpie Jay.  This larger relative of the Blue Jay is quite gregarious.  You may encounter one sitting on the back of an empty restaurant chair at your table.  They like to steal the sugar packets. They know which are real sugar.
White Throated Magpie Jay. This larger relative of the Blue Jay is quite gregarious. You may encounter one sitting on the back of an empty restaurant chair at your table. They like to steal the sugar packets. They know which are real sugar.
Velvet Crowned Mot mot.  Note the nifty tail feathers.
Velvet Crowned Mot mot. Note the nifty tail feathers.
Roseate Spoonbill.  You'll see them along the rivers and in ponds. They get the pink color from eating shellfish.
Roseate Spoonbill. You'll see them along the rivers and in ponds. They get the pink color from eating shellfish.
Keel-billed Toucan.  Another spectacular avian friend in Costa Rica
Keel-billed Toucan. Another spectacular avian friend in Costa Rica
Black Headed Trogon
Black Headed Trogon

Birds – hundreds and hundreds of kinds of birds. The more spectacular ones are the many hummingbirds, the big, beautiful Toucans parrots and parakeets, pelicans, along the shore, many wading birds such as herons and the Roseate Spoonbill (His pink color comes from eating shellfish), lots of kinds of ducks, a big bird that looks like a cross between a hawk and a chicken. It’s called a Crested Caracara. You’ll see them on the golf course.

Most of the birds pictured here are ones you will readily see on your trip. Watch around golf course ponds or along the estuaries for the herons (not pictured), the Roseate Spoonbill, the Woodstork (not pictured – he looks like a heron but has distinctive black edges on his wings when he flies.). You’ll have to look a little closer to see the Trogon and the Motmot but they’re pretty common. There’s just one hummingbird picture here, the Violet Sabrewing but there are many species and some are easy to see among the flowering shrubs in the landscape of a hotel or condo.

The two most spectacular birds pictured here are the Keel Billed Toucan and the Scarlet Macaw.

The White Throated Magpie Jay is very common and you’ll see them all over the place. They will sit on the back of a chair right next to you and take whatever food you offer. They like to steal the sugar packets and somehow they know which ones are real sugar and which ones are artificial sweetener, most likely by smell.

There are countless more. The variety of birds and other creatures as well, changes from the coast to the dry tropical forests, to the rain forests, to the mountains, even by specific altitude in the mountains, from the Pacific to the Caribbean, and from north to south. And of course they change by the time of the year with birds that spend part of their year in North America appearing in Costa Rica during the North American winter and those from South America appearing in Costa Rica during the South American winter, our summer in North America.

It's easy to find nice laminated pages in the local souvenir shops that feature some of the birds of Costa Rica, that's "Aves de Costa Rica."  If you're interests in your avian hosts are greater,  you will want to pick up a book that provides comprehensive coverage.  There's a good one that's about the size of a small dictionary, say 5" X 8" and 2 1/2" thick, called Aves de Costa Rica.  Just be sure you pay attention to whether you have the Spanish language version or the English language version.  Both are available.

Howler Monkey.  You'll know for sure when you hear one.  About the size of a Cocker Spaniel and almost always in the trees.
Howler Monkey. You'll know for sure when you hear one. About the size of a Cocker Spaniel and almost always in the trees.
Capucin or White-Face Monkey.
Capucin or White-Face Monkey.
Titi or Spider Monkey.  There is also a small one called a Squirel Monkey
Titi or Spider Monkey. There is also a small one called a Squirel Monkey
Coati or full name, Coati Mundi is a relative of the raccoon which you will also see in Costa Rica
Coati or full name, Coati Mundi is a relative of the raccoon which you will also see in Costa Rica
Coyote (Coh-Yoh-Tay)
Coyote (Coh-Yoh-Tay)
Zorro
Zorro
Zorrillo
Zorrillo
Ballena (Bah-Jay-Nuh)
Ballena (Bah-Jay-Nuh)
Tortuga
Tortuga
Iguana.  You might see one as much as 5 feet long  but they're harmless.  Most are smaller and may approach you in a restaurant looking for a handout.  They're herbivors so they want your salad, not your hamburger.
Iguana. You might see one as much as 5 feet long but they're harmless. Most are smaller and may approach you in a restaurant looking for a handout. They're herbivors so they want your salad, not your hamburger.
Gecko
Gecko
Crocodile (Cocodrillo)
Crocodile (Cocodrillo)
Caiman, a small relative of the Alligator.
Caiman, a small relative of the Alligator.

Howler Monkeys – said to be the loudest animals on Earth per pound of their body size. The Spanish word for monkey is mono. This species is called Congo. When you hear one, and you will hear one, you’ll know it. It sounds more like a giant jungle monster from Jurassic Park.

Capuchin His Spanish name is Cara Blanca.

Spider Monkeys Local name, Titi

There is also a monkey called the Squirrel Monkey.

Coatis –full name, Coati Mundi – a relative of the North American Raccoon. Look for them on the golf course in the early morning and late afternoon. You may also see the same Raccoons we have here at home. You can tell the Coatis even at a distance because their tails will stick straight up in the air.

Coyotes – spelled the same in Spanish but pronounced Co – yoh – tay.

Fox – Spanish name. Zorro. These are generally smaller than those we see at home.

Skunk – Spanish nickname Zorrillo. The local version here has a double stripe. They’re quite common and generally not a problem but don't push your luck.

Porpoise – “Marsopa”, dolphins “Delfines” and Whales - Ballena -(Bah Jay Nah)

Many species of whales and dolphins can be seen in Costa Rica off both coasts, but more so on the Pacific Coast. Some such as the Humpback Whales come in quite close to shore and can be seen easily. In the south, off the Osa Pennisula in Drake Bay is the longest humpback viewing season in the world. South American populations come here to calve from August through October. The North American populations are around December through April and may be seen up and down the Pacific coast.

Tortugas - turtles– if you go fishing or sailing. There are a number of sea turtles, such as the Leatherback, La Baula, the Olive Ridley Turtles and others. You will see them from a boat or when diving. You can also arrange for supervised tours authorized by the national parks to observe them nesting as some times of the year in places such as Playa Grande near Tamarindo.

Iguanas - There are quite a few kinds of lizards here but the most obvious are the Green Iguanas. Most of them are not too big, around 12” – 15” but you might see one as large as 5’ long. Some get to be quite friendly and will come and take food from you in the outdoor restaurants. They’re harmless.

Geckos – Look for them on the ceiling of the condo porch outside at night. They’re small and harmless. You’ll hear them making a kind of click-click chirping noise. They may also try to sell you insurance.

Crocodiles – If you take the Las Baulas National Park Estuary tour you’ll see a few if you’re lucky. You will see a bunch of big ones at the Crocodile Bridge over the Tericoles river on the way to Manuel Antonio. Don’t worry about them when you’re in the ocean. That’s not where they hang out and they’re not aggressive anyway.

Caiman – a small (5 feet) relative of the alligator. You could spot one in the ponds on the golf course but it could be a big Iguana too.

The outdoor living area of a single family home that can be rented in Playa Langosta/Tamarindo
The outdoor living area of a single family home that can be rented in Playa Langosta/Tamarindo
Kitchen of a lovely Penthouse condo for rent in Playa Langosta/Tamarindo
Kitchen of a lovely Penthouse condo for rent in Playa Langosta/Tamarindo
Master Bedroom in a 2 bed 2 bath condo at Reserva Conchal where the Westin Playa Conchal is also located
Master Bedroom in a 2 bed 2 bath condo at Reserva Conchal where the Westin Playa Conchal is also located
Bar and Kitchen area of a rental unit
Bar and Kitchen area of a rental unit
The Bougainvillea condo complex at Reserva Conchal as seen from the Robert Trent Jones II golf course.
The Bougainvillea condo complex at Reserva Conchal as seen from the Robert Trent Jones II golf course.
Golf course view at Reserva Conchal
Golf course view at Reserva Conchal
The big 1 acre pool at the Westin Playa Conchal.  Condo guests also have access to the hotel facilities
The big 1 acre pool at the Westin Playa Conchal. Condo guests also have access to the hotel facilities
Small condo pool and BBQ area at Reserva Conchal
Small condo pool and BBQ area at Reserva Conchal
Living Room of a Condo Rental Unit.
Living Room of a Condo Rental Unit.
Nogui's restaurant at the circle in Tamarindo - sunset
Nogui's restaurant at the circle in Tamarindo - sunset
My granddaughter sent Flat Stanley on a Costa Rica adventure with me.  Here he is in the early morning hours in front of Volcan Arenal.  If you look really close you can see a puff of ash from the volcano.
My granddaughter sent Flat Stanley on a Costa Rica adventure with me. Here he is in the early morning hours in front of Volcan Arenal. If you look really close you can see a puff of ash from the volcano.
View of Tamarindo Bay and Playa Grande from a high hill top.
View of Tamarindo Bay and Playa Grande from a high hill top.
View toward the Pacific from the town of Atenas, west of San Jose
View toward the Pacific from the town of Atenas, west of San Jose
Pottery of the local Choretega people at Guatil near Nosara on the Nosara Penninsual in Guanacaste.
Pottery of the local Choretega people at Guatil near Nosara on the Nosara Penninsual in Guanacaste.
Manuel Antonio National Park on the Central Pacific coast near the town of Quepos.
Manuel Antonio National Park on the Central Pacific coast near the town of Quepos.

Where to Go, What to Do, Where to Stay:

The answers to this question depend, of course on what you like to do, your budget, the specifics of your group, that is couple, honeymooners, family with children, singles, etc. and how long your trip will be.

As to the "where" by far most visitors are going to the NW Pacific coast these days. That's where it's really happening in terms of new hotels, tons of activities, the best weather, the most restaurants. But having said that, you might have other preferences.

The capital city of San Jose doesn't have much for tourists. However if you're flying in or out of that airport, you might want to spend a night after your arrival or before your departure. There are plenty of hotels including budget places such as The Hampton Inn right by the airport. I would recommend a lovely hotel, the Marriott San Jose, very near to the airport. You can easily check out their website. For convenience you can't beat the Marriott and it is nice enough to be an experience by itself. I really enjoy staying there the night before my departure. I get rid of the rent-a-car the day before and just hang out at the hotel and have a great dinner.

The Caribbean is the least visited part of the country though there is great white-water rafting in that direction, east of San Jose. If you're interested in a more rugged trip, tent platform accommodations, etc., going south to the Osa Penninsula would be the thing to check out.

The Central Pacific coast includes the towns of Jaco (Hacko) and the popular Manuel Antonio National Park. Jaco is not my favorite place but it is easy to reach and decent for surfing. The big Marriot Los Suenos resort is on the coast there and is very nice. It has the largest marina in the country.

The moutains northwest of San Jose include Lake Arenal and Volcan Arenal, one of the country's five active volcanoes. The Volcan Arenal area, near the town of La Fortuna is popular. The hotels there tend toward the simpler side and are less expensive but quite nice. Volcan Arenal makes a good stopping off point if you want to see some countryside and drive from San Jose to the NW Pacific or vice versa.

As mentioned earlier, most of the action is along the NW Pacific coast. The town of Tamarindo is a hopping surfers spot with over fifty restaurants, some really good, and more acitivites than you can imagine including surfing, diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, hiking, estuary tours, small casinos, rafting, sailing, sport fishing and on and on. Costa Rica is the sport fishing capital of the world.

From a base near Tamarindo or Flamingo you can take one-day trips to the mountains where you'll find Rincon de la Vieja National Park with a full day of activities including zip lines through the canopy, a big long jungle waterslide, hiking in the moutains, horseback riding, hot spring pools. You can do this in a one day turnaround with a guided tour and get in all of the action or you could stay at the lodge there. It's inexpensive and simple but nice. The Monte Verde Cloud Forest is another great one day trip, maybe with an overnight from the NW Pacific beaches.

As to hotels, for the big fancy ones, check out The Marriott Hacienda Pinilla, The Westin Playa Conchal, The Four Seasons Papagayo. There are also many nice smaller properties. In the Tamarindo/Langosta area be sure to check out Hotel Capitan Suizo, a 45 room hotel right on the beach, and for real intimacy, check on Sueno del Mar in the Langosta section of Tamarindo. This delightful 6 room B&B sits right on the beach and is just wonderful. Also, particularly if you're traveling with family, check on the many condo rentals. Just go on VRBO (Vacation rental by owner) and/or Trip Advisor or do a web search on "condos playa conchal" or "condos Flamingo" or "condos hacienda pinilla" and so on. You'll end up dealing with a property manager who will have access to a number of fine homes and condos from 1 to 4 bedrooms or more.

Comments 6 comments

surf traveler profile image

surf traveler 5 years ago

Wow, what an excellent well layed out hub. I first visited Tamarindo in 1997, it certainly has changed since then. I was there 3 years ago and couldn't believe how much it has changed.


D. Chatterji 4 years ago

A very useful intro for the tourists. Nicely composed and quite informative. Thanks!


Nancy 4 years ago

Thanks for all the wonderful information. This is a great intro. to all the wonderful adventure Costa Rica has to offer.


tspurr profile image

tspurr 4 years ago from Fairfield County, Connecticut Author

Thank you, Nancy. Don't hesitate to ask any questions you may have about the trip. As I said in the little travel guide, be very wary of online information about Costa Rica in general, most particularly the kind of stuff that people put in blogs.

Tom


Sparks 2 years ago

This was very helpful! Planning a family trip in August!


Lindsey 2 years ago

Which part of the Pacific coast is best for travelers who like simple accomodations with walking access to the beach, as well as access to buses that travel to the national parks, volcanoes, etc., but in a less crowded town/area than (for example) Tamarindo?

Thanks!

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