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What To Know Before You Go - Costa Rica

Updated on January 19, 2015

Costa Rica Is Not an Island

After living in Costa Rica for many years, I have found that because of its tropical climate and palm tree lined beaches, many of my fellow Americans have this idea that Costa Rica is an island. In an effort to clear things up, here is some general information that you should know before visiting this amazing little country.

First things first, Costa Rica is not an island!

Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, located in Central America. It is bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Although it's not an island, it does have an impressive 631 miles of Pacific coastline and 132 miles of coast on the Caribbean and contains some of the most beautiful, uncrowded beaches on earth.

Although the country is small, it is packed with an abundance of wildlife, natural wonders, weather climates and culture all within in seven provinces which are named Alajuela, Cartago, San Jose, Heredia, Guanacaste, Limon and Puntarenas.

The 7 Provinces of Costa Rica

San Jose: Most visitors begin and end their trip to Costa Rica in the province of San Jose, which is where one of the countries two airports are located. This province shares the name of the bustling capital city. It's central location offers visitors access to many of the most popular attractions throughout the country.

The city of San Jose offers a variety of culture with architecture, museums, art galleries, theatre, parks and a variety of dining and nightlife.

Places to see in San Jose:

La Sabana Metropolitan National Park - Located in the center of the capital city of San Jose, this is Costa Rica's version of Central Park. A favorite hangout spot for locals and tourists and is also home to the National Stadium, which hosts concerts and sporting events.

Los Quetzales National Park - The park contains three different rainforest and 14 different ecosystems and is one of the best places to see the Resplendent Quetzal, one of the world's most beautiful and brightly colored birds. The park is also home to coyotes, tanagers, hummingbirds, jaguars and tapirs.

Los Quetzales National Park

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Alajuela: The Alajuela Province is home to two of Costa Rica's most popular volcanoes - Arenal and Poas.

Volcan Arenal is one of Costa Rica's youngest and most active volcanoes, towering above the small town of La Fortuna, one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist destinations. The small bustling town offers visitors natural hot springs, waterfalls, water sports and activities on Lake Arenal, Costa Rica's largest man made lake. The town of La Fortuna offers a variety of lodging from hostels for backpackers to luxurious resorts.

The Poas Volcano stretches 8,885 feet tall and contains a green acid crater lake and geyser eruptions up to 590 feet, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Costa Rica. The best time to view the volcano is early morning before the clouds set in. Finish your visit with a hike through the 5,600-hectare national park full of over 80 species of birds and you may also spot the Poas green-yellow squirrel, which can only be found in the national park. This is one of the most developed of the national parks in Costa Rica, with a visitor’s center, museum and restaurant.

Guanacaste: The Guanacaste province, also called the Gold Coast, is home to many of the most popular beach and surf destinations along the Pacific coast. In recent years, it has become even more popular due to the opening of Costa Rica's second airport, located in Liberia.

The bustling town of Tamarindo, only a few years ago just a sleepy fishing village, is a popular destination for surfers and tourists.

Through all the beach towns along the northern Pacific coast you can find all inclusive resorts, hostels and a variety of tour operators offering zip lining, horseback riding, scuba diving and sport fishing. Enjoy the variety of Guanacaste's beaches, each of them a unique treasure!

The major national park in this region is the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, home of the active Rincon volcano as well as 8 other volcanoes and dramatic volcano landscapes, waterfalls, hot springs, hiking and a variety of wildlife.

Beaches of Guanacaste

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Cartago: The province of Cartago is the smallest in the country, it boasts a unique travel experience that you will not see throughout the rest of the country.

Here you will be able to see the City of Cartago, which was the capital up until 1823. This historic city is one of the first Spanish settlements in Costa Rica, dating back to 1563. History buffs will also enjoy a visit to the Guayabo National Monument, a mysterious ancient city that was once home to over 10,000 people before the Spanish arrived. These ruins which date back over 3,000 years are still almost completely untouched after all these years. Only 10% of the 218 hectares have been excavated.

The Irazu Volcano, who's name means thundering mountain, sits high above the Cartago province and has been erupting for the past 500 years. As with all the volcanoes in Costa Rica, for the best views, visit early in the morning. If you are lucky enough to arrive on a clear day, you will be gifted with amazing views of both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Ocean from the park.

Limón: The Limón province includes the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Coconut tree lined beaches, thick jungles full of monkeys and sloths and small Caribbean influenced beach towns are the highlight of this region.

The province of Limón boasts a variety of national parks - the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, Tortuguero National Park, Cahuita National Park, La Amistad International Park and Chrripó National Park.

The Limón province remains unvisited by a majority of travelers, especially those who prefer packaged tours and offers an excellent adventure for more independent minded eco-tourists and those who prefer traveling off the beaten track.

Heredia: For visitors looking to experience much of the beauty and charm of the Tico culture, the Heredia province contains a beautiful agricultural and cultural landscape for its visitors.

The Cafe Britt coffee plantation is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region, offering a tour of their 6 acre plantation, beautiful gardens as well as an educational theatre performance on Costa Rica and its most delicious crop, coffee.

Visitors may also enjoy Braulio Carrillo National Park, one of the most scenic landscapes in the country and home to the dormant Barva volcano and gorgeous views from three other peaks located in the park. Take the scenic drive along the highway that runs through the park through five different ecosystems and virgin forests full of wildlife and don't miss the San Fernando Waterfall!

Puntarenas: The province of Puntarenas contains most of the most unspoiled, virgin wilderness and wildlife of Costa Rica.

Eco travelers and explorers who are looking to spend time in the wild will want to head south down to the Osa Peninsula, named the most bio-diverse place on earth by National Geographic magazine. The easiest way to reach this region is by taking a one hour flight from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez, although if you have the time - the scenic drive will be worth your while.

Corcovado National Park, Drakes Bay and Cano Island are three of the most popular destinations in this region. Take a full day to beach hop, visiting the beautiful wild beaches of Punta Uvita, Dominical as well as the less known Playa Hermosa and Playa Piñuela. If visiting from December to April, visit Marino Bellena National Park to book a boat tour for your chance to see the migrating whales.

Scarlet Macaws, Costa Rica

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Pack Your Bags!

Costa Rica is truly small but mighty travel destination. The country really does have something for everyone!

Romance, adventure, wildlife, natural wonders, gorgeous beaches, excellent hiking, historical ruins, golfing, sport fishing, scuba diving - Costa Rica has it all!

The wonderful people of Costa Rica will ensure that your time spent in Costa Rica will be unforgettable!

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Learn more about Costa Rica with our travel destination guides
Learn more about Costa Rica with our travel destination guides | Source

Other Travel Facts for Costa Rica

  • The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish although many of its residents are also bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English.
  • The country has two distinct travel seasons - dry season (also known as high season) runs from December through April and rainy season (low season) runs from May to November.
  • A passport is required for entry in to the country and U.S. visitors will be given up to a 90 visa to explore the country. U.S. passports must valid 30 days beyond one’s expected date of leaving the country.
  • Costa Rica is on US Central Time and they do not observe daylight savings time. Due to the country's proximity to the equator, the sun rises and sets each day around 6:00.
  • The currency of the country is the colon although US dollars are accepted throughout the country. The approximate exchange rate is 500 colones per American dollar.

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    • promisem profile image

      Scott Bateman 2 years ago

      Very insightful hub. I've been to Costa Rica only one time, but I'm definitely motivated to go back again.

    • Valene profile image

      Valene 8 months ago from Missouri

      Yes, I've also only been once, but can't wait to return one day!

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