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Costa Rica Overview

Ally

Deckhand
Costa Rica is Central America's jewel. It's an oasis of calm among its turbulent neighbours and an ecotourism heaven, making it one of the best places to experience the tropics with minimal impact. It's also mostly coastline, which means great surfing, beaches galore and a climate built for laziness.

Costa Rica's enlightened approach to conservation has ensured that lush jungles are home to playful monkeys, languid sloths, crocodiles, countless lizards, poison-dart frogs and a mind-boggling assortment of exotic birds, insects and butterflies. Meanwhile, endangered sea turtles nest on both coasts and cloud forests protect elusive birds and jungle cats.

Costa Rica is a tropical country and experiences only two seasons: wet and dry. The dry season is generally between late December and April, and the wet season lasts the rest of the year. The Caribbean coast tends to be wet all year. Temperatures vary little between seasons; the main influence on temperature is altitude. San José at 1150m (3772ft) has a climate that the locals refer to as 'Eternal Spring': lows average 15°C (60°F); highs average 26°C (79°F). The coasts are much hotter, with the Caribbean averaging 21°C (70°F) at night and over 30°C (86°F) during the day; the Pacific is a few degrees warmer still. The humidity at low altitudes can be oppressive.
 

Ally

Deckhand
Monteverde

This small community in northwestern Costa Rica was founded by Quakers in 1951 and is now a popular and interesting destination for both local and international visitors. The small town of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the Monteverde cloud-forest reserve.

The road leading from the town's center to the reserve is clustered with attractions including the butterfly garden, the serpentarium, a cheese factory, a and number of art galleries. Interesting though these attractions are, they are merely the warm-up acts for the main event.


Península de Nicoya

This area on the northwestern Pacific coast is difficult to traverse because of the lack of paved roads; however, it's well worth the effort because it contains some of the country's best and most remote beaches. There are also some small and rarely visited wildlife reserves and parks.

Parque Nacional Marino las Baulas de Guanacaste includes Playa Grande, an important nesting site for the massive baula (leatherback turtle). Playa del Coco is the most accessible beach on the peninsula, in an attractive setting and with a small village, which has some nightlife.


San Jose

Packed with office towers, shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, men chattering on mobiles and girls in low-rise jeans, San José is more cosmopolitan than other Central American capital. It may not be a thing of beauty, but it is the hub of Costa Rican life.

World class restaurants offer gourmet delicacies alongside typical eateries serving traditional Tico treats. Museums, theatres and cinemas dot the cityscape and the nightlife is vibrant, with packed bars, live music and nightclubs pumping every day of the week.


When To Go

San José has a pleasant, though at times sticky, climate all year round. Cooling rain is at its heaviest from May to November, usually in the afternoons. Coinciding with the coolest period of the year, December is the most vibrant and thus crowded time in San José with a series of festivals leading up to New Year.
 

Ally

Deckhand
Costa Rica is noted more for its natural beauty and friendly people than for its culture. The overwhelming European influence erased almost all indigenous culture, and because Costa Rica was a country of subsistence agriculturalists until the middle of the 19th century, cultural activity has only begun to blossom in the last 100 years.

By some estimates, more than 75% of Costa Ricans are Roman Catholics and 14% are evangelical Christians. In practice, most church attendance takes place at christenings, funerals and marriages. Blacks on the Caribbean coast tend to be Protestant, and there is a sprinkling of other denominations in San José, including a small Jewish community. Spanish is the official language, though English is understood in touristed areas. Many Caribbean blacks speak a lively dialect of English, known as Creole. Indigenous languages are spoken in isolated areas, primarily Bribrí, which is estimated to be understood by about 10,000 people.

No one goes to Costa Rica for the cuisine. Although traditional dishes run to the South American staples of beef, chicken and fish dishes, with rice, corn or beans and fresh fruit as supplements, most of this fare has given way to the ubiquitous pizza and burger option. And even these can only be included in 'cuisine' by stretching the definition to its breaking point. Also be warned that Ticos love to spice up European dishes with salt - lots of it. We're talking lip-puckering, instant-dehydrating, body-shuddering proportions. On the positive side, their coffee is sublime. Even the coffee that accompanies the limp burger from the fast-food joint is a cut above your average North American cup of coffee.
 

Ally

Deckhand
Mystery shrouds pre-Columbian Costa Rica: few archaeological monuments and no proof of a written language have ever been discovered. Recorded history tends to begin with Christopher Columbus, who stayed for 17 days in 1502, and was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, 'the rich coast'. Despite the lure of untold wealth, colonisation was slow to take hold and it took nearly 60 years for the Spanish settlers to make a dent in the tangled jungle. Once the process had started, however, Costa Rica, like its similarly colonised neighbours, suffered the effects of European invasion. The indigenous population did not have the necessary numbers to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases.

The hoped-for hoards of gold never materialised and Costa Rica remained a forgotten backwater for many years. The 18th century saw the establishment of settlements such as Heredia, San José and Alajuela but it was not until the introduction of coffee in 1808 that the country registered on the radars of the 19th-century white-shoe brigade and frontier entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. Coffee brought wealth, a class structure, a more outward-looking perspective, and most importantly independence.

A bizarre turn of events in 1856 provided one of the first important landmarks in the nation's history and served to unify the people. During the term of coffee-grower-turned-president Juan Rafael Mora, a period remembered for the country's economic and cultural growth, Costa Rica was invaded by US military adventurer William Walker and his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized an army of 9000 civilians that, against all odds, succeeded in forcing Walker & Co to flee.
 

Ally

Deckhand
The ensuing years of the 19th century saw power struggles among members of the coffee-growing elite and the institution of the first democratic elections, which have since been a hallmark of Costa Rican politics. Civil war, however, did raise its ugly head in the 1940s when ex-president Calderón and his successor, Picado, lined up against the recent ballot-winner Ulate (whose election win was not recognised by Picado's government) and José Figueres. After several weeks of warfare Figueres emerged victorious, formed an interim government and handed the presidency to Ulate.

The constitution of 1949 finally gave women and blacks the vote and, controversially, dismantled the country's armed forces - giving Costa Rica the sobriquet of 'the only country which doesn't have an army'. President Oscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his attempts to spread Costa Rica's example of peace to the rest of Central America. The peace has, in recent years, been disturbed by upheavals of a different kind. In July 1996, Hurricane César resulted in several dozen deaths and the cutting off of much of southern Costa Rica from the rest of the country. The Interamericana highway was closed for about two months and the overall damage was estimated at about 100000000.00. The ill-famed Hurricane Mitch of November 1998 caused substantial damage to Costa Rica, but the most catastrophic events occurred in the countries to the north, especially Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In February 1998 the Social Christian Unity Party's Miguel Angel Rodríguez won the presidency with almost exactly 50% of the vote. A conservative businessman who made the economy his priority, he went on to privatise state companies and encourage foreign investments in an effort to create jobs.

By the time the February 2002 elections rolled around, however, Ticos (a term locals use to refer to themselves) were mumbling about a lack of government transparency and shady deals between political mates. These grass-roots misgivings resulted in a 'no win' election, and pollsters returned to the ballot box in April 2002. Rodríguez's successor, Abel Pacheco of the conservative Social Christian Unity Party, was elected to step up to the president's ring.

Pacheco began his term promising to eliminate the public debt within four years. He launched a conservationist platform banning new oil drilling and mining and proposed legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to a healthy environment. It didn't take long before the sheen paled. A campaign finance scandal clouded his presidency, leading some opponents to demand his resignation, and it became unclear if he could weather this storm through to the end of his term in 2006.
 

Ally

Deckhand
It's possible to travel overland to Costa Rica from the USA, crossing Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The nearest US town is Brownsville, Texas, 4000km (2480mi) away. Overlanders can either catch a series of public buses or drive their own vehicle (4WD is recommended.) The main border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is at Peñas Blancas on the western coast. There are three border crossings between Costa Rica and Panama for travellers heading to or arriving from the south: Paso Canoas on the western coast; Sixaola/Guabito on the Caribbean coast; and the little-used Río Sereno near the Parque Nacional Volcán Barú.

International flights arrive at San José's Juan Santamaría international airport, though the airport in Liberia, 217km (135mi) northwest of San José, has been upgraded and now operates as a second-string international airport. There are good connections to US and Canadian cities and several Latin and South American countries. Scores of tour operators in North America and Europe run tours to Costa Rica, though these tend to be for first-class visitors and are expensive. Many Costa Rican companies run budget tours. There is a departure tax of around USD26.00 on international flights.
 

Ally

Deckhand
There are two domestic airlines: Sansa and NatureAir. Demand for seats is high, so try to book as far in advance as possible. The majority of Costa Ricans do not own cars, so public transportation is quite well developed, although transport to towns other than San José is limited. Most multi-destination trips will require backtracking into San José and then catching another bus outward again.

The buses are not that comfortable and to the uninitiated and faint-of-heart the system can seem incredibly chaotic, but ask any Costa Rican for advice and they'll point you in the right direction. The good news is that the fares are generally cheap - no destination is more than 9.00 away. There are three major bus terminals in San José: the Coca-Cola terminal is about a 20-minute walk east from the city centre, down Avenida 1; there's the understated Atlántico Norte terminal; and the Caribe, terminal north of Avenida 13 on Calle Central.

Taxis are considered a viable form of public transportation for long journeys, and can be hired by the day, half-day or hour. Cars and motorcycles can also be rented in San José.

The railway network in Costa Rica was severely damaged during the 1991 earthquake and is unlikely to reopen.
 

Ally

Deckhand
The country just about closes down during Semana Santa (Easter Week) and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day tends to be an unofficial holiday, especially in San José. Various towns celebrate their own saints' days and other significant dates. San José's Day (Saint Joseph's Day) is March 19, while Virgin of Los Angeles Day (the patron saint of Costa Rica) is August 2. Juan Santamaría's Day on April 11 celebrates the national hero who helped see off William Walker in 1856, and Dia de la Raza (Columbus Day) on October 12, as elsewhere in the Americas, is a national holiday.

(Some factual text courtesy of Lonely Planet)
 
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