Much has been written about Costa Rica in the travel guides and on the internet. After fourteen years of working in the tourist business, and owning two Costa Rica hotels, and advising literally thousands of people about what Costa Rica has to offer, let me summarize and clarify a few things I know.
Some twenty seven percent of Costa Rica is designated as national parkland. In the USA, Canada and elsewhere, you enter the park, check in at the ranger station, drive on wonderfully signed roads, take guided hikes along designated paths, use the washrooms, camp grounds, souvenir shops, parking areas, and so forth. Most of Costa Rican parkland are huge chucks of impenetrable rainforest that you can only admire from a distance, knowing that life goes on basically undisturbed within.
There are a few exceptions like the hike you take along the Pacific coast in the Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. But even here, you are on your own and have to be nimble-footed, crossing sections at low tides and ever cautious of hammerhead sharks, crocodiles and packs of aggressive pecaries (wild pigs).
I estimate there are about fifty official canopy zip-line tours in Costa Rica, but they are all outside of the national parks. Whitewater rafting on the Pacuare River actually created a national park, to protect the long original growth Pacuare River gorge from a planned hydroelectric project.
Some of the smaller popular parks like Poas and Irazu Volcano have public facilities, a restaurant, souvenir shop or museum near the entrance.
Though Costa Rica looks tiny on a world map, and Canadians and American are used to driving a hundred miles for lunch, Costa Rica takes about twelve hours to get from corner to corner. I often have guests saying they'd like to drive from the Central Valley down to Panama or up to Nicaragua for the day. If they did, they would drive all day and spend their time outside the car trying to get permission to cross the border. Flying is the better option in this case.
Costa Rica gets wetter and more rugged the south and east you travel. Many are surprised to see dry cattle ranches and prickly scrub vegetation inland from the coasts in Guanacaste, though the beaches are spectacular, and the coastal areas are hilly and green from May to January.
The Pacific coast of Costa Rica has traditionally been the most popular coast, with its spectacular mountain and ocean views, too many beaches to count, surfing, fishing, sunbathing, and somewhat more Spanish in culture. The southern part is mostly untamed, and ear marked for massive development when the global economy turns around, and the international airport goes in at Palmar.
The Caribbean coast is a reflexion of the Caribbean Islands, reggae music, the black culture, lively colored houses, cute little restaurants with funny names, Caribbean foods, calmer beaches especially in the south with snorkeling around the reefs, and definitely a more laid back approach to everything.
The Central Valley of Costa Rica takes up about two percent of Costa Rica's land area, but has two thirds of the four plus million residents. Education, government, banking, industry, shopping and nightlife dominate in the Central Valley. The weather in the Central Valley is markedly springlike year-round because it is about a kilometer higher than both hot humid coasts.
There are several ways to experience Costa Rica. The most environmentally friendly and by far the cheapest way is to travel by public bus, experiencing what Ticos do. Unfortunately, it can be inconvenient and time consuming, and that matters to those who are on a short holiday, and haven't the time to relax and go with the flow!
Another option to get from hotel to hotel anywhere in Costa Rica is a comfortable climate-controlled private tourist bus service. Prices are in the $29 to $49 range one-way, ask your favorite hotel to make all the arrangements for you.
The third option is to drive yourself. Roads are narrow and unmarked, pot holes are common, and many Ticos are terrible drivers, seemingly unaware there are other vehicles on the road. However, if you just take your time, drive at the speed of the traffic, and totally expect the unexpected, you'll do fine. Don't rush into intersections. Once you are out of congested San Jose, it gets a lot easier. Most hotels have a list of reputable car rental agencies that they work with to guarantee you the best vehicles and service at the lowest prices.
Flying around Costa Rica is a fourth option, great mountain, rainforest and ocean views and so fast, though the safety factor on the single and twin propeller planes leaves me wondering. Statistics show you have 120 times the chance of crashing per mile traveling on small domestic flights than you do on the big air carriers. I am always reminded of a flight I took five years ago with Sansa to Nosara. In the small waiting room we were talking to people on the other flight to Quepos. Theirs crashed, three dead, and a horror story for the survivors taking days to find their way out of the jungle to civilization.
All hotels in Costa Rica offer local tours that are appropriate for their specific area, exploring mangroves, guided rainforest hikes, dolphin and whale watching, mountain climbing, canopy tours, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, turtle watching, to name a few.
From the Central Valley, the Rainforest Adventure tour is quickly becoming one of the most popular tours, great for all ages, highlighting those aspects of Costa Rica that many have heard so much about. A well-informed bi-lingual guide leads you throughout, onto a covered jungle river boat ride to see wild monkeys, iguanas, colorful birds and maybe even a crocodile or cayman. Later enjoy a relaxing walk through a rainforest preserve as the guide points out and explains the interesting flora and fauna. Then catch a bird's eye view for a long aerial tram ride in a special gondola taking you quietly through the rainforest canopy. Enjoy a ranarium (frog farm), a mariposarium (butterfly farm) and a serpentarium (snake display). Finally head back to the Central Valley through majestic Braulio Carillo National Park in time for dinner.
The 8 in 1 Combo tour is also quite popular now that the La Paz Waterfall Garden Park is once again open after the January 8th, 2009 6.2 earthquake. Experience a coffee operation, peer into the second largest volcanic crater on the planet, then enjoy a butterfly farm, a hummingbird station, a ranarium (frog) display, a snake display, an antique Costa Rican farm house, a bird display then walk down the sides and under a series of thundering waterfalls as they race down a rainforest-covered mountainside.
The most exciting thing you can do is whitewater rafting, particularly on the warm Pacuare River, ideal and safe for the average tourist in reasonable shape. Many say it is the best rafting river in the world, 30 kilometers of consistent rapids with perfect rest breaks in between, surrounded by primary growth forest, exotic birds flying overhead, monkeys and sloths, and non-stop excitement and thrills.
Probably the most sensational tours take you to one of three major hot springs resorts at the bottom of explosive Arenal Volcano, nothing like it in the world. Arenal is so huge, it creates it's own micro-climate. You can hear the angry volcano exploding once or twice per hour, huge puffs of smoke drifting from its crater visible on a clear day, and globs of bright orange hot molten lava spilling down the sides on a starry night. Tabacon Hot Springs are the most famous, all in a huge beautiful park-like setting, a day you'll never forget. Unfortunately the cocky attitude of the staff leaves something to be desired.
The Calypso and Princesa Catamaran tours to Tortuga Island is just great fun, lots of sun and good times on the luxurious wide-decked boats, cruising through former pirate frequented islands where buried treasures are still to be discovered, dolphins along side, relax in the big Jacuzzis on the deck, and then pleasure in the clear turquoise waters, powder white sand and shaded jungle of Tortuga Island, simply paradise. It's a great tour to round out your holiday.
Tell your hotel what tours you want, and if possible from their particular location, they will make all the arrangements and confirm them with you. Costa Rica is unlike any other country on earth. Even with a choice of hundreds of pristine beaches surrounded by jungle on two warm oceans, educated and seasoned travelers also enjoy planning for the exotic learning experiences found only inside Costa Rica, from bird watching to participating in eco-projects. I hope I have given you a few ideas.
A lot has been written about Costa Rica, and perhaps you will let me add my personal opinions about Costa Ricans (Ticos). While traveling around, most of the Ticos you will meet have little worldly experience. You will be as much of a curiosity to them as they are to you. For this reason it is important that we, as tourists, understand we are guests in their country and should interact in a thoughtful and positive way on their natural, economic and cultural environment. Let's leave Costa Rica in at least as good of a condition as when we arrived, for others to equally enjoy in the future. Remember the excellent bargain you negotiated for a souvenir was at the expense of someone feeding their family on a dollar an hour. Let's try to observe, listen, understand and empathize rather than see, hear, take pictures and boast. If you prefer the familiar comforts of home, ask yourself why you are traveling?
Understanding the Tico (Costa Rica) culture requires a look back at their history. Before the arrival of Columbus, Costa Rica had very little human settlement. The advanced Aztec, Mayan and Olmec cultures from the northwest and the sun worshiping Mesoamerican and the Andes civilizations south-east never became strongly embedded in the land of present day Costa Rica. It was too swampy and rugged to easily make a living and therefore it stayed basically a hinterland. Essentially cut off from other human influences, small chiefdoms evolved their own cultures and traits. With the European arrival, few native 'Indians' were available to force into slavery. Most that encountered the conquerors died by the musket or of diseases to which they had no immunity. The result, with rich volcanic soils, and ample rainfall, the new comers survived on their own sweat and toil. Even the first governor tended his own gardens. This instilled a feeling of self-pride with strong family values you can still see today. Also you will see that Ticos are generally taller, more fair-skinned and more European in facial features than those found in other parts of Central America who generally interbred and mixed with the larger indigenous population.
Ticos live like there is no tomorrow. First impressions are very important to them. They always strongly shake hands, or lightly brush the cheek with a smacking-sounded kiss and always take a moment for small talk. You will almost never see a Tico (other than beggars) with shabby or dirty clothes, though their wages are a dollar or two an hour. I don't know how they do it. Unfortunately what they show in pizazz, many seem to lack the integrity that foreigners often take for granted. Unlike us who have had to prepare to survive in a harsher climate, simply put, Ticos have been able to pick a banana or kill a chicken when hungry, and look for a roof when it rains. Almost expect them to be late, and it seems precious few take real pride in doing a job to the best of their ability. Don't be disappointed and raise your voice, this is just how they are with everyone. Living here, you have to get used to it. Many often say what they think you want to hear rather than the reality. If this behavior is anticipated, it may help an impatient, demanding visitor fresh off the plane to take it easy. Laugh it off as an experience. Relax, you're on vacation, go with the flow!
You can drink tap water in Costa Rica without getting sick, however like most places these days, you are wise to drink bottled water because of trace chemicals. Most hotels sell bottled water and other beverages in their restaurant or at the front desk.
Generally there is no need to take anti-malarial precautionary medication before visiting Costa Rica except if you are visiting some extremely isolated locations, and even then sometimes the prevention can be as hard on your body as the disease itself. There have been isolated break-outs of dengue fever caused by mosquitoes especially in the warm coastal areas, so you are advised to wear long pants and socks from dusk to dawn, and use bug repellent. But if you do get stung, don't panic, the chances of you contracting the fever are rare.
I owned a bed and breakfast in central San Jose for nine years, and over time we realized that petty crime was getting worse, especially at night. For your safety in the city, or any tourist area and even in our safe neighborhood, travel in pairs, and don't dangle ostentatious jewelry. Stay out of San Jose's seedy areas, there is nothing to see there anyway. Taxis are plentiful, reliable and cheap, but always remember the number on the taxi door before getting in.
For some informative reading about traveling safely in the Third World, I have taken years writing and compiling an interesting website with ideas that could possibly save your life, http://www.safely.travel.
Our electricity here is 110 volts, the same as the US and Canada.
One of the best parts of a vacation to Costa Rica is in the planning. There are many excellent books about Costa Rica in your library and bookstore that will help you (and your family) discover and learn about our beautiful country before arrival. Feel everyone's excitement grow as you start to customize your Costa Rican adventure!
For your information, many visitors have been able to finance much or all of their vacation with the savings from dental work, plastic surgery and eye surgery done in Costa Rica. Clean, private hospitals are fully equipped with modern facilities, and manned by American and European trained doctors who use the latest techniques. They charge about a third of what you would normally pay for the same procedure in the US and Canada. Spend your first day or so having the work done, then recover a few days in seclusion and comfort at one of our member hotels, then later tour Costa Rica when you feel more up to it. If you are interested in having any type of work done, please let me know and I will gladly refer you to a highly experienced and reputable English speaking medical doctor specializing in your area of concern.