As a Costa Rican blogger I felt it was time to write my first article about my beatiful country. This article tries to briefly describe Costa Rica as it is, from the inside, with all its beauty and problems. It is aimed at travelers that want to learn both the good and the bad before adventuring into this great country. It's a short read. You won't be bothered with specific info you'll probably forget right away.
Costa Rica is a Central American tropical country with a population of 5 million. It's the only Latin American country with absolutely no military forces. Because it was colonized by Spain, the native language is Spanish, spoken through all the country. Almost half the population is concentrated near the capital, San José, which is close to the center of the territory. The country is divided into seven provinces.
We have one of the oldest and more stable democracies in the world. Costa Rica is known for being a free, peaceful and happy country and as far is I can tell it is true (not Heaven though).
The climate is, of course, tropical, with a dry (December to April) and a rainy season (May to November). The mean temperature is 20 C in the capital and metropolitan area and 27 C at the coasts.
Costa Rica is a multi-ethnic society. Almost 70% of the population is clasified as white (criollos), the rest being mainly mestizos, inmigrants, mulattos, black, chinnese and indigenous population. Ticos are generally gentle, polite and kind to both Ticos and foreigners equally. They are also family oriented and many love music, dance, parties, soccer and drink ocasionally. Most Ticos are happy people and expressive. In fact Costa Rica has been consistently ranked among the happiest countries. Many Ticos, but not all, seem not to be concerned with efficiency. As Tim from therealcostarica.com put it:
...in Costa Rica, the view is that it WILL get done, sometime. It will seldom, if ever, be on your schedule. In many other countries, we have grown to expect that things get done quickly and efficiently. In Costa Rica, it is rare that anything is done quickly OR efficiently...
Spanish is spoken by virtually everyone. Approximately 11% of the adult population speaks English as a second language. Spanish is a must for living in Costa Rica and actually enjoying it.
70% of the population are Roman Catholic, nearly 15% Protestants, and 10% don't have a religion, with the rest professing other religions.
Costa Ricans, among their holidays, celebrate their independence day (September 15) and other important historical events, the Holy Week, Mother's Day, Christmas, New Year and Catholic tradition.
Costa Rica is a third world country with a growing service economy. Despite being third world, Costa Rica's economy is the strongest in Central America alongside Panama. Tourism plays a key role. More than 2.3 million tourist come to Costa Rica every year, making it the most visited country in Central America. Poverty is estimated in 20% with 5% extreme poverty. Health care is universal and health indices are those of a first world country, even thought the social security is in financial trouble.
Our currency is the "colón", plural "colones". One US dollar equals roughly 500 colones. Prices of goods in Costa Rica are high, nearly doubling US prices for some products such as automobiles. Services and labor are comparatively affordable. As this suggests, Costa Rica is a very unequal country, though not nearly as unequal as the rest of Central America.
In Costa Rica, basic services of water and electricity are widely available with almost 100% coverage. Cell phone coverage is good, with three operators prodiving service. Internet is widespread but slow and expensive. A typical broadband connection is 2Mbps for roughly $25. There are several cable or satellite TV providers. HD channels are available in some places but usually not as part of the basic service. Mexican and US channels are the most common, along with national free-to-air channels.
Ticos are proud of Costa Rican army being its students. Children often take the place of military in traditional activities like parades. Despite the generalized pride and having a relatively good education for the region, Costa Rican public schools are in bad shape and most people admit their deficiencies. Many schools, specially in rural areas lack infrastructure and some from urban areas are overcrowded and low quality. Private schools from the metropolitan area offer a much better education in general. Public universities are still known for their quality and most Costa Ricans apply for admission as they are also very inexpensive, almost free in comparisson with private ones.
Costa Ricans eat lots of rice. Many families have white rice as part of their dish for lunch and dinner almost every day. Beans and salads are usual too. The traditional, delicious and inexpensive "casado" has many variants, but most include rice, beans, fried plantains, salad and a choice of meat. Traditional breakfast is called gallo pinto. It consists of rice cooked together with red or black beans and usually scrambled or fried eggs. It is served absolutely everywhere, even in Burger King or McDonalds, but most Ticos eat it ocasionally. By the way, fast food is also widely available in the metropolitan area.
Transportation is probably one of the countries biggest problems. The best way to move is usually by car or bus but traffic jams are always there. Roads don't help either; potholes are almost cultural. The train service is limited to parts of the metropolitan area and is not much faster than taking a bus. In rural areas, faulty bridges are always a problem and even harshly damaged bridges may take decades to be replaced. The most important highways usually don't have potholes (they have traffic jams) but almost every road has and in some roads its so bad there is hardly any pavement left.
Most of Costa Ricas' tourist attractions are either at the coasts or high at the top of our volcanoes. 25% of the territory is protected as a National Park or Protected Area.
The nine volcanoes
Costa Rica has more than 100 volcanoes, but 9 are considered the most important and are known tourist attractions. Five of them are active. The only one that actually looks like a volcano (perfect cone shape) is the Arenal volcano. The other ones are not as spectacular sights and look more like mountains. Arenal volcano is known for its lava flows, which sadly stopped recently. Poas and Turrialba volcanoes are now consistently showing gas activity. Three of the active volcanoes are less than two hours from the capital, San José.
Costa Rican beaches are among the best in Latin America. Three of the seven provinces (Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón) have a coastline. Driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast takes just a few hours. Both oceans are visible on clear days from the top of the Irazú volcano.
Limón, a province known for being inhabited by many afro-caribbeans, has coastline on the Caribbean Sea, with many white sand beaches. The best known attractions in Limon are Tortuguero and Cahuita National Parks. Tortuguero is known as a spawning site for carey and green turtles and for its natural channels that flow thorugh the forest into the ocean and Cahuita for its extensive coral reefs. Limon has also several white sand beaches. Sadly, Limon is also the coastal province with the highest criminal activity.
Guanacaste, at the northwest of the country, has the most luxurious and exclusive beach hotels, near some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica and Central America. It has also the second airport in the country and several National Parks.
Puntarenas is the biggest province, with the longest coastline. At the north, Manuel Antonio National Park is known for its extensive white-sand beaches and great biodiversity. Jaco Beach is a prefered destination, being just an hour from San José. At the south, Corcovado is the biggest National Park and one of the most popular destinations due to its great biodiversity and extensive trails.
Dangers in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is not a dangerous place if one is careful. Crime is probably the greatest danger for a foreigner, as natural disasters and animals are rarely a problem. Costa Rica is a lot safer than many Latin American countries. However theft and armed robbery are common in the metropolitan area around the capital. Walking alone at night is always a risk and in some places a never-do. Some well-known streets and neighborhoods are dangerous during the day too. Asking around what is and what is not safe is always a good idea. Tourist destinations, beaches, hotels and national parks are in general very safe though.
Earthquakes are common in Costa Rica, and are probably the most important natural threat, though not a big one. The people are used to feel small quakes, but large quakes in which people are injured are not common (once every few decades maybe). Most new constructions are considered safe but many old buildings are insecure. Hurricanes are not a problem to Costa Rica as they usually land far North in the Caribbean coast.
I tried to fit the most important information into this short guide to Costa Rica. For more, please visit the wonderful website therealcostarica.com for an in-depth explanation of each topic and a lot more.
"San José from the air" is a video that shows Costa Rica's capital recorded from a helicopter. I like it because it shows Costa Rica as it is, both its bright spectacular green side and the dark side of undevelopment and poverty: