Costa Rica

Sunset Avellanas beach, northern Pacific of Costa Rica.
Avellanas, northern Pacific of Costa Rica. Photo: Andrés Madrigal
Location
Costa Rica is in Central America, south of Nicaragua and north of Panama. The Caribbean Sea borders to the east, and the Pacific Ocean forms the western edge.
Climate
Costa Rica is a tropical country. There are two seasons: rainy (called winter or invierno) and dry (summer, or verano). Winter runs from April through November, with September and October generally being the rainiest months. Summer at the end of November and stretches into April.

In the rainy season, sunny mornings are typically followed up by cloudy mid-day and an afternoon shower, usually clearing up in time to go out in the evening.

Temperature usually varies depending on elevation, not time of the year. Coastal and lowland areas are hot and humid during the day, with nighttime temps becoming comfortable. The Central Valley, where San Jose is located, enjoys an “eternal springtime” climate that is comfortable all day, year round. Evenings can even get chilly enough to warrant a light jacket. Mountain areas become cooler as you increase in elevation.

Geography
Although Costa Rica is a small country, intensely varied landscapes provide the chance to experience a myriad of different habitats.

The coastal lowlands and northern plains are flat and hot. The lowlands eventually meet up with the rugged Central Mountain Range which forms the country’s spine. The highest point is Cerro Chirripó, which reaches 3,820 meters (12,530 feet) above sea level. The lowest point is sea level.

Costa Rica has many volcanoes throughout the mountain ranges, including five currently active ones. Arenal, Irazú, Rincón de la Vieja, Turrialba and Poás are all currently active. There are many more dormant colossuses that can be hiked and explored, as well.

Poás Volcano. Photo: Andrés Madrigal
Poás Volcano. Photo: Andrés Madrigal

Lots of rainfall and rugged topography make for lots of rivers. Whitewater rafting is a popular activity, and there are rivers for all ability levls.

The country is divided into seven provinces, which are Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limón, Puntarenas, and San José.

Government
Costa Rica is a democratic republic. Central America’s oldest democracy, Costa Rica has managed to avoid the political instability that has plagued its neighbors. Costa Ricans turn out every four years in high numbers (voter turnout usually ranges from 60-80%) to elect their president. Political unrest is not a factor when considering traveling to Costa Rica.

The three branches of government are the Executive branch, which consists of the president, two vice presidents, and cabinet; the Legislative branch, which is a popularly elected assembly of 57 deputies; and the Judicial branch, which consists of civil, criminal, appellate and constitutional courts.

Education
Costa Rica boasts some of the highest rates of literacy in the hemisphere as 97% of citizens can read and write. School is free and compulsory through high school. The public universities are highly regarded, and are inexpensive. There are many private universities throughout the country; these vary greatly in quality.

Children at public school, Costa Rica. Photo: Andrés Madrigal
Children at public school, Costa Rica. Photo: Andrés Madrigal

Medicine
Universal health care is another hallmark of Costa Rica’s visionary government. Since 1948, Costa Rica’s residents have enjoyed socialized medicine. Public clinics and hospitals provide quality care for everyone. Private hospitals and clinics, mainly concentrated in the Central Valley, offer First World-quality care at a fraction of what you’d pay in the developed world.
Military
Costa Rica abolished the military in 1948. There are no armed forces.

President José
President José “Pepe” Figueres knocks part of the Bellavista fort as part of the ceremony of the abolishment of the army in Costa Rica, 1948. Photo courtesy: Archivo Nacional

Economy
Tourism has emerged in recent decades as Costa Rica’s main source of income. Traditionally, agricultural exports such as coffee, bananas and pineapples have supported a large portion of the population. Today, although agriculture is still important, Costa Rica has a burgeoning electronics and exotic-flower industries.

Tourism is far and away the country’s main source of income. More than a quarter of Costa Rica’s territory is protected, and the ecological wealth within these reserves draws nearly two million international visitors annually. The government is currently working on improving infrastructure and services to major tourism areas.

Banks and Money
The official currency is the colón. US dollars are readily accepted, although outside of hotels and tourist areas, usually only bills under $20 are accepted, and only if they are in good condition. Worn or torn bills will likely be turned away as the local banks won´t accept them.

5 colones bill
5 colones bill

There is a wide selection of state-owned and private banks in Costa Rica. Changing traveler’s checks can be difficult as most private banks and some state banks refuse to accept them. Most establishments of any size will accept credit and debit cards, and automatic teller machines are found throughout the country. Bring your passport for any bank transactions, including changing money into colones.