Fig.1 – Costa Rica Flag


Costa Rica, lying between Nicaragua and Panama, is a complete coast-to-coast segment of the Central American isthmus. Its width ranges from 74 to 176 miles. A low, thin line of hills that rises between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean in Nicaragua, broadens as it enters northern Costa Rica, eventually forming the high, rugged, mountains in the Pacific Northwest and the centre of Costa Rica. The southern half of the country is dominated by mountains of tectonic origin; the highest peak is Chirripó Grande, which reaches 12,530ft. More than half the population live on the Meseta Central, a plateau with an equitable climate. It is the setting for the country’s capital, San José. There are lowlands on both coast lines, mainly swampy on the Caribbean coast, with savannah and dry forest on the Pacific Northwest merging into mangrove and rainforest southward. Rivers cut through the mountains, flowing down to both the Caribbean and the Pacific.


Credit: Central Intelligence Agency

Christopher Columbus set foot in Costa Rica in September 1502 making his 4th and final voyage to the New World. A group of local Carib Indians greeted his crew warmly. He stayed for 17 days and was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the locals that he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, ‘the rich coast’. By the time Columbus arrived, there were 4 major indigenous tribes living in Costa Rica, namely the Caribs, Borucas, Chibchas, and Diquis. Colonization was slow it took nearly 60 years for Spanish settlers to make a strong hold of the country. Once the process started, the country suffered the effects of European invasion. The indigenous population did not have the sufficient numbers to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases. Costa Rica joined other Central American provinces in 1821 in a joint declaration of independence from Spain. An era of peaceful democracy in Costa Rica began in 1899 with elections considered the first truly free and honest ones in the country’s history. This began a trend that continued until today. In 1917-19, Federico Tinoco ruled as a dictator, and, in 1948, Jose Figueres led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election. The 44-day civil war resulting from this uprising was the bloodiest event in 20th century Costa Rican history, but the victorious junta drafted a constitution guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the military. Figueres became a national hero, winning the first election under the new constitution in 1953. Since then, Costa Rica has held 14 presidential elections, the latest in 2006.


The population of Costa Rica is mainly white (94%, including mixed European and Amerindian mestizos). There is a small proportion of black (3%), Amerindian (1%), and Chinese (1%) residents.


Handshaking is common although is typically limp, and formal titular address is important. Christian names are preceded by Señor for a man and Señora for a woman, but Don is used to address a highly respected man and Doña for a female equivalent. Normal courtesies should be observed when visiting someone’s home and gifts are appreciated as a token of thanks, especially if invited for a meal. For most occasions casual wear is acceptable, but beachwear should be confined to the beach.


Spanish is the official language. English is widely spoken. Some French, German and Italian are also spoken.


Costa Rica is a democratic republic. Under the 1949 constitution, all citizens are guaranteed equality before the law, the right to own property, the right of petition and assembly, freedom of speech and the right of habeas corpus. The constitution also divides the government into independent executive, legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch is composed of the president, two vice presidents and a cabinet. The legislature is the National Assembly, composed of 57 members (diputados) elected by proportional representation. National elections are held every four years, on the first Sunday of February. Under a constitutional amendment enacted in 1969, a president may serve only one four-year term during his lifetime. Diputados also are elected for four years and may serve a second term four years after the first ends. The largest political party is the National Liberation Party (PLN). Its main rival is the more conservative Social Christian Unity Party.


GMT – 6.


Standard current is 110 volts, 60 Hertz.


Costa Rica is a tropical country which contains several distinct climatic zones. There is no winter or summer as such and most regions have a rainy season from May to November and a dry season from December to April. Annual rainfall averages 100 inches nationwide with some mountainous regions getting as much as 25ft on exposed eastern slopes. Temperature is more a matter of elevation than location with a mean of around 72ºF in the Central Valley, 82ºF on the Atlantic coast and 89ºF on the Pacific coast.

Clothes to Wear:

Lightweight cottons and linens most of the year, warmer clothes for cooler evenings. Waterproofing is necessary during the rainy season. Loose-fitting clothing is best. Wear neutral browns and greens for birding and wildlife viewing.


Entry & Exit Requirements:

For entry into Costa Rica, a U.S. citizen must present a valid passport that will not expire for at least thirty days after arrival and a roundtrip/outbound ticket. Airlines should not permit passengers to board flights to Costa Rica without a roundtrip ticket unless they have Costa Rican citizenship, residency or a visa. There is a departure tax of $26USD for visitors. Passports should be in good condition; Costa Rican immigration may deny entry if the passport is damaged in any way. Costa Rican authorities generally permit U.S. citizens to stay up to ninety days.

To extend a stay, travelers must submit an application for an extension to the Office of Temporary Permits in the Costa Rican Department of Immigration. Extension requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Tourists who stay more than ninety days, without receiving an extension, may experience a delay at the airport when departing or may be denied entry to Costa Rica on future visits.

The most authoritative and up-to-date information on Costa Rican entry and exit requirements may be obtained from the Consular Section of the Embassy of Costa Rica at 2114 “S” Street NW, Washington, DC 20008. Tel: (202) 234-2945/46, fax (202) 265-4795. You may visit the Embassy of Costa Rica’s website or contact the Embassy via email. You may also obtain information from the Costa Rican consulates in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Denver. Please also see the Costa Rican Immigration Agency website. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington or one of Costa Rica’s Consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements before shipping any items.

Americans traveling in Costa Rica are encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy through the State Department’s travel registration web site so that they can obtain updated information on travel and security within Costa Rica. Americans without internet access may register directly with the Embassy. By registering, American citizens make it easier for the Embassy to contact them in case of emergency.

Embassy Locations:

Embassy of the United States of America in Costa Rica

Pavas, San Jose

Tel: (506) 2519-2000

Emer. A/hours Tel: (506) 2220-3127

Embassy of Canada to Costa Rica

Sabana Sur: Behind the “Contraloría” in the Oficentro Ejecutivo La Sabana
Building 5, 3rd floor

Tel: (506) 2242-4400


Persons traveling to Costa Rica from some countries in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa must provide evidence of a valid yellow fever vaccination prior to entry. The South American countries include Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) hotline for international travelers at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or via the CDC website at For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the World Health Organization’s (WHO) web site at diseases/en/. Further health information for travelers is available from the WHO.

Banks & Currency:

Costa Rican Colón (CRC; symbol ₡) = 100 céntimos. Notes are in denominations of ₡10,000, 5,000, 2,000 and 1,000. Coins are in denominations of ₡100, 50, 25, 20, 10 and 5. US Dollars are also widely accepted.

Available at banks and bureau de change. Some hotels may also change money.

Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa are all accepted; American Express slightly less so. Many banks will only process MasterCard for cash credits. Cash may be the only form of payment in smaller towns and rural areas. ATM’s usually accept foreign cards.

Although travelers can avoid additional exchange rate charges by taking travelers’ checks in US Dollars, fewer and fewer businesses in Costa Rica are willing to accept them.

The import and export of local and foreign currency is limited to US$10,000. Amounts above this must be declared upon arrival.

Banking Hours: Mon-Fri 8/9am-3/6pm.


Costa Rica has one of the most advanced telephone systems is Latin America. International calls can be dialed directly from almost any point in the country. There are public telephones throughout the country, and in the few rural populations where these are not available one can find operator assisted phones. Direct-dial telephone service, fax, telex, and radio are all available. Telephone service is efficient and there are more telephones per capita than in any other Latin American country. Bilingual operator assistance for international calls is 116, local information 113, and long distance information 124, and direct dial service is available to most countries. You may also use telephone credit cards.

Cell Phone Usage:

Please contact your cell phone provider to determine whether your contract includes coverage in the country you are visiting. Depending on your contract you may have to add international services and/or country specific services.


Food & Drink:

Restaurants in towns and cities serve a variety of foods including Chinese, French, Italian, Mexican and North American. Food usually ranges from satisfactory to sublime. In San José, options range from expensive and exemplary gourmet restaurants to cheap sodas (small, simple restaurants) serving local food, including set lunches called casados at bargain prices.

National specialities:

  • Casado(a fixed daily lunch, usually featuring rice, beans, stewed chicken or beef, fried plantain, salad and cabbage)
  • Olla de carne (soup of beef, plantain, corn, yuca and chayote)
  • Sopa negra (black beans with a poached egg)
  • Picadillo (meat and vegetable stew)
  • Bocas (savoury snacks served at bars or before main meals in restaurants).

National drinks:

There are many types of cold drinks made from fresh fruit, milk or cereal flour, for example:

• Cebada (fermented barley; an indigenous beverage)

  • Pinolillo (corn and cocoa)
  • Horchata (liquid corn meal or ground rice with cinnamon)
  • Batidos (fresh fruit shakes made with either milk or water blended with ice)
  • Pipas (fresh coconut water served in the husk)
  • Local lager-style beers such as Imperial are a perfect cure for hot days
  • Coffee is good, but many local restaurants serve lesser-quality domestic brand coffee.


San José especially has many nightclubs, venues with folk music and dance, theatres and cinemas. Elsewhere nightlife is mostly restricted to tourist resorts by the beach.


Special purchases include wood and leather rocking chairs (which dismantle for export), as well as a range of local crafts available in major cities and towns. Local markets are also well worth visiting. Prices are slightly higher than in other Latin American countries. Best buys are wooden items, carved masks, ceramics, gold pre-Columbian replica jewellery and leather handicrafts.

Shopping hours: Mon-Sat 9am-6/7pm. There may be variations between areas.


Baggage rules for international and domestic air travel have changed much in recent years, differ from carrier to carrier and these days even may cover your on-board bags. Checking luggage may cost a separate fee or may be free depending on your personal status with the carrier. We therefore encourage you to read your ticket’s small print and/or contact your carrier for exact rules.


Tipping is entirely up to you. It depends on level of service, whether or not you feel comfortable giving tips, and your budget. Costa Ricans, as a general rule, do not tip. At Restaurants a 10% gratuity for service and 15% for sales tax is included in your bill. Tipping is not used when it comes to taxis, unless extra service is provided. Bellboys are often tipped a minimum of $1.00 per bag or the equivalent in colones per bag, at check-in and check-out. Chamber maids: $0.50-1.00 per night is acceptable. Sometimes their service is overlooked. For guides and drivers it really depends on the service rendered, $3.00-5.00 per person is acceptable.


Laundry service is available at most hotels in the main centers. Generally you should allow 24 hours before the item is returned to you, however, some have an emergency service available at an extra charge.


In some countries you must refrain from photographing sites such as Military bases and industrial installations. Also be aware of cultural sensitivities when taking pictures of or near churches and other religious sites. It is always courteous to ask for permission before taking photographs of people.


The use of drones is being legislated by many countries. In some cases drones are already forbidden and their unauthorized use may carry severe penalties. If you plan to travel with a drone please contact the embassy or consulate of the country you wish to visit.