Our Costa Rica Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Costa Rica or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
A neutral and democratic beacon in an otherwise turbulent region Costa Rica doesn't even have its own army. This is a humid country of tropical rainforests, active volcanoes and clear coastlines, abundant in both tropical and marine life. For such a small country, Costa Rica is incredibly diverse in its natural attractions.
Most flights fly into the capital San José; easy transport routes make this the perfect springboard for exploring the rest of the country. A short drive north will take visitors into the lush Central Highland area, covered by an extensive network of national parks and spectacular cloud forests. This parkland covers 25% of Costa Rica and offers a fantastic variety of outdoor activities and wildlife.
Costa Rica's beautiful beaches are the preferred nesting ground of four types of sea turtle, including the rare Green turtle, best seen in Tortugero National Park on the north Caribbean coast. The best surfing beaches lie around the costal town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, while the most stunning and unspoilt beach spots lie along the Nicoya and Osa peninsulas to the west.
Culture & etiquette
Costa Rican's are very laid back and friendly and tend to take an informal approach to life. The pace of life here is slower than it is in the west, and a relaxed attitude to time keeping is not considered to be rude. In fact this is an extremely polite and non-confrontational culture, in which raised voices are considered to be impolite.
Costa Rican's take pride in their appearance, and even informal dress is not as casual as in other parts of the world. For example men rarely wear shorts apart from to the beach and most women wear high heels with their jeans rather than flats.
Religion is key in Costa Rica, a staunchly Roman Catholic country. It is important to be respectful of religious views, so controversial conversations about related issues are probably best avoided with a generally conservative population, although people in the costal towns and larger cities tend to be more liberal in their views.
Frescos, refrescos and jugos naturales take advantage of the regions abundance in tropical fruit, combining it with water or milk to make a refreshing juice drink; popular flavours are mango, papaya and pineapple.
Although Costa Rica is a premier coffee growing region, a large proportion of the best coffee is grown for export, though it is perfectly possible to track down a decent cup as it is popular with the local population.
German influences over the years have contributed to Costa Rica's beer production industry and popular local brands are Bavaria, Imperial and Pilsen. Costa Rica also produces a wide range of liquors. The national liquor guaro is crude cane liquor, often drunk with fruit juice or tonic. Also readily available are a range of coffee liquors and different brands of rum. Costa Rican rum is called Centenario, but the Nicaraguan Flor de Cana and Cuban Havana Clu are also available.
January - Dia de Santo Cristo de Esquipulas, popular religious festival celebrated with fiestas, dancing and ox cart parades.
February - Fiesta de los Diablitos, the festival of the little devils is an indigenous celebration centring on a re-enactment of a battle between the Spanish troops and the Boruca Indians (the diablitos).
February - Ash Wednesday
March - Dia de los Boyeros, oxcart driver's day, with parades of beautifully hand pained ox carts, traditional costumes and dancing in San Antonio de Escazu.
March - Dia di San Jose, a national holiday in San José, this is the feast day of the cities patron St Joseph.
June - St Peter and Paul's day
July- Fiesta de la Virgen del Mar, Puntarenas celebrates the virgin of the sea with a flotilla of fishing boats.
October - Columbus Day, a national holiday in Limon to commemorate the arrival of Columbus in the new world
December - Festival de la Luz, weeklong festival of lights in San José
December - Immaculate conception, popular religious celebration.
Food & drink
Variations of rice and beans are served several times a day every day in Costa Rica, but there's more to the cuisine than this daily staple. It's definitely worth trying it a few times though, perhaps for breakfast at one of the small restaurants known as sodas. First thing in the morning is when most Costa Ricans eat gallo pinto, rice mixed with black beans, eaten alongside eggs, toast or fried plantains. At lunch sodas typically serve another national dish, known as casado, and named for the ‘eternal marriage' of its components, which are yes, rice and beans, but also meat or fish, vegetables and salad, overflowing on the plate. Arroz con Palmito - rice mixed with heart of palm, spices, onions and mozzarella is worth trying too.
Olla de Carne is another local favourite, a hearty soup with hefty chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, plantain and yucca (a starchy root vegetable). It's filling stuff, and really more stew than soup. Just as substantial is another local favourite, sopa de mondongo, made with tripe and vegetables. If you're on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, look out for rundon soup, based on whatever ingredients the cook can ‘run down' before meal time. This does mean there is no definitive version, but it always features coconut milk, fish and yams, making it a lively Latin take on seafood chowder.
Given the vast amount of fresh fish available, many dishes feature it in some form, often simply grilled, but ceviche is especially popular in Costa Rica. A Peruvian style of ‘cooking' raw fish by marinating it in plenty of lime juice, variations can be found everywhere in Costa Rica, and given the quality of the fish, it's generally delicious.
Costa Rica is also blessed with a huge variety of tropical fruit (roadside stalls are piled high with mangos, papayas, bananas, pineapples to list just a few) and vegetables. Plantain is by far the most popular, served in food but also as patacones, a ubiquitous boca or appetizer, with the plantain served as thick crisps with cheese, guacamole and bean dips. Guava and soursop are also widely consumed, the former making a delectable jam and almost always available at breakfast time. Choreadas - corn pancakes are another breakfast treat, as are churros served with coffee.
Costa Rica is a small country at the heart of Latin America with Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Close proximity to the equator provides a tropical climate and most of the country is covered by rain forests. The capital city of San José lies at the heart of the country at an altitude of 1150 meters, bordered to the north by the Talamanca mountain range and a string of active volcanoes, including the iconic Arenal volcano.
The country has two distinctive coastlines, to the west lie the sheltered peninsulas and tranquil beaches of the Pacific, those to the south fringed by rainforest, while the Caribbean coastline to the east is somewhat wilder, with strong currents and tidal mangrove swamps.
Most of the country is well served by road links (though some are unpaved) and as train services are extremely limited, this is the best way to get around. There is a good bus service out of San José to most of the main areas, although most people choose to hire a car. Note that a 4WD vehicle is advised for visits to many of the countries national parks and essential for road links south to the Osa peninsula.
A tourist train runs at weekends form San Jose to the Pacific, but tickets must be purchased early in the week for travel the following weekend.
Canyon Negro and Tortugero national park are only accessible via boat.
Spaniard Gil Gonzalez Davila gave the country its name - the golden bands that the region's inhabitants wore in their noses and ears inspired him to call the country Costa Rica, meaning rich coast.
Civilisation existed in Costa Rica for thousands of years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus on 18th September 1520. This was his fourth and final voyage to the new world and led to the establishment of Costa Rica as a new Spanish colony. On his arrival here Columbus encountered the indigenous Carib Indian settlers, who paddled out to welcome Columbus' men in dug out canoes. However, the arrival of the Spanish was to have a devastating effect on the native people; Spanish colonialism and the introduction of smallpox decimated numbers, wiping out some tribes completely. Sadly today only one percent of Costa Rica's four million inhabitants can trace their roots back to a time before Spanish rule.
Columbus' observations of these indigenous people are prized by historians, as there are no written records that pre-date the arrival of the Spanish, sheltering the lives of these pre-Columbian settlers in a veil of mystery. Some of the strangest artefacts dating from this early period are the granite bolas on the west coast, rounded formations ranging in size from a baseball to a Volkswagen beetle. The purpose of these artefacts remains an area of much speculation among today's archaeologists and historians.
For the most part the Spanish left the outpost of Costa Rica alone, failing to discover large deposits of silver and gold as they had in their other holdings in Mexico and Peru, ironic given the name they gave the region, which means rich coast. Farming became the main focus of Costa Rica, and thousands of African slaves were brought over to work the land. Despite this, farming in Costa Rica did not really become profitable until the introduction of coffee plantations in the 1800s.
In 1821 revolution was stirring in Mexico and soon Costa Rica, along with the rest of Central America, joined in the uprising, successfully overthrowing Spanish rule and gaining their independence. However, peace was short lived and Costa Rica soon descended into Civil War, with certain factions favouring a Mexican takeover, while others, especially those in and around San José sought to establish Costa Rica as an independent nation.
Costa Rica remained independent and with the introduction of new land reforms in 1824, became a country dominated by an elite class of coffee barons. These were dangerous men whose substantial power and influence led to the removal of the nation's first president in favour of Juan Rafael Mora.
During Mora's time in office potential crisis struck the countries of Central America in the form of renegade fanatic William Walker. Born in Nashville Tennessee, Walker believed that Latin America should be a slave state under American rule. After being rebuffed by the Mexican and American authorities Walker took maters into his own hands, invading Mexico in 1853. He was captured and returned to America for trial, however this did not deter Walker who went on to exploit unrest in Nicaragua, where he enjoyed short-lived success, setting himself up as president. When troops gathered and overthrew him Walker fled to Costa Rica where he was repulsed at the battle of Rivas on 11 April 1856; now a designated national holiday in Costa Rica. On the run he fled north and was later captured and executed in Honduras.
Unlike some of its neighbors Costa Rica has managed to steer clear of violent extremism, even during times of enforced military rule and civil war, from which Costa Rica emerged not just relatively unscathed, but boasting new improved reforms. The military regime of Thomas Guardia in 1870, improved taxation, education and military policy, while many decades later the civil war that forced the United Social Christian Party to relinquish power in 1948 led to the introduction of new civil rights legislation and voting reforms; as well as the military being abolished, cementing Costa Rica as a liberal and democratic nation.
In recent history Costa Rica's government played a key role in ending unrest in Nicaragua, when president Oscar Arias Sanchez oversaw the signing of a peace plan by all five of the Central American presidents. The success of this plan and the return of relative stability to Nicaragua earned Sanchez the Noble peace prize in 1987.
Costa Rica specialises in handmade crafts such as woodcarving and weaving. These are mainly available from small shops and stalls in and around the major tourist routes, and San José also has a thriving indoor market, Galería Namu, bringing together a wide range of crafts, while Biesanz Woodworks offers some of the best woodcarving in the country.
When buying wooden crafts in Costa Rica be aware that some of the carvings are made from rainforest hardwoods, so check that your purchase is from a sustainable source. Some hardwood trees, such as ebony are becoming increasingly rare.
In Costa Rica a 10% service charge is often added to restaurant and hotel bills as well as 13% sales tax, in these cases tipping in not necessary. Otherwise it is polite to leave a tip of 10%. Tipping is not expected for taxis, through you might leave a small amount to show your appreciation.
Where to eat
The cities and major tourist areas of Costa Rica offer a wide range of restaurants and different types of cuisine, and there are plenty of international dishes available for travellers in hotel and resort restaurants. That said, the smaller and strongly atmospheric local eateries, called sodas, are fun to frequent and serve authentic dishes.