A valid passport is required to enter Costa Rica for citizens of the U.S. and the UK, and the passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the dates of your trip. No visa is required for citizens of these countries unless you are staying more than 90 days. Please remember that you are responsible for having the proper documentation for your trip. The airport departure tax when you fly out of San Jose back to the U.S. is about $28 (subject to change). Please be sure to have adequate cash on hand to pay this tax (it can be paid in dollars or colones).
For more information, visit the Department of State´s website and choose Costa Rica: http://travel.state.gov/travel/
Costa Rica has a subtropical climate. Lowland temperatures on the coasts average between 80 and 90 degrees during the day and a bit cooler at night. In the area around San Jose the daytime temperature is typically in the 70s, while higher up in the mountains the temperature can drop down into the 50s. The predictability of the dry season and wet (or “green”) season has changed a bit over the past few years, but traditionally the dry season is from late December through April. The wet season can be a very good time to visit. It won’t generally rain all day long, but instead will rain for a couple hours in the afternoon and be clear for much of the day. July also has a fairly predictable dry spell that is called the “little summer.” During the wetter months there is the advantage that the country is especially green and lush.
The weather patterns depend on the part of the country as well. December to April is usually rainless on the Pacific Coast, but this is when it rains most on the Caribbean coast. The dry season on the Caribbean coast is September and October. The Guanacaste Coast is the driest part of the country and generally has less rainfall throughout the year, including in the “wet” season.
The ocean temperatures on both coasts are usually around 74 degrees, which is very comfortable for swimming.
For more detailed information including up to date weather forecasts in all the major cities in Costa Rica, please visit the following website: http://www.accuweather.com/en/cr/costa-rica-weather
Please Note: There is a 30 pound weight restriction on domestic charter flights in Costa Rica (exact amount depends on the flight and airline). If you exceed this amount, you might have to pay a fine of a few dollars (occasionally they do not collect it but best to avoid the possibility by packing light). It is also possible that if the flight is completely full they will not allow you to take the extra weight with you on the plane, in which case you will have to give some articles to your guide who will have them sent to the office in San Jose. They will be returned to you before you leave. To avoid this, it really is best to make an effort to keep your bag below or as close to 30 pounds as possible. The weight restriction applies to the total weight of all your luggage, including carry-ons.
Laundry Service: There is laundry service at most hotels in Costa Rica; some remote lodges may not have laundry service.
Other essential gear:
Other useful gear:
Medical Kit Suggestions
Photo and Video Equipment
You will receive local contact information, including 24 hour emergency contact numbers, with your Final Itinerary.
U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica Contact Information
Address: Calle 120 Avenida 0, Pavas, San José, Costa Rica
Office Hours: 8:00 AM-4:30 PM
Phone: (506) 2519-2000; dialing from U.S.: put 011 in front of the (506)
After hours/emergency: (506) 2220-3127; dialing from U.S.: put 011 in front of the (506)
Vaya Adventures U.S. Contact Information
Phone: (510) 548-8487
Outside office hours: (510) 809-6261
Costa Rica has a good phone system, with many public telephones throughout the country. They accept coins of 5, 10 and 20 colónes. If you believe you will be making several local calls or any international calls, you might want to consider purchasing a calling card from a local convenience store or mini-mart. You can call anywhere in the country from a public booth, though international calls are possible only from certain machines. There are no area codes in Costa Rica. If you expect to make several calls or international calls, you should be aware that the costs at the hotels can be very high relative to what you will pay from public phones outside the hotel. Charges of several dollars a minute from the hotels for international calls are not uncommon.
The best way to make international calls is with a pre-paid international calling card, which you can obtain at convenience stores. To make an international collect call, you can dial 116 on any public phone to get an English speaking operator. You will see many phones offering international services if you use a credit card, but they will not tell you how much the call will cost. Often, these rates are very high, over $10 or considerably more to make a call of just a couple minutes.
Fax machines are generally available at hotels and businesses. Just ask at the hotel for the closest available fax.
There are internet cafes in the larger population centers of Costa Rica and at some hotels. Many hotels also offer free internet service. Ask in your hotel about where you can get internet access.
The most common ailment to affect travelers to any destination in South or Central America is traveler’s diarrhea. The best way to avoid it is to be careful about what you eat. Some basic rules:
For additional information about health issues in specific places, including recommended vaccinations and inoculations, you can visit www.tripprep.com, a non-governmental site that has a lot of health related information on other nations. Another option is the website of the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov. Please keep in mind that the CDC errs on the side of caution, and that there may be varying opinions on the need for specific vaccinations and inoculations. The standard immunizations for typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria, polio and hepatitis are generally recommended for travel to South and Central America. You may already have received these shots or boosters and don’t need them. If you have any doubts, you should visit a travel health specialist and begin to have all of your vaccinations recorded on an International Health Certificate.
To minimize mosquito and other insect bites, you should use a Deet based insect repellant (30% strength is generally sufficient), and be sure to wear full length pants and shirts (generally cotton) and socks whenever in an area with biting insects.
Malaria: malaria is not an issue in the highlands, but there are some rare cases of malaria in the lowlands. The regions most affected are the south Caribbean coastal area near the Panama border and the Osa Peninsula area. Most people travelling to Costa Rica do not take any type of anti-malarial medicine. If you have any questions, please consult a travel health professional or visit the website of the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov.
We strongly recommend that all of our travelers purchase travel insurance. Travel insurance can help cover many things, including baggage loss, missed connections, trip interruption, and medical emergency (including medical evacuation costs), resulting from a wide variety of circumstances, including illness or extreme weather that results in the cancellation of your trip. It can also help protect you in the event of loss of non-refundable trip deposits and payments that result from cancellation or trip interruption. Families traveling together, in particular, can benefit from traveler’s insurance, due to the high investment in the trip and the increased risk of one person’s illness resulting in the entire trip being cancelled. There are many companies that provide trip insurance. We offer insurance through Allianz, and their most popular plan is the Classic Plan. You can view details of this plan by clicking on this link: Allianz Classic Plan, or by visiting the Allianz website at www.allianztravelinsurance.com.
If you have a guide for a full day, an average tip would be somewhere in the range of $10-$15 per day, per person. It can be less, it can be more, but this is a typical range. If you go on a shorter trip of a half day, the tip would basically be proportional to what proportion of the day you spent with the guide. If half a day, $5-$8 per person would be a typical range. If there are additional people involved, drivers, crew of a boat, etc., you may want to give them something as well. This might particularly be the case where you are with a driver for long periods, perhaps over a several day trip. About 1/3 of what you give the guide himself would be an appropriate benchmark. For families with children, we suggest giving 50% of the normal per person amount for each child. This is completely at your discretion and you should give what you feel comfortable giving.
The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica, by Richard Biesanz. Covers Costa Rican history, culture and society. A good overview of life in Costa Rica.
The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Steven Palmer and Ivan Molina (editors). A compilation of primary materials, articles, and essays on Costa Rica; a great survey of the country (part of a very good series of books).
Tropical Nature, by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. A series of essays by two field biologists that cover many of the ecosystems, habitats, and wildlife of the Central and South American rainforest.
Costa Rica, Travellers’ Wildlife Guides, by Les Beletsky. This is a good, accessible field guide to the natural history and wildlife of Costa Rica. Whether you take this guide or another, it is a good idea to have at least some type of field guide to wildlife. There is a lot to understand about the rainforest and the local ecosystems, and a field guide or nature guide can be very illuminating.
Costa Rica, A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Barbara Ras. A collection of short stories by Costa Rican writers. This is a great way to get some insight into Costa Rican society and the Costa Rican outlook on life.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to arrive to Costa Rica, in 1502, but human beings inhabited Costa Rica for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The original inhabitants were descendants of the people who crossed the Bering Land Bridge that connected Asia to the North American continent during the last ice age, approximately 15-20,000 years ago.
There is evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica dating back 10,000 years. The ruins of a large ancient city near Cartago (east of San Jose) are still under excavation, and some very high quality gold and jade work was created in the southwestern part of the country in pre-Columbian times, examples of which you can see at the Jade Museum in downtown San Jose. There are archeological sites in the Nicoya peninsula (in western Costa Rica) that reveal the influence of Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec and Nahuatl.
The Arrival of the Spanish and the Colonial Period
Columbus arrived in Costa Rica on September 18, 1502, while making his fourth and final voyage to the New World. At that time, there were four major indigenous tribes living in Costa Rica, and their total population was probably no more than a few hundred thousand. The Caribs (who gave the Caribbean its name) resided on the east coast, while the Borucas, Chibchas and Diquis lived in the southwest. These populations were decimated by the arrival of the Spanish, particularly by the deadly smallpox they introduced. Many other indigenous people simply fled from Spanish persecution in the years after the arrival.
The combined effect of disease and relocation on the original indigenous population was severe. Today only about 1 percent of Costa’s Rica’s 3 million people are of purely indigenous heritage. As the local indigenous labor force shrank, the Spanish brought in African slaves to work the land, and additional blacks arrived as migrant labor or as resettlements from other areas of the Caribbean. About seventy thousand descendants of these African slaves live in Costa Rica today, mainly on the Caribbean coast. Almost all the rest of the Costa Rican population is of Spanish or other European descent, with a few percent of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage.
Costa Rica never received much attention from the Spanish, who considered it a backwater lacking any significant natural resources. It was probably the colony that received the least colonial interest and influence from Spain. Vast reserves of precious metals were being discovered in Mexico and Peru, and the Spanish focused most of their attention on those places.
Independence from Spain
Costa Rica and the rest of Central America rebelled from Spanish colonial rule just after Mexico did the same in 1821. For a brief time after independence, Costa Rica opted to become part of Mexico, though this ultimately sparked a civil war between the dominant cities in Costa Rica. The cities of San Jose and Alajuela were republican and pro-independence, while the cities of Heredia and Cartago were in favor of joining Mexico. Independence was established when the republican cities decisively won the Civil War.
Juan Mora Fernandez, elected the nation’s first chief of state in 1824, established the tone for Costa Rican public life by being a progressive land reformer and managing a stable government. He established a sound judicial system, founded the nation’s first newspaper, and expanded public education. He also encouraged coffee cultivation and gave free land grants to would-be coffee growers, an act whose significance only became apparent over time. Gradually, the owners of the coffee plantations would become coffee barons and come to totally dominate the affairs of the country.
In 1849, the “cafetaleros” (as the coffee barons were known) successfully conspired to overthrow the nation’s president, José María Castro, who had been an enlightened reformer. They put one of their own, Juan Rafael Mora, in power in his place. Though he achieved power illegitimately, Mora oversaw great economic growth, and was also in power at the time the imperialist American adventurer William Walker arrived to Costa Rica.
The Misadventures of William Walker
The American William Walker arrived in Nicaragua in 1855 with the aim of conquering Central America and turning it into a slaving territory. He did not have the official support of the U.S. government, but many Americans supported his actions, based on notions of Manifest Destiny. Walker briefly took control of Nicaragua, and then marched south across the border into Costa Rica with a small private army of about 250 soldiers. Costa Rica had no organized military, so President Mora organized 9000 soldiers as a citizen militia that marched to stop Walker in 1856. Walker was defeated and retreated to Nicaragua, but returned to Central America on subsequent occasions to try to realize his plans. The Hondurans finally put an end to Walker’s adventure, when they captured and summarily executed him in 1860 while he was trying to take over that country.
Costa Rica has had its periods of military rule, though they have generally been of a less extreme and repressive form than those experienced in many other Central American nations. A few of the military rulers have been among Costa Rica’s most progressive leaders. In 1870, General Tomas Guardia seized control of the government, and susequently made some of the country’s most progressive reforms in education, military policy, and taxation.
Civil war erupted in Costa Rica in 1948, after the incumbent Dr. Rafael Angel Calderon and the United Social Christian Party refused to relinquish power after losing the presidential election. Calderon’s attempt to maintain power was foiled by democratic forces, and in 1949 Costa Rica eliminated its army and entered into several decades of stable democracy, lasting to this day. After the Civil War, women and blacks gained the vote, the communist party was banned, banks were nationalized, and presidential term limits were established.
In recent times, Costa Rica has been a strong voice for peace in Central America, and in 1987 Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending the Nicaraguan civil war. That conflict had often spilled over the border, as both the Sandinistas and the Contras set up military bases in the northern area of Costa Rica. Arias succeeded in getting all five Central American presidents to sign his peace plan, and Nicaragua is now experiencing relative peace and stability.
High Literacy and a Strong Environmental Ethic
Costa Rica has one of the world’s highest literacy rates, at about 93%. Education up to the sixth grade is obligatory, and the country is home to well regarded universities, such as the National University and the University of Costa Rica.
Costa Rica has also become a leader in the area of environmental protection. Over 20% of its national territory is protected in national parks, wildlife refuges, and forest reserves, while another 10% is of restricted use. Ecotourism and tourism in general have become the nation’s largest source of economic revenue, and conservation organizations worldwide look upon Costa Rica as a model.
Costa Rica has a population of approximately 3.3 million people, with a 2.3% growth rate. More than 45% of the population is below the age of 20. Most people live in the central valley highlands, with a little more than a million living in San Jose, the capital city. The country is predominantly European in descent (87%), with about 7% of the population being of mixed heritage (European and Native American). Approximately 2% are black and live primarily on the Caribbean coast. Only about 1% of the population is of pure Native American descent, and another one percent is made up of ethnic Chinese. Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos. Costa Rica is nearly 80% Catholic, but as in much of Latin America, a host of evangelical churches emerged in the 1970′s and have become well established. Only about 20% of the Catholics attend mass regularly.
Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. For its size, it has more species of plants and animals than any other country on earth. Costa Rica has about 870 bird species, over 200 mammal species, 215 reptile species, 160 amphibian species, 360 thousand species of insects, and almost 10,000 different plant species. By comparison, the United States has a total of about 1000 bird and mammal species, compared to almost 1200 for Costa Rica, though the U.S. is almost 200 times the size of Costa Rica.
Of Costa Rica’s over 200 mammal species, half are bats. There are several species of marine mammals in Costa Rica, including several species of dolphins and seven species of whales. The endangered manatee is a species that is endemic to Costa Rica.
Depending on where you are going, you can probably expect to see one or more of Costa Rica’s four species of monkeys. The four species are the capuchin, squirrel, howler, and spider monkeys. Seeing mammals such as jaguars or tapirs is extremely difficult, as these animals are incredibly elusive and reside mainly in more remote wilderness areas. The jaguar is now a highly endangered species, mainly inhabiting the larger nature reserves in Santa Rosa, Tortuguero, Corcovado National Park, the Río Macho Forest Preserve, and lower levels of the Cordillera Talamanca.
Other larger mammals include sloths and anteaters. Costa Rica has two species of sloths, the three toed sloth and the nocturnal two toed sloth. The sloth spends up to 18 hours a day sleeping. It sleeps and moves while hanging upside down from tree branches. It eats a diet of leaves, and blends into its surroundings as a defense against its main predators, the jaguar and eagles. You have a good chance of seeing a sloth during your stay.
The tapir is the largest of Costa Rican mammals, and can weigh over 400 pounds. It has also become extremely rare due to over-hunting and habitat destruction. It is a solitary plant eater that looks like a combination of a cow and a pig. Today they are only found only in national parks and reserves where hunting is restricted, with the greatest density in Corcovado National Park, which has a population of fewer than 300. They are very reclusive and are rarely seen in the wild.
A good nature guide who accompanies you while you visit the wilderness areas can be extremely helpful in locating and spotting wildlife, and can make all the difference in what you see. They usually know where the animals are likely to be and where they live. Also, please keep in mind that the best time to see wildlife is early in the morning, so try to get there early. (This has the added advantage of fewer people!)
With about 870 recorded bird species, Costa Rica has about one-tenth of the world’s total. Over 600 are resident species, while the remainder are “occasionals” who fly in for the winter. Costa Rica’s natural parks and other reserves give protection to spectacular birds that have become extremely rare elsewhere, including the resplendent quetzal and the scarlet macaw, both endangered species.
The scarlet macaw population has declined so dramatically that it is now in serious danger of extinction. It is believed that there are only three wild populations in Central America that have a long-term chance of survival–at Carara Biological Reserve and Corcovado in Costa Rica, and Coiba Island in Panama.
Costa Rica has six species of toucans, one of the most beautiful of which is the keel billed toucan.
One of the most spectacular birds of prey in the world, the rare harpy eagle, also inhabits some remote areas of Costa Rica. It is the largest of all eagle species and is a renowned flying predator, known for snatching monkeys and sloths out of jungle trees in mid-flight.
Costa Rica has more than 50 species of hummingbirds, and all are remarkably colorful. They beat their wings at up to 100 beats per second.
The best place to look for birds is in clearings by the edge of the forest or in waterways, such as rivers or wetlands. They are very hard to spot in the dense rainforest canopy.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Costa Rica is home to approximately 150 species of amphibians and more than 200 species of reptiles, half of them snakes. The most common reptile is the dragon-like green tree iguana, which can grow to two meters in length. It looks pretty scary, but is actually quite harmless. In fact, it’s a vegetarian.
Green Tree Iguana
The speckled caiman is relatively common in parts of both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and is a smaller relative of the crocodile. Caimans are under pressure due to their skins, as are crocodiles. Crocodiles exist in dangerously low numbers along both coasts of Costa Rica, with only one stable population, in Corcovado. They are very large, averaging 12 feet in length and weighing from 500-1000 pounds. They can reach up to 23 feet in length.
There is a large variety of very colorful frogs in Costa Rica. The most well known is the “poison-arrow” frog, which indigenous peoples used to extract deadly poisons for the tips of their arrows. Many of the most colorful of these frogs are extremely toxic, a defense against their many predators in the rainforest. The colors have evolved as a way of notifying predators that the frogs are poisonous.
Snakes constitute about half of all reptile species in the nation. There are 135 species in total, and about 17 are poisonous. Species include the vine snake, boa constrictor, several species of the highly poisonous coral snakes, and the rattlesnake. Probably the most renowned snake in Central America is the fer-de-lance, one of several species of Central American pit vipers. It can grow to a length of three meters and is highly poisonous.
There are several species of sea turtles in Costa Rica, including the largest in the world, the giant leatherback turtle, which you can see nesting in Tamarindo Beach from October to March. These turtles can weigh as much as 2000 pounds and are the largest reptiles in the world. In Tortuguero National Park, in northeastern Costa Rica, you can see the green sea turtle lumber onshore to lay its eggs, an amazing sight. Populations of these turtles have significantly diminished, and their nesting areas are under serious threat from overdevelopment.
Costa Rica has over 9000 species of plants. This includes over 900 different species of trees that inhabit a variety of different habitats, from sub-alpine dwarf vegetation that exists in the highlands, to dry deciduous forests in Guanacaste, to mangrove swamps, to lowland rainforest and higher elevation cloud forest.
There are approximately 1500 species of orchids in Costa Rica. Nearly all of them are epiphytes, meaning they are plants that grow on top of other plants or trees. Many orchids grow on tree branches far off the ground, up in the jungle canopy. The jungle canopy is home to its own ecosystem, where many small animals and insects live that rarely if ever touch the ground. Another very common epiphyte is the bromeliad, which you will probably see more frequently than orchids.
You can’t help but be amazed by the diversity of the plant and animal life in Costa Rica.
Please see our full list of Costa Rica Tour Packages here.