There are several reasons to make Costa Rica your next travel destination, both for work and for pleasure. Beyond the magnificence of the natural beauty, the friendliness of the Ticos, the amazing food and the extraordinary weather, Costa Rica is a small country characterized by its easygoingness and relative peace. A country without an army since 1948, Costa Rica is a paradise on Earth, running almost completely on green energy and hosting approximately 5% of the biodiversity of the entire world.
My first visit to Costa Rica was just a glimpse into this diversity. With the cloud forest and tropical beaches, with the indigenous archeological sites and the numerous volcanoes, you’d need a lifetime to discover all the facets of this small country. While traveling from the capital San José to the Pacific takes you only two hours, and it’s just three hours from the Capital to the Caribbean, Costa Rica has too much to offer and you’ll definitely struggle with any short-term itinerary. All the more reason to visit again. And again.
This introduction to Costa Rica is an invitation to get lost in the nature and the urban environment, offering you important customs and a local’s insight, as well as warning you about the dangers that you might face. After all, traveling to Costa Rica is an adventure and there is no adventure without risk. So, pack your umbrella and your rain jacket, grab your sandals and your swimsuit and follow me into the exotic and exciting Tiquicia (the name Costa Ricans use for their homeland).
One of the most important tips for visiting Costa Rica for the first time is to plan in advance. Take a couple of hours before leaving your country and organize your trip, taking into account the country’s geography and allowing time for changes. If you really plan to stay in the beach for just two days, you might find it hard to leave. You can explore the capital San José, the rainforest, a volcano and a couple of beaches on the same trip. However, the farther you go, the more time you need. Costa Rica’s treasures are hidden everywhere.
While locals are able to speak English, learning a few words in Spanish is helpful. Costa Ricans have their own dialect and sometimes they speak in words with multiple meanings and hilarious puns. Don’t forget to carry some cash when you’re moving around, but remember that even when Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Latin America, carrying more money than you need is not really smart. Same goes for leaving your bags unattended or your camera sitting in the passenger’s seat, but that’s really common sense everywhere, right?
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Costa Rica is a great destination year-round. With only two seasons—dry and rainy—the country doesn’t have to worry about too-hot summers, or too-cold winters. Year-round, you’ll get almost twelve hours of sun every day, and twelve hours of night. The rainy season starts in May and goes until mid-November, and the dry season goes from mid-November to April. However, the rainy season doesn’t mean less sun, but rather just an almost daily rain starting early each afternoon. No matter when you decide to visit, Costa Rica is well known for its microclimates and unusual changes in weather conditions, so you better be prepared for hot and humid environments, for sunburns and cold nights.
Your best bet is to bring clothes and accessories for every occasion, without making your luggage a living hell. You’ll need beach essentials like sandals, towels, swimsuits and depending on your activities, all that you might need for sunbathing, snorkeling, surfing or walks around the tropical forests. For most volcanoes and rainforests, including the extraordinary cloud forest in Monteverde, I recommend bringing the opposite: waterproof shoes, jeans, scarves, gloves and winter hats. Don’t forget that Costa Rica also has an interesting urban life and you may need nicer clothes for some restaurants or theaters in San José, as well as short casual clothing for salsa dancing and nights out clubbing. If you forget something, local stores offer cheap options to buy the essentials, while markets sell local crafts and clothing souvenirs (t-shirts).
Costa Rica has a really complicated geography. That’s partly why you have all these natural beautiful landscapes and breathtaking panoramas. However, moving around is not necessarily terrible, but it can be. For those traveling on a budget, you have to rely on local buses for both short and long distances, while taxis are a great option only for short trips or for late-night adventures. Buses are a common mode of transport through the provinces of Costa Rica–Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela–with some regularity. For trips to the beaches and the rainforests, some buses are available every day, depending on the destination. The two famous volcanoes, Irazú and Poás, have their own direct bus from San José. A small train also moves you around San José downtown and it connects with some of the neighboring provinces, but frequent small accidents make the train unreliable.
Renting a car is a great and cheap option for exploring the country. While it’s more expensive than taking a bus, it offers you the possibility to stop along the way for roadside meals (look for a local soda—that’s the word for small restaurants). With your own rental car, you’ll find Costa Rica’s natural beauty more easily accessible. Roadside restaurants, sodas, sometimes have fantastic views, or you can access less easily-reachable beaches. While some roads are problematic due to neglect and maintenance, the country’s major highways are in great condition. Just be warned that—mostly during the rainy season—floods and landslides are a real problem, causing delays and sometimes even blocking entire roads. Make sure you have data on your phone or access to a GPS when renting a car.
San José is the capital of Costa Rica and the GAM (the Great Metropolitan Area) which includes Cartago, Alajuela and Heredia. It’s the center of Costa Rica’s urban life. There are several things to do in the center of the country and you can spend some days wondering around these small cities, discovering the daily life of Ticos.
The other three provinces of the GAM offer great options for day trips—easily visited by jumping on a bus from San José downtown. Cartago is famous because of its cathedral: the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, dedicated to the Virgen de Los Angeles. Locals believe that the virgin appeared in a stone and the temple was erected on the very same site. Another attraction is the temple locally known as Las Ruinas (The Ruins), a church that was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1910.
Alajuela, the province closest to the San José international airport, hosts the story of Costa Rica’s war heroe Juan Santamaría (whom the airport is named after). The city includes a sculpture and museum dedicated to this chapter of Costa Rican history: Museo Histórico Cultural Juan Santamaría.
Heredia, locally known as the “city of flowers,” is a small town with a lot of cultural attractions, including the famous Barva with its volcano and the tradition of mascaradas (street parties with live music and giant dancing dolls).
This first time visitor’s guide to Costa Rica explores the best places in the Central Pacific Coast. From the gay-friendly Manuel Antonio to the port town of Quepos and the touristic hotspot Jacó, the Central Pacific Coast is a great introduction to Costa Rica’s natural beauty.
While Costa Rica is a safe country, you’ll have to take some precautions to have a great holiday. The local emergency number for both medical emergencies and the police is 911.
Need more help planning your first trip to Costa Rica? Check out the official Costa Rica tourism website at visitcostarica.com. For LGBT travelers to Costa Rica, the IGLTA website has a useful directory of local gay-friendly businesses at iglta.org/plan-your-trip. Read more Costa Rica travel stories here on TravelsofAdam.com.
The post Beginner’s Guide to Costa Rica – For First Time Visitors appeared first on the Travels of Adam blog.
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