Your Complete Guide to Paradise
Chapter 1: Getting Oriented
The inaccurate information out there about Costa Rica is sometimes very funny. Some people think it is an island, and almost no one knows that this is a small country in Central America, with Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south.
But Costa Rica isn’t like most of its neighbors in Central America. It hasn’t had an army for over 50 years, and has the most developed infrastructure in Central America in most things, except maybe for Panama.
Costa Rica has a thriving middle class, something that is almost unheard of in Latin America, and has been called for years the “Switzerland of the Americas.” It’s long lasting political stability is also unparalleled in Central or even most places in S. America.
And as far as biodiversity is concerned, because it is located in the center of the land mass of the American continents, it is a meeting place for species from both continents, and so has more species than either of the neighboring continents.
In Costa Rica you can have it all, if you are willing to accept that this beautiful country isn’t the same as where you came from. If you are flexible enough to do that, and if you have patience for the slower pace instead of the rat race, then I am sure you will agree that this is a great place to be.
The Central Valley is the focal point of activity in Costa Rica for those who live here, and the capital of the country, San Jose, is there. It and its surrounding cities form the greater San Jose metropolitan area.
This is also where 4 of the country’s provinces meet. They form the outer perimeter of this greater metropolitan area, and these surrounding cities are also the capitals of their respective provinces.
To the east you have Cartago, the capital of Cartago Province, and the original capital of Costa Rica before it was “stolen” by San Jose.
Close to the Juan Santamaria Airport you have the second largest city in the country, Alejuela, which is the capital of the province by that name.
San Jose is also the capital of the province by the same name.
And to the north you have Heredia, capital of the province by that same name.
All together, most of the population of the country lives in this area. When you combine the entire Central Valley, you have about 2/3 or more of the population of Costa Rica.
There are 3 other provinces in the country. On the Caribbean Coast you have the Province of Limon, with its capital by the same name. From the southern border to about the half way point up the Pacific Coast, you have Puntarenas province, whose capital city has the same name, and is at the point on the Pacific coast where the Nicoya Peninsula ends. A ferry goes between Puntarenas and the Nicoya Peninsula several times a day, and is the main way to get to that part of the peninsula from the mainland. The Tempesque Bridge now goes into the Nicoya Peninsula further north, while the third way to get there is via the old road way to the north close to Nicaragua.
One of the main tourist destinations on the southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula is Monetzuma, and the ferry is still the best way to get there.
Finally, to the north, all the way to the Nicaraguan border is Guanacaste Province, whose capital city is Liberia. Guanacaste is the most popular destination for expats who want to live at the beach, and is the site of lots of tourist growth.
Along the mainland side of Guanacaste, facing on the Gulf of Nicoya, are the popular beach towns of Flamingo, Coco Beach, and others. These are great “hang out” spots for expats.
On the Pacific side of the Nicoya Peninsula you have Playa Samara, one of the hottest spots in the country right now, and several other popular beaches such as Tamarindo.
Costa Rica has two peninsulas jutting out on the Pacific coast, and of the two, Nicoya is by far the most popular and a lot more people live there than on the Osa Peninsula to the south, which for the most part is wild jungle land. If you want to live without electricity, phone, water, or most anything else to do with civilization, there are some small settlements in the Osa that might interest you, the most popular of which seems to be Drake Bay, which only has access by boat.
A very popular surfer beach close to the Panama border is Pavones, and another popular and secluded beach with limited access, right along the border, is Zancudo Beach.
And of course at the mouth of the Gulfo Dulce, formed by the mainland on one side and the Osa Peninsula on the other side, lies the port of Golfito, a former banana center that the government turned into a profitable free trade zone where Costa Ricans can shop duty free and thus get bargain prices on appliances and whatever else you care to name.
The climate of Costa Rica is a surprise to those who have never spent time in a tropical climate. Because it is so close to the equator, the temperature, rainfall, etc., has a lot more to do with the altitude you are at than with where you are at on a north / south axis.
The Central Valley, because of its altitude and the fact that it is surrounded by mountains, means that it has many micro climates depending mostly on your elevation. Generally, though, the Central Valley is referred to as “the land of endless spring,” as the temperature very rarely gets above 85 degrees F and in many spots is cooler.
The warmest spot in the Central Valley, and also one of the driest, is the western suburb of Santa Ana.
Alajuela is probably a runner up in these qualities. So if you like it pretty warm, but not too hot, and don’t like as much rain as you get elsewhere, this is your spot.
If cool and rainy is to your taste, then you should head to the hills above either Heredia or in Coronado. Both of these areas have a cool climate year round, but, if you go up too far, you get close to the cloud forest zone, where clouds touch down to earth almost every day of the year, and it rains even sometimes in the dry season.
There are all kinds of micro climates between these two extremes, so choose your location carefully to make sure the climate fits your wants and needs.
Outside the Central Valley
Outside the Central Valley, unless you are on a mountain, the climate is generally hotter and wetter, with the hottest weather along the southern coasts. The Caribbean side of the country is the wettest by far, and there really is no dry season in this area to speak of. It is instead a Caribbean climate, which means hot and damp. Along the beaches a sea breeze helps break the heat a little, but in mid afternoon, unless you are in the water or indoors in air conditioning, the best place to be is on a hammock sleeping.
Limon Province is the poorest province in the country, and sees the least tourists. But, if you do visit the Caribbean coast, check out especially Cahuita, which is next to the national park by the same name, and Puerto Viejo, which is my favorite beach spot in the country away from the madding crowds on the Pacific side and if you are a surfer, it is one of the best surfing beaches in the country.
And to the north in Limon province, don’t miss out on Tortugero. This town in the extreme north east of the country is like a tropical Venice, accessible only by canals. This means that to get there you have to go by boat on a beautiful jungle tour. This town is also one of the most famous nesting areas in the world for the sea turtle, so my suggestion is you visit this spot during turtle nesting season.
In the south Pacific region, it is often hot and muggy, with tons of jungle. This is by and large a wild region, with only spots of civilization.
One of those spots is a real gem called Osa Mountain Village. It is a real gem in that it is at a high enough elevation to make the climate just perfect, has ocean views from on high, and is the most spectacular development anywhere. They have lots of things to see and do, and if you can live there, it is one of the best spots in the country. Check out our Eco Living page for full details on the best place to live and play in the country.
As you go further north, you get to Playa Dominical, which has high cliffs that drop off into the ocean. The highlands give you a cooler climate than at most beaches, as well as breathtaking views of the ocean below.
The central Pacific coast is a little drier and not quite so hot. This is the home to Manuel Antonio National Park, where the jungle, animals, and beach meet. This area along with Quepos, a fishing village, are often referred to as the Costa Rican Riviera.
And in the extreme northwest of the country, we have Guanacaste, which is the driest part of the whole country.
Inland from the coast, in the central part of the north zone, is Arenal Volcano, the most active volcano in the world. Most days you can sit in one of the hot springs that are in the area, and enjoy the show. At night, if you are lucky, you may see sparks and some lava.
Near the volcahe manmade Lake Arenal, which has some of the best windsurfing in the world.
This is because the area is along the continental divide, and high winds in some areas around the lake and volcano are very high and continuous. Wind generator farms are in the area to take advantage of this natural wind power.
If you buy property in this area, be aware that the micro climate situation is very extreme in this region, as elevation changes rapidly, and wind and weather also greatly depend on which direction your property is facing. Some areas there are like heaven, while others are like a wind tunnel from hell, so be careful. Also be aware that this region of the country has some of the highest rainfall, except maybe for the Caribbean coast or the extreme south.
As the final part in this introductory chapter, we will give a brief overview of the history of Costa Rica, which is unique to Central America, if not the world.
Costa Rica was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his final voyage in 1502. He anchored near present day Limon, and sent ashore an expedition to find out what the area was like.
The report that came back was grim. In fact, it is doubtful that Columbus himself even set foot ashore.
The explorers reported that it was a land of impossible swamps and hostile natives with little in the way of gold, in contrast to some of the other areas they had visited. In short, it was scratched off the list as a top priority for further exploration and colonization, and the explorers quickly left for better places elsewhere.
About 30 years later, another explorer by the name of Fernandez de Cordoba, charted the Pacific coast of Central America. In his journeys, he came upon the spectacular beauty that is the Nicoya Peninsula, with its lush forests, fertile land, and abundant wildlife. He is most likely the first to name this land Costa Rica, or Rich Coast.
He established a settlement there in 1539, while the Caribbean side of the country was pretty much ignored for the next 200 years or so.
Even so, Costa Rica grew slower than many of the other colonies at the time, probably due to the lack of spectacular gold discoveries as were made both to the north and the south.
Another reason for this slow growth might also be that, unlike the Indians of Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala, who meekly paid tribute to their new masters while they toiled in the fields or mines, the Indians of Costa Rica didn’t take kindly to their new “bosses,” and fought the conquest of their land. In fact, there is some evidence to indicate that some of the Indians here were also head hunters! Thus, Costa Rica grew slowly for a long time.
In much of the rest of Latin America, the King of Spain granted huge tracts of land to the conquistadors, and, as mentioned above, the Indians sort of went along with the land as peasant farmers or serfs in this feudal arrangement. This allowed the big land owners to live like lords of the manor. This situation has caused social problems in Latin American countries ever since, with the “big families” still attempting to lord it over the “little people,” who for centuries they have considered to be little more than cattle.
In fact, even in modern times, the ex dictator of Nicaragua, Somoza, when asked if he cared about the welfare of his people said “what care has a cattle rancher that his cattle be content and happy?”
In Costa Rica, the lack of gold and silver to plunder plus the hostile nature of the Indians meant that no such large haciendas could be set up, even if they were granted. Consequently, the settlers were more or less on an equal footing, and Costa Rica became the land of the small farmer or campesino.
It is even reported that the “high” government officials in the territory had to grow their own gardens or starve to death!
Thus, Costa Rica’s culture is almost unique in Latin America, in that there is not the extreme contrast between the very rich and the very poor, with almost no one in between.
It also means that Costa Rica has a long standing democratic tradition and a culture of equality and rights. Also, since there is no organized history of servitude by the Indians, the Indians of Costa Rica are not inclined to incite civil wars as they have done in Guatamala, where there is a long standing history of abuse and oppression.
In its own way, then, during the colonial period, Costa Rica was a small, almost forgotten province of the Spanish empire. The governors in fact almost forgot that it existed, as did the Royal Court in Spain. And, when Spain granted independence to its colonies in 1821, Costa Rica was the last to be informed and the least affected, because, in a sense, it had already been free for several hundred years already.
The first president of Costa Rica was thus very unique in Latin America, and wanted to emphasize development for everyone, not just the wealthy. He was convinced that raising coffee for export would help the country on its road to development, and so emphasized the growing of that crop.
He believed that the profits from this new export crop would build roads, schools and other infrastructure to benefit all of the people of the country.
But Costa Rica lacked the population base to realize the president’s dreams. So he came up with yet another innovative and unique idea. He offered free land to anyone who would settle on it and work the land to produce coffee!
Thus, Costa Rica developed lots of small, family run coffee farms instead of the huge plantations elsewhere in Latin America. These small farmers then sold their coffee to merchants, who then exported it abroad for sale.
Families from all over Europe heard about the opportunities available in Costa Rica, and many of them moved here. This policy led to the development of a strong middle class in Costa Rica, which is unique to Latin America.
It also means that Costa Ricans themselves are more European in culture than the surrounding countries, and have an ethic of hard work, with the campesino, or small farmer, having formed the back bone of the country for a long time.
In the last half of the 19th century, Europe experienced very troubled times, which sparked another wave of European immigration. These new immigrants moved to the New World seeking peace, freedom, and prosperity, and Costa Rica’s free land offer meant that many of them settled here. This reinforced the already democratic and egalitarian beliefs of the Costa Rican culture, and made it even more oriented towards European culture and ideals than it had already become.
It is true that a wealthy merchant class developed over time. But they developed through ingenuity and hard work, not because they had connections with the Royal Court in times past. Thus, their attitude was very much different from the arrogant, aristocratic attitude found elsewhere among the wealthy families of Latin America, whose ancestors were privileged and pampered and served by peasant Indians they dominated and controlled like serfs.
In 1855, Tennessean William Walker was contracted by Nicaraguan liberals to overthrow the conservative government. He gathered together a band of mercenaries to do the job, but instead, Walker tried to install himself as ruler of Central America, starting with Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Walker invaded Guanacaste in February of 1856, but in April, the Costa Ricans attacked the border town of Rivas. A drummer boy by the name of Juan Santamaria set fire to the town, driving out Walker’s forces, and became Costa Rica’s most famous national hero, after whom the main international airport is named.
In April of 1857, Costa Rica and other Central American countries combined to finish the defeat of Walker in the second battle of Rivas. Shortly after the defeat of Walker, a border dispute erupted with the Nicaraguan government, but in 1858 a treaty was signed ending the dispute. Guanacaste was formally recognized as a part of Costa Rica, and the Rio San Juan was given to Nicaragua with the understanding that Costa Rica would retain navigation rights on the river, which forms a great deal of the border between the 2 countries.
Starting in 1869, Costa Rica established a free compulsory educational system. There is thus a long standing respect in Costa Rica for learning, and it has the highest literacy rate in the Western Hemisphere, rivaling even that of the United States. In fact, the first university was established in Costa Rica in 1844, staffed in large part by intellectuals fleeing persecution in Europe.
This has meant that Costa Rica has a mentality more similar to that of Europe than to its neighbors, who harbored the last vestiges of feudalism right into the 20th century.
With this background, it is no surprise, then, that Costa Rica has had a long standing democratic tradition of a century and a half, in contrast to its neighbors. Whereas all around it, presidents have come from military coups for a long time, in Costa Rica, its presidents have been civilians put there by ballot, not by bullet.
Of course, there have been a few blips on this otherwise peaceful radar screen. In 1889, the defeated incumbent almost refused to accept the election results, but, at the last minute, he accepted the will of the people and thus averted a possible revolution.
The only other major blip on the democratic radar screen was in 1948, when the ruling party refused to give up power because the election was close and they claimed it was tainted by corruption. But the people, led by Pepe Figueres, did not stand for this, and after a very brief Civil War, democracy was restored.
But, because of this abuse of power, Costa Rica then and there abolished its army, because they viewed the army as an undemocratic force and not needed in a free society. Thereafter, the money that other nations squander on their military budgets was forever set aside for education and other social programs, with the result that Costa Rica has continued to be the most advanced, free, and democratic country in Latin America.
Old army barracks were turned into schools, ex soldiers were put to work on road construction and other projects to better society. A system of free medical care was established that is still one of the finest in this hemisphere, if not the world. Costa Ricans do not have to put themselves into poverty and sell their homes because of outrageous medical bills. And the medical care in Costa Rica is just as good, if not better, than that found even in the United States, and most certainly is much cheaper.
For example, I have one friend who had open heart surgery here in Costa Rica. If memory serves, the bill was not more than about $13,000.00 at the best private hospital in the country, compared with well over $100,000.00 + in the US.
Another friend had a stint put in. At the time, she was able to get the most advanced stint available in the world, while patients in the US were still getting the older version because it takes so many years for the FDA to approve new medical devices and drugs.
In Costa Rica, you can walk into any pharmacy. Each pharmacy is required to have a doctor on duty to answer questions and give advice on what will work for your condition. And this advice is given free in most cases, and you can pick up most of what you need without getting a doctor’s prescription! And at much cheaper prices than the US as well!
People in Costa Rica DO NOT have to make a choice between taking their medications, going to the hospital, seeing a doctor, or eating! And in Costa Rica, the custom is for the doctor to actually spend TIME with you, the patient, to make sure that they fully understand your situation, and that you are treated like a human being, not a number on an insurance claim form!
Most ex pats can get along paying cash for most of their everyday medical and dental needs, at world class hospitals and clinics, because the prices are only a fraction of what they are back home. But, if they desire, there are several forms of medical insurance available.
To continue listing the social benefits that Costa Rica derived from abolishing its army, Costa Rica has four public universities [and LOTS of private ones to boot], 3 symphony orchestras, and 5 autonomous state publishing houses.
Costa Rica was one of the first countries in Latin America to be electrified, have telephones, etc., and is one of the only countries in Latin America to this day with almost universal potable water! In other words, in most places in the country, you can drink water right out of the tap without any worries, and, in fact, it generally tastes better than city water in most US cities!
All of these dividends have come about because of Costa Rica’s unique, democratic culture and traditions, and because it no longer wastes money on an army to suppress the poor.
Election day in Costa Rica is one of its most important national holidays. There is a festive atmosphere as everyone goes to their assigned polling place to cast their ballot. Absenteeism at the polls is very low, as voting is mandatory by law, although few would miss out anyway.
Cars, banners, and people are decked out in the colors of their favorite party. Buses and taxis give people free rides to the polling booths [in fact, all buses are free on election day!]. In fact, even when they move, most Costa Rican’s don’t change their official voting address! This gives them the opportunity to go “back home” on election day, when there are family reunions and fiestas, and people get a chance to see old friends again.
Once someone has voted, they have to dunk their thumbs in indelible ink so that they cannot vote again, which is a simple solution to the election fraud of voting many times that goes on in some countries. After they vote, many head for the streets in their cars, honking as they go along, waving their thumbs to show that they have voted. It is a national celebration of democracy.
On the surface, workers get paid a very low salary in Costa Rica compared to industrialized countries. But, when one looks at the life style that supports, it becomes clear that many Costa Rican workers are actually ahead of their counterparts in the US and elsewhere.
All of their medical treatment and necessary medicine is covered by the Caja, into which all employers must pay. The Caja maintains clinics and hospitals throughout the country, where workers can go for free medical treatment from a simple office visit to a major surgery. Generally, whatever drugs the doctor prescribes is dispensed at the hospital or clinic pharmacy at no cost. And, if someone is unemployed and out of work, they can generally get treatment for their needs at their closest Caja hospital, and make modest payments back into the system on a bill that is a tiny fraction of what it would be elsewhere.
Costa Rican workers also get an entire month’s salary in December as their Christmas bonus, generous sick leave and disability benefits, and a good pension when they retire. They are some of the best cared for workers in the world, especially when you add in the free education benefits that go all the way up to the state owned universities!
This is how Costa Rican workers can work for such low cash salaries, because almost everything else is covered by the system.
Why Are They Called Ticos?
Tico is the nickname Costa Ricans use when referring to themselves. According to some sources, this derived from a slightly different way of referring to small things as compared to other Spanish speaking countries.
Whereas the proper Spanish form of the diminutive is tito, as in momentito, in the past many Costa Ricans would use tico instead. Thus, momentito becomes momentico.
While this practice is diminishing, the nickname still sticks, and Ticos use that word when referring to themselves and their national identity.
You Can Feel Right at Home
I have lived in Costa Rica now for 16 years, and I can assure you that it is one of the best places I have ever lived. The climate is comfortable in most areas, especially the Central Valley, most people are friendly, crime is relatively low by any standard, despite the bars on everyone’s windows to stop petty theft.
There aren’t the hordes of beggars and street people that are almost everywhere in many other countries, there is no need for sub machine gun wielding security guards everywhere you look, and Costa Rica is free from the terrorist hysteria that seems to grip certain other countries. Costa Rica doesn’t live in fear because it is a peaceful, non aggressive nation that leaves everyone else alone and simply wants to live in peace.
Gringos are not universally hated as they are in some other countries, so you can pretty much live wherever you want to, without feeling the need to live huddled together in some “foreigner’s ghetto.” Not everyone will like you, but for the most part, people are friendly, warm, good natured, and welcoming.