Costa Rica

Essentials

Capital: San José

Size: 51,100 km²

Population: 3.7m

Currency: Colón

Language: Spanish

Visas: Not required for UK nationals.

Food: The food is simple, relying heavily on the staples of ‘rice ‘n’ beans’. Mixed with shredded beef, chicken or sometimes fish, serve with a couple of warmed tortillas and – hey presto – you have the dish of casado.

Drink: The spirit of choice is ron – i.e. rum! Café Rica is caffeine-based liquor, true to the country’s coffee origins.

Festivals: Bank holidays are normally a cause for celebration and Costa Rica is no different. Big festivals tend to be good for processions, costumes and traditional marching bands, but find a small town and you’ll see horse-racing, bullfriendly bull fighting (where the lucky beast leaves the ring exhausted but alive) and get the chance to rub shoulders with the townsfolk.

When to go: Costa Rica's two coasts have different weather patterns: the Pacific coast is dry from December to April, while the Caribbean slopes are drier between August and October.

Peaceful, calm and 100% democratic... ah, that’ll be Costa Rica. Coast to coast, it’s so rich in wildlife – more than 25% of Costa Rica is protected in national parks and reserves – that you’d think ticos had a monopoly on nature. Quetzals flit through the moss-draped cloud forest, hummingbirds congregate to drink nectar, monkeys howl, frogs come in a spectrum of dazzling shades and leatherback turtles nest on virgin beaches. Undeniably, a nature-lovers’ paradise.

In the far north-west, Guanacaste has the largest remaining area of dry forest in Central America and is a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. Further south, the Nicoya Peninsula’s beaches are hidden in quiet secluded coves, separated by rocky outcrops and fringed by jauntily angled palms rustling in the coastal breeze. The Central Pacific coast ups the pace very slightly: visit the laid-back hangout of Jacó and the unmistakable beauty and golden-sand beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park.

The coastal mangroves around Tortuguero are a teasing mix of natural wonders – a huge national park comprising coast and jungle-fringed waterways teaming with bird and insect life. If you’re lucky, you may see a huge leatherback turtle lumber out of the ocean to lay soft-skinned leathery eggs in a sandy nest, or catch the looping flight of a toucan, or the vivid flash of a morpho butterfly.

The capital city San José perches in the heart of the central highlands, on a loose line of volcanoes that run the country’s length. Dividing the Caribbean from the Pacific, the Central, Tilarán and Guanacaste mountain ranges contain six active volcanoes including mighty Arenal, which spews a constant trickle of red-hot lava, illuminating the night sky. For something less explosive, Rincón de la Vieja and Tenorio National Parks have spluttering mud baths and steaming thermal pools that you can wallow in.

Want some more action? Adrenalin junkies can tackle the barren páramo savannas to reach the peak of Cerro Chirripó. Or investigate Costa Rica’s balls – ancient and enigmatic relics, ranging in diameter from a few centimetres to two metres, which are still a complete mystery to archaeologists. And for some of the best rainforest trekking in the whole of Latin America, head to the Corcovado National Park on Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica’s most remote and possibly most rewarding wilderness.


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Getting there