Costa Rica is my home away from home! Thanks in part to spending time there from my days as a study abroad student until today, I have nearly 20 years of experience in the best country in Central America. In this section of All World Travel, I share all my first-hand experiences, reviews, and adventures with you.
Costa Rica Facts
Table of Contents
Official country name: Republic of Costa Rica
Location: Costa Rica sits between latitudes 8° and 12°N and longitudes 82° and 86°W
Capital city: San Jose
Population: 4.8 million
Landmass area: 19,730 square miles (51,100 square km)
Languages: Spanish (official language) and English
Monetary currency: Costa Rican colón
Dialing code: +506
Major religion(s): Christianity (Catholicism 52% and Protestantism 25%)
Leadership: President Carlos Alvarado as of March 2018
Literacy: Costa Rica boasts a literacy rate that’s the highest in Latin America. In fact, for youth between 15 to 24, the literacy rate is 98% in Costa Rica.
Electric current: In Costa Rica, the currency is 110 volts and 60 cycle electricity, which is the same currency as in the U.S. Plugs in Costa Rica are 2-pronged flat as well, as U.S. tourists or visitors do not need an adapter. However, a surge protector is recommended.
Life expectancy: The average Costa Rican lives to 79.8 years, which is higher than life expectancy for U.S. citizens (78.6 years). The typical male in Costa Rica lives to 77 years, while the typical woman lives to 82 years.
Biodiversity: Costa Rica takes up only 0.03% of the world’s landmass but holds more than 5% of all biodiversity on the globe.
Climate: tropical, with varied microclimates with subtropical, rainforest, mountain savannah, and cloud forest climates. Read a full detailed breakdown on our dedicate page about weather and climate.
Seasons: Verano, or summer – dry season; and Invierno, or rainy season/green season
Average high temperature: 81 degrees F (27 C)
Average low temperature: 64 degrees F (18 C)
Average precipitation: 77.61 inches (1,971 mm)
Percent possible sunshine: 28 percent
Highest point: The Cerro Chirripó mountain peak is the highest point in Costa Rica, at 12,530 feet above sea level (3,819 meters)
The Economy in Costa Rica
Costa Rica benefits from a stable economy, with an estimated GDP per capita is $12,382 USD and a total GDP north of $61.5 billion USD.
Tourism: Costa Rica welcomed more than 3 million foreign tourists and visitors last year, with a steady increase in tourism every year. Tourism accounts for about 5.8% of Costa Rica’s GDP every year.
Democracy: uninterrupted since 1948, the longest and most stable in Central American
Military: Costa Rica has no army or armed forces!
Provinces: Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces; San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia, Guanacaste, Puntarenas, Cartago, and Limon.
Neighbors: Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. However, it has no neighbors to the west and east because it’s lined by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, respectively.
The History of Costa Rica
The history of Costa Rica starts long before it was officially a nation, and even well before Spanish conquest influenced the region.
In fact, there are indications that Costa Rica was inhabited by indigenous groups as far back as 5000 years BC. There were many smaller tribes in Costa Rica, mixing with migrations to and from the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Inca Empire in Peru.
History books call this period, culture, and period, Pre-Columbian, and Costa Rica wasn’t distinguishable from other areas of Central America at this time. But, still to this day, there are some artifacts and remnants of ancient indigenous cultures in Costa Rica like with handcrafted ceramics, jewelry, ornaments, tools and utensils.
Many of Costa Rica’s indigenous tribes are still in existence as well, including the Bribris, Borucas, Cabecares, Chorotegas, Huetares, and Malekus. However, their numbers are dwindling (indigenous people now make up about 1% of Costa Rica’s population). They are also struggling to keep their languages, traditions, and roots in modern Costa Rica, although a new movement of historical and cultural tourism is helping.
The history books quickly turn to 1502 when Christopher Columbus landed in Costa Rica on a small island in present-day Limon, thereby “discovering” it. However, Ticos are quick to point out that it was Costa Ricans “discovering” Europeans for the first time in 1502!
Columbus and his party moved inland to the Central Valley, where they found the conditions cooler and less humid. Some were left to settle when his ships departed, and in 1522, the colony was named “Costa Rica” (which means “Rich Coast”) because they hoped to find gold in the hills, although they never did.
When dreams of fortunes through gold gave way to the stark reality that they had to eat, colonists shifted their attention to setting up banana plantations and other farms, establishing Costa Rica’s agrarian society which would thrive for hundreds of years.
By the 19th century, the cultivation and export of bananas had made land owners quite wealthy, and coffee plantations began to spring up, too.
When Mexico rebelled against Spanish rule in 1821, Costa Rica and the rest of Central America was not far behind. In 1823, the young country actually chose to become annexed by the greater Mexican nation, but this sparked a civil war and resulted in Costa Rica establishing its own sovereignty.
The first head of state for Costa Rica was Juan Mora Fernandez, elected in 1824 and starting a longstanding tradition of strong democracy.
Another unlikely threat emerged in 1855 when U.S. citizen William Walker, who had collected a small army and invaded several Central American nations, trying to install himself as a King or Emperor in the region. He invaded the northwestern area of Guanacaste in Costa Rica, too, but was pushed back into Nicaragua and holed up in a fort, where a young Tico soldier named Juan Santamaria volunteered to set it ablaze, ending the threat. To this day, Juan Santamaria is a national hero in Costa Rica and his name is on many streets, parks, and the national airport.
Costa Rica’s young democracy was shaken in 1870 when General Tomas Guardia forcibly gained control of the government, although he did institute some progressive measures and reforms and didn’t turn out to be a despot.
But in 1917, a military dictator named General José Federico Alberto de Jesús Tinoco Granados took power, ruling through two dark years before being ousted.
After a long period of relative peace and prosperity with only a few exceptions, civil war erupted in 1948 when Jose Figueres refused to concede power. The war lasted 44 days and at least 2,000 people died, making it the bloodiest time in Costa Rican history.
However, once the civil war subsided, it did lead to some amazing changes as the Costa Rican people wanted to ensure peace and democracy going forward. They signed the national constitution that still is in effect today and disbanded their army, instead focusing on worker’s rights, protecting huge areas of land as nature reserves, and investing in education for young Ticos and Ticas.
That progressive doctrine took a big leap forward when Laura Chinchilla took office as the first female President of Costa Rica in 2010, serving until 2014.
Today, Costa Rica has found a balance between a thriving economy, political stability, entrenched democracy, their environmental vision, and modern, progressive social policies. The future looks bright for Costa Rica!
Costa Rica’s Government
Costa Rica may be a relatively small Central American nation, but the country is actually remarkable when it comes to politics and their governance. Here are some facts on Costa Rica’s government:
President: Carlos Alvarao Quesada was elected president in 2018
The first woman president! In 2010, Laura Chinchilla was elected President of Costa Rica and served ably until 2014.
Official Name: Republic of Costa Rica
Government type: Democratic Republic
That means the political leaders of the nation are voted in by citizens of the country.
There are several political parties operating within the Costa Rican system of governance.
Constitution: Costa Rica’s constitution was adopted in 1949. It protected the rights of land owners and for intellectual property alike. It also divided power between the three branches of government and checked the powers of the country’s president.
Military: Costa Rica disbanded their military back in 1949 after signing their new constitution. They continue to market themselves for tourism as a nation that’s so peaceful, they don’t even have an army!
Best known for: Costa Rica markets itself as the most stable country in Central America, which is definitely true, as they’ve had no coups, revolutions, or major political turmoil turned violent since 1949.
Branches of government: Similar to the United States, there are three branches to the Costa Rican government that hold power: The Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches.
Progressive nature: Costa Rica is known as a progressive nature, with many more social services and programs than its Central American neighbors. These include a big push for clean energy in the country.
Independence from the Spanish: Costa Rica first won their independence from Spanish colonization in 1821 but were quickly absorbed into the Mexican empire. They officially became a republic and earned their independence in 1848 and drafted their progressive constitution 100 years later.
Corruption and human rights: While it’s by no means perfect, Costa Rica scores way better with international agencies when it comes to corruption and human rights, two indexes that usually define Third World Countries and many of their Central American and even South American neighbors.
The Best Beaches in Costa Rica
Beaches! We’ve got beaches! In fact, Costa Rica is a beach lover’s dream, with countless sandy spots speckled across the country, up and down both coasts. So, whether you’re into surfing, diving, observing marine love or just soaking up some rays while you drink beer and unwind, Costa Rica has it all!
In no particular order, here’s our list of can’t-miss beaches in Costa Rica:
Located in Manuel Antonio National Park there actually are four dazzlingly beautiful beaches:
Manuel Antonio, Escondito, Espadilla Sur, and Playita.
Two of these beaches are open to the public (and free), so they get crowded during weekends and holidays seasons, but you’ll never want for a nice stretch of white sand – and some great surf waves – at Manuel Antonio.
Known as the “whale tail” because if its unique shape, Play Uvita is an almost-hidden treasure to Ticos and foreigners alike. However, you can only see that remarkable sandbar “tail” at low tide, so don’t be dismayed or think you’re in the wrong place if you show up at high tide and don’t see it! In that case, Uvita still offers a gorgeous grove of palm trees lining the beach and picturesque waterfalls close by.
Cano Island, Corcovado Bay
If you’re in Uvita, take a boat across the ten miles or so to Cano Island, which is idyllic white sand beaches lined with palm trees. It also has some of the best coral reefs in Costa Rica and the lucky diver or snorkeler can pot dolphins or whales!
Tamarindo, or “Tama” as its affectionately known, is one of the most popular spots in Costa Rica for surfers, vacationers, partiers, and expats alike. Originally known as an iconic surf destination, there’s now something for everyone. “Tama-gringo” is also a relatively long strip of sandy coastline, so it never really gets too crowded.
But if you do want to get off the beaten path a little within Tamarindo, there’s rugged Playa Langosta and wild Playa Grange close by, and it’s also located within Las Baulas National Park so, you can go view the endangered leatherback sea turtle.
Just a short drive away from Tamarindo, you’ll find Papagayo with its gorgeous beach, easily accessible if you stay at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel & Resort.
Also in Guanacaste (the northwestern province where Tamarindo is located) is Potrero, a wild and more remote beach that’s perfect to get away from the crowds and swim, snorkel, scuba dive or kayak. You can also stay overnight nearby and hit the Palo Verde Natural Reserve and Santa Rosa National Park the next day.
There’s great surfing at Avellanas, but the biggest draw is Lola’s Beach Bar, named after the portly potbelly pig who is the official mascot and interacts with patrons, even bathing in the ocean! Lolas is a super chill place to hang out and enjoy the beach for the afternoon.
Playa Santa Teresa
Near the town of Malpais at the southwestern edge of the Nicoya Peninsula sits Playa Santa Teresa, which is one of our personal favorite beaches in all of Costa Rica. The town offers plenty of great amenities, restaurants, and things to do, but you can escape civilization daily to surf, paddle board, snorkel, or just lounge on one of scores of beaches in the area.
Cahuita, Cahuita National Park
On the Caribbean coast of the country sits Cahuita, offering white sand beaches and a fantastic coral reef perfect for divers and snorkelers.
Playa Cocles, Puerto Viejo
Speaking of the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, we love Playa Cocles located near the quaint throwback surf town of Puerto Viejo, with its Afro-Caribbean culture and influence. But Cocles also has some of the best surfing in the country, even though it’s not as popular with sun worshippers since it has black sand.
Now we’re talking! Montezuma is a funky and lively beach town at the southern point of the Nicoya Peninsula, just across from Malpais. You’ll find a long stretch of coast with plenty of mangrove, lush jungle, and estuaries leading to a three-tiered waterfall, Montezuma Falls.
Playa Gandoca in Manzanillo
Inside of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic expanse of soft sand with perfect conditions for visitors January through April (the dry season). It’s not only great for catching some rays and snorkeling, but you can spot dolphins and manatees!
Playa Guiones, Nosara
If you want a really remote beach for surfing, appreciating seashells (but please leave them be!) and appreciating the natural artwork, pack up your food, drinks and anything else you need for the day and head out to Playa Guinoes when in Nosara.
Other things to check out in Costa Rica:
Do you have a favorite beach in Costa Rica? Email us!
10 Money-Saving Tips for Your Trip to Costa Rica
- Consider Visiting During the “Green” Season
There are two distinct seasons in Costa Rica – the dry season, which is most popular for tourism, and the rainy season, which runs approximately from June through November. While you will encounter lots of rain in Costa Rica during that period, it’s also known as the “Green Season” because everything is lush, blooming, and vibrant. There are also WAY less people in tourist destinations, and prices come down accordingly. In fact, you may be able to book a rental, hotel or Airbnb for 50% off during the Green Season – and still fully enjoy Costa Rica!
- Book Way Ahead of Time for Holiday Seasons
That being said, if you do come during the dry season – and especially super crowded Christmas, New Years, Spring Break, and Easter holidays, make sure to book way ahead of time to get the best prices. In fact, you should look at booking your hotel or resort up to a year ahead of time or at least nine months if possible, and your airfare is next up on that list. Starting way early will give you plenty of time to shop around and find a killer deal.
- Businesses Off the Beach
In general, you’ll find that businesses right on the beach, whether they are hotels, resorts, restaurants, shops, or whatever, are priced the highest in any town or tourist destination. However, just cross the road 20 meters away and the prices may drop a little – for the same quality! So, if you really want to save money, think about heading a few blocks inland, where there will be far more options for a more reasonable price.
- Consider Renting a Car
Of all the costs during your stay in Costa Rica, your hotel will probably be the highest (unless your bar tab gets out of control!), but transportation costs can sneak up on you, too. Just getting to and from the airport in a taxi or car service can seriously add up, so price out renting a car. You’ll save money, be able to come and go as you please, and have an adventure!
- Hotels or Resorts with Transport
Another option is to look for hotels that offer free airport transport, as it will save you a big chunk of change. Also, many local hotels offer shuttle trips to local beaches and surf spots for free!
- Or Get a Bicycle!
Why not rent a bicycle when you’re settled in a town or area in Costa Rica, as you’ll be able to get around much better without having to pay for taxis or worry about transportation. Just remember to bring a pump in case you get a flat tire on the dirt roads, and a bike lock as well!
- Eat Local
Costa Rica can’t be considered cheap anymore, and tourists who visit there often come back scratching their heads how they paid an average of $15 or $20 per meal! The answer is that they’re eating at the wrong places – the “tourist traps.” Sure, it’s nice to have a feast at a classy and romantic resort right on the beach, but it’s also prudent to balance that out with affordable breakfasts or lunches. The good news is that there’s a simple solution – look for the local joints where Ticos eat, called sodas. They have wonderful, fresh, and healthy food include casados, the typical Costa Rican lunch. And the price will really be right!
- Or, Book a Place with a Kitchen
Even better, book a hotel suite, rent an apartment or Airbnb that includes a kitchen. There is SO much local food to be had that you can easily prepare and cook yourself. Just look for the local food vendors and farmers who come in by truck in the mornings and sell fruit and fish caught only hours earlier. Amazing – and saves you a ton of money!
- Look for an Airbnb or Local Rental
About three-quarters of vacationers and visitors to Costa Rica end up booking hotels or resorts on sites like Hotels.com, Booking.com, and more. While it’s convenient to get on those web portals and find a great place, realize that you’ll get beat up on all of their booking, admin, and “junk” fees – sometimes adding up to 20% per night!
Instead, take a look at booking an apartment, condo, or whole house through Airbnb, as you can end up with a more comfortable and “homie” place for less money – and less fees.
Likewise, there are plenty of Facebook groups and fan pages with tons of expats in Costa Rica, so you could easily ask them where the best place is to stay and ask them to send you offers or deals when they hear of them.
- Buy a Board
Since we’re talking about Costa Rica, I’m assuming that you may paddle out and pop up, trying your hand at riding the waves. If you’re an experienced surfer, you’ll want to bring your own board with you. But if you’re a newbie who plans on getting into surfing or you just don’t have your own board, think about buying one when you get to Costa Rica instead of renting one. You can find plenty of boards on the community groups on Facebook or the web and resell it when you leave! Boom! You just saved a few hundred dollars!
Then again, you may want to bring it home with you after all of the good surfing memories!
Of course, you can help yourself save a lot of hassle by making sure to come prepared with these travel accessories.
When is the Best Time to Visit Costa Rica?
You’re planning to head down to Costa Rica, maybe for a nice vacation, to get in some surfing, or even for a romantic destination wedding (or less-romantic bachelor party!). So, what time of year should you visit?