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Costa Rica
Costa Rica
02.06.14

When heading to Costa Rica, get the lay of the land before you leave so you can get the most out of your adventure there. Read these tips to find out what this eco-paradise has in store for you—and how to prep and pack for it.

Choosing an Ecolodge

Costa Rica is unique not only in its geography, but in its remarkable emphasis on ecological conservation. From tent camps to luxury lodges and wilderness resorts, ecolodge options abound. Quite different than standard resorts, these lodges offer a variety of experiences. Get back to basics in the jungle without hot showers or electricity, or enjoy a four-course meal under a palapa overlooking the ocean. In addition to building from reclaimed or sustainably harvested materials, conserving resources and being energy efficient, true ecolodges offer:

  • A commitment to minimize their footprint on the surrounding ecosystems
  • Support of local conservation and protection efforts
  • Naturalist guides
  • Social dedication to residents of the surrounding community (through hiring, training, educating, and supporting local businesses and crafts)

What is a Tico?

When referring to a Costa Rican native, you can use the formal costarricenses or the much more popular tico. A term of endearment, tico (tica for feminine) is associated with the friendly, easygoing and accommodating nature of the locals, and stems from hermaniticos (little brothers), which was once used as an affectionate greeting. You’ll see and hear this colloquialism used liberally for many things Costa Rican. The country’s first English newspaper—The Tico Times (established in 1956)—is still Central America’s premier news source.

Markets & Goods

To find true Costa Rican products at the market, visitors need to look past the many colorful textiles that are often made in Ecuador and Guatemala. Authentic souvenirs include coffee beans, wood-carved household items, handpainted ceramics and miniature ox carts (reflecting the country’s rural roots and mode of transport). These are all best found in provincial shops and markets beyond San José. The idyllic mountain community of San Ramon —an hour northwest of the capital—is well-known for its Friday/Saturday farmers market; cigar production; and surrounding family-run farms that produce coffee, sugar cane and dairy. Wherever you go, be sure to taste Costa Rican specialties like picadillos (bits of minced meat blended with diced vegetables and spices served with rice or in a tortilla), enyucados (fried yucca cakes) and the wonderful array of local fruit.

Finding Your Way

Although important streets in the capital have formal names known by the public, many streets in San José do not. Locals give directions by landmark in the form of well-known buildings, parks, stores, gas stations and popular locations. Paper maps may show roads that are no longer navigable due to volcano eruptions, mudslides, flash floods and earthquakes. To make sure you know where you’re going, use a GPS when driving in Costa Rica—you can add one on to your rental car or bring your own.

Getting There is Half the Adventure

Although many major roads in Costa Rica (especially around San José) are excellent, others leave much to be desired. Even sections of the Interamericana (Pan-American Highway) just outside the capital bear more resemblance to amusement park rides than major traffic routes. Rent a four-wheel drive vehicle to navigate the unpaved sections, drop-offs and hairpin turns. Avoid driving after dark when dense fog, roads without lights, trucks without taillights and people walking in the road can make driving hazardous. Just like in many countries, it often takes longer to drive to your destination than you would think, no matter what it might look like on a map or the distances given.

Domestic Flights

To get around Costa Rica’s challenging roads and lengthy journeys, consider flying. Air prices are competitive with renting a car, and you can often find great deals during the rainier Green Season (May through mid-November). You can fly from San José to almost anywhere in the country in one hour or less on SANSA or Nature Air. It’s a good idea to book your flights a few months in advance and pack light for per-person baggage limits of 15 to 40 lbs. Both airlines have small propeller planes that can land on remote jungle airstrips. Nature Air’s planes have specially designed large windows so passengers can enjoy the spectacular scenery. This airline flies in and out of San José’s smaller domestic airport, so be sure to figure in transfer time for international connections.

Arrival Necessities

To enter Costa Rica, visitors are required to have a signed passport that is valid for 180 days (six months) beyond their dates of travel and a ticket to leave (either a round-trip ticket or one to a destination outside the country). While immigration in other countries may treat this requirement lightly, it is strictly enforced in Costa Rica. Visitors have been fined or refused entry for passports with invalid dates, lack of signature or damage. Be sure to have all your documents in order and in good condition. When you leave the country, you’ll need to pay a $29 U.S. departure tax.

What to Wear

The lowlands of Costa Rica have a tropical climate, but the highland regions can get cold. Pack for what you plan to do—and keep in mind that the country is mostly casual.

A swimsuit is in order if you plan to visit the hot springs near the Arenal Volcano, cool off in a pool or dip into the Atlantic or Pacific. Don’t forget a sarong or cover-up, sun hat, and sandals or flip-flops for the beach.

Pack cotton or quick-dry T-shirts, shorts, pants and walking shoes for all your outdoor activities. Long-sleeved shirts ward off sun, jungle plants and bugs. Convertible pants are perfect for Costa Rica’s range of climates and activities.

High-altitude cloud forests and volcano peaks call for a lightweight jacket and a waterproof windbreaker that fits easily in a daypack or pocket. Carrying an umbrella is often more comfortable than wearing a rain poncho when walking in the warm tropical humidity.

Unless you plan to spend most of your time at a resort, one nice ensemble should suffice for dining out—a breezy, tropical skirt or a dress. Pack a reusable tote for shopping (eco-friendliness is very important here) and a flashlight for nocturnal adventures.

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