Costa Rica Travel Guide

Costa Rica is an oasis of calm among its turbulent neighbours and an ecotourism heaven, making it one of the best places to experience the tropics with minimal impact. It's also mostly coastline, which means great surfing, beaches galore and a climate built for laziness.

Thrill seekers can fly through forests on zip lines, peer into boiling volcanoes, surf oversized waves and dive with dolphins and whales – all in the course of a normal day.

Then again, if you have some serious chilling to do, you can always lounge in a hammock and enjoy the pure life, or pura vida, a national expression that sums up the desire to live the best, most hassle-free existence.

Costa Rica's enlightened approach to conservation has ensured that lush jungles are home to playful monkeys, languid sloths, crocodiles, countless lizards, poison-dart frogs and a mind-boggling assortment of exotic birds, insects and butterflies. Meanwhile, endangered sea turtles nest on both coasts and cloud forests protect elusive birds and jungle cats.

Facts at a glance

Name: Republic of Costa Rica
Area: 51,100 sq km
Population: 4.1 million
People: 96% Spanish descent, 2% African descent, 1% indigenous, 1% Chinese
Language: English, Spanish
Religion: 75% Roman Catholic, 14% Protestant
Government: democratic republic
Head of State: President Abel Pacheco de la Espriella

GDP: US$32 billion
GDP per capita: US$8,300
Annual Growth: 1%
Inflation: 9.1%
Major Industries: Tourism, electronics, coffee, bananas, sugar, food processing, textiles and clothing, construction materials, fertilizer, plastic products
Major Trading Partners: USA, Germany, Italy, Japan, Guatemala, Mexico


Few archaeological monuments and no proof of a written language have ever been discovered. Recorded history tends to begin with Christopher Columbus, who stayed for 17 days in 1502, and was so impressed by the gold decorations worn by the friendly locals he promptly dubbed the country Costa Rica, 'the rich coast'.

Colonisation was slow to take hold and it took nearly 60 years for the Spanish settlers to make a dent in the tangled jungle. The indigenous population did not have the necessary numbers to resist the Spanish, and their populations dwindled quickly because of susceptibility to European diseases. Once the process had started, however, Costa Rica, like its similarly colonised neighbours, suffered the effects of European invasion.

The 18th century saw the establishment of settlements such as Heredia, San José and Alajuela but it was not until the introduction of coffee in 1808 that the country registered on the radars of the 19th-century white-shoe brigade and frontier entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. Coffee brought wealth, a class structure, a more outward-looking perspective, and most importantly independence. The hoped-for hoards of gold never materialised and Costa Rica remained a forgotten backwater for many years.

1856: A turn of events provided one of the first important landmarks in the nation's history and served to unify the people. During the term of coffee-grower-turned-president Juan Rafael Mora, a period remembered for the country's economic and cultural growth, Costa Rica was invaded by US military adventurer William Walker and his army of recently captured Nicaraguan slaves. Mora organized an army of 9000 civilians that, against all odds, succeeded in forcing Walker & Co to flee.

19th century: power struggles among members of the coffee-growing elite and the institution of the first democratic elections, which have since been a hallmark of Costa Rican politics.

1940: Civil war, however, did raise its ugly head when ex-president Calderón and his successor, Picado, lined up against the recent ballot-winner Ulate (whose election win was not recognised by Picado's government) and José Figueres. After several weeks of warfare Figueres emerged victorious, formed an interim government and handed the presidency to Ulate.

1949: The constitution finally gave women and blacks the vote and, controversially, dismantled the country's armed forces - giving Costa Rica the sobriquet of 'the only country which doesn't have an army'. President Oscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his attempts to spread Costa Rica's example of peace to the rest of Central America.

The peace has, in recent years, been disturbed by upheavals of a different kind.

1996: In July, Hurricane César resulted in several dozen deaths and the cutting off of much of southern Costa Rica from the rest of the country. The Interamericana highway was closed for about two months and the overall damage was estimated at about 100000000.00.

1998: The ill-famed Hurricane Mitch of November caused substantial damage to Costa Rica, but the most catastrophic events occurred in the countries to the north, especially Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

1998: In February the Social Christian Unity Party's Miguel Angel Rodríguez won the presidency with almost exactly 50% of the vote. A conservative businessman who made the economy his priority, he went on to privatise state companies and encourage foreign investments in an effort to create jobs.

2002: the February elections rolled around, however, Ticos (a term locals use to refer to themselves) were mumbling about a lack of government transparency and shady deals between political mates. These grass-roots misgivings resulted in a 'no win' election, and pollsters returned to the ballot box in April 2002. Rodríguez's successor, Abel Pacheco of the conservative Social Christian Unity Party, was elected to step up to the president's ring.

Pacheco began his term promising to eliminate the public debt within four years. He launched a conservationist platform banning new oil drilling and mining and proposed legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to a healthy environment. It didn't take long before the sheen paled.

2006: A campaign finance scandal clouded his presidency, leading some opponents to demand his resignation, and it became unclear if he could weather this storm through to the end of his term.

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