Centering yourself on a surfboard or yoga mat, descending into bat-filled caves or ascending misty volcanic peaks, hiking, biking, or ziplining – your only limit is your return date. Such wildlife abounds in Costa Rica as to seem almost cartoonish: keel-billed toucans ogle you from treetops and scarlet macaws raucously announce their flight plans. A keen eye will discern a sloth on a branch or the eyes of a caiman breaking the surface of a mangrove swamp, while alert ears will catch rustling leaves signaling a troop of white-faced capuchins or the haunting call of a howler monkey. Blue Morpho butterflies flit amid orchid-festooned trees, while colorful tropical fish, sharks, rays, dolphins, and whales thrive offshore – all as if in a conservationist’s dream.
Culture & History
Costa Rican culture is a vibrant blend of indigenous heritage and Spanish colonial influence, with a dash of Jamaican, Chinese, and other immigrant cultures lending character and customs. The result is a nation of laid-back, friendly, and happy people. A nation whose official language is Spanish, but where large portions of the populations speak English, Bribri, creole Mekatelyu, and Mandarin Chinese as their first languages.
Costa Rica is a tiny country, but very proud: A nation proud to share its cultural riches, proud to be without an army, and with a long history of public services, including education and healthcare, available to all. The 'rich coast' has earned its name and stands apart from its Central American neighbors on the cutting edge of so many trends: surfing, farm-to-table restaurants, and sustainable tourism. Developing infrastructure is balanced by green energy such as wind and hydro. One of the world's most biodiverse countries, with half a million species – from insects to the giant anteaters that devour them – it also protects one-quarter of its wildlands through law.
A recent study showed that many Costa Ricans live longer, healthier lives than people on the rest of the planet, and it all comes down to pura vida (pure life), a term you'll hear everywhere. Before you dismiss it as marketing banter, listen to how it's used. It means hello, goodbye, everything's cool, same to you. It never has a negative connotation.
Costa Rican cuisine is generally quite healthy and balanced, based on fresh meats and vegetables, herbs, and light spices. Food is not spicy, similar to Mexican, as many travelers expect. Rice and beans are the basic variables in almost all Costa Rican cuisine. A typical meal is the casado, the name referring to the eternal "marriage" of its ingredients. It consists of rice and beans, meat or fish, fried plantains, and cabbage with tomato salad.
Vegetables are mostly used in soups and stews. Corn is one of the most popular vegetables, and it is usually used to prepare tortillas and corn pancakes. Corn on the cob is sometimes roasted, elote asado, or boiled, elote cocinado. Empanadas are corn turnovers filled with beans, cheese, and maybe potatoes and meat. Guiso de maíz is a corn and chayote (vegetable pear) stew.
Fresh seafood is more readily available near the coasts or in San José. San José's fish of choice is sea bass (corvina) or mahi-mahi (dorado). As a common appetizer, Ceviche is a dish of raw fish marinated in lemon juice with cilantro and onions. The Caribbean coast has its unique cuisine, distinctive from the rest of the nation. The dishes usually include coconut milk and spices like ginger and curry. Grated coconut is used in many deserts and cakes. The patí is a spicy meat pie resembling a turnover. Rondon ("rundown") is a fish soup with plantains, breadfruit, peppers, and spices.
For tourists who want to experience the real Costa Rica, a visit promises a rich variety of art and music for travelers to enjoy. The galleries and museums of Costa Rica feature artwork by renowned native painters and sculptors. The range of styles, techniques, and subjects of the work makes for fascinating viewing and provides tourists with a unique glimpse into how the culture of Costa Rica has evolved and diversified.
For a true cultural introduction to Ticolandia, a good primer is to visit the Mercado Central in downtown San José. You’ll find anything from fresh organic produce to traditional clothing to an ice cream shop that survived off selling a single flavor (a mix of vanilla, cinnamon, and other secret spices) for over 100 years. What’s more, you’ll get a veritable history lesson if you take the time to peruse the many alleys and rabbit trails of this merchant labyrinth.
Costa Ricans love beer, that is a known fact. If you’re driving in the countryside, a tiny rural town may not have a medical clinic or a supermarket, but they damn well sure will have a bar or three. When you go to a Tico’s house, they’ll most definitely offer you juice or beer. Make sure to try their local beers such as Imperial or Pilsen, Costa Ricans love to share their favorite drinks and can talk about it for hours!
Outdoors & Adventure
Costa Rica offers a dizzying suite of outdoor adventures in every shape and size – from the squeal-inducing rush of a canopy zipline to a sun-dazed afternoon at the beach. National parks allow visitors to glimpse life in both rainforest and cloud forest, simmering volcanoes offer otherworldly vistas, and reliable surf breaks are suited to beginners and experts alike.
Besides hiking through the jungles, canopy tours are popular outdoor activities to explore the wildlife. Canopy tours, also known as zip-lining, provide some truly spectacular views of the rainforest and its inhabitants. Did you know Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species of flora and fauna? Meet them on an eco-tour in the national parks, or cruise ravines in an ATV tour. If you are looking for some more excitement, try trekking to the summit of volcanoes like the Rincon de la Vieja or the Irazu. Take a bird watching tour to spot winged wonders such as the quetzal or blue-crowned motmot. For a more relaxing time, visitors enjoy horseback riding along the beach as part of a serene holiday getaway.
For those who prefer water-based activities, Costa Rica has you covered. Several coastal towns are hailed as surfing meccas. Scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming are also first-rate. If you don't like getting wet, try your hand at sport fishing, which is best on the Pacific Coast. Dozens of angling records have been set on these waters. For more heart-pounding adventures, take a white water rafting trip to soak in the scenic beauty of Costa Rica's inland.
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