Costa Rican Travel Information
Things to do on your Costa Rica Scuba Diving Holiday
Looking for some information to make your Cocos diving trip run smoothly? Costa Rica, is one of a number of small nations that comprise the isthmus of Central America. Its eastern shore is lapped by the Caribbean, and its western shore by the Pacific. The land border to the north is Nicaragua and to the south is Panama.
The country is both an exciting adventure destination as well as a haven for rest and relaxation. Diving with hundreds of sharks around Cocos Island can be added to with canyoning, windsurfing, forest canopy flying and many more heart-stopping activities. There are also beautiful, serene beaches and relaxing spas for those who prefer idle pampering.
For many divers, the prospect of diving around Cocos Island seems like a distant ambition. However it is easily done. You simply need to decide that you deserve to be surrounded by hundreds of hammerhead sharks, or dolphins or silky sharks, in a location in the middle of nowhere with few other divers. Those who have dived Cocos share the opinion that it is one of the very few places on earth that can provide such a treasured experience.
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Tourist Security and Safety
At the time of writing, there have been no recent acts of terrorism in Costa Rica. Visitors may encounter work stoppages and strikes which are rare but inconvenient. The normal rules about not displaying wealth, e.g. flashy watches, and avoiding carrying credit cards or important documentation apply. Opportunistic thieves exist in Costa Rica as they do everywhere.
How to Get There
Major airlines with regular direct flights to Costa Rica from North America are: Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Grupo Taca, Mexicana, Spirit Air, and US Airways. From Europe: Iberia and Martin Air have established routes to San José, some direct and others with one connection. It takes between 3 and 7 hours to fly to Costa Rica from most U.S. cities.
International flights land either in San José's Juan Santamaría International Airport or in the city of Liberia's Daniel Oduber International Airport. Liveaboard operators pick up from San Jose hotels and transfer guests to Puntarenas, so we recommend you fly into Juan Santamaria.
Where to Stay
If you need an overnight stay on your way in or out of Costa Rica, or just want to take a few days extra holiday in addition to your liveaboard, then check out our affiliated hotel reservation agents Agoda.com and their accommodation options. Browse their website choices, use their on-line chat to ask your questions, or simply use your credit card to make your booking:
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Costa Rica's climate is described as mild and subtropical year-round. Rainy season is approximately May to November, with more showers and lower water visibility, but this is also the time when there is most action underwater around Cocos Island. Dry season occurs between December and April. The temperature does not vary a great deal, with the average range being between 23 to 28°C although 2 or 3 degrees either side would not be a rare occurrence, especially in the higher altitude locations such as San José.
The Beaches of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a beach-lover's paradise, enjoying more than 800 miles of coastline fronting both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Cocos Island itself has 2 bays, Chatham and Wafer, which are sheltered spots in which to anchor and go ashore. You can enjoy a little stroll on terra firma and Chatham Bay is a great spot for taking in sunsets over Manuelita Island.
Pacific Coast Beaches
On the Pacific side of the country, you can find both black and white sand beaches leading to rainforests where all manner of life exists. These include sloths, iguanas and hummingbirds. The beach scene here includes restaurants and beach bars, where music fills the air and umbrellas fill your cocktail glass. These beaches tend to be more populated and there are therefore more beach-style businesses to cater to the sun-lovers.
Caribbean Coast Beaches
In contrast to the Pacific coast, the Caribbean beaches see more rainfall and are therefore flanked by thick vegetation and dense forestation which runs well inland covering all the lowland areas. These beaches are more natural and a great variety of plants and animals thrive in the forests. Turtles also come ashore in many locations along the coast for nesting purposes.
Sightseeing and Things to do
Apart from a couple of opportunities to go ashore on Cocos Island to explore the bays and a limited amount of the coastline, your time in Cocos will be spent on board your liveaboard. There are no inhabitants or shelters on Cocos Island at all. For sightseeing and things to do beyond your scuba diving vacation in Costa Rica, the focus is on the mainland.
'Traditional' pastimes such as surfing, rafting and fishing remain very popular and can be the main reason for visiting Costa Rica if they are your main interest. More modern pursuits such as canopy tours are becoming more popular. Imagine yourself whizzing through and over the rainforest on a zip line that can stretch great distances and reach heart-pumping speeds.
Costa Rica is part of a volcanic region so climbing and trekking the peaks is another popular thing to do, particularly the Arenal volcano where there are daily, and visible, 'eruptions'. Poas Volcano is an interesting one to visit with its mile wide crater and huge geyser. Hot spring spas also benefit from the geothermal activity and can make for a very relaxing day of pampering.
An exploration of the tropical rainforests is close to the top of everyone's priorities in Costa Rica and Monteverde Cloud Forest is the most popular. It is the perfect haven for lovers of nature including bird-watchers, for whom a trip to the Quetzal is also a must-do.
Dining Out & Nightlife
Restaurants in towns and cities in Costa Rica serve a variety of foods including French, Italian, Mexican, Asian and international cuisine. In San José, you can expect a wide range of choices. There are many high quality restaurants as well as simple eateries, known as sodas which serve cheap set lunches locally known as casados.
Some of the higher end restaurants in San José, serving food from eclectic to international cuisine, include names such as Bacchus, Grano de Oro Restaurant, Barbecue Los Anonos, La Luz and Park Café. For those who are price conscious, the following are reasonably-priced eateries which sometimes have more of a Costa Rican flavour: Whappin, Olio, La Cava Grill, La Cocina de Leña, Vishnu, Machu Picchu.
Nightlife in San José, as in any city, can range from classy clubs to sleazy dives. However many of the bars and clubs pulsate with Latino music and atmosphere. Some of the best bars include: the Jazz Café, El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte, El Observatorio, Key Largo. For those who just can't control their feet, check out these clubs: Castros, El Tobogán, Vertigo, Copacabana.
The main shopping areas of San José are avenidas 1 and 2 and Avenida Central, a pedestrianised street mall. Local markets, so often the life-blood of any culture are crammed full of carvings, masks, jewellery and leather goods. Typically Costa Rican crafts are hard to find. You can however, fill your suitcase with general Central American items, of which there are plenty.
Costa Rican Colones and US Dollars are both widely available and accepted at most establishments that tourists will have any dealings with throughout the country.
There is evidence of human occupation from over 10,000 years ago. Ancient remnants include a series of large granite orbs found around the west coast mysteriously fashioned and arranged by pre-Columban inhabitants of the region. Archaeological digs have revealed jewellery and artifacts, principally in jade and gold which are over 1,000 years old.
Pre-Columban times are shrouded in some mystery, given the absence of recorded history. What is known is that some 25 different ethnic groups lived in the region, dominated by the Chorotegas. They are believed to have come from southern Mexico as long ago as AD 500 and their name means 'fleeing people' as they were believed to have fled ethnic tensions which could have resulted in their enslavement.
A farming people, the Chorotegas used cocoa seeds as currency and developed what appears to have been something of a communal utopia. Their largest concentrations of population could be home to up to 20,000 people and featured centres of worship, trade and social activity. Life for many, it appears, was one of relative peace and ease. Their military even generated slaves from battle for their more wealthy residents. These slaves and the occasional virgin found themselves in the unfortunate predicament of being tossed into volcano craters to appease the gods, so life was not a bowl of cherries for all.
Columbus landed here is 1502 to be warmly welcomed by the Carib Indians. It is believed that the great deal of gold jewellery the Indians sported prompted the Old World pioneers to conclude that this costa was indeed rica.
It took over 300 years before Costa Rica won its independence from Spain in 1821. In the 20th century, one man has stood as a towering figure over Costa Rican history - Don Pepe, otherwise known as Jose Maria Fiueres Ferrer. Having overthrown an electorally defeated government as the leader of a revolutionary junta, he made a number of reforms that won him popular support. He pursued progressive social reforms, banned the Communist party, gave women the vote and gave citizenship to the black population. However, many of the ousted Calderon officials disappeared or were murdered. Calderon twice tried to topple Don Pepe, from exile in Mexico.
Power was returned to Olitio Ulate, the democratic winner of the election that sparked the coup d'etat. However the population still voted Don Pepe back in as elected president twice in 1953 and 1970. His death in 1990 saw him enter the annals of history as Costa Rica's national hero.
The Local Costa Rican People
The population of a little over 4 million people consists almost entirely of descendents of Spanish settlers, with indigenous groups making up little more than 2%. Spanish is the main language of the country, with Creole-English and some indigenous languages spoken in some limited areas.
Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, is the main religion in Costa Rica.
With a higher literacy rate than most Central American nations, Costa Ricans are considered relatively well educated and a reasonable proportion will speak more than 1 language. Economically, Costa Rica's main industries are the exportation of coffee, bananas and pineapples and, increasingly tourism, especially eco-tourism.
When visiting Central America we would recommend that you have adequate insurance cover including health insurance. Having said that, Costa Rica has among the highest levels of health and services in Central and South America. Main concerns would be Hepatitis B and C, Dengue fever (especially on the Caribbean coast) and rabies.
If you behave sensibly, drink bottled water and ensure you consume well-washed vegetables and peeled fruit, you will limit any risk. If eating meat, try to ensure it is well cooked. Avoiding contact with animals frothing at the mouth might also be a wise idea. Any bites should be swiftly followed by medical attention.
Hospitals in San José
There are 3 main hospitals in San José which are reasonably well-equipped. Hospital CIMA San José is generally considered to be the best hospital with the most modern technology. Others are Hospital Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia, which is generally considered the best place for serious emergencies. Hospital San Juan de Dios specialises in surgery and is the only adult burn unit it San José.
Everyone needs a valid passport to enter Costa Rica. At the time of writing US, Canadian, EU and Japanese citizens do not need a visa for Costa Rica. However, visa regulations change and we recommend consulting your Costa Rican consulate or embassy when planning your trip.
Standard time in Costa Rica is 6 hours behind GMT (GMT -6 hours).
Business: Monday to Friday generally 08:00 – 18:00 hrs. Many shops are also open on Saturdays. Weekdays also see Government offices open 08:00 to 16:00 hrs and banks from 09:00 to 15:00 hrs and 15:30 to 18:00 hrs.
Costa Rica uses 110 volt, 60 cycle electricity, same as the USA, and with plugs having 2 flat pins.
It is recommended to bring all spare materials, films and batteries etc with you. Locally, you may have difficulty finding these items.
506 is the international calling code/country code for Costa Rica.
Internet cafes are fairly easy to find in tourist areas and in San José. Some of these offer long distance calls over the internet and many have Skype and other instant messaging software.
Public phones are plentiful and will either accept coins or phone cards. Many of the more modern phones also allow SMSing or emailing too. Phone cards are available from many outlets including pharmacies. Mobile roaming is possible and you should check with your provider as to what they recommend for Costa Rica. You can also purchase pre-paid SIM cards in Costa Rica.
If at sea or at Cocos, your best chance of phone communication is to use the SAT phone that the dive operators have, although this can become quite a costly means of communication.
Codes of Behaviour
Tipping and bargaining
Tipping is not the norm in Costa Rica and you can expect restaurant bills to include a service charge (10%) and sales tax (13%) which should be sufficient to douse any intentions of a further tip. Even when this is absent, tips are not expected. However a little loose change to guides, porters and taxi drivers will be gratefully received.
Bargaining on the other hand is expected at markets and craft shops. Failure to do so will result in a fiscal disadvantage to you of outrageous proportions. The vendor's starting point is usually exorbitant. Taxi drivers in Costa Rica, as in the rest of the world, will take as much as they can, so some prior knowledge of the expected fare is wise.
Costa Rica trends to be hot and can be humid so bring clothes that suit these circumstances. Unless you are traveling on business, leave the suits at home. Light, airy clothes are the order of the day. Women might want to think twice about wearing shorts or strapless dresses to finer restaurants or occasions.
Travel smart. Bulging wallets, passports in short pockets, flashy watches and cameras are all to be avoided. Carry only what you need. Don't carry important documentation on a stroll around town. There are opportunist thieves in every country on earth, including Costa Rica.
Use only official foreign exchange outlets and avoid drink-driving, for which the penalties can be strict. Tourists who avoid unnecessary risks seldom encounter problems of a criminal nature here.
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Be sure to book in plenty of time to avoid limited choice. The small number of liveaboards and popularity of this destination means that you must book well in advance to ensure your reservation!
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