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Costa Rica: the crossroads of the Americas
Sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica boasts a wealth of diversity for such a small country. Over 800 species of birds find their homes in these parts, dotting the jungles with bright colors and filling the air with their cries. In fact an area that consists of only .03% of the planet’s available land mass has somehow packed into it 6% of the world’s animal, plant, and insect species, making Costa Rica a bizarre wonderland of rare sights and sounds.
Since Costa Rica straddles the mid-section of Central America, it supplies world class beaches that look out towards both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. With mountains, jungle, and active volcanoes in the interior, Costa Rica provides the perfect tropical vacation.
Getting in, out, and about
Costa Rica does not charge a fee to enter the country, but upon leaving, you will have to pay an exit fee of around $29 USD. In order to get in, you need a valid passport. A passport stamp can permit you to stay anywhere from 30 days to 90 days. You also have the option of applying for an extended stay while you are there, in case the idea of leaving paradise is too painful for you. Stays beyond the allotted time that have not been officially extended can land you in a lot of trouble, however, including fines, deportation, and the possibility of being barred from entering the country again. It would be a shame to have paradise lost to you just when you found it, so make certain you adhere to the time allotted to you.
Aside from the common vaccinations, there are no required vaccinations, with one caveat. If you have travelled to a country in South or Central America or Sub-Saharan Africa, you will need to show proof that you received a vaccination against yellow fever at least 10 days prior to entering that country. Yellow fever is not found in Costa Rica, and the locals aim to keep it that way. Some travelers might wish to vaccinate against rabies, Hepatitis B, or malaria, and many travelers go ahead and vaccinate against Hepatitis A and typhoid. Check with your local doctor to see if any of these are appropriate for you.
One all too common disease found in Costa Rica is dengue fever. There are no ways to vaccinate against it or to treat it at present. Your best course is to prevent exposure to it through mosquito bites. Even though you’re in the jungle, you should consider wearing long sleeves and pants and applying liberal amounts of insect repellent. Also avoid splashing in puddles of standing water because that’s where mosquitoes like to breed.
Even though Costa Rica has one of the oldest and most stable democracies in the Americas, the high degree of tourism has promoted an equally high incidence of crime. Usually this is on the level of petty theft, but there have also been violent crimes such as sexual assault reported. Always be aware of your surroundings and avoid making yourself a target by carrying large amounts of cash, expensive jewelry or electronic equipment including cameras.
Thieves often work in groups and have developed sophisticated scams to take you by surprise. For example, one method is to slash tires of rental cars at popular tourist spots or even in the parking lots at car rental outlets. When your car gets a flat tire, good Samaritans will appear out of nowhere, ostensibly to help you change your tire, but while one busies you with that, another will be sacking your belongings or worse, hold you at gunpoint while they take what they want.
Avoid leaving food and drinks untended because many reported sexual assaults have occurred when perpetrators have drugged drinks and food with date rape drugs. Although the local authorities at least give the impression of investigating these, no sexual assault convictions have occurred where US citizens were the victims since 2012.
Renting a car can be a great way to see much of Costa Rica, and most of your options will be four-wheel drive. However, there are a few things to consider if you go this route. A kind of soft crime is for car rental places to accuse you of damages to their cars that may have occurred prior. They typically take out a large deposit on the car when you rent it and use this occasion to withhold these funds from you. A good way to avoid this is to use local travel agents to set up your car rental. This makes crooked car rental places less likely to falsely accuse you or risk losing future business from the travel agency.
Another concern is that the insurance you have to buy for your rental will not cover tires and rims, partly because of the aforementioned scam and partly due to poor road conditions throughout much of the country. Perhaps the biggest concern is if you get into a wreck, regardless of who is at fault, if someone was hurt, you may be detained until that person has healed up so that medical costs are well established. Courts in Costa Rica are backlogged and it’s been known to take up to five years just to have your day in court.
Since Costa Rica is close to the equator, the high tourist season goes from December to April. Start planning your trip today and enjoy a fantastic trip to lush Costa Rica.
The traveler’s tongue
The official language in Costa Rica is Spanish, although many people are bilingual and speak English without difficulty. This is less so in more rural areas. It’s always a good idea to have a good repertoire of words and phrases in Spanish that you can use. Anytime you visit another country and make an attempt to speak their language, it’s much appreciated. Since most of the tourist areas are bilingual, this is also a great opportunity to learn Spanish where that’s what’s spoken predominantly, even as you have the safety net of English at your disposal.
On the Caribbean coast side of the country, many people speak an English-Creole mix called Mekatelyu, which can be a fun challenge to discern, since it uses many English words but in highly creative ways. The name comes from the phrase “Make I tell you” which is their way of saying, “Let me tell you.”
Money matters in Costa Rica
You’ll find a vacation in Costa Rica is a bit more expensive than other Central American destinations. A budget of $150-$200 USD a day per person will cover mid-range to high-end hotels and restaurants with some money left over for sight-seeing. Back-packers and those on a tight budget can ditch the luxuries and get by on roughly $50 USD a day, but you have to be frugal in your choices of where to eat and what to see, and stay in hostels or campgrounds. If you go shoestring, consider traveling during the tourist off season months (April through November) but keep in mind that’s also the rainy season. The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colon, but US dollars are widely accepted just about everywhere.
Tipping is customary in Costa Rica, and this includes hotel porters, cleaning service providers, taxi drivers, and tour guides. Usually about $1-$3 will suffice. High end restaurants may add a 10% gratuity to your check already, but tipping around 15% is appropriate otherwise.
C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.