Costa Rica, which literally means rich coast, is in Central America, bordered by Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the northeast, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, and Ecuador to the south of Cocos Island.
This country supports an enormous variety of wildlife, due in large part to its geographic position, its neotropical climate, and its wide variety of habitats.
Hundreds of these species are endemic of Costa Rica, meaning they exist nowhere else on earth. These endemic species include frogs, snakes, lizards, finches, hummingbirds, gophers, mice, cichlids, and gobies among many more.
The highest point in the country is Cerro Chirripó, at 3,819 metres (12,530 ft); it is the fifth highest peak in Central America. The highest volcano in the country is the Irazú Volcano (3,431 m or 11,257 ft) and the largest lake is Lake Arenal. There are 14 known volcanoes in Costa Rica, and six of them have been active in the last 75 years.
The National Parks
While the country has only about 0.03% of the world's landmass, it contains 5% of the world's biodiversity.
Most tourists who go to Costa Rica visit at least one national park. And many will travel specifically to visit the country’s renowned national parks with their rich array of diversity, beauty, and flora and fauna.
From cold alpine climates to hot and humid tropical rainforest, from rare dry tropical forest to coral reefs and marine parks, from remote and wild areas to the national parks that can be seen an hour away from downtown San José – all encompass the wonders of nature available to see and experience in Costa Rica’s national park system.
Close to 26 % of their territory is protected under the National Conservation Areas System (SINAC). Established in 1998, it protects the 11 conservation areas, which include 31 national parks, 34 wildlife refuges, 15 biological and forest reserves, 11 wetlands, and 33 protected zones. Further, the nation protects 15.7 % of its marine territory.
In addition, there are dozens of private reserves that extend protected areas. From very small parks to popular spots like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, private reserves play an essential role in the country’s nature conservation efforts.
Peace and Pura Vida!
Historically, Costa Rica has generally enjoyed greater peace and more consistent political stability than many of its fellow Latin American nations. In 1949, Costa Rica abolished its army, becoming one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army till today.
This is a nation with a long history of public services, including education and healthcare, available to all.
With a population of just under 5 million people -a little more than half the population of New York City- this country is a cultural melting pot. It shows indigenous origins and Spanish colonial influence, with a peppery splash of other immigrant cultures thrown in the stew such as Jamaican and Chinese. The official language is Spanish, but there are also pockets where BriBri, creole Mekatelyu as found by the Caribbean Coast in the Limon province.
However, immigration (both recent and early 20th century) has meant that English is spoken natively by many people on both coasts, particularly on the Caribbean side.
“Pura Vida” is not only the motto of Costa Rica, but it is also a label for the Costa Rican Culture, way of life, and its primary ethos. Directly translated, it means “pure life, ” but in Costa Rica, it carries greater importance. “Pura Vida” has evolved to be a national symbol to be proud of. Locals and ex-pats share pride in the Good Life, the Pura Vida, that Costa Rica values and espouses. It is used as both greeting and farewell, as a cheer, and as a description and an emphatic statement.
The nickname for Costa Ricans is “ticos”. This is because of the habit in Spanish of using the diminutive, and that at a much higher rate than most other Spanish speaking countries. For example, “perro” (dog) will be known as “perrito” (little dog), no matter how big it is! A coffee (café) will be known as a cafecito (little coffee), and so on. This little language quirk gives the “ticos” their nickname.
Street names are not regularly used in Costa Rica. In general, addresses are given in terms of distance from a local landmark. For example, the Costa Rican Vacations office has the following address: 100 meters west and 50 meters north of the main entrance to the National Stadium. it definitely is complicated for visitors, but Ticos themselves get around just fine!
Every town, no matter how small, has a church, a soccer field, and a pulpería (corner store). All churches face west in Costa Rica, which is extremely helpful when finding your way around.
The staple diet in Costa Rica is rice and beans. These two basics combine to create probably the greatest breakfast in the world, “gallo pinto.”
This meal is traditionally served for breakfast along with tortillas, sour cream and eggs either scrambled or fried. A typical meal for lunch is casado. Casado is a bowl of rice, red or black beans, a choice of meat, chicken or fish, and vegetables or salad.
National Geographic calls Costa Rica the “seventh most important whale-watching hotspot in the world” due to its two migratory whale watching seasons that cover almost the whole year.
Humpback whales come to the Pacific waters of Costa Rica to give birth and to reproduce during the winter seasons of both hemispheres. North American whales migrate down the Pacific Coast past Guanacaste and Manuel Antonio to the Ballena National Marine Park between December and March. While southern whales from Antarctica travel up to Costa Rica between July and October to the gulf of Golfo Dulce, along the Osa Peninsula, and to the Ballena National Marine Park.
In these protected areas, the whales stay close to the coast where the water is shallow and warm, and their newborns are safe from predators. Since humpback whales spend most of their time near the ocean’s surface and are known for their great acrobatic leaps and splashes, they are easy to spot. On whale watching tours, it is also common to see large pods of dolphins that live along Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast.
Costa Rica is a prime destination to see five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles when they come ashore to nest on both of the country’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The nation is also one of the oldest centres for sea turtle conservation in the world.
Olive ridley, leatherback, green, loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles make extensive migrations to return to where they hatched on Costa Rica’s beaches like Tortuguero, Ostional, Playa Grande and others. These beaches have strong currents that help the entry and exit of females and babies. They also are protected in national parks or watched by nonprofit organizations to create safe nesting conditions for the species’ survival.
Tortuguero National Park is the most important nesting site for green turtles in the western half of the Caribbean. They nest here from July to mid-October, with the peak time in August and September. In Tortuguero, you can also see loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles, the largest sea turtle in the world, from February to June (peak time: March and April).
The Ostional National Wildlife Refuge on the Pacific Coast is one of the two most important nesting areas in the world for olive ridley turtles and the largest site in the Americas. From July to December, around the time of a new moon, hundreds of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles come ashore all at once to lay their eggs. Called arribadas, the amazing phenomenon is one of the world’s most spectacular nature events.
Leatherback sea turtles and Pacific green turtles arrive at the Las Baulas National Park on Playa Grande in Guanacaste to lay their eggs from November to March. These turtles also visit the beaches at Ostional.
On the southern Caribbean Coast, four species of sea turtles – green, hawksbill, loggerhead and leatherback – nest in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge from March to July.
As chilly fall weather begins in the Northern Hemisphere, millions of birds fly south to warm tropical climates where there is plenty of food for the winter. When spring returns in March and April, they all fly back during spring migration.
During these fall and spring months, approximately 3 million birds will pass over Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is among the top five favourite countries for bird watching with 921 bird species recorded. While about 600 bird species are resident in the country, more than 300 kinds of birds from North America migrate to Costa Rica and further to South America every year, according to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.
In October and November – and again in March and April – the skies over Costa Rica’s Caribbean region are filled with an aerial “river of raptors” as millions of hawks, falcons, eagles, vultures, owls, and other birds of prey fly a long journey to South America for the winter. It is the second-largest avian migration on the planet. They briefly stop in Costa Rica at places like the Kèköldi indigenous territory, where fall raptor counts average 2.5 million per year.
In the wetlands of northern Costa Rica, like Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste, you can see thousands of migrating and native birds, including endangered species such as the Jabiru Stork, between December and March. As well, throughout Costa Rica during this time, bird watching is excellent for shorebirds, hummingbirds, thrushes, warblers, orioles, and tanagers.
Overall, it doesn’t matter what time of the year you travel to Costa Rica, you will always have a wildlife display waiting for you, and a variety of white sand beaches, and intense forests for you to contemplate, and more. Always, so much more.