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Over the decades, Costa Rica has successfully and deservedly maintained an image as a haven of ecological beauty. Travelers have been attracted to its numerous national parks and biological reserves, where astonishing numbers of birds, reptiles and mammals flourish. Such diverse options as horseback riding, river rafting and hiking create a palette of activities for travelers to choose from.
But the appeal of Costa Rica extends well beyond the eco-tourist attraction of its rain forests: bordered on both the east and the west by coast, in the heart of Central America, the nation affords visitors with excellent surfing conditions and gorgeous beaches.
In pre-Columbian times the indigenous people were part of the international Intermediate Area located between the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural regions. The northwest of the country, the Nicoya Peninsula, was the southernmost point of Nahuatl cultural influence when the Spanish conquistadores came in the sixteenth century.
When Columbus first landed in Costa Rica in 1502, the region was inhabited by various indigenous groups, which were all but wiped out once European settlement began. Spain named the colony "Rich Coast", rather ironically: Costa Rica was barren in terms of gold and valuable minerals. Instead, the Spanish turned to agriculture and imported African slaves to work the land.
Along with the other Spanish colonies in Central America, Costa Rica declared itself independent from Spain in 1821. In 1824 the capital was moved to San José, but violence briefly ensued through an intense rivalry with Cartago. Although the newly independent provinces formed a Federation, border disputes broke out among them, adding to the region's turbulent history and conditions. After a brief time under Mexican rule, Costa Rica joined the Federal Republic of Central America - an unhappy union, as Costa Rica clashed with other states in the FRCA. In 1838, Costa Rica became a sovereign nation, with its capital in San Jose.
Since independence, Costa Rica has been a relatively peaceful country, especially in comparison with other Central American nations. Agriculture remains a key industry, though eco-tourism and technology are now also significant sectors of the economy.
Costa Rica is located on the Central American isthmus, lying between latitudes 8° and 12°N, and longitudes 82° and 86°W. Costa Rica comprises 51,100 square kilometresplus 589 square kilometres of territorial waters. The country has a mountainous spine stretching through the centre of the country. It boasts 1,290 kilometres of coastline, most of which is on the Pacific Ocean (a little over 200 kilometres is on the Caribbean Sea). The country borders Panama in the southeast and Nicaragua in the northwest, sharing borders over 639 and 309 kilometres respectively.
Costa Rica's popularity as an eco-tourism destination is underscored by the fact that over a quarter of the nation's territory is protected. Costa Rica has 26 national parks and over 160 other protected areas. The highest point in the country is Cerro Chirripó, at 3,819 metres, while the highest volcano in the country is the Irazú Volcano (3,431 metres above sea level). Lake Arenal is the largest lake in Costa Rica, towered by the Arenal Volcano. Several islands are located of the coastline, the furthest being Cocos Island which located nearly 500 kilometres to the south! Calero Island is the largest island of the country (151.6 square kilometres). Over 25% of Costa Rica's national territory is protected by SINAC (the National System of Conservation Areas), which oversees all of the country's protected areas. Costa Rica also possesses the greatest density of species in the world.
Costa Rica is home to one of the world's most beautiful landscapes, nature parks, volcanoes and beaches. There is a lot to keep you busy for weeks, after which you can relax on numerous of the beaches, both at the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
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The Manuel Antonio National Park is located in the south of the country near the city of Quepos and is one of the most visited areas in the country. The park has a beautiful setting with lots of wildlife, including sloth, several species of monkeys, iguanas, numerous birds including the toucan, bats, spiders and snakes. Activities include guided walks, wildlife watching and relaxing and one of many beaches inside or just outside the park.
The Arenal Volcano in the north is one of Costa Rica's best known volcanoes. Until 2010, it was one of the country's most active volcanoes, spewing lava and ash on a regular basis. However, in 2010 the volcano entered an intermediate resting phase and has ceased erupting. Even so, the Arenal Volcano is one of the country's most popular destinations, and rightfully so. You can visit the volcano and the nearby rainforest from the town of La Fortuna, and enjoy activities such guided walks, night hikes, zip lines, whitewater rafting, and wildlife viewing. The volcano also helps heat geothermal hot springs within the area. Visitors can enjoy a hike through the forest during the day and a soak in the springs at night.
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Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean coast and is one of the most remote places in Costa Rica, only accessible by boat or plane. The Tortuguero National Park is what most visitors brings all the way up here and the main activity probably is seeing turtles laying their eggs on the beaches. Most of these tours last for several hours and leave when it's dark. It is not always season though and your best bet will be visiting during April to May for leatherback turtles and July to October for green turtles. Canoe tours, wildlife watching and jungle trips are other options with one of the many tour operators in this fantastic area.
The Cocos Island National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the Pacific Ocean over 500 kilometres from the mainland of Costa Rica and is famous for its spectacular diving with chances to see sharks, big tunas, rays and dolphins. Apart from the marine ecosystem there is very dense rain forest on the island itself with a very rich biodiversity. It doesn't come cheap to visit this place but it is well worth the effort and money.
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Corcovado National Park is located on the Osa peninsula in the south of Costa Rica and its main access point is Puerto Jimenez. The park is enormous, covering some 103,290 acres (41,800 ha) of tropical rainforest. It is one of the the country's most remote national parks and protects more biodiversity than anywhere else in Costa Rica. Corcovado is home to some 500 species of birds, 140 species of mammals, 116 species of amphibians and reptiles, 40 species of fish, 6,000 species of insects, and 500 species of trees. Needless to say, the wildlife viewing here is spectacular. Species include the scarlett macaw, many other species of birds, frogs, spiders, reptiles, tapir and even large predators like jaguar and puma, although there are much harder to spot, especially during daytime.The waterfalls, beaches and rain forest make this park a real gem and not to miss when you are in Costa Rica.
There are more than 120 places in Costa Rica to do canopy tours, allowing you to experience the rain forests from a bird's eye view. Some of the canopy tours are set up as sky walks and visitors can walk amongst the treetops. Many others have zip-lines hooked up between trees and visitors are strapped in to a harness and sent flying past the canopies. Be aware that not all tour operators maintain high safety standards. It is worth researching the operator you plan to use in advance!
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Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park, in Spanish Parque Nacional Volcán Rincón de la Vieja, is part of the Guanacaste Conservation Area which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is located in the northwest of Costa Rica which and consists of the Rincon de la Vieja, Santa Maria and the Cerro Von Seebach volcanoes, the last one being dormant. The last eruption of any of the active volcanoes was the Rincón de la Vieja in 1998. The park has an enormous biodiversity with over 300 species of birds, like the quetzals, curassows, eagles, tourcan and many more. Mammals include cougars (also called puma/mountain lion), monkeys, kinkajous, jaguars, sloths dozens more. The main gateway to the park is Liberia.
Costa Rica has a long coastline with beautiful beaches, both at the Caribbean as well as the Pacific side of the country. Both are good for lots of activities, including viewing turtles (like the Leatherbacks), surfing, just hanging around the beach and some hiking more inland. In general the Caribbean side is calmer and has attractive places like Uvita Island, while the Pacific side has good surfing as well, especially on the popular Nicoya Peninsula. Places along the coast include Tamarindo, Santa Teresa, Jaco, Pochote,and Montezuma to name just a few of the options.
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Cahuita National Park is a park located on the southern Caribbean coast in Limón Province, Costa Rica. It's main gateway is the town Cahuita. It protects beaches and lowlands and is popular with scuba divers and snorkellers, which can enjoy the protected marine area which contains abudant marine wildlife, as well as being a nesting ground for sea turtles. This is also one of the nicest and least developed beaches in the country. The park has an enormous biodivesity, with the reef having at least 35 species of coral and 123 species of fish. Land animals include coatis, raccoons, sloths, agoutis, howler monkeys and capuchin monkeys. It has a wide variety of birds as well including the ibis, kingfisher and toucan.
La Amistad International Park is a Transboundary Protected Area in Central America, management of which is shared between Costa Rica (Caribbean La Amistad and Pacific La Amistad Conservation Areas) and Panama, following a recommendation by UNESCO after the park's inclusion in the World Heritage Site list.
As a tropical country, Costa Rica experiences only two seasons, the wet and dry. Typically the dry season is from December through April, whereas the wet season is from May to November, although there might be deviations to the norm in certain parts of Costa Rica, based on location and altitude primarily.
Temperature doesn't change much between the wet and dry seasons, but altitude is a big influence on the average temperature year round. The Caribbean and Pacific coasts are hot and humid, whereas San José and the Central Valley have a pleasant average temperature of 22 °C, partly based on a cool coastal wind. The highlands are quite cool, with an average temperature of 13 °C. To avoid the most humid and hot months, stay away from Costa Rica between March and May.
The national airline Lacsa is part of the Grupo TACA. Its hub is at Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) near the capital San José. Services are with a number of Lacsa/TACA flights to destinations mainly in Central America and several cities in the United States and South America. Delta Airlines has regular connections from the US via Atlanta. Destinations further away include Madrid with Iberia, Amsterdam with Martinair and flights to and from Frankfurt. Toronto, Guadeloupe and Martinique are other destinations.
There are no international train connections to and from Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a small country and renting a car is one of the best ways to discover the country and travelling at your own schedule. Taking the breakfast at the Caribbean side, get on time to San José for lunch and drive to the pacific to catch the sunset, all in just one day and without driving fast, just taking the necesary time to make it. Although technically you can cross borders to and from Costa Rica, there are quite a few rules you have to bear in mind and you need proper documentation regarding car, prove of ownership and many other rules apply to the state of the car. It's quite time consuming and expensive but unavoidable if you are travelling overland from North America to South America.
International buses go from San José to Changuinola (for Bocas del Toro), David and Panama City in Panama. There are more buses to Guatemala, Managua in Nicaragua, San Salvador in El Salvador and Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Check Ticabus for more routes. Another big operator is King Quality, which travels on the San José de Costa Rica - Tapachula (Mexico) route, with buses between the capitals of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
There is a small (twin propeller planes) internal airline that connects some of the major tourist locations. It's very expensive and considering the short distances in Costa Rica is not economical for most travellers. Luggage is very limited because of the plane type and you will be weighed before boarding. Paradise Air has flights to a few dozen of domestic destinations, including Barra de Tortuguero, Limón and Liberia. Sansa and Nature Air both have numerous connections throughout the country as well.
For those brave enough to drive on Costa Rican roads, renting a car will cost somewhere between US$400 and US$700 a week, depending on quality and whether you rent a 4WD or not. This includes a mandatory insurance. If you're planning to visit more remote locations, you should certainly consider a 4WD because of the rough road conditions. At certain times of the year, entire roads are flooded as well, so be sure to gather information before you set off on whether or not your destination will be accessible. You will also have to put down a guarantee deposit of at least US$750 (a credit card print will be enough) to cover tyre and rim damage which is common because of the state of the roads. This is not covered by the regular car insurance.
Bus is probably the easiest way to get around Costa Rica. The bus service is fairly punctual and it's very cheap. You can get anywhere in the country, but you'll usually find yourself travelling back through San José. Don't expect any luxuries and due to the abysmal state of roads outside of San José, bumpy rides are pretty much guaranteed. For an overview of bus schedules throughout the country visit this website. Also check thebussschedule.com, including international connections.
Be sure to keep a close eye on your luggage as bus stops are where most backpacks tend to go missing. Rather than putting your backpack directly above your seat, put it above the seat across the aisle, so you can keep an eye on it. Also, put it in top-first, so the bottom (without easy zippers) is facing the aisle.
Shuttle service is a shared transportation option in an air-conditioned minibus (or coaster) between popular destinations. This is a step up from bus but still fairly affordable. Shuttle routes operate daily, and in some cases there are multiple departure times throughout the day. However, shuttles are by no means a public bus. They are subject to availability and must be reserved in advance. Prices are generally $45 per person and up. The main shuttle operators are Interbus and Grayline.
If you are traveling in a group, hiring a private car and driver can save you money and offer more convenience and flexibility. Private transport can be scheduled anytime you wish and from any airport, hotel, private home or identifiable landmark in Costa Rica. Prices start at $140 and up depending on the distance, and the price is generally the same for up to 8 people.
Many of the hotels offer a full package that includes ground transportation from and to San José, boat transfer, lodging and three meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner). The suggested package is based on three days/ one night, which is enough time to discover this natural destination.
If you rented a car and want to get to Tortuguero you can find secure parking lots at the La Pavona and Caño Blanco docks. It costs $10 a day. Or if you are coming out from Tortuguero and want to keep travelling by your own, you have a couple of choices. Either rent a car right straight at the docks or get a shared van. Car rentals are very easy to arrange and they can deliver the car to you. Just make sure to inform where exactly you want the car to be delivered.
There is also an option to travel between the Arenal area and the Monteverde/Santa Elena area by jeep-boat-jeep combination, across Lake Arenal. The travel time is less than half of what it would be if you'd travel overland only.
Daily trains are running between several locations in the San José area. These include mainly commuter trains between San José and Heredia during morning and early evening peak hours. Commuter trains also run on the route Pavas - San José - San Pedro Universidad Latina during these hours. Very convenient for using the smaller airport near Pavas.
Finally, there is the Tico Train Tour between San José and Caldera (91 kilometres), which is a weekend tourist train. Each trip can accommodate about 350 people.
Walking around cities and towns in Costa Rica is a bit of an adventure. Pedestrians do not get the right of way and cars often will not even stop at a red light for you to cross. The sidewalks can be in poor repair and it is often a big step to the road. There are very few street signs so most navigation is done by landmark, keep this in mind if you decide to try to hire a cab or get directions from a local.
Nationals of the following countries are allowed entry without visa for a limited stay for tourism purposes.
Others require a visa from a Costa Rican embassy or consulate.
Extending your stay beyond the authorized 30 or 90 days is a time-consuming hassle. It is far easier to leave the country for 72 hours and then re-enter.
Leaving the country by airplane requires paying a US$29 exit tax.
See also: Money Matters
The Costa Rican currency is the Colón (CRC), named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish). Notes are available for 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 colones. Coins are in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 25, 50, 100 and 500 colones.
Most banks have money exchange, but it is advisable to use state banks like Banco Nacional, since they generally have lower rates.
US banknotes are also commonly used in Costa Rica and in tourist settings a lot of things are priced in US Dollars.
To do paid work in Costa Rica you will need to be a resident or be sponsored by a local company. The newspaper La Nación has job listings on Sundays and Mondays.
There are opportunities to do volunteering work, from teaching English to turtle conservation.
If you would like to study Spanish in Costa Rica, there are several options. You could study Spanish at the beach and at the same time scuba dive and learn how to surf and just enjoy the sunrise (if you are in Montezuma at the Pacific side) or sunset (in Santa Teresa, Pacific side). There are also several schools to choose from in San José, for example at cidi-cr.com. Try to google and use the words "Spanish" and, for example, "surf school in Costa Rica". There are also schools if you are intending to be an English teacher that can make your certificate if you pass their tests and there are schools to become English/Spanish teachers.
Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases
Mekatelyu is a creole dialect that grew out of the English spoken by Jamaican immigrants in the 19th century.
The most famous dish of Costa Rica would be Gallo Pinto. It consists of rice and black beans and is often the very base of their dishes. With Gallo Pinto come often various cooked vegetables, fried or scrambled eggs, salad and sometimes tortilla bread and sour cream. They eat this at all times of the day, even at breakfast but there are of course other options. Plantains is also a very popular fruit that looks like a big banana but is very different and it can be cooked in very different ways, but in Costa Rica the most common way is to fry them which gives them a really sweet taste. They use a lot of vegetables in stews mixed with potatoes or just by themselves.
On the coast of the Pacific Ocean they have a lot of seafood to offer at the restaurants and on the Caribbean side, they are more Jamaican influenced and they cook almost everything in coconut oil. They also have a dish with rice and beans but it is not called Gallo Pinto. The differences are hard to understand sometimes but it is similar.
They are also very in to chicken and you will see a lot of chicken restaurants in almost every city. In the bigger cities there are also a lot of American fast food chains like McDonald's, KFC, Subway and Burger King so if you are not looking for those special dinners, do not worry. They also have a lot of bakeries with everything from cakes and sweets to new and fresh bread.
Costa Rica is not the most exciting country when it comes to food but they do have some stuff to discover and also some different variations if you compare to, for example, Europe. It is common to mix rice with french fries or some pasta of any kind. Their speciality though is the combination of Gallo Pinto and good stews of vegetables.
As Costa Rica is one of the most popular countries for travellers in Central America, there is an abundant choice of accommodation in the country. Options range from budget places, including campgrounds and many hostels, to 5-star all inclusive luxury for the ones looking to be pampered in style. In between is an even wider choice of guesthouses, B&B's and small scale hotels, many of them run by families. Some of them offer a unique opportunity to get a closer look into Costa Rican society, while others are owned by foreigers, who set up fantastic rainforest lodges in places lik Rincon de la Vieja, Monteverde or the La Fortuna/Arenal area.
Along both the Caribbean as well as the Pacific coastline, you will find dozens of places to stay and usually it's easy to find a room, even in high season. Still, from December to April, and especially during Christmas/New Year's and Easter, some of the most popular places can be booked months in advance. To a lesser extent, the summer holidays of North Americans and Europeans in July/August, can mean (even though it is the rainy season) that some places are booked solid.
The Michelada is a popular drink of Costa Rica and in fact all of Latin America. The Costa Rican version begins with a cold glass, ice and salted rim. Ample fresh lemon juice is added and topped off with a light or golden beer. The Michelada is a great beverage for a hot day as it replenishes salt, cleanses the body with lime and makes life more enjoyable with beer!
In Costa Rica, they also have very good smoothies or "frescos" which are like lemonade. They are made out of fresh fruits and have a great taste of nature and is perfect for replenish your energy or to cool down in the heat. The famous company Cosechas makes delicious smoothies with big variety of things to add for a great prize. How about a big size with mango, pineapple and banana for just 1,000 colones (US$2)?
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Costa Rica. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Costa Rica) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Costa Rica. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country, but not everywhere. Especially the province of Limon has its share of malaria incidents. Still, to be sure (you don't fool with this desease!), it is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
It is worth visiting your doctor before heading to Costa Rica to check that you have all necessary vaccinations.
See also: Travel Safety
Robbery at knife point is still common in Costa Rica, especially in certain parts of San José. You should exercise caution when going out late at night alone and visiting certain neighbourhoods. Coca Cola is a place in San José where there is a lot of criminality and it should be avoided at dark (this is a bus station so make sure you go there early if you are travelling by bus from there).
Also, be aware that a lot of tourists have reported theft on the buses in the country. If possible, leave nothing without sight. They sometimes grab your bag and run out of the bus if you got it next to you and look away or when it is not on your alert, as well as taking it from the hat rack. They can also steal your luggage that is underneath the bus so be sure to only put a heavy and big bag that is hard to snatch or a bag with not so important and valuable stuff in it. Do not let anyone help you with your bag that does not have a badge or clothing saying that he or she works for that company.
Always and only, take the red colored taxis. Black taxis are more expensive and there's a risk of robbery.
It is rare to be robbed outside of San José but if you leave your stuff far from you or places where you have a hard time seeing them, there is a big risk someone will notice and take it. Of course you should enjoy the nightlife or be able to take a walk after sunset but do not bring a lot of money, passport, phone, camera or other valuable belongings. Always be sure to have a lock on your bag, even if you leave them at the accommodation and if you have access to a locker of some kind, it is wise to use it.
It's easy to find internet access, and although you can still can find a lot of internet cafes, wifi is growing fast in the country. The further away you get from San Jose, the slower and more expensive it becomes when you are using an internet cafe. Wifi is generally free of charge at most places though and apart from off the beaten track parks, jungles and mountains, the connection generally is ok. Some internet cafés also offer international calls via either phone or IP using services like Skype.
See also: International Telephone Calls
There are plenty of phone booths around and you will get the best rate using a pre-paid international card (can often be purchased in internet cafés and other small stores). There is usually a connection fee making short calls extra expensive. International calls are fairly expensive. The cheapest way to make them is over the internet using a service such as Skype at an Internet café. But making short calls using the domestic calling cards (you can make international calls using these but the denominations of the calling cards are quite small so your call will be short!) or the international calling cards available within Costa Rica (all from the government phone monopoly ICE) is the next best deal.
Those travelling with a mobile phone and willing to pay the roaming costs should ensure it supports 1,800 MHz GSM network. Note that the GSM phone systems in the United States and Canada use different frequencies and that travelers from there will need a "world" handset, such as a tri-band or quad-band phone, if you want to use your existing cell phone. If you want to use a local Costa Rica number, you can rent cell phone service, and of course anyone can buy a cell phone. If you have an unlocked cell phone (either one from home or bought in Costa Rica - all cell phones sold in Costa Rica must be unlocked), prepaid (prepago) SIM cards can provide a local number and service can be purchased throughout the country by anyone with a passport from any country. Try using companies like Grupo ICE under the Kölbi brand, TuYo Movil, Movistar and Claro.
Correos de Costa Rica (website in Spanish only) is the national postal services of Costa Rica. You can find post offices (correos) in almost any city and town and they are generally open from 7:30am to 5:30pm or 6:00pm Monday to Friday and 7:30am to noon on Saturdays. There are not that many mailboxes, so it's best to ask your hotel or go directly to the post offices. Services tend to be slow but generally reliable and on the whole cheap regarding letters and postcards. It costs about US$0.20 to the USA and Canada (taking about 1 week to 10 days), US$0.25 to Europe (about 2 weeks) and US$0.30 to Asia and Australia (3 weeks or even more). All in all, if you can try and arrange your mail from the capital San José as it's generally quicker from there. Small packages are also no problem, though take them to the post offices unpacked for inspection first! Otherwise, arrange things through private international courier services like UPS, FedEx, DHL or TNT.
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Ask HappyWanderer a question about Costa Rica
I've been twice and can give you recommendations on cheap places to eat/stay in Tamarindo or La Fortuna
Ask Code a question about Costa Rica
I am from Costa Rica, if you have any question, please let me know and I will try to help you. Have a nice day!
Ask fraluchi a question about Costa Rica
Santo Domingo de Heredia, in the center of Costa Rica, near airports and excellent public transport, is a good town (base camp) from where to discover the country's fascinating attractions: easy day trips to discover fauna and flora, volcanoes and national parks, and practice rafting, mountain biking, bungee jumping , hiking. The Pacific and Atlantic coasts are a mere 2 hours' drive away.
You may find culturally interesting and reasonably priced places off the beaten track where to stay. And if your goal is to learn Spanish, several language institutes are located nearby.
Ask thegeegs a question about Costa Rica
I have lived here for 3 years and have friends who have been here for many more years. I can tell you good places and bad, tourist traps and eco places, good beaches and reasonably priced hotels and guest houses. Property for sale or rent for people retiring or looking for investments and businesses. Just ask me, happy to help!
Ask nadishaaa a question about Costa Rica
travelled the whole country,loved it
Use our map of places to stay in Costa Rica to explore your accommodation options and to compare prices across the country at a glance. To narrow the results down by budget category, use the links below.
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