Costa Rica is 51,100 square kilometers (19,714 square miles). This makes it just a bit smaller than West Virginia, or, for a trickier to grasp comparison: 58% of the greater metropolitan area of Los Angeles.
The population in the 2011 census was roughly 4,300,000; just over twice the population of West Virginia, or 24% of the population of the greater metropolitan area of Los Angeles. Costa Rica may be small, but it is the land bridge between North and South America. It sits between the Caribbean and the Pacific, and mountain ranges through the center decide which ocean the rains will wash out to.
While a tiny country geographically, ecologically Costa Rica is almost too good to believe. It has more species of mammals and birds than the continental United States and Canada combined, and unmatched flora that includes over 1,400 species of wild orchids alone. This we have not tried to compare to either West Virginia or the greater metropolitan area of Los Angeles. For the adventurer Costa Rica boasts world class rapids, unparalleled sport fishing on two coasts, surfing on legendary beach, point and river breaks, and perhaps most importantly, a world famous national park system waiting to be shown to you by boat, kayak, foot and horseback.
Temperatures in Costa Rica vary from below freezing at night at high altitudes to the high 80´s at sea level. In the cloud and rain forests, humidity often hovers around the 100% mark. The Central Valley (altitude 3,000 to 5,000 feet), which includes San Jose, is noted for its eternal spring-like weather with average temperatures in the high 60´s F.
25% of Costa Rica´s land has been designated as protected. These parks range from coastal rainforest in Tortuguero, to cloud forest in Monteverde, to mangrove on the Osa Peninsula and dry tropical forest in Guanacaste. All are unique environments, immensely high in biodiversity and fundamental to the health and beauty of the planet, and all have unique stories of development as protected areas, often in the face of commercial interests.
The story of how a country went from facing overwhelming deforestation to protecting a full quarter of their national land is one involving all the good elements of a Costa Rican yarn; strong national and foreign personalities, political stalemates and triumphs, plenty of heated discussion, a “fly by the seat of your pants” style of development and management and most of all a fierce patriotic love of the country’s natural beauty, coupled with the determination to protect it.
It is an inspiring story of conservation, and please let us know if it is something that interests you when considering a vacation, as we would love to introduce you to friends of ours ranging from one of the park service’s founders to some of its oldest and most knowledgeable guides.
Costa Rica has had a stable democracy under a constitution since 1949. It is the longest running, and most stable, democracy in Central America.
During the formation of its democracy, Costa Rica enacted another change that has long distinguished it on the global stage; the abolition of its military, which the visionary architect of the constitution, President José Figueres, had declared “a threat to democracy.”
Even before this monumental act Costa Ricans had referred to themselves as a nation with “more teachers than soldiers.” Today, it is school children that march in parades, and not armed soldiers. In 1986, another remarkable Costa Rican leader, President Oscar Arias, would have school children plant trees across a secret airstrip being used as part of the CIA’s clandestine war against Nicaragua. Arias would later go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in furthering peace in Central America.
Costa Rica has long been touted as a country of equals, and many say it is a direct result of the country´s rugged geography and the independent small farmers it gave birth too. Even today’s Presidents largely go unguarded, but our friend Marvin Rockwell, an Alabama Quaker who helped settle Monteverde, loves to tell a story about parking on the side of a San Jose road in the early 1950´s and almost knocking then President Otilio Ulate off the sidewalk when he opened his car door!
“The future of mankind cannot include the armed forces.”
-HG Wells, quoted by Jose Figueres upon the abolition of the Costa Rican Military
Costa Rica is known for its political stability and pacifism. The country has one of the oldest democracies in the world. There is over 90% literacy and although the education system has its struggles, the value placed on it continues to be high. There is a strong medical system shared by the great majority of its citizens, as well as nonresidents and foreigners.
The water is generally safe to drink (a good rule is that if you’re up in the highlands, the water is safe; if you’re down on the coast, ask if the hotel has filtered water and if not, stick to bottled). You can feel safe trying new foods too; if it’s served in a restaurant or market, you can trust it to be clean and cooked, keeping up of course the same judgment you would use eating in your own country.
Even before Bostonian Minor Keith built the San Jose-Limon railroad in the late 1800´s, Costa Rica´s great beauty and open people have attracted immigrants from all over the world. The annals of Costa Rica´s proud history are dotted with English, French, German and Italian surnames. Costa Rica continues to attract foreigners. At the present time, over 20,000 U.S. citizens make their homes in Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica´s history, however, there was one foreign guest who was very much unwanted, and faced one of the few recorded instances of poor Costa Rican hospitality:
The infamous American Filibuster, William Walker, came to Central America in 1855 with an armed force of adventurers and the hope of creating a privately held state with legalized slavery. After successfully taking over Nicaragua, they were eventually driven off by a combined Honduran and Costa Rican effort, united behind Costa Rican president Juan Rafael Mora. William Walker tried twice more to seize Central American power, before being eventually executed in Honduras (all this trouble and he died at only age 37).
It was during the final battle of the campaign to drive “the filibusters” out that Costa Ricans gained, and simultaneously lost, a principal national hero: the humble drummer boy Juan Santamaría. The illegitimate son of an impoverished single mother, his legend began when he agreed to suicidally advance under heavy fire in order to put a torch to a filibuster’s strong hold. His only condition was that when he died his mother would be well looked after. Or so the legend goes…
Other historians have proposed a less glorious possibility for our young hero; that he died of cholera, and never attended the heroic battle described above. Despite the conflict, Juan Santamaría’s name and legend continues to pervade throughout the country, which brings us nicely around to:
Juan Santamaría International Airport, located outside the capital city of San José, meets all of the new USA standards recently implemented for domestic airports. The airport has been undergoing a thorough security overhaul over the past year and a half under the supervision of USA FAA regulators. Bechtel Corporation's Alterra has been in charge of major renovations and manages the airport under a concession from the Costa Rican Government. Alterra is a company specializing in operating safe and efficient airports around the world, including Singapore's Changi Airport, voted the safest airport in the world in 2013. Today Costa Rica's airport is a state-of-the-art facility. And that is a legacy you can be sure of.
In 1502 Columbus landed in what is now Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, on his fourth voyage to the New World. To be exact, historians say that he landed on September 25th, 1502, a date they’ve taken from a small sunken boat found offshore. He referred to the new land with an indigenous word: Berawa. It wasn’t until the late 16th/early 17th century that the name Costa Rica (Rich Coast) begins to be seen; some say it took that name because of the beauty found there, some say it was because of rumors of gold. Either way, they were right in the first instance and wrong in the second. It was quickly discovered that there was comparatively little gold, but the natural beauty of Costa Rica has been attracting settlers ever since initial colonization.
Costa Rica’s sharp terrain, which has grown accessible with time but was (and in many places still is) practically impassable, led it to attract those Spanish settlers who valued most their independence and the natural beauty around them. These values have become long cherished here, and still persevere strongly in the present day. Since the rugged mountainous land was not suitable for large plantations, Costa Rica developed into a country of independent family farmers. Even now they are the backbone of the country. According to many Costa Ricans it is this, more than anything else, that explains the fact that from independence (1821) on, Costa Rica has been the most stable democratic country in Latin America.
People often tend to fall in love with Costa Rica. They are bowled over by the contentedness of people whose lives appear less physically full than their own, by the earnest attempts at learning by the schoolchildren they may meet, and by the remarkable initiatives at developing a more sustainable and nature oriented way of life. We are very proud that this small country can have that kind of effect on the many people who visit, and we hope they carry it with them back out into the world.
When people want to give back to Costa Rica, they find that the country is chock full of charities and organizations that provide opportunities to assist in these efforts. Unfortunately, however good their intentions, sometimes this number is in fact too good to be true. If you find yourself wanting to contribute to a cause or participate in some “voluntourism” during your trip, please don’t hesitate to tell us. Costa Rica Expeditions, and our founding couple, Michael and Yolanda Kaye, have been involved in a variety of projects and give back efforts over the years. They would consider it a pleasure to make sure your generosity is directed towards where it will have the greatest impact.↑ Back to Top