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Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a small Central American nation that shelters five percent of the world's biodiversity. Expect to see gorgeous orchids, colorful birds and butterflies, howler monkeys, and maybe even the elusive margay, a spotted nocturnal cat that lives in the rain forest. In addition to natural beauty, there's a lot to love about a place that hasn't had an army since 1949. Ticos (as locals are called) are generally fun and friendly and love to share their country, which has managed to avoid the conflicts that have devastated neighboring nations.
Most visitors come to Costa Rica for nature. Twenty-five percent of the country is protected, and most natural areas are easily accessible, though some require going off the beaten path. More than 10 conservation areas are within reach of the country's capital, San José, and each offers a different nature experience. From the last remaining tropical wet forests in the Mesoamerican Pacific, located in Corcovado National Park, to the stalagmite- and stalactite-filled caves of Tempisque Conservation Area, travelers can see a variety of habitats in one trip. As for accommodations, there are plenty of options for roughing it, but Costa Rica also features upscale resorts where you can retreat and recharge after a day outside.
Local food is a way of life in Costa Rica. Corn, beans, and root vegetables are grown here and find their place on most Tico tables. Start the day with locally produced coffee, served alongside such Costa Rican fruits as pineapple, cashew fruit, and sapote. Don't be surprised by the heaping portions of gallo pinto, a rice and bean dish served any time of day. At breakfast, it's usually accompanied by an egg, tortilla, and thick slice of farmers' cheese. Plantains and meat often join gallo pinto at lunch and dinner. Costa Rican food is not spicy; if you need an extra pop of flavor, splash a dash of Lizano Sauce (akin to HP Sauce) on your meal like locals do.
Costa Rica is an anomaly in Central America. Like its neighbors, the country traces its cultural heritage back to indigenous groups that occupied the land before the Spanish colonial period, but its modern history is quite distinct. Political choices to embrace democracy, abolish the national army, and protect rather than develop its natural assets have put the country in an economic and social position in which the quality of life here generally exceeds that of most Central American countries. Costa Rica has repeatedly been designated among the happiest countries in the world by international development researchers. Visitors come from around the world to discover the secret of pura vida, or pure life.
Unlike most of its Central American neighbors—most notably Guatemala, which offers one of the region's largest markets, Chichicastenango—Costa Rica does not have a thriving handicraft culture. However, there are a few Costa Rican goods worth taking home—such as hammocks, jewelry made of fruit and tree seeds, and non-perishable food products like homegrown coffee and the popular Lizano Sauce. In Costa Rica, your money is best spent on epic experiences, from hiking and zip-lining to exploring caves and active volcanoes. Those memories will last longer than any souvenir.
Costa Rica has several international airports. Most visitors fly into San José, the capital, or Liberia. Upon arrival, you will need to present your passport at the immigration kiosk, where you will receive a tourist visa; proof of exit in the form of a return or onward ticket is required. Costa Rica's official language is Spanish, and the currency is the colón. Credit cards are widely accepted. Note that there is a sales tax of 13%. When you leave the country, you will be required to pay a U.S. $29 departure tax; a few airlines will include the fee in their ticket prices so always double check. Voltage and plugs are the same as in the United States.
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Julie Schwietert Collazo has been a bilingual freelance writer, editor, and translator for the past 10 years and loves (almost) every minute of it, but tells people if she could have any other job, it would be a gig as a Mexico City evangelist. The Mexican capital is her former home and the first place she always wants to go when she gets on a plane. Read more at collazoprojects.com and Cuaderno Inedito.