Costa Rica, meaning Rich Coast in English, certainly lives up to the name its Spanish conquerors first gave it some 500 years ago. While most people know the country for its truly exceptional biodiversity and natural attractions, this tropical land bridge linking Central and South America is also brimming with fascinating culture and history.
So pack your bathers and pop on your boots and let’s go check out Costa Rica!
Prior to the Spanish conquest, Costa Rica was, in contrast to much of Latin America, inhabited by relatively few indigenous societies, the most well-known of which are the Bribri and Boruca. The violence of colonisation, coupled with a small population to begin with, meant that for many years Costa Rica was an isolated, impoverished corner of the Spanish Empire. Costa Rica is notable for having enjoyed relative peace and stability since achieving independence from Madrid in 1821, with a brief period of military dictatorship in the early 20th century and the so-called 44-day Civil War in 1948 being some of the few violent episodes of note. However, Costa Rica’s long tradition of democracy often hasn’t helped address the country’s pressing issues, such as recent violence against indigenous leaders, concerns over environmental degradation, and widespread discontent with working conditions.
Located on the secluded Caribbean coast, the charming and lazy seaside town of Puerto Viejo is a 3-hour drive from the capital, San José. (Believe it or not, this is about the farthest you will have to travel to get to any of the best destinations in Costa Rica!) Puerto Viejo sits within range of several incredible beaches that cater to an array of tastes. Some, like Playa Cocles, are perfect for a day of lounging in the sun, while others are best suited to adventure-seekers and water-sport activities. Additionally, Puerto Viejo is home to a jaguar rescue centre that can be visited, and is one of the best places in Costa Rica to experience Afro-Caribbean and indigenous Bribri culture!
For a truly special experience, Tortuguero National Park is a must-see. This national park, also located on the Caribbean coast, is renowned as one of the world’s largest and best-preserved nesting grounds for sea turtles. The endangered green sea turtle, and the even rarer leatherback turtle, appear here in their thousands to lay eggs, and can be easily and intimately viewed. The best part is, as the various turtle species have different mating periods, there is an almost guaranteed chance to see at least some turtles at any given time of the year, though March-October is recommended.
San José, Costa Rica’s relatively young capital, is an eclectic mix of bright-roofed houses and towering skyscrapers, and is often overlooked in favour of the country’s natural attractions. Don’t make that mistake. San José boasts beautiful gardens, the enormous Catedral Metropolitana, and a series of excellent museums. These include the Museo Nacional, the Museo de los Niños, and the Museo del Oro Precolombino – an entire complex dedicated to pre-Colombian gold artefacts! Undoubtedly, though, the crown jewel of San José is the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rice, a stunning European-style building from 1897 that can be explored with an experienced guide.
This wilderness paradise is one of the finest examples of Costa Rica’s biodiversity, encapsulating habitats ranging from pristine shorelines to dense tropical forest. A variety of different tours and experiences are available in Manuel Antonio National Park, and the possibilities for spotting wildlife are endless – sloths, capuchin and howler monkeys, iguanas and hundreds of bird species are in abundance, and make for fascinating viewing. Moreover, at just two-and-a-half hours from San José, Manuel Antonio can be visited as a day-trip or a longer excursion.
Arenal volcano was the site of a devastating eruption in 1968, and remains active to this day. Thankfully, this imposing peak has rarely caused significant damage since then, and today the site can be visited – from a safe distance of course! Visitors’ experiences vary from day to day – sometimes the peak is still, but often plumes of smoke can be seen billowing out, and you may even glimpse red-hot magma flowing down the volcano!
Contemporary Costa Rican cuisine is varied and generally very nutritional. Rice and beans predominate, as in many Latin American countries, often accompanied by pork or beef. Plantain and maize are also frequently used, particularly in more traditional meals, while along the Caribbean coast fish and coconut dishes are common. Traditional dishes include gallo pinto – a spiced mix of beans and rice – and tamales – banana leaves stuffed with pork or beef, vegetables, and cornflour dough.
Finding Central America fascinating? Check out our blog on Nicaragua, land of poets!
Has Costa Rica piqued your interest? Consider some of El Patio's Spanish classes, and get some practice so that you can continue to discover more about this wonderful country - and maybe even visit one day! For a full list of upcoming classes, please head to: Enrol at El Patio
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By Sasha Gillies-Lekakis
October 7, 2020
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