SIZE: 51,060 square kms (19,714 square miles)
POPULATION: 4 million, (source: World Bank).
CAPITAL CITY: San Jose, estimated population : 1,200,000
LOCAL TIME DIFFERENCE: GMT minus 6 hours.
LANGUAGES SPOKEN: Spanish is the official language, although English is widely spoken in the business community and at most tourist destinations.
RELIGION: Majority Roman Catholic, then Evangelical; Methodist; Baptist; Episcopalian; Jewish and Bahai Faith.
ETHNIC MAKEUP: The majority of the population, 98 per cent, is white or racially mixed, except in Limon province on the Caribbean coast, where an estimated 70,000 blacks and 5,000 Indigenous people live. The Northern Guanacaste province also has a sizeable Indigenous population.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE: Costa Rica is the second smallest country in Central America after El Salvador. The country lies between Nicaragua and Panama, and has coastlines on the Caribbean and the Pacific. A low, thin line of hills between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific is prolonged into northern Costa Rica, broadening and rising into high and rugged mountains in the center and south. The capital city, San Jose, lies in a central basin set in these highlands.
Both coasts have lowland areas. The sparsely inhabited east coast has a narrow swamp strip and tropical forests as the terrain slopes inland. The Pacific coast has two peninsulas: the mountainous Nicoya peninsula in the north and the lowland Osa peninsula in the south. A rich lowland savannah patched by deciduous forests stretches along the Pacific coast between the two peninsulas.
Costa Rica's weather is influenced by altitude. The Pacific coast is drier while the Atlantic coast has the most rainfall - about 300 days a year. The temperature in San Jose ranges from a high of 24 degrees centigrade (C) to 27 degrees C, to a low of 14 degrees C to 16 degrees C. The wet season is from May to October. The hottest months are March and April. Earth tremors usually occur during periods of seasonal change.
CURRENCY: Colon (CC) = 100 centimos.
EXCHANGE RATE: CC390.27 per US$ (April 2003).
* Variable dates. Some offices close for the entire Easter week.
Airport: Both car and eight person minibuses are available for hire at the airport for transport to hotels. Fare to downtown San Jose is approximately US$17.00. In addition, most big hotels have a minibus service to and from the airport.
Taxis: Within San Jose: can be hailed or ordered by telephone; have white number plates. When taking taxis within the city limits, make sure the electronic meter is used.
When travelling outside the city limits, checking fixed rate fares in advanced is highly recommended. Tipping is unnecessary. All taxis are red except those serving Juan Santamaria international airport, which are orange.
Car Rental: Many car rental agencies have offices both at the airport, downtown and at some major tourist destinations. A valid national drivers license is usually good for the duration of a tourist visa.
Busses: Costa Rica has an extensive, relatively efficient and cheap bus system serving the metropolitan area and most of the country.
Air: SANSA and Nature Air are the domestic carriers with regular flights from San Jose to prime tourist destination. There are buses from the two aiports in San Jose to the center. A number of smaller airlines provide domestic charter flights as well. There are over 200 small airfields throughout the country.
DRESS CODES: Formal dress is required for business engagements. Shorts, especially for women, are for the beach or country club and should not be worn in restaurants or at parties. Women can wear trousers. Strapless dresses are only acceptable for evening events.
SOCIAL NICETIES, TRADITIONS AND TABOOS: Costa Ricans are not very punctual for social activities - except for football matches, the cinema and weddings - but are more formal with their business appointments.
Mothers are regarded as the leading family figures; grandparents and elders are highly respected.
The national pastimes are football and politics. The people have a strong sense of democracy. Costa Ricans are affectionately called 'Ticos' for short.
EATING HABITS: People eat frequently, especially snacks as they walk down the street. These include gallos (filled tortillas), with meat and vegetables. The staple dish is rice and beans which is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Costa Ricans eat a lot of meat - beef, chicken, pork. Eating fish is considered a luxury although fish marinated in lemon juice and spices is a cheap delicacy. Vegetables and fruits are also popular and cheap. Imported apples and grapes are considered a special treat.
There are restaurants in all the major towns serving a variety of cuisines. Local food can be found in small 'sodas'. Popular restaurant dishes include: olla de carne (soup of beef, plantain, yuca, nampi and chayote), sopa negra (black beans and poached egg); and picadillo (meat and vegetable stew).
UNUSUAL/STRICT LAWS: Always carry your driving license. There are tough drunk driving laws, with the penalty of having your driving license impounded for a minimum of three years.
Air travellers from Colombia now need visas and are subject to strict searches for drugs. Failure to carry identification papers/passport may mean imprisonment as police carry out spot checks for illegal immigrants.
Street corner foreign exchange transactions are technically illegal, and often risky.
SECURITY: There are pickpockets in downtown San Jose. Beware of mugging in the national parks at night and of theft at beaches and ports.
HEALTH FOR VISITORS: Drinking water is safe in all the major towns and cities; in other parts of the country it should be boiled first.
Malaria had to a large extent been eradicated, but it has begun to re-appear. Malaria pills may be advisable for extensive stays in lowland areas. Inoculation for yellow fever is recommended. Costa Rica has one of the best standards of health and hygiene in the region.
Several strains of dengue fever have been showing up across Costa Rica. It is particularly dangerous upon second infection, with a slightly different strain. The 1991 cholera epidemic which raged through countries in Latin America, notably Peru, did not reach Costa Rica.
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