Costa Rica has not officially designated a national motto. However, if Costa Rica were to designate a national motto, our
research team believes that the choice would be the expression "Pura Vida."
Costa Ricans started using the expression "Pura Vida" after watching the premier of a Mexican movie called "Pura Vida!"
in 1956. During that time only a small portion of the population used it. By 1970 everyone used the expression on a daily
basis because the words conveyed the state of happiness, peace, and tranquility that the political stability and freedom bring
to Costa Ricans.
Nowadays, the expression "Pura Vida" has become so popular that has been added to Costa Rican Spanish dictionaries as an
idiom to greet, or to show appreciation.
Pura Vida is a word that identifies a Costa Rican wherever he or she may be. When you say "Pura Vida" the facial expression
of the person changes and the person smiles. It is a word very meaningful to Costa Ricans. It reminds us of home and it beauty.
Pura Vida has different meanings and it is implemented as an informal Spanish expression:
To greet someone
When you see someone on the streets, shake hands, or just to say hello you would say "Pura Vida!" That means in English
Hi, Hello, How are you doing?and/ or What's going on?
To say good bye
When you leave a place, you want to say good bye, you say Hasta luego todo estuvo Pura Vida.
To show appreciation for a person, object, or situation
If you want to express that a situation, object, or situation is great, cool, abundant, joy, and/or fun. You would say
something or someone is Pura Vida. "Usted es Pura Vida!" means You are a great person.
Travelers moving south overland through Central America gradually have their choice of routes whittled
away until they finally reach the end of the road in the swamps and forests of Darien, in Panamá, where the tenuous land bridge
separating the two great American continents is almost pinched out and the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea almost meet.
Costa Rica lies at the northern point of this apex--a pivotal region separating two oceans and two continents vastly different
The region is a crucible. There are few places in the world where the forces of nature so actively interplay.
Distinct climatic patterns clash and merge; the great landmasses and their offshore cousins, the Cocos and Caribbean plates,
jostle and shove one another, triggering earthquakes and spawning sometimes cataclysmic volcanic eruptions; and the flora
and fauna of the North and South American realms--as well as those of the Caribbean and the Pacific--come together and play
Russian roulette with the forces of evolution. The result is an incredible diversity of terrain, biota, and weather concentrated
in a country barely bigger than the state of New Hampshire.
At 50,895 square kilometers, Costa Rica is the second-smallest Central American nation after El Salvador.
At its narrowest point, in the south, only 119 km separate the Caribbean from the Pacific. Even in the north one can savor
a leisurely breakfast on the Caribbean and take an ambling five-hour drive to the Pacific for dinner. At its broadest point,
Costa Rica is a mere 280 km wide. On the ruler-straight eastern seaboard, barely 160 km separate the Nicaraguan and Panamanian
borders. And while the Pacific coast is longer, it is still only 480 km from the northernmost tip to the Panamanian border
as the crow flies.
Lying between 8 and 11 degrees north of the equator, Costa Rica sits wholly within the tropics, a fact quickly
confirmed in the middle of a rainy afternoon in the middle of the rainy season in the middle of the sodden Caribbean lowlands
or the Talamanca mountains. Elevation and extremes of relief, however, temper the stereotypical tropical climate. In fact,
the nation boasts more than a dozen distinct climatic zones. Atop the highest mountains in cooler months, even ice and snow
A Backbone of Mountains
Costa Rica sits astride a jagged series of volcanoes and mountains, part
of the great Andean-Sierra Madre chain, which runs the length of the western littoral of the Americas. From the Pacific coast
of Costa Rica, great cones and domes dominate the landscape, and you're usually in sight of volcanoes in the northern part
of the country.
The mountains rise in the nation's northwestern corner as a low, narrow band of hills. They grow steeper and
broader and ever more rugged until they gird Costa Rica coast to coast at the Panamanian border, where they separate the Caribbean
and Pacific from one another as surely as if these were the towering Himalayas.
Volcanic activity has fractured this mountainous backbone into distinct cordilleras. In the northwest, the
Cordillera de Guanacaste rises in a leapfrogging series of volcanoes, including Rincón de la Vieja and Miravalles,
whose steaming vents have been harnessed to provide geothermal energy. To the southeast is the Cordillera de Tilarán,
dominated by Arenal, one of the world's most active volcanoes. To the east and rising even higher is the Cordillera Central,
with four great volcanoes--Poás, Barva, Irazú and Turrialba--that gird the central highlands and within whose cusp lies the
Meseta Central, an elevated plateau ranging in height from 900 to 1,787 meters. To the south of the valley rises the Cordillera
Talamanca, an uplifted mountain region that tops out at the summit of Cerro Chirripó (3,819 meters), Costa Rica's highest
In Costa Rica, all roads radiate from the Meseta Central, the heart and heartbeat
of the nation. This rich agricultural valley is cradled by the flanks of the Cordillera Talamanca to the south, and by the
fickle volcanoes of the Cordillera Central to the north and east. San José, the capital, lies at its center. At an elevation
of 1,150 meters, San José enjoys year-round temperatures above 21° C (70° F), reliable rainfall, and rich volcanic soils--major
reasons why almost two-thirds of the nation's population lives in the valley.
The Meseta Central--which measures about 40 km north to south and 80 km east to west--is divided into two
separate valleys by the low-lying crests of the Cerros de la Carpintera, which rise a few miles east of San José. Beyond
lies the somewhat smaller Cartago Valley, at a slightly higher elevation. The Carpinteras mark the Continental Divide. To
the east the turbulent Reventazón--a favorite of white-water enthusiasts--tumbles helter-skelter to the Caribbean lowlands.
The Río Virilla exits more leisurely, draining the San José Valley to the west.
Northern Lowlands and Caribbean Coast
The broad, pancake-flat, wedge-shaped northern lowlands are
cut off from the more densely populated highlands by a languorous drape of virtually impenetrable hardwood forest that only
the most accomplished outdoor types can penetrate without local guides. The low-lying plains or llanuras, which make
up one-fifth of the nation's land area, extend along the entire length of the Río San Juan, whose course demarcates the Nicaraguan
border. Farther south the plains narrow to a funnel along the Caribbean coast.
Westward, cattle ranches and banana and citrus plantations give way to pleats of green velveteen jungle ascending
the steep eastern slopes of the central mountains, which run along a northwest-southeast axis, forming the third side of the
wedge. Numerous rivers drop quickly from the mountains to the plains, where they snake along sluggishly. Beautiful beaches,
many of gray or black sand, line the Caribbean coast, which sidles gently south.
Beaches are a major calling card of Costa Rica's Pacific coast, which is deeply indented
with bays and inlets and two large gulfs--the Golfo de Nicoya (in the north) and Golfo Dulce (in the south), enfolded by the
hilly, hook-nosed peninsulas of Nicoya and Osa, respectively. Mountains tilt precipitously toward the Pacific, coming closer
to the ocean here than on the Caribbean side, and the slender coastal plain is only a few kilometers wide. North of the Golfo
de Nicoya, the coastal strip widens to form a broad lowland belt of savanna--the Tempisque Basin. The basin is drained by
the Río Tempisque, and narrows northward until hemmed in near the Nicaraguan border by the juncture of the Cordillera de Guanacaste
and rolling, often steep, coastal hills that follow the arc of the Nicoya Peninsula.
Of growing importance to the national economy is the narrow, 64-km-long intermontane basin known as the Valle
de El General, which runs parallel to and nestles comfortably between the Cordillera Talamanca and the coastal mountains--Fila
Costeña--of the Pacific southwest. The Ríos General and Coto Brus and their many tributaries have carved a deep, steep-sided
trough, long isolated from the rest of the nation, although the construction of the Pan-American Highway through the valley
in the 1950s brought thousands of migrant farmers and their families in its wake.
Costa Rica lies at the boundary where the Pacific's Cocos Plate--a piece of the earth's crust some 510 km
wide--meets the crustal plate underlying the Caribbean. The two are converging as the Cocos Plate moves east at a rate of
about 10 cm a year. It is a classic subduction zone in which the Caribbean Plate is forced under the Cocos--one of the most
dynamic junctures on earth. Central America has been an isthmus, a peninsula, and even an archipelago in the not-so-distant
geological past. It has therefore been both a corridor for and a barrier to landward movements, and it has been an area in
which migrants have flourished, new life forms have emerged, and new ways of life have evolved. Yet a semblance of the Central
America we know today became recognizable only in recent geological history. In fact, Costa Rica has one of the youngest surface
areas in the Americas--only three million years old--for the volatile region has only recently been thrust from beneath the
In its travels eastward, the Cocos Plate gradually broke into seven fragments, which
today move forward at varying depths and angles. This fracturing and competitive movement causes the frequent earthquakes
with which Costa Ricans contend. The forces that thrust the Cocos and Caribbean Plates together continue to build inexorably.
From insignificant tremors to catastrophic blockbusters, most earthquakes are caused by the slippage of masses
of rock along earth fractures or faults. Rocks possess elastic properties, and in time this elasticity allows rocks to accumulate
strain energy as tectonic plates or their component sections jostle each other. Friction can contain the strain and hold the
rocks in place for years. But eventually, as with a rubber band stretched beyond its breaking point, strain overcomes frictional
lock and the fault ruptures at its weakest point.
Suddenly, the pent-up energy is released in the form of an earthquake--seismic waves that radiate in all directions
from the point of rupture, the "focus." This seismic activity can last for a fraction of a second to, for a major earthquake,
several minutes. Pressure waves traveling at five miles per second race from the quake's epicenter through the bedrock, compressing
and extending the ground like an accordion. Following in their wake come waves that thrust the earth up and down, whipping
along at three miles per second.
For Costa Ricans, the bad news is that the most devastating earthquakes generally occur in subduction zones,
when one tectonic plate plunges beneath another. Ocean trench quakes off the coast of Costa Rica have been recorded at 8.9
on the Richter scale and are among history's most awesome, heaving the sea floor sometimes scores of feet. These ruptures
often propagate upward, touching off other, lower-magnitude tremors. This is what happened when the powerful 7.4 quake struck
Costa Rica on 22 April 1991. That massive quake, which originated near the Caribbean town of Pandora (112 km southeast of
San José), left at least 27 people dead, more than 400 injured, 13,000 homeless, and more than 3,260 buildings destroyed in
Limón Province. The earthquake caused the Atlantic coastline to rise permanently--in parts by as much as 1.5 meters. In consequence,
many of the beaches are deeper, and coral reefs have been thrust above the ocean surface and reduced to bleached calcareous
Costa Rica lies at the heart of one of the most active volcanic regions on earth. The
beauty of the Costa Rican landscape has been enhanced by volcanic cones--part of the Pacific Rim of Fire--that march the length
of Central America. Costa Rica is home to seven of the isthmus' 42 active volcanoes, plus 60 dormant or extinct ones. Some
have the look classically associated with volcanoes--a graceful, symmetrical cone rising to a single crater. Others are sprawling,
weathered mountains whose once-noble summits have collapsed into huge depressions called calderas (from the Portuguese word
for "cauldron"). Still others, such as on Cocos Island, have smooth, shield-shaped outlines with rounded tops pocked by tiny
Visitors seeking to peer into the bowels of a rumbling volcano can do so easily. The reward is a scene of
awful grandeur. Atop Poás's crater rim, for example, you can gape down into the great well-like vent and see pools of molten
lava bubbling menacingly, giving off diabolical, gut-wrenching fumes of chlorine and sulfur--and, for good effect, emitting
explosive cracks, like the sound of distant artillery.
Several national parks have been created around active volcanoes, with accommodations, viewing facilities,
lectures, and guided walks to assist visitors in understanding the processes at work. A descriptive map charting the volcanoes
is published by the Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica, at the National University in Heredia,
which monitors volcanic activity throughout the nation. An excellent descriptive guide is Guillermo Alvarado's Costa Rica;
Land of Volcanoes, which offers scientific explanations in layperson's terms.
In 1963, Irazú (3,412 meters) broke a 20-year silence, disgorging great clouds of smoke and ash. The eruptions
triggered a bizarre storm that showered San José with 13 cm of muddy ash, snuffing out the 1964 coffee crop but enriching
the Meseta Central for years to come. The binge lasted for two years, then abruptly ceased (although it began rumbling again
in 1996). Poás (2,692 meters) has been particularly violent during the past 30 years. In the 1950s, the restless four-mile-wide
giant awoke with a roar after a 60-year snooze, and it has been huffing and puffing ever since. Eruptions then kicked up a
new cone about 100 meters tall. Two of Poás's craters now slumber under blankets of vegetation (one even cradles a lake),
but the third crater belches and bubbles persistently. Volcanologists monitor the volcano constantly for impending eruptions.
Arenal (1,624 meters) gives a more spectacular light and sound show. After a four-century-long Rip van Winkle-like
dormancy, this 4,000-year-young juvenile began spouting in 1968, when it laid waste to a four-square-mile area. Arenal's activity,
sometimes minor and sometimes not, continues unabated; it erupted spectacularly in August 2000, killing a Tico tour guide
and forcing the evacuation of Tabacón. Though more placid, Miravalles, Turrialba, and Rincón de la Vieja, among Costa Rica's
coterie of coquettish volcanoes, also occasionally fling fiery fountains of lava and breccia into the air. Rincón blew in
1995, doing damage in Upala.
The type of magma that fuels most Central American volcanoes is thick, viscous, and so filled with gases that
the erupting magma often blasts violently into the air. If it erupts in great quantity, it may leave a void within the volcano's
interior, into which the top of the mountain crumbles to form a caldera. Irazú is a classic example. Its top fell in eons
ago. Since then, however, small eruptions have built up three new volcanic cones--"like a set of nesting cups," says one writer--within
the ancient caldera.
When talk turns to Costa Rica's climate, hyperbole flows as thick and as fast as the waterfalls that cascade
in ribbons of quicksilver down through the forest-clad mountains. English 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope was among
the first to wax lyrical: "No climate can, I imagine, be more favorable to fertility and to man's comfort at the same time
than that of the interior of Costa Rica." Merlin the wizard couldn't have conjured the elements into a more blissful climate.
The country lies wholly within the tropics, yet boasts at least a dozen climatic zones and is markedly diverse
in local microclimates, which make generalizations on temperature and rainfall misleading.
Most regions have a rainy season (May-November) and a dry season (December-April). And the rainfall almost
everywhere follows a predictable schedule. In general, highland ridges are wet--and windward sides always the wettest.
When planning your trip, don't be misled by the terms "summer" and "winter," which Ticans use to designate
their dry and wet seasons. Since the Tican "summer"--which in broad terms lasts December through April--occurs in what are
winter months elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere (and vice versa) it can be confusing. Don't be put off by the term "rainy
season." Costa Rica promotes it as the "green season"--and it's a splendid time to travel, generally.
Temperatures, dictated more by elevation and location than by season, range from tropical
on the coastal plains to temperate in the interior highlands. Mean temperatures average 27° C (82° F) at sea level on the
Caribbean coast and 32° C (89° F) on the Pacific lowlands. Balmy San José and the Meseta Central have an average year-round
temperature of 23° C (74° F). Temperatures fall steadily with elevation (about one degree for every 100-meter gain). They
rarely exceed a mean of 10° C (48° F) atop Chirripó, where frost is frequent and enveloping clouds drift dark and ominous
among the mountain passes. You'll definitely need a warm sweater or jacket for the mountains, where the difference between
daytime highs and nighttime lows is greatest.
The length of daylight varies only slightly throughout the year. Sunrise is around 6 a.m. and sunset about
6 p.m., and the sun's path is never far from overhead, so seasonal variations in temperatures rarely exceed five degrees in
any given location.
Everywhere, March to May are the hottest months, with September and October not far behind. Cool winds bearing
down from northern latitudes lower temperatures during December, January, and February, particularly on the northern Pacific
coast, where certain days during summer (dry season) months can be surprisingly cool. The most extreme daily fluctuations
occur during the dry season, when clear skies at night allow maximum heat loss through radiation. In the wet season, nights
are generally warmer, as the heat built up during the day is trapped by clouds.
Rain is a fact of life in Costa Rica. The winds and weather of two great oceans meet above
Costa Rica's jungles and mountains. Oceans--especially in tropical latitudes--spell moisture, and mountains spell condensation.
Annual precipitation averages 250 cm (100 inches) nationwide. Depending on the region, the majority of this may fall in relatively
few days--sometimes fewer than 15 per year. In drier years, the Tempisque Basin in Guanacaste, for example, receives as little
as 48 cm (18 inches), mostly in a few torrential downpours. The mountains, by contrast, often exceed 385 cm (150 inches) per
year, sometimes as much as 7.6 meters (25 feet) on the more exposed easterly facing slopes. And don't expect to stay dry in
the montane rainforests; even on the sunniest days, the humid forests produce their own internal rain as water vapor condenses
on the cool leaves and falls.
Generally, rains occur in the early afternoons in the highlands, midafternoons in the Pacific lowlands, and
late afternoons (and commonly during the night) in the Atlantic lowlands. Sometimes it falls in sudden torrents called aguaceros,
sometimes it falls hard and steady, and sometimes it sheets down without letup for several days and nights.
Dry season on the Meseta Central and throughout the western regions is December through April. In Guanacaste,
the dry season usually lingers slightly longer; the northwest coast (the driest part of the country) often has few rainy days
even during wet season. On the Atlantic coast, the so-called dry season occurs January-April.
Even in the rainy season, days often start out warm and sunny, although temporales (morning rainfall)
are not uncommon. As in many tropical destinations worldwide, only newly arrived gringos go out without an umbrella after
noon during the wet season. In the highlands, rainy season usually brings an hour or two of rain midafternoon. Still, be prepared:
23 hours of a given day may be dry and pleasant; during the 24th, the rain can come down with the force of a waterfall. The
sudden onset of a relatively dry period, called veranillo (little summer), sometimes occurs July-August or August-September,
particularly along the Pacific coast.
Be aware, though, that seasonal patterns can vary, especially in years when the occasional weather phenomenon
known as El Niño may set in, as it did with devastating force in 1997. The freak weather it produces is caused by an abnormal
warming of ocean waters off the Pacific coast, most often when warm currents from the Western Pacific shift, resulting in
volatile changes in air masses.
Rarely do hurricanes strike Costa Rica, although Hurricane Cesár came ashore on 27 July 1996, killing
41 people and trashing the Pacific southwest in the nation's worst national disaster in a decade. Large-scale deforestation
in the region contributed to massive flooding.
When To Go
Although the best time weather-wise is December-May, Costa Rica is a year-round
destination. Most of my research for this book was undertaken in the wet (green) season. During Christmas week and Easter,
the whole of Costa Rica seems to descend on the beach. Otherwise, any time is a good time (but do take note of regional variations