Costa Rica Wiki Facts
- Costa Rica’s 7 Provinces
- The Capital—San Jose
- Flora and Fauna
- Costa Rica’s Holidays
- Religion, the Catholic Church & Visit-Worthy Churches
- The Flag
- Costa Rica Info Sites
Costa Rica’s 7 Provinces
Costa Rica has 7 administrative provinces: Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limon, Puntarenas & San Jose. Each one of them has its own particularities and attractions: a unique mixture of the ‘pura vida’ culture in the scattered towns and cities, national parks abundant with wildlife and lush greenery, and indigenous people and their traditions are worthwhile exploring.
San Jose is the capital and main hub for everything related to economy and politics, and it features most of the major annual festivals and social events in Costa Rica. Although most ‘Ticos’ will complain about the congested traffic and messy streets, San José has its own allure. Strolling through ‘Avenida Central’ or visiting ‘Teatro National’ and the nearby ‘Museo National’ are a must if you choose to visit San Jose while on your vacation. However, if you want to do some shopping it’s best to visit San Jose suburbs like Escazú, which is a true shopping mecca full of options for recreational activities, as well.
Heredia province is well-known for its capital city of the same name, known as the ‘the city of flowers’. A few historical monuments give the city its own distinct character; one such notable is “El Fortín”, a circular tower constructed in 1876 that became the symbol of the city. Others include the Braulio Carrillo National Park and INBio Parque, the National Institute of Biodiversity that does scientific studies about wildlife in Costa Rica.
Cartago was the first colonial city established in Costa Rica and its first capital. There are two historical treasures of this city: the ancient ruins of Cartago—the ruins of a catholic cathedral that remained unfinished due to an earthquake in 1910; and also the “Basilica de Cartago”—the emblem of Costa Rica’s Catholic Church. You will find two of the most active volcanoes in this province: the highest active and usually cloudy Irazu Volcano, and the Turrialba Volcano which towers over the Turrialba town. This province also features some great river rafting, such as the on the famous Pacuare River.
Alajuela province is the setting for two incredible National Parks: the Arenal Volcano National Park in the north attracts tourists with its breathtaking views, hot springs and an amazing list of adventure tours on offer in the area; and the Poas Volcano National Park, known for the volcano’s gigantic crater, which is ranked as one of the biggest in the world. This province also boasts the less well-known but truly unique natural phenomena, the Rio Celeste with its milky blue river and waterfall near the Tenorio Volcano National Park.
Guanacaste province features the beautiful, white-sand beaches of Costa Rica’s northwest Pacific coast. From Conchal and Papagayo up in the north to the Nicoya Peninsula, the wonders of this province make it a “must visit” for beach lovers. In Guanacaste there are also dazzling National Parks like Rincon de la Vieja National Park and Las Baulas Marine National Park.
Puntarenas runs from the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula along the Pacific coastline all the way to the Panama border and is home to some of the most popular National Parks in Costa Rica. Manuel Antonio National Park in the Central Pacific area and the Corcovado National Park in the south are two of the many beautiful places to visit. Puntarenas is also called as the ‘Pacific Pearl’, where you can enjoy all kinds of water sports from surfing, to parasailing and paddle boarding to diving, along its countless beaches.
Limon is the province with Caribbean flavor and African spice. The remote and beautiful Tortuguero National Park, the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge in the north and La Amistad National Park in the south are some of the places where you can truly enjoy Costa Rica’s stunning nature. Limon’s Caribbean roots are the appeal for many travelers seeking for a relaxed and easy going atmosphere.
The Capital—San Jose
The city of San Jose became the capital of Costa Rica in the year 1823, after a long period during which it had lacked proper legal administration. The city had been founded almost a century before in 1738, when a group of missionaries built a chapel to concentrate the inhabitants of the Aserrí Valley. With the help of the city of Cartago, which served as the capital of Costa Rica originally, the settlers slowly built the city of San José.
Today, the city is a modern metropolis, still considered one of the youngest Latin American capitals. The city officially has under 400 thousand inhabitants, but as the center of the Great Metropolitan Area (which comprises the cities of Heredia, Cartago and Alajuela) it is estimated that at least two million people travel to, from and across San Jose every day.
Whilst the city has a slightly unfavorable reputation, it is still home to the country’s biggest museums and shopping centers. The largest international airport, named after national hero Juan Santamaría, is globally assumed to be in San Jose but is actually about 20-30 minutes outside the center in the city of Alajuela.
If you travel to Costa Rica I would advise you to not, as so many do, head straight out of San Jose but to take a little time to see the sights here. The city is also the country’s cultural center offering visitors and locals a variety of theaters, galleries and concert venues including the modern National Stadium which opened in 2011.
In recent years the city of San Jose has undergone something of a renaissance. There are now many excellent restaurants, cafes and bars and the city has a distinctly cosmopolitan feel. Many people from Europe, North America and Latin America have made San Jose their homes. This is reflected in the German bakeries, organic markets, Argentinean steakhouses and sports bars. Take the time to enjoy the capital of Costa Rica and search out a few of its hidden gems.
Flora & Fauna
Thousands of tourists visit Costa Rica every year to see the exotic plants and animals that can be found across this amazing country. Despite its relatively small size, Costa Rica is home to approximately 5 percent of the entire world’s biodiversity, making it an ideal destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
A commitment to conservation
Costa Rica occupies just .03 percent of the world’s surface area, but is teeming with exotic creatures, many of which are endangered. To protect these vulnerable species from extinction, the Costa Rican government takes environmental conservation very seriously. In fact, 25 percent of the country is protected land, and the 26 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are among its most valuable—and popular—national assets.
All creatures great and small
Many experts believe that the reason for Costa Rica’s remarkable biodiversity lies in how the country was formed. Millions of years ago, activity at the junction of five tectonic plates resulted in a bridge being formed between what is now North and South America. As the land began to support life, species from the formerly separate continents started to migrate to the region now known as Central America. In addition, the country’s warm climate is ideal for many different species, including amphibians, lizards, insects and a stunning variety of marine life.
From big cats to tiny amphibians, the country is home to some of the most exotic creatures on the planet. Although more than half a million separate species can be found in Costa Rica, some are more prevalent than others. For example, approximately 10 percent of the entire world’s population of butterflies is found here, and there are more than 34,000 species of insects native to Costa Rica.
The myriad animals that inhabit the country play their own role in maintaining the delicate balance of the country’s ecosystem. Birds such as the violet sabrewing, a particularly rare species of hummingbird, perform a vital function in the rainforest by pollinating exotic flowers as they hunt for the nectar that forms much of their diet. Similarly, birds like the resplendent quetzal subsist almost entirely on a diet of fruit due to the abundance of flowering trees that can be found here, an especially rare behavior this close to the equator.
Rarities of the animal kingdom
Although Costa Rica is the ideal habitat for many exotic animals, some of these magnificent creatures are perilously close to extinction and can be found in few other places around the world.
The scarlet macaw is one such creature. These impressive birds were once found all over Central and parts of South America, but their numbers have dwindled substantially in recent years. Today, they can be seen predominantly in the Osa Peninsula and near Jaco in the Carara National Park. Seeing these rare birds is a sight to remember. Scarlet macaws mate for life and usually fly in pairs, as they are inseparable once they have bonded, so if you see one, the chances are good you’ll see two.
The jaguar, one of nature’s most efficient predators, is also facing extinction. To preserve these mighty hunters for future generations, some of Costa Rica’s national parks, including Corcovado National Park and La Amistad International Park, have embarked on conservation campaigns to protect them from poachers.
Many other endangered animals make their home in the Costa Rican jungles, and mammals like Baird’s tapir, squirrel monkeys, the cotton-top marmoset and Bang’s mountain squirrel are also very rare.
Lush plant life
Costa Rica’s animals can steal the spotlight from the plants and flowers that can be found here, but that doesn’t make the flora of this amazing country any less impressive.
Some varieties of plant life can grow to gargantuan proportions, such as Gunnera insignis, known more commonly as the poor man’s umbrella. This strange member of the rhubarb family can exhibit leaves up to six feet in length. These remarkable plants can be seen in many parts of Poas Volcano National Park and Braulio Carrillo National Park.
With such a diverse range of plant life, it should come as little surprise that the national flower of Costa Rica is equally impressive. The cattleya skinneri, also known as the guaria morada orchid, is characterized by its vivid purple and white flowers, and is typically found at altitudes of 4,000 feet or higher.
One of the rarest flowers in Costa Rica is the Osa pulchra, a relative of the humble coffee plant. These flowers are so rare, some horticulturalists believe there are fewer than 50 plants living in the wild, and although some specialists have attempted to grow these elusive plants in artificial environments, the Osa pulchra is native only to Costa Rica and isolated regions of Panama.
Costa Rica’s National Holidays
Many of Costa Rica’s holidays are based on the Catholic religion. On most of these official holidays (dias feriados), banks, public offices and many businesses are closed. Here is a listing of the most important official holidays that are celebrated in Costa Rica:
- January 1st – New Year’s Day
- March 19th – St Joseph’s Day, patron saint of San Jose and San Jose province
- March or April – Easter/Semana Santa. Most businesses (except tour companies/tourist industry) shut down Thursday and Good Friday and don’t resume as usual until Saturday before Easter Sunday. You cannot buy alcohol on Thursday or Friday during this week.
- April 11th – Juan Santamaria Day celebrating the national hero, Juan Santamaria who fought against the American invader, William Walker, in 1856
- May 1st – Labor Day (Dia de los trabajadores)
- June – Father’s Day is on the third Sunday of June each year
- July 25th – Guanacaste Day which celebrates the annexation of Guanacaste from Nicaragua in 1824
- August 2nd – Virgen de los Angeles Day, the patron saint of Costa Rica
- August 15th – Mother’s Day
- September 15th – Independence day, celebrating Costa Rica’s independence from Spain in 1821
- October 12th – Columbus Day/Dia de la Raza
- November 2nd– All Souls Day
- December 8th – Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary
- December 25th – Christmas Day
Costa Rica is much more than just beautiful beaches and breathtaking tropical landscapes. Once here, you can explore the culture, different traditions and festivities its citizens celebrate. During the past few years several local government entities have sponsored massive cultural events to attract locals and travelers, and create positive atmosphere of multicultural exchange.
Knowing about semana santa and other main events will give you a great head start. The following are the three biggest cultural celebrations in Costa Rica besides Christmas, where you can experience some of the local spirit. A complete list of all national holidays is also available so you can prepare.
Semana Santa—Holy Week
Semana Santa, or Easter Holy Week, is a major Catholic holiday celebrated all over the world and Costa Rica is no exception. Traditions run deep during this special week, and everyone enjoys their much anticipated time off work.
If you come to Costa Rica for a family vacation just before Easter, you will witness a week-long celebration consisting of parades, religious processions & mini-festivals during ‘Semana Santa’. The processions are held in every city, but the one in San José is the best to see since it usually involves the cast of the National Theater Company and has a big production team featuring various bands and professional musicians.
The actual holiday during this week is celebrated on the Thursday and Friday before Easter Sunday. Most Costa Ricans have at least those two days off, however, schools and many others enjoy taking the entire week off to spend time with their families and friends.
During this festive week, many Ticos head for the beaches to enjoy some sun and relaxation. If they aren’t at the beach, they’re relaxing at home, making traditional food to share with loved ones. Since many religious followers fast during this week (or at least on Good Friday), they make wonderful homemade tamales and enjoy more seafood than usual.
Things to remember during this holiday:
Banks and businesses will be closed Thursday and Friday, and public transportation is limited. In the tourism industry, everything runs as normal since this is a very popular time for people to visit Costa Rica.
Throughout most of the country, alcohol is not sold from midnight on Ash Wednesday until midnight on Good Friday. It is actually against the law to sell or serve alcohol on Thursday and Friday during this week, so most Ticos make sure to stock up during the week, before all the liquor is locked up. If you don’t buy before then, it will be hard to find stores willing to sell it to you, especially if you’re vacationing in a less touristy area.
In 2013, the state has started allowing some cantons (counties) to make their own decision about selling alcohol, so we might see this tradition fade away soon. But in the meantime, if you are traveling to Costa Rica during Semana Santa, you should keep this in mind and don’t be surprised if you aren’t able to order your favorite cocktail or beer with dinner during those two days.
Día de la Virgen de los Ángeles—The Virgin of Angels Day
This celebration takes place on August 2nd, when the whole country celebrates Costa Rica’s patron saint, the Virgin of Angels, also known as ‘la Negrita’ or Black Virgin. The statue of the Black Virgin—believed to be indigenous representation of Virgin Mary—was found in the early 17th Century in Costa Rica’s former capital, Cartago.
According to local folklore, the statue kept miraculously reappearing at the same site where it was originally found, so the locals decided to build a shrine on the very same spot, and it has remained there until the present day. The Virgin is displayed on the main altar at the Our Lady of Angels Basilica in Cartago.
Nearly two million Costa Ricans walk the 13.6 miles from San Jose downtown to the Cathedral each year, in order to honor the legend of the Virgin Mary. Prior to the celebration you will see thousands of pilgrims walking from all corners of the country (and sometimes other areas of Central America) to get to Cartago.
Things to remember during this holiday:
Some streets can be very crowded and traffic may be completely shut down in specific areas of the city. However, this is something that mostly affects San Jose and Cartago. You also may see peregrines in the days after August 2nd. Private services usually run normally, although public institutions and schools are off for the day.
Costa Rica’s Independence Day is celebrated on September 15th. Unlike other countries in the region where armies perform pompous parades, Costa Rica celebrates its declaration of independence from Spain by organizing student parades. School children dress up in the national attire and go out to the main streets with colorful homemade faroles—lanterns.
The celebration actually begins on the 14th as everyone awaits the ‘freedom torch’ that is brought in all the way from Guatemala by various runners (mostly students). This signifies the voice of the independence brought from Guatemala in 1821. Promptly at 6pm people pour out onto the streets, where the entire country sings the national anthem followed by the students’ faroles parade and fireworks.
Things to remember during this holiday:
This day is celebrated locally with parades and music. You may spot and hear these activities at the nearest town, and some places may offer a special night commemorating Costa Rican folklore with concerts and dancing. Otherwise, it is a very peaceful event. As with Our Lady of Angels Day, private services usually run without changes, but public institutions are free for the day.
The Roman Catholic Church in Costa Rica
Although the Caribbean coast was the first that was ‘discovered’ by Christopher Colombo in 1502, the first explorations and settlements of the Spanish ‘conquistadores’ in Costa Rica were on the Pacific coast, in the Nicoya Peninsula, where several thousands of Chorotega Indians accepted Roman Catholicism. Nicoya village is the site of the first Roman Catholic church on Costa Rican ground, erected in 1544.
Other parts of Costa Rica at the time were inhabited by scattered indigenous groups in low numbers. They were almost annihilated by various European diseases, carried on by advancing Spanish settlers. In 1563, Juan Vásquez de Coronado, first governor of Costa Rica, established Cartago in the Central Valley as the national capital.
Once all the gold was shipped to Spain, Costa Rica fell on the coattails of Spanish colonial system, and the low numbers of its indigenous population helped remain there for more than a century. Semi-integration of Church and State was rooted in the simultaneous introduction of Christianity and military conquest of the colony as the church was guaranteed a privileged position in the society and had monopoly over education.
Although there were opposing opinions among clergy on the proclamation of the Independence in 1847, political tensions surrounding the movement were low due to Costa Rica’s geographic isolation and relative weakness of the traditional oligarchy. The first Costa Rica constitutive law—‘Ley Fundamental’—declared Catholicism the official state religion and guaranteed its protection by the State.
This was reconfirmed in the latter 1847 Constitution, prohibiting the practice of other religions at the same time, but it recognized the right of other cults. In order to attract immigrants from Europe and the United States, the Constitution was altered again in 1879, explicitly guaranteeing religious toleration.
The Diocese of Costa Rica was established in 1850, which further consolidated country’s independence. Catholicism was recognized as the official state religion in Costa Rica. Catholic education was guaranteed and the State was obliged to assume financial support of the Church and assist in the propagation of the faith. The Church’s right to possess and acquire property and establish monasteries was acknowledged.
The phenomenon of the Church forming its own party is unique in Central America and has remained a tool of political expression even nowadays. Due to the formation of political groupings around personalities rather than emergence of any strong conservative party, the Church had no one to turn to, to defend its interests and simply formed its own party in 1894.
Recognizing the importance of the Church’s support, Liberal governments for the following 40 years avoided confrontations with it. The Church limited itself to purely religious functions and practically ignored rising social problems.
The Reformist Period
The crisis of the agro-export model in the 1940s led to social reforms, implemented by Calderon’s social Christian political project, which was embraced and supported by the newly installed Archbishop Sanabria. This support completely overturned the Church’s political discourse on social matters at the time and was essential to the success of the social reforms in the economically struggling country.
The religious social orientation was weakened somewhat after Sanabria’s death in 1952, after which the Partido Liberación Nacional, characterized by its conservatism, dominated the political arena and frowned on liberal social organizations. Following a long period of silence under Sanabria’s successor, the Church addressed pressing social matters again in the late 70s, with a feeble attempt to cure the symptom, rather than the cause of the crisis.
Catholic Church Today
Although the Government continues to maintain a close relationship with the Catholic Church, 47% of the Costa Rican population expressed that they would rather live in a secular state, according to recent survey by Unimer, conducted for the newspaper La Nación in March 2013.
This is a 7% increase of the number recorded in the poll two years prior—41%. A majority of the people simply do not have a strong identification with the church or with its teachings and 30% of those surveyed in the most recent poll said they didn’t care if Costa Rica has an official religion or if it was secular.
Other Religions in Costa Rica
The 1880s mark the earliest Protestant missionary efforts in Costa Rica, guided by English speaking West Indians. They settled on the Caribbean coast after one of the biggest development projects ever endeavored in Costa Rica—construction of the railroad connecting the Central Valley and the Caribbean. The growth of the Protestant Movement, especially since the 1960s has led to the current state of ‘religious pluralism’.
Approximately 92 percent of Protestants are Pentecostal and 8 percent are Baptist. A Community of Quakers from the U.S. state of Alabama moved to Costa Rica in the 1950s and founded the town of Monteverde, as well as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) estimates its membership at 35,000. The Lutheran Church estimates it has 5,500 members. The Jewish Zionist Center estimates that there are 2,800 Jews in Costa Rica.
Although they represent less than one percent of the population, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a strong presence on the Caribbean coast. Seventh-day Adventists operate a university that attracts students from throughout the Caribbean Basin. The Unification Church has its headquarters for Latin America in San Jose. Other religious groups include followers of Islam, Taoism, Krishna Consciousness, Scientology, Tenrikyo, and the Bahai Faith. Indigenous people are more likely than non-indigenous people to practice animism.
Churches represent one of the most endearing architecture displays in Costa Rica. The different styles, materials and periods represented in the buildings can be seen as journey through the country’s history. On top of this, most of them have become icons, thus cultural and religious local activities take place around them. Churches also have taken and important role shaping the identity of Costa Rican towns.
Most of them are a worth-while visit. The top five that you don’t want to miss are:
- The Cathedral in Cartago–Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles
The legend of the Virgin of Los Angeles, made this cathedral the icon of the Costa Rican Catholic Church. The beautiful complex was erected in 1781 by a group of Spanish settlers, and houses “La Negrita”, the legendary figurine of Costa Rica’s patron saint, La Virgen de los Angeles. Every August 2nd thousands set off on a pilgrimage, and walk from all parts of Costa Rica to Cartago, to commemorate the first miraculous appearance of La Negrita statue in 1635.
- Saint Francis Labrador Parish Church
Located in Coronado, this church is a priceless architecture work inspired in the neo-gothic trends. The exquisite details in the Church portray the main characteristics of the gothic style, including the pointing arches, height and majesty.
- The Metropolitan Cathedral
While sightseeing in San Jose, a great stop is the Metropolitan Cathedral located in the heart of the capital, a few blocks from the National Theater and across the street from the lovely Melico Salazar Theater. The original church, built in 1871, was destroyed in an earthquake and the current structure has a mixture of styles.
- San Ramon’s Parish Church
This magnificent church with gothic features took a long time to build. The process started since 1925 and was consecrated in 1954. The church was entirely built by the manpower of the locals. The design as well as the materials came directly from Germany and were transported from the coast to San Ramon—on the western side of the Central Valley—in ox carts.
- Grecia’s Church
This church became famous for being the first and only one built entirely with iron. The majestic structure was built using this material due to the determination of the citizens, who had lost two previous churches to different earthquakes. The current church was built in 1890.
Throughout history, the Costa Rican flag has undergone many changes. At least seven different flags, varying in color and design, were used until the year of 1848, when First Lady Pacífica Fernández—inspired by the French Revolution and the colors of the French flag—created the flag we know today.
The flag is formed by five horizontal stripes (two blue, two white and one red) and also makes use of the national ensign (coat of arms) which is left out on unofficial matters. The blue is meant to represent idealism, the white stands for peace and the red is a reminder of the blood spilled by martyrs who suffered for the country. It is also meant to symbolize the love of the Costa Rican people for their country.
Costa Rica Info Sites
Check out the list below for the best Costa Rica-related sites that you need to keep you informed and up to date with all things Tico:
- The Tico Times: http://www.ticotimes.net/
- La Nacion: http://www.nacion.com/
- Inside Costa Rica: http://insidecostarica.com/
- The Costa Rica News: http://thecostaricanews.com/
- A.M. Costa Rica: http://amcostarica.com/
- La Republica: https://www.larepublica.net/
- CIA World Factbook Costa Rica: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cs.html
- UK Foreign Office Costa Rica Travel Advice: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/north-central-america/costa-rica
- Lonely Planet Costa Rica Travel Guide: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/costa-rica
- Costa Rica Pages Travel Guide: http://www.costaricapages.com/
- Frommer’s Costa Rica: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/costarica/
- Costa Rica Surf Report: http://www.crsurf.com/
- Costa Rica Residents Association: http://www.arcr.net/
- The Catholic Church and politics in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Author: Williams, Philip J., 1959