San Jose, Costa Rica
La Fortuna is known principally as the gateway to world-famous Volcán Arenal, which awoke from its 450-year dormancy on July 29, 1968, with eruptions that buried two villages and 87 people. It has been spewing orange-red lava and boulders ever since, looming above the small town of La Fortuna and filling the horizon with smoke and flames. The area offers a diverse set of wilderness exploration options: tourists flock to the hot springs at the base, while more rugged travelers hike through rainforest to catch glimpses of lava or check out the Catarata La Fortuna and Las Cavernas de Venado. Laguna Arenal, about 30min. from the town center, offers a number of adventure excursions as well.
According to local legend, La Fortuna got its name from the flotsam and jetsam that would drift down the nearby Río Fortuna during floods—indígena tools and relics were scooped up by villagers as signs of good fortune. The small town’s luck hasn’t run out yet. The lava of Arenal, 6km to the west, flows away from town, though La Fortuna is close enough to offer spectacular views and easy visits to the volcano. La Fortuna good luck has also meant a booming tourism industry, and the quiet streets are now almost overrun with hotels, tourist agencies, and over-priced restaurants. Luckily, the influx of tourists into the town has not spread over much into the natural sights of the area, and you can still enjoy the region’s hiking and outdoor activities without too much company.
The main street into La Fortuna runs east-west; many businesses lie here. Along its north side is the parque central. The church sits on the west side.
You can hike, kayak, bird-watch, canyon, rappel, zipline, raft, canoe, spelunk, windsurf, bike, fish, take a canopy tour, bathe in a waterfall basin, swing on a hanging bridge, ride horses or an ATV, take an aerial tram through the trees, explore the Venado caves, or raft along Río Peñas Blancas or Río Celeste.
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The most conspicuous restaurants in La Fortuna cater to the tourist crowds with international cuisine at high prices. More reasonably priced típico fare can be found at sodas just a block or two off the main road toward the Río Burio.
If it doesn’t have rice and beans, it isn’t tico! Rice and black beans infiltrate almost every meal. In one day, it’s possible to have them for breakfast as gallo pinto, (literally, “spotted rooster”; rice and beans fried with spices and served with meat or eggs), then take a casado for lunch and have a hearty bowl of black bean soup for dinner. “Casado” literally means “married,” and it refers to the hearty combination plates (usually rice and beans with meat, plantains, cabbage, and tomato). Tamales, empanadas, and tortas are also typical dishes. Comida típica (native dishes) in Costa Rica are usually mild and can even be bland. As if to answer this need for flavor, lizano salsa, a slightly sweet and spicy sauce of vegetables, has become Costa Rica’s most popular condiment.
Informal restaurants called sodas, which serve flavorful, home-style cooking at inexpensive prices, dominate the landscape. Larger and generally more expensive restaurants are slightly less common. If you’re far from the city, you may find yourself at a small soda where they only offer you a spoon. This is because campesinos (rural field workers) often eat only with this utensil. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a fork and knife. Many meals come with bread or corn tortillas, both of which you can hold and eat with your hand.
Though vegetables are not a large part of the Costa Rican diet, fruits are popular snacks. Common favorites include pineapple, banana, coconut, mango, and papaya, but you can also find more exotic tamarindos, guayabas, manzanas de agua, marañones (the fruit of cashews), and pejibaye, a fleshy fruit from palm trees that is boiled, salted, and usually eaten with mayonnaise. Though fruit vendors abound, many ticos will jump out of their cars to pick fruits from roadside trees, but be careful, as eating fruit without washing it can have some uncomfortable consequences.
Taking advantage of their bounty of tropical fruit, Costa Ricans enjoy refreshing fruity beverages year-round. Batidos, or fresco's (fruit shakes) are common; they combine fruits with milk or water. The most popular shakes are mango, blackberry, and pineapple. If fruit in a glass seems too tame, try agua de pipa, the liquid contents of green coconut with the top chopped off. There’s also horchata, a cornmeal or ground rice drink flavored with cinnamon, and agua dulce, a traditional drink made with boiled water and sugar.
In terms of popularity, nothing can compete with the widespread appeal of Costa Rica’s world-class coffee. Ticos young and old enjoy a big mug of café (usually mixed with milk) multiple times a day. Despite the high quality of Costa Rican blends, most ticos seem to prefer a sweetened brew. For a stronger cup of joe, look for restaurants and cafes that cater to tourists, or buy your own beans. Ask for café sin leche or café negro to skip the cream and sugar.
Though coffee has captured the hearts of Costa Ricans, alcohol is still putting up a fight for their livers. Guaro, made from sugar cane and similar-tasting to rum, is the national liquor. It mixes well with anything, though coco loco (guaro with coconut juice) is a popular choice. When it comes to lower proof options, Imperial, Pilsen, and Bavaria beers are popular among ticos.
The Atlantic coast has a stronger Caribbean influence than the rest of the country. Though you won’t escape gallo pinto, you will find the national specialty served with a coconut twist. Other regional specialities include deep-fried plantains and rondon, a stew with the freshest catch on hand. Though turtle meat and eggs are considered a local speciality in many Caribbean towns and bars across the country—men sometimes drink the eggs straight as aphrodisiacs—they are often harvested and sold illegally, so be aware.
Unlike some of its other Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is not known for its artistic heritage. Typical artifacts include statues in gold, jade, and stone, as well as breastplates featuring stylized jaguars, crocodiles, and hook-beaked birds from the Pre-Columbian era. Some of the most famous and mysterious artifacts are the more than 300 almost perfectly spherical Diquis stones, called Las Bolas by locals, which are found in the southern territories. The stones are arranged in geometric formations that point to earth’s magnetic north and are estimated to be around 1600 years old. Archaeologists still are confounded by their origin. With the arrival of Spanish colonial rulers, Costa Rica’s arts and culture were dominated by European norms for centuries. In the modern era, Costa Ricans have begun to take an active interest in their pre-Columbian history and culture, and excavations have fueled this process of rediscovery.
While periodicals rule the reading market, Costa Rica does have a colorful literary history. Before the 20th century, Costa Rican literature drew largely from European models, though it also gained inspiration from folk tales and colloquial expression in a movement known as costumbrismo. Despite the strength of this early movement, Costa Rican literature didn’t find its expressive voice until the 20th century, when it began dedicating itself to political and social criticism. José Marín Cañas Inferno verde, a depiction of the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia, bolstered anti-imperialist sentiment. Oreamuni’s La ruta de su evasión explored intergenerational tensions and the subtleties of Latin American machismo. Writer Fabián Dobles, winner of the Premio Nacional, Costa Rica’s highest distinction for artistic and intellectual achievement, has also gained recognition beyond the borders of the country; and Carlos Salazar Herrera is one of the nation’s premier artists, working as a painter, poet, and professor. Costa Rica also serves as a haven for expat writers and artists from around the world, offering inspiration or simply a secluded backdrop.
Much of Costa Rica’s popular culture is imported from elsewhere, and often its cultural offerings can remain frustratingly elusive to travelers hungry for authenticity. While the rule of thumb was once a simple American conditional (if it’s norteamericano, it’s cool), cultural tastes have grown more inclusive. US movies and singers have substantial fan bases across the country, but people are also drawn to music and cinema from the rest of Latin America. Mexican films like Y tu mamá también or Amores perros are favorites, while cowboys in the Northwest listen to Mexican ranchero bands like Los Tigres del Norte.
As for music, travelers may be treated to Latin remixes of American oldies like “Hotel California” by the Eagles or a surprisingly large portion of The Beatles’s canon. While teenybopper hits have effectively conquered the radio waves, traditional salsa and merengue are often played in nightclubs. Indeed, discotecas make no apologies for their juxtapositions—American pop from several years ago, including selections from the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, often serve as preludes to Latin American beats. Reggae is popular along the Caribbean coast, where it’s especially hard to escape the sounds of Jamaican reggae star Sean Paul, who specializes in ragga. Ragga is a subgenre of reggae, souped up with synthesizers, and has gained popularity in towns and clubs across the country. Its raw, edgy quality has found particular appeal among young people looking for lyrical expression and intensely danceable beats.
Costa Rica has seven nationally broadcast television channels, not counting cable and satellite options. Most channels feature an eclectic mix of sports, gaudy variety and game shows, American programs dubbed in Spanish, and Latin American telenovelas (soap operas). Nudity and vulgar language are almost always edited out on broadcast television, and cable has become subject to increasing censorship as well.
The two most popular Spanish-language newspapers are La Nación and La República. La Nación has a slightly broader circulation and is owned by the same company that puts out Al Día, a more sensationalist paper devoted largely to sports and celebrity gossip. In English, the weekly Tico Times offers extensive summaries of cultural events, hotels, restaurants, and news. Online newspapers, such as A.M. Costa Rica and Inside Costa Rica, offer Costa Rican news in English.
Among Costa Ricans, there is no question as to which sport captures the country’s full attention: futból. Ticos eat, drink, sleep, and breathe futból, known elsewhere as soccer. Indeed, soccer matches are one of the few events that everyone gets to on time. Costa Rica has one major national league with a season that stretches from Aug. to May, but competition runs just as fierce on the local level, where villages battle for territorial honor and unofficial crowns on muddy fields. Futból is such a large part of Costa Rican life that an area cannot be legally considered a political district unless it has a soccer field—usually located in the center of town. Though travelers can easily find their way into casual pick-up matches across the countryside, the country offers tons of alternative recreational options.
Introduced in 1944, golf in Costa Rica is played on world-renowned courses. In the 1970s, the Cariari Country Club, between San José and the International Airport, built the first course in the country. High-ranking Garra de León Resort and Valle del Sol in the Central Valley are also challenging courses.
Bordered by two oceans, Costa Rica is home to some of the world’s best surfing, including Pavones —location of the second largest left-hand waves in the world—and the infamous salsa brava (angry sauce) waves of Puerto Viejo . Despite the availability of beautiful beaches and awesome waves, surfing just recently began to take off as a competitive sport in Costa Rica. The natural splendor of Costa Rica also makes adventure sports popular, especially among tourists. Everything from sport fishing to kayaking to ziplining through the rainforest can be found within Costa Rica’s coasts.
Ticos are very family oriented. Kids live with their parents through their college years and generally don’t leave home before marriage. Close extended families are common and contribute to fairly cohesive communities, particularly in rural areas. Costa Ricans are known for their relaxed temperament, as well as their willingness to lend a hand — or even a home — in times of need. The phrase quedar bien, which means “stay on good terms,” is one of the essential tenets of Costa Rican lifestyle values. Costa Ricans will often want toquedar bien by saying “yes” when they mean “no” in order to avoid conflict. This may also mean that promises made during face-to-face interactions are more symbolic than authentic; a friendly gesture is emphasized over a desire for particularly deep or intimate friendship.
In general, Costa Ricans are very affectionate and are often physically expressive. It isn’t unusual to see couples holding hands or walking arm in arm. In public places like bars and discos, it isn’t taboo for couples to hug or kiss, or even for girls to sit on their boyfriend’s lap. When dancing, it is usual to dance close together, but “grinding” is frowned upon.
Gratefulness is an admirable quality in house guests, and hospitality should be received with articulated gratitude (say “gracias,” and say it often). Middle- and upper-class families will often have an empleada, a young girl or woman who lives in the house and gets paid to help with house chores. Nonetheless, hosts appreciate if guests offer to help serve others or clean after a meal is over, especially if they’re doing the work.
When speaking Spanish in Costa Rica, you’ll find an important distinction between the usted, vos, and tú forms of verbs. Use usted, the third person singular, or ustedes, the third person plural, when speaking to a stranger or someone older; it is more formal and respectful. Costa Ricans are distinct for using usted very broadly: with family, friends, children, and even pets. Vos, the second person plural, is the informal counterpart to usted, literally translating as “you all.” It is rarely used in the city, but it is still common in the country. Using vos is appropriate when talking to friends. Tú, the second person singular alternative to vos, is emerging in some areas, but there are still strong feelings against its use. It is important to use Don orDoña before an older person’s name; call a friend’s father Don Alberto and not just Alberto.
Machismo has left a mark on Costa Rican gender relations. Out of tradition, men are very chivalrous, often assuming a protective role, though women might also find themselves subjected to unwanted male attention on the streets. It is considered good manners for men to open doors and help carry bags.
The traditional kiss-on-the-cheek greeting is not as popular among Costa Ricans as it is with other Latin Americans. It tends to be reserved for more familiar greetings. To be safe when meeting someone for the first time, follow their lead. When saying “hi” to a friend, young or old, it is routine to kiss the person once on the cheek. Men greet each other with a firm handshake.
Although times are changing, most people in the country are Catholic, and their religious beliefs make sexual relations before marriage at least a surface-level taboo, especially among older generations. Homosexuality is a controversial topic, and although people are generally more open about their sexual orientation than in many developing nations, public displays of affection may be received with some level of public discomfort.
Costa Ricans are always very conscious about looking presentable and tidy when they go out. People often dress much more conservatively than the warm weather would call for. Men usually wear slacks, jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts, or button-down shirts. Women usually wear pants, jeans, or skirts in the city. Travelers should try not to wear shorts in the city; shorts are acceptable in more rural areas and at the beach. When in doubt, it’s a good idea for visitors to present themselves in a fairly conservative manner.
People in Costa Rica tend to be very laid-back—being on time is not a major point of concern. Ticos can be late for almost everything, which often comes as a surprise to foreigners accustomed to punctuality. While it is usual for people to be 15-30min. late for business appointments, a meeting with friends can be delayed by up to several hours.