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Getting to know Costa Rica

Climate and geography

Costa Rica, which is about the size of Switzerland, is sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south in Central America. The Pacific coast with its great surfing is to the west and the Caribbean coast is to the East. Costa Rica’s topography is split between the mountainous rainforests of the central highlands and the coastal lowlands.

Costa Rica’s weather and climate routinely tops best for expats lists. Its population is just under 5 million (April 2018). It is important to remember that despite being a small country, Costa Rica has a number of microclimates; weather can be localised and can change quickly. While some websites give details about the rainy season, or the dry season, each region is different.

Costa Rica’s Pacific side has a rainy season from May to mid-December, with the most rain falling from September to November. There’s very little precipitation in the dry season in January to April. While San Jose is inland, it follows a similar pattern, though experiencing less rain generally.

The Caribbean coast has more year-round rainfall, which  decreases between October and March.

The sun is very powerful in Costa Rica and with 12-hour days all through the year, it is important to cover up in the sun. March is the sunniest month with an average of eight hours sunshine per day. This dips down to around four hours from May to November. And while this may not sound like lots of sunshine, the cloud cover is often a welcome relief from direct sunlight.

Costa Rica is humid, especially in the cloud forest and rain forest. San Jose, Liberia and Nicoya are the least humid cities at around 75% humidity. Quesada and Cartago top the chart with 90% and 89% respectively. Get used to your hair staying wet after a shower and your clothes being damp.


Costa Rica’s wildlife is second to none. The country is home to 500,000 species, 4% of the world’s biodiversity. If you live in a small town, village or rurally, many exotic species will be your neighbours, from monkeys and sloths to lizards and a plethora of brightly coloured birds. There are dozens of nature reserves and parks, rehabilitation centres such as The Jaguar Rescue Centre as well as national parks such as Manuel Antonio. Guided tours help tourists, expats and locals to see some of the hidden wildlife that’s all around them, while few fail to notice the larger-than-life creatures in plain view: capuchin monkeys, gekkos, iguanas, deer, grackles (raven-like birds with a distinctive cry), crabs, and hummingbirds.

It would be hard to overstate how amazing and accessible the biodiversity is in Costa Rica. Primary rainforest is never far away and there are dozens of amazing animals all around.

With this comes nature of a less alluring type: snakes, spiders, bullet ants and mosquitoes.

There are 22 species of venomous snakes in Costa Rica, and an average of 576 people, mostly in rural areas, are treated each year for bites. Spiders, including tarantulas, are common in the jungle, but most bites occur from spiders hiding in boots or socks, so always check your clothes before putting them on!

If you encounter a spider or snake the best thing to do, if you can, is steer clear. These animals aren’t interested in you as prey, but they will attack if they feel threatened.

Bullet ants are widely recognised as having one of the most painful stings of any insect on the planet so familiarise yourself with this large ant and steer clear! They are mainly found in jungle and gardens though can stray into homes.

Animal attacks that result in deaths make the news — especially the rising number of crocodile attacks — but they are in fact very rare, especially compared with the number killed on roads: one a day!

A very small number of shark attacks have happened in the last 10 years and jaguar/puma attacks are also very rare.

Mosquitoes are a global foe, but Costa Rican mozzies will seem particularly aggressive to westerners. In the rainy season, coconut shells that have been hollowed out by monkeys or other creatures fill up with water and host mosquito lava. Once hatched, swarms of mosquitoes can be more than an inconvenience: they can carry Zika virus and dengue fever. As of January 2018, there is still active transmission of Zika virus and dengue is endemic. While dengue is untreatable it is not fatal unless it develops into the more life-threatening form of the disease.

Mosquitoes plague most of the beach towns, particularly on the Osa Peninsula and the Caribbean Coast, but you will find them across the country. Try not to leave out standing water — which may collect in troughs, buckets, upturned toys, etc — in your garden, as these are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Learn how to protect yourself from mosquitoes in our health and well-being guide to living in Costa Rica.

Is Costa Rica for you?

Costa Rica routinely enters the top 10 in ‘best expat country’ lists. But because of the promise of paradise, it is essential to weigh up the downsides as well as the positives. By addressing these, it will better help you decide where you move, whether you move and how you might prepare. Here are few of the country’s ‘flaws’ according to bloggers and people who have travelled in Costa Rica.

  • The roads are bad – from congestion to rockfalls and dangerous driving. And, generally, it takes a long time to get about
  • Intermittent internet in some areas
  • Humidity – many complain about things never drying
  • Relatively high cost of living
  • Lots of creepy crawlies – including the constant risk of dengue fever from mosquitoes and a very small but still extant risk of contracting Zika virus
  • A slow pace of life
  • Dangerously hot sun
  • Lots of rain – and when it rains, it rains

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