Costa Rica

Ticos, as Costa Ricans are commonly known, are a fairly mixed bunch. Though the majority of the country's 3.3 million inhabitants are the descendents of Spanish immigrants, many families originated from other parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and, of course, Central America. You may be surprised by the number of fair-skinned people you'll see in the country, especially in the Central Valley. In the lowlands, more of the people are mestizo -- the of mixture of European and Indigenous blood -- whereas the majority along the Caribbean coast are of African lineage, and much of the Talamanca Mountain Range is inhabited by full-blooded Indians of various ethnicities.

Costa Rica's system of government is very similar to that of the United States of America. There are three branches of government: the Executive, which consists of the president, two vice presidents and advisors, the Legislative Assembly, with 57 individually elected deputies, and the Judicial Branch, which consists of civil, criminal, appellate and constitutional courts. The President and members of the Legislative Assembly are elected for four-year terms.

The Costa Rican government has long dedicated a significant portion of the national budget to the minds and bodies of its citizens; a policy that has resulted in a healthy and educated populace. The country has a literacy rate and average life expectancy that are much closer to those of Western European nations than most Latin American countries. Costa Rica has had a socialized medical system for nearly half a century, and while schools and clinics are found throughout the country, the Central Valley has several public universities and dozens of private universities.

What this means for travelers is that they will be dealing with educated people, and don't have to worry about most of the diseases they would expect to encounter in a tropical country.

Tap water is safe to drink in most of the country, but bottled beverages are recommended in rural areas. For those few travelers that do become sick or injured while in Costa Rica, there are hospitals and private clinics in San Jose that offer a level of care comparable to what they would expect at home, and for considerably less money.

Costa Rica has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America, with telephones and fax machines all over the country, and an increasing number of businesses on line. To call or fax Costa Rica, dial the country code 506 before the number. There is also reliable mail service in the country, and an ample selection of courier services in San Jose. Most large hotels in the San Jose area have cable television, which has US and European stations. Newspapers and magazines from North America and several European nations are sold in many shops and hotels in and around the capital.

Costa Rican culture is in many ways a reflection of its racial mix. The predominant influence has long been European, which is reflected in everything from the official language -- Spanish -- to the architecture of the country's churches and other historic buildings. The indigenous influence is less apparent, but can be found in everything from the tortillas that are served with a typical Costa Rican meal to the handmade ceramics sold at roadside stands. A more recent cultural influence is that of the United States, which can be noted in everything from the movie selection at San Jose's theaters to the fast food chains that line the capital's streets.

An important aspect of Costa Rica's cultural heritage is their love of peace and democracy. Ticos like to point out that their nation is the exception in Latin America, where military dictatorships long dominated politics. They can boast of having more than one hundred years of democratic tradition, and almost half a century without an army. The army was abolished in 1948, and the money the country saved by not having a military has been invested in improving the standard of living for Costa Ricans, which has fostered the social harmony that makes it such a nice country to visit.

There is an ample selection of state and private banks in San Jose, and at least one major bank in every large town.

The official currency of Costa Rica is the colon, but US dollars are accepted in most hotels and restaurants. US dollars and traveler's checks can be changed in banks and hotels. Major credit cards are widely accepted, and cash advances can be obtained in San Jose.

Though government offices and most banks close on for national holidays, this causes no inconvenience to travelers, since they can change money or travelers checks in their hotel. Do not change money on the street. There are, however, days when hardly anything will be open, such as Christmas, New Year and often two or three days preceding it, and during Holy Week from Wednesday to Easter Sunday.

Some holidays can be attractive for travelers, such as the week between the days following Christmas, when there are parades in San Jose. During the week of the Annexation of Guanacaste, July 25, the main towns in the northwest province of Guanacaste are overflowing with revelry and folklore. Carnival, which is celebrated in the Caribbean port of Limon during the week of October 12, is another colorful affair.

Government offices are generally open from 8 am to 4 pm, while banks close anytime between 3:00 and 6:00 pm, according to the branch. Most shops are open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, while some open at 8:00 am and others close at 7:00 pm; most grocery stores close at 8:00 pm. Some shops also close for lunch, between noon and 1:00 or 2:00 pm.

The electric current is 110 volts AC, the same as in the United States, so European visitors need adapters for their electrical devices. Tap water is safe to drink in most of the country, but bottled beverages are recommended in rural areas, or for those with sensitive stomachs.

When we say that Costa Rica's greatest asset is its people, we are talking about the product of a nation that made education, democracy and freedom its priorities long ago. Though it is a small country, Costa Rica has given the world many outstanding individuals. The following are a few of our more famous citizens:

President Oscar Arias brought Costa Rica's dedication to peace and democracy into the global limelight in 1987, when he began to promote the peaceful resolution of the conflicts that shook neighboring Central American countries. His Peace Plan began a process that ended Central America's armed conflicts, and led to democratic governments replacing the military dictatorships that once dominated the region. It also resulted in Arias winning the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.

Sisters Silvia and Claudia Poll, two Olympic swimmers, are definitely Costa Rica's most famous athletes. In 1988, Silvia won a silver medal in the 200 meter freestyle at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Her sister Claudia out did her four years later at the Atlanta Olympics, when she won the gold medal in the same event.

Despite his humble beginnings, Franklyn Chan never stopped reaching for the stars, and his dedication to scholarship and physical fitness paid off. Chan is currently a former NASA astronaut who has flown various space shuttle missions.

Source: Costa Rica Tourist Board.