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Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Want to learn more about Costa Rica?
Today Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel and Bookpleasures is pleased to have as a guest Erin Van Rheenen, expert on travel to Costa Rica and the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica.
Good day Erin and thank you for accepting our invitation to be interviewed.
Please tell our readers something about yourself and your expertise pertaining to Costa Rica.
I've been travelling since I can remember, starting at the age of three, when my parents moved us from Portland, Oregon, to Lagos, Nigeria. That living abroad stint lasted two years, and since then I've lived in many places, including Ireland, Mexico, New York (a foreign capitol in its own right), Guatemala, Ecuador, and most recently, Costa Rica. I've traveled throughout the Americas and Europe, and have a running list of places I still want to visit.
I'm also the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica, a guide for people who are thinking of moving to that country. The first edition came out in Winter 2004, and gives readers candid and comprehensive information on real estate, immigration, the business climate, private and public schools, expat social life, and Costa Rican history and culture. I describe in detail the various parts of the country, trying to give people an idea of what it would be like to live there.
I've been interviewed on CNN and on several radio programs, have made many bookstore appearances, and run a side business helping people plan their escape to Costa Rica. I feel that having lived in many different countries gives me a broader perspective--I can better appreciate what's unique to Costa Rica, like its political and economic stability, and the fact that nearly 25% of its territory is set aside in nature reserves and national parks.
More complete information (including my Top Ten Favorite Places in Costa Rica) can be found on my web site, Living Abroad In Costa Rica.
Where is Costa Rica and how easy is it to travel from the United States, Canada or Europe to this country?
Costa Rica is right in the middle of the Americas, at the northern end of the narrow isthmus that connects North and South America. Of the seven countries that make up Central America, Costa Rica is the second smallest (El Salvador is the smallest). Despite its diminutive size (it's about the size of West Virginia), Costa Rica has two beautiful coastlines (the Pacific and the Atlantic, also called the Caribbean), lush rainforests, active volcanoes, and great adventure travel options like rafting, hiking, and surfing.
It's easy to get to Costa Rica from North America. It's a three-hour flight from Miami, five hours from New York City, seven hours from Los Angeles, and eight and a half hours from Toronto. You don't need to apply for a visa--a valid passport is sufficient. When you arrive in Costa Rica they automatically stamp your passport with a visa good for 90 days.
Would you consider Costa Rica a good choice for a romantic getaway or wedding and honeymoon destination? Why?
I can't imagine a better place for romance. Costa Rica is safe and comfortable but still wonderfully exotic. You can't beat it for natural beauty, great weather, and that laid-back vibe that makes everything a lot more fun.
The tourist infrastructure is developed enough that you'll be able to realize your every whim. Want to get married barefoot on a white sand beach at dusk, torches lighting your way to the altar? Not a problem. I've heard of couples marrying at the base of thundering waterfalls, the spray so drenching the wedding party that everyone wound up in their underwear. Or people tying the knot in a jungle lodge, near the rim of an active volcano, or hundreds of feet above the treetops, clipped into zip lines on one of the ever-popular canopy tours. I even heard of one couple who married in matching toucan outfits. With those beaks, it must have been hard for the groom to kiss the bride.
There are countless hotels, resorts, and tour companies that offer wedding packages. You can arrange things yourself, but it's nice to have someone else take care of the details.
Costa Rica is also known as a gay-friendly environment, and some places specialize in gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.
What is the best time to visit Costa Rica from the point of view of weather, costs, crowds, and the availability of flights from the USA, Canada and Europe and Australia, etc?
In terms of weather, there are two seasons: from early December through the end of April is the dry season, sometimes called summer, while May through November is the wet or "green" season. Different parts of the country have slightly different weather patterns. The Caribbean (Atlantic) coast, for instance, has more rainfall overall, and its driest month is often September, when the rest of the country is absorbing heavy rains.
Tourist high season coincides with dry season (Dec - April), with a second mini-high season during the Northern hemisphere's summer--June July, and August--when kids are out of school and families take their vacations. Around Christmas and New Year's is what you might call a hyper-high season, with prices shooting up and availability going down. If you plan a wedding or getaway around Christmastime, make sure you're planning ahead--more than a year ahead for some of the most popular areas. Easter is a very important local holiday, and the week leading up to Easter Sunday sees the country all but shut down, as Costa Ricans head for their excellent beaches and national parks.
Some hotels, tour operators, and car rental outfits offer green season (May-November) discounts, and you're likely to find the crowds thinning out a bit during those months. The rains can be prodigious, although they often come and go quickly, leaving the rest of the day for you to enjoy the outdoors.
A variety of flights from North America, Europe, and Australia are available year round.
How safe is it to travel to Costa Rica?
There is far less violent crime in Costa Rica than there is in, say, the United States, and political violence is almost unheard of here. Costa Rica has a history of pacificism that dates back to the abolition of its army in 1949. Unlike neighbouring republics, the country has no guerrillas, no political prisoners, and no military coups. It is known for its stability and its relative prosperity.
Still, petty theft is on the rise, as it is in many tourist hotspots, and travelers must be cautious. Never leave your bags unattended, and make sure you park your car in a safe place (most hotels have guarded lots).
Could you give our readers an idea of the costs involved if travel originates from the USA or Canada?
Airlines are adding more flights from North America to Costa Rica every day, and prices keep coming down. Standard flights from Miami run around $300, from Texas expect to pay $400 - $500, flights from New York City would be $500 - $600, and from Los Angeles you might pay around $600. But as seasoned travelers know, there are always deals to be had. The other day at a bookstore reading I was bragging about a $350 roundtrip fare I'd found from San Francisco - Costa Rica, and a reader handed me a flier for a $200 flight on that same route. Plan ahead, shop around, and you'll find some amazingly low prices.
If you had to choose 5 unequalled venues in Costa Rica for a romantic getaway, honeymoon or wedding destination, what would they be and why?
*Lake Arenal and Arenal Volcano
Only a few hours" drive north of San Jose, the Arenal area is lush and green, thanks to fertile volcanic soil from nearby Arenal Volcano. The volcano woke from a two-century nap in the 1960s, and has been active ever since. For rooms where you can lie in bed and watch the volcano go off, check out Arenal Observatory Lodge (www.arenal-observatory.co.cr), an old vulcanology research station made over into a comfortable lodge with extensive grounds.
* If you want to sit in hot springs while the volcano rumbles above you, try the Tabacon Hot Springs, with or without its nearby hotel.
* For a peaceful lake view that will make you think you're in a tropical Switzerland, try the La Mansion Inn , a Belgian-run enclave with de luxe cabins, excellent food and service, and free boating and horseback riding. They also have an excellent hotel in Manual Antonio, on the central Pacific Coast.
Northern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula (Guanacaste)
The northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica has the most sun and the greatest variety of lodging options.
You'll find everything from beachfront Bed-and-Breakfasts--the intimate Sueño del Mar near Tamarindo specializes in weddings--to all-inclusive resorts, like the Paradisus Playa Conchal, right on a beach made up entirely of tiny pink and white shells.
* For fun, you can take a night tour and see giant Leatherback sea turtles lay their eggs, go on a canopy tour, try your hand at surfing, or just laze on the beach or in your suite. With the airport in nearby Liberia receiving more and more international flights, you can skip the flight to San Jose and the four-hour drive to the coast. Flying into Liberia means you're less than an hour from the beach.
Southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula
There are some great alternative-flavored beach towns here, like Montezuma and Mal Pais/Santa Elena, that have an appealing blend of rustic and luxury. You tale the ferry from the mainland, bounce down a rutted dirt road but end up at a 4-star hotel, like Flor Blanca , with its excellent restaurant and celebrity-studded guest list.
For those who don't want to spend a 4-star fortune, try Tropico Latino, a charming little beachside collection of well-appointed cabins that, last time I was there, was preparing to host a large wedding party from the U.S. Montezuma is easier to get to (the road is paved most of the way) and is slightly more developed, though surfers will better appreciate the breaks at Mal Pais/Santa Elena.
Between where the ferry docks (Paquera) and Montezuma you'll find a popular all-inclusive resort called Bartelo , near the town of Playa Tambor.
The Caribbean Coast
If each of Costa Rica's seven provinces feels like another country, the Caribbean zone qualifies as another universe. Even the weather is different--with dry season in the early fall, when it's raining in the rest of Costa Rica. Check out the quirky beach towns of Cahuita or Puerto Viejo, or tie the knot at a riverside lodge overlooking one of the country's best national park (Tortuga National Park).
The venerable tour outfit Costa Rica Expeditions runs a lodge Tortuga Lodge and offers wedding packages.
Maybe you'd like to seal the deal amid the peace and beauty of a yoga retreat with a ocean view.
Check out Samasati Nature Reserve , but remember, you and the wedding party better have 4-wheel drive if you're going to make it to this church of nature on time.
Another great yoga retreat where you can arrange to be married is in the Central Valley, just a 20-minute drive a from the San Jose airport.
The Osa Peninsula
National Geographic calls this fabled land "the most biologically intense place on earth." It's Costa Rica's Amazon, a tropical rain forest where tall trees drip vines, scarlet macaws screech, and the country's remaining jaguars roam.
There are several luxurious lodges on the coast between Puerto Jimenez (which you can fly into from the international airport in San Jose) and Carate, on the border of Corcovado National Park. It takes some time to get here, but once you arrive, you'll feel like you're in the middle of a paradisical nowhere.
On the other side of the Peninsula is Drake's Bay, near excellent diving and snorkling at Caño Island, and with some very luxurious, isolated lodging, like Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge, which you can only reach by boat. Casa Corcovado has wedding and honeymoon packages available.
What should people know about celebrating a wedding in Costa Rica from the point of view of requirements, experience of the various hotels, etc.
Getting married in Costa Rica is easy, unless you're a woman who has divorced within the last ten months (see #8 below). Otherwise, bride and groom just need valid passports (which of course you'll also need to visit the country). Birth certificates are not necessary, and there is no minimum stay required--you can get married the day you arrive if you're in a hurry.
Many hotels and tour companies offer wedding packages that take care of all the legal details, arranging for the wedding certificate to be sent to you once you get home (it takes a few months to be processed in Costa Rica). But whether you get help or do it yourself, you'll need two witnesses, who cannot be family up to the third degree. As this excludes the bride's and groom's mother, father, sister, brother, grandparents, and most cousins, your best bet for witnesses are either friends you bring along or local strangers you entice into being a part of the wedding party.
No notarized documents are required, because all data will be included in a sworn statement which bride and groom sign the day of the wedding. The statement must include the following information for both bride and groom:
1) Full name
3) Current address (home address)
4) Passport number and nationality
5) Date and place of birth - (city, state or province, country).
6) Full name of Father and Mother and current citizenship - (no initials, and you'll need to provide your mother's maiden name).
7) Mailing address -- This is the address where the final documentation will be sent. (It can take up to three months for the Costa Rican civil registry to process the application.)
NOTE: Once the couple receives their marriage document from Costa Rica, they must register it in their own city of residence. It is best to call city hall, town hall, municipality or equivalent to inquire where marriages are registered, and take the document as proof of marriage. Costa Rican marriages are recognized all over the world.
8) Marital status - if divorced, you'll need to list the date, city and state and the name of Court that decreed the divorce, plus the ex-spouse's full name. If you have been widowed, you'll need to list the time and place of your spouse's death.
NOTE: Costa Rica law stipulates that if the bride is divorced, her divorce date must be at least 300 days prior the date of the upcoming wedding. This law--archaic but still in effect--is designed to avoid children from a previous marriage being born into the next marriage. If the bride doesn't want to wait 300 days between divorce and remarriage, she must undergo two pregnancy tests by two different doctors, have them certify the negative results, have the certification translated by an official translator, and run through the required chain of signatures ending in the Secretary of State (or equivalent, depending on the country), and the Costa Rican Consulate. This must be presented to the officiating notary prior to the ceremony. Best to just wait out that ten-month period, no matter how eager the couple.
How far in advance should a couple prepare themselves for their honeymoon, romantic getaway or wedding in Costa Rica?
It depends on how big the wedding party is, and how elaborate you want the ceremony to be. If you're going all out and you want one of the more popular places during high season, I'd plan up to a year ahead. For smaller, simpler weddings, a few months ahead should do it.
What resources are available on the Internet pertaining to weddings and honeymoon vacations in Costa Rica?
Most of the hotels and agencies I list above have wedding packages available. And there's no shortage of companies that would love to help you out--an internet search will net dozens.
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
I just want to warn people that they might fall head over heals in love--not just with their partner, but with the country of Costa Rica. A lot of people go down and find they don't want to leave. If you suffer the same fate, take a look at my book, Living Abroad in Costa Rica (www.livingabroadincostarica.com), to see that relocating to paradise is easier than Think.