So Where is Costa Rica anyway?

So you’ve booked your ticket to Costa Rica, your passport’s up-to-date and you’ve got your sun cream bought, but where exactly are you going? When you tell many people that your destination is Costa Rica, they immediately wrongly assume you’re off to Puerto Rico – the Caribbean island with a similar name. Even tourists on the flight here have been overheard in conversation about which part of the island they were going to stay on! Some Europeans may think that Costa Rica is a beach resort in Spain, located close to Costa del Sol. You, of course, are departing your homeland for a trip in the small country between Panama and Nicaragua.

Costa Rica is not in South America, a common error, nor North America, as you’d expect. Instead, it is one of seven countries from Guatemala down to Panama that are grouped as Central America. On a map, you can see these countries make up the narrow path that joins the two parts of the American continent – officially the path is called an isthmus. It is a small stretch of small countries, which is perhaps why they are overlooked or ignored, but in all fairness as tourism increases through the isthmus more world attention is on the area and it is gradually emerging from its war-torn reputation.

Costa Rica has always stood apart from its neighbors in this with over sixty years without an army and with a functioning democracy, but remained virtually unheard of outside of Central America. Costa Rica’s qualification to the last two World Cup competitions (Don’t mention South Africa 2010!) has also raised the country’s profile in the world. It would seem unlikely that the experience of a Costa Rican friend of mine visiting Estonia in 2001 would be repeated today. At the time, he had his passport taken from him by the young passport control officer who explained that he had to check with his superior that Costa Rica was a country that existed as he had never heard of it himself!

Central America, South America and Mexico, which is part of North America, can all be classed as Latin America. As such, Ticos, as Costa Ricans refer to themselves are also Americans. This is worth remembering if you’re from the United States or describing the nationality of a person who is from the USA. Ticos and other Latinos will understandably be offended if a US citizen is referred to as an American and the reply will likely be ‘So I am!’. In Spanish, a US citizen is Estadounidense or ‘Unitedstatesian’, but English lacks this distinction. It is rather like a German stating that they are European and that only they have a right to that title, other Europeans would feel rightly irritated. Saying you are from the US, rather than American is an easy way of avoiding this faux pas and keeping your friendly Tico hosts smiling.

Chances are you’re flying into Juan SantaMaria airport in Alajuela, near San Jose, the nation’s capital, although Liberia has recently started to accept international flights. Do double check with your travel agent that your flight has been booked for San Jose, Costa Rica and not the San Jose in the USA – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time it had happened!

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