Sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, Costa Rica is a tiny country -- about half the size of Kentucky-- yet encompasses wildly diverse terrain and some of the most biodiverse slices of jungle and rainforest in the world. (Biodiverse means a great number of species live in one concentrated area.) From the relatively dry and arid Guanacaste province to the north, to the richly agricultural central valley, to the lush rainforests of the southern coast and the mangrove swamps of the Caribbean side, Costa Rica is like a bunch of little mini-countries. When planning where to go to view wildlife, it helps to think of Costa Rica in terms of biological corridors; for example, jaguars are often seen in Corcovado National Park, but they can also be spotted throughout the Osa Biological Corridor that connects Corcovado with the southern mainland by way of a series of additional nature reserves including Lapa Rios. So if Corcovado is too far for you to venture this time, there are other places to track jaguars as well. Tortuguero is famous for its sea turtles and crocodile-filled mangrove swamps, but many areas to the south of Tortuguero have excellent turtle and crocodile viewing as well.
Although the most popular season to travel in Costa Rica is the "dry" season, from late November through April, any time is a good time to visit this temperate region, and prices are notably more affordable in the "low" season.
Located just 8 to 12 degrees north of the equator, Costa Rica is famous for it's lack of defined seasons and relatively consistent temperatures, which rarely dip below 40 or above 90, exept at high elevations, where it can be much colder, and furthest south, where it gets more tropical and humid. It helps to be aware, though, that in December and January, cold storm fronts from the U.S. can sweep south, bringing a few days to a week of much colder weather. The country essentially has just two seasons, "wet" and "dry." The dry season, which is also "high" season for tourists, lasts from the end of November through April or until the rains begin, which is sometimes as late as mid-May. But even once the rainy season starts, a typical day's' weather is quite manageable. Mornings tend to be dry, then the rains begin after lunch and last until late afternoon. So you can do your sightseeing in the first half of the day, take a siesta, and enjoy a nice dinner outdoors in the evening. Travelers who visit Costa Rico regularly say there's a rule of thumb for planning your schedule during the rainy season; the warmer the morning, the harder it will rain in the afternoon, since the rain is tied to the rate of evaporation.
There are two international airports, the biggest one in San Jose, the country's capital, and a secondary one in Liberia, closer to the popular Nicoya peninsula. Most major American airlines serve Costa Rica now, with transfer points in Denver, Dallas, Miami, and Los Angeles.
The one arena in which Costa Rica still seems quite primitive is in the quality of its roads. Travelers to Punta Islita, for example, report that the drive from San Jose takes more than six hours on jarring roads, despite the fact that it looks a relatively short distance on the map. The increasingly popular Osa peninsula to the south is simply too far to go by land unless you have all day to devote to a bus ride. More and more tourists are visiting areas further afield such as the Osa peninsula, but they fly if possible. Two local airlines, Sansa and Nature Air serve a surprising number of destinations all over the country. many of them nothing but a two lane landing strip in the middle of the jungle. More and more international travelers choose Nature Air because it's the world's first carbon-neutral airline, leading the way in environmental consciousness by planting trees across great swaths of rainforest to offset the carbon generated by its flights.
A notoriously happy people, Ticos, as local Costa Ricans call themselves, have lots and lots of festivals, holidays, and cultural events. Major highlights include the Santa Cruz Fiestas, which feature bullfights and folk dancing, Las Posadas at Christmastime in San Jose and elsewhere; Semana Santa, the traditional Holy Week proceeding Easter, with processions throughout the country; and Carnaval, with ten days of fireworks and general craziness, which happens in February in Puntarenas and in October in Limon. There are also lots of local celebrations such as the Monteverde music festival, which features jazz and classical music February to April, and an international surf tournament, held in beach towns on both coasts throughout November.
The Costa Rican unit of currency is the Colon, but since it's constantly being devalued against the dollar, the majority of people you come in contact with will welcome dollars. The exception is local markets, taxi cabs, and other situations in which you're off the tourist beat -- you'll want some colones to pay for small purchases and tip drivers. Water in Costa Rica is not nearly as unsafe as it is in parts of Mexico and other central American countries. You can drink the water provided in most hotels and restaurants, but bottled water is widely available if you're nervous.
Coastal towns that welcome lots of tourists, such as Jaco, Manuel Antonio, and the surfing towns of the Nicoya Peninsula have lots of street vendors selling shell jewelry and other local crafts. But beware; much of it isn't local and really isn't any different than the trinkets you can pick up in mall shop like Claire's here in the U.S. That said, it's always a good idea to buy trinkets from locals and support the economy of the town you're visiting in, just be sure to bargain hard. The first price is unlikely to be the price the vendor really expects to get.
For accomodations, restaurants, flights, and other typical tourist expenses, you're unlikely to get great discounts during the high season as Costa Rica has become such a popular destination for families. This year may be the exception, however, as the recession has hit Costa Rica hard, and concern over swine flu, drug cartels, and other problems associated primarily with Mexico have "bled" over to affect Costa Rican tourism as well. In the rainy season it's a completely different matter; don't go just by the prices listed on websites, but email each lodge and hotel you wish to stay at and ask for their lowest family rate.
Camping is not a popular option in Costa Rica unless you're a surfer, a hippie, or particularly adventurous. The reason is that in the tropical rainforest, which makes up most of Costa Rica, the bugs can be bothersome, and there are some other fairly dangerous critters as well. Unless you're well educated or not easily intimidated, stick to eco-lodges and hotels, which are quite reasonable in cost.