Climate and geography
Costa Rica is a mountainous country located between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. The coastal areas are made up of beaches and mangroves. As you move further inland, it becomes mountainous as the Talamanca Mountain Range runs down the middle of the country. These mountains average a few thousand feet in elevation, though some peaks are much higher. The higher altitude mountains often ascend into the clouds, creating cloud forest habitat. Costa Rica is also home to many volcanoes, but only five are considered active. There are many streams, rivers and waterfalls, but only a couple lakes. Lake Arenal is the largest in the country and located in front of the iconic volcano which bears the same name.
Costa Rica has 12 distinct climate zones and thousands of small microclimate pockets throughout the country. This is due to a variety of factors including influence from both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Elevation also plays a significant role as the terrain can go from sea level to as high as 12,000 feet in elevation in a 30-mile span! At sea level, temperatures average in the low to mid 90s during the day with nighttime lows in the upper 70s. If you go to the highest peak, Cerro Chirripo at 12,000 feet in elevation, you can expect frost at night.
Costa Rica enjoys friendly environmental conditions which keep the country free of strong floods, storms, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. The central valley where the capital, San Jose, is located offers a moderate climate with a dry season that lasts between December and March and a rainy period between May and October. Daytime highs during the dry season reach into the 80s and into the 70s during the rainy season.
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish and is spoken by 99% of residents. There are five living indigenous languages that are spoken sparingly in the indigenous territories predominantly by older adults and to a lesser extent by younger generations who choose to speak Spanish. All Peace Corps Volunteers must reach an established minimum language proficiency level in Spanish to begin service. When potential communities in indigenous territories are identified, an indigenous culture class is prepared so that the trainees who go to these sites are better prepared to integrate into these communities.
Spanish language instruction comprises most of the 12-week Pre-Service Training (PST) calendar. Frequent assessments are conducted to ensure that Trainees are making progress and are appropriately challenged. Instruction techniques vary widely and include classroom lessons, community visits, field trips, online exercises, and independent learning. Engagement with the host family is also a key part in reinforcing language learning during Pre-Service Training.
Speaking Spanish is a key skill in supporting community integration and improving professional effectiveness. Once sworn-in, Volunteers are equipped with learning strategies and resources to continue independent learning in their community of service.
Housing and site location
During Pre-Service Training, Trainees will live with a Costa Rican family near the training facility. Sharing meals, conversation, and other experiences with your host family is an important step and expectation in developing the language skills, attitudes, and cultural knowledge that will aid and support integration into your community.
Upon successful completion of PST, Volunteers are required to live with a host family during their first 6 months in the community. Living with a Costa Rican family allows Peace Corps Volunteers to integrate more quickly into the community, develop their intercultural competency, language skills, build a local network of community support, and greatly enhance personal safety and security. After the initial 6-month period and if appropriate housing is available, Volunteers may request to live independently. Some communities may not have a live-alone housing option and Volunteers must be open to the possibility of living with a host family during their entire service.
Housing conditions for Volunteers vary greatly throughout the country and with the nature of the program sector. Some Volunteer assignments will be in regional cities or towns while others may be in more rural areas. There may be some communities that would require travel by boat or ferry. Most Volunteers have access – some via a short bus ride - to services such as banking, postal service, and hospital care. Most Volunteer houses have cold running water and electricity. The electric current generally is 110 volts, as in the United States; however, there are 220-volt outlets for some appliances (e.g., refrigerators and electric ovens). Most Costa Rican communities have a church, a school, and general stores that sell staples such as rice, black beans, tuna, soap, soft drinks, and snack food.
Professionalism, dress, and behavior
Costa Ricans take great pride in being neat, clean, and well-groomed even on informal occasions. Volunteers should follow the example of their colleagues at their worksites and in their communities. Volunteers will gain greater acceptance of their presence in their community by dressing in a professional and culturally appropriate manner. A neatly groomed appearance (hair, beard, nails, shoes, clothing) which conveys professionalism and respect for local norms is expected of all Volunteers.
In schools and office settings, Costa Rican women tend to wear skirts, dresses, or pressed pants. Men tend to wear collared shirts with khaki pants. Volunteers are expected to observe these guidelines for dress during Pre-Service Training as well. A Volunteer should never go into a school or official partner agency office wearing shorts or flip-flops. In most areas of the country, shorts are generally worn only in the home while doing household chores, during recreational or sports activities, or at the beach, but not on the street.
Work clothes in rural areas will be informal and appropriate for outside work — men and women may wear jeans and boots. It is best to bring a variety of clothing that can be layered. There may be occasions during Peace Corps service where it is appropriate for men to wear a jacket and tie and women to wear a dress or slacks and a blouse.
Visible tattoos and body piercings in parts other than ear lobes may result in unwanted attention for Volunteers and are often prohibited in the school environment.
Food and diet
Costa Rican cuisine is known for having mild flavors, with high reliance on fresh fruits and vegetables. Rice and black beans are a staple of most traditional Costa Rican meals, often served three times a day. Costa Rican fare is nutritionally well rounded, and nearly always cooked from scratch and with fresh ingredients.
Owing to the location of the country, tropical fruits and vegetables are readily available and included in the local cuisine. The most common proteins found in the diet are eggs, chicken, canned tuna, pork, fresh fish, and beef. Dairy products including milk, cheese and yogurt are readily available, as well. In the countryside, the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables depends on the season and the region. In rural areas, Costa Ricans tend to favor root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassavas, etc.), bananas, and plantains. Fresh fruits abound during their respective season.
Imported products are available in the capital but are not typically part of the local diet as they are often beyond the economic means of host families. Volunteers should not expect nor request families to purchase additional foods outside of their normal purchases to compensate for Volunteer eating preferences. Vegetarians have been able to maintain a vegetarian diet with some planning and flexibility. A vegan diet may be more difficult for a Volunteer to maintain while living with a host family.
During the home stay period, Trainees and Volunteers will typically eat three meals a day, prepared by and shared with host families. The expectation is that Volunteers are treated as members of the family and are expected to adhere to family norms and diet. Host families participate in an orientation prior to receiving a Volunteer and the expectation that the Volunteer adapts to the family’s diet and household norms is emphasized.
Peace Corps encourages Trainees and Volunteers to be flexible in their approach to diet, willing to try new things, and minimize optional restrictions during their service as a Volunteer.
Transportation routes in Costa Rica are well developed with an extensive, dependable bus system that operates in most of the country. The service is inexpensive and usually runs on a set schedule several times a day. The quality of bus service and condition of the roads depends on location and geography. Additionally, there are domestic flights to the more popular tourist destinations, via small aircraft.
Peace Corps Volunteers travel mainly by public bus between cities. While in San Jose on official business, the Peace Corps requires PCVs to travel in private transport such as a taxi or Uber.
Some Volunteers may purchase a bicycle to facilitate travel around their community. In some areas, conditions are difficult for cyclists; streets and roads are bumpy and narrow, and unexpected hazards (e.g., potholes and uncovered manholes) are commonplace. Volunteers must complete the safety and security e-learning module for bicycle use and wear a bicycle helmet provided by the Peace Corps whenever they ride.
- Airmail letters to and from Costa Rica take two to three weeks. In San Jose, Volunteers can use the Peace Corps Costa Rica PO Box address to receive letters.
- All packages sent from the US or another foreign destination have to go through customs and require payment of an import tax and storage charges. All packages will need to be picked up and paid for by the Volunteer at a central facility located in San Jose.
- Once a Volunteer arrives in their community, they will be able to obtain a post office box in a city convenient to their site to receive letters and envelopes.
- Most populated areas of Costa Rica have reliable cell phone coverage. In some mountainous regions cell phone service may be spotty.
- Volunteers are required to maintain a functional Costa Rican cell phone number throughout their service. Peace Corps provides the SIM card and the Volunteer will support by bringing their own unlocked cell phone from the US or purchasing a phone locally upon arrival.
- Applications like WhatsApp and FaceTime are commonly used in day-to-day communication in Costa Rica.
- Nearly all Volunteers have regular access to Internet in their communities.
- Volunteers are strongly encouraged to bring a laptop computer, notebook, or tablet. They are an essential staple in the Peace Corps and in the professional Costa Rican work environment.
- Volunteers are required to engage with an online learning platform, submit plans, reports, and respond to emails. Computers are also helpful for entertainment, and communication purposes. There is access to desktop computers and the Internet at the Volunteer resource center at the Training Center and at the Peace Corps office in San José.
Costa Rica’s culture is rooted in a peaceful, Catholic, agrarian society and many of their social activities derive from that tradition. Just like in most Latino countries and cultures, Costa Ricans love to spend time with family and friends, and almost every activity they undertake includes lots of them.
Family celebrations and community celebrations are the most common social activities. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, holidays, and other events are often celebrated with extended family and include traditional food and drink with an extended mid-day or evening meal. Most communities will have an annual civic celebration in the center of town aligned to a patron saint or other attribute that is unique to the community. These events typically include a parade, food, music and dancing, and sporting events such as a soccer match or rodeo.
Weekend excursions to the beach or to the mountains for a picnic are also common and typically involve large extended family groups. Costa Rica has a national soccer league which also draws participants to the stadium when a match is underway or the local pub to watch on television with friends.
Costa Rican society is very social and people enjoy going out. Bars, restaurants, and discos are popular spots for socializing. Urban areas will offer other options such as movie theaters and arcades. Town squares and central parks are also popular places to go for a walk and meet up with friends.