Living in Costa Rica
A Practical Guide to transportation, housing, weather, security, mail, history, geography, what to pack…
It can be difficult to know what to expect when you plan to move to another country. This document should help give you some idea of what to expect before you arrive to Monteverde in terms of the country, the community, homestays, and the school. See our main page for more information about Monteverde Friends School, including Study Abroad, Gap Year, bilingual musical theater summer camp, school tours, and volunteering.
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and Caribbean on the east, Costa Rica is part of the land bridge between North and South America; its nearest neighbors are Panama to the southeast and Nicaragua to the northwest. Roughly 10 degrees north of the equator, it is Central America’s second-smallest nation. Costa Rica covers less than 20,000 square miles (about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire together), but its geographic location and climatic conditions give rise to an incredible diversity of ecosystems. A mountainous spine runs the length of the country dividing it into three general areas: the Pacific coastal plains, the Central Valley, and the Caribbean coastal lowlands.
Translated from Spanish, Costa Rica means ‘rich coast’ – a name originating from rumors of vast gold treasures that never materialized. Spaniards explored and colonized the country throughout the 1500s. Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821 by joining the Central American Federation, and in 1823 the capital was established in San Jose. The country’s National Liberation movement abolished the army in 1948 and established a tradition of democratic elections and a free, democratic and independent republic.
Costa Rica has a population of about 4,600,000 people who are largely of Spanish descent, with a relatively smaller proportion of mestizos, or people of mixed European and Indian origin, and a very small Indian population. There is a sizable black Creole population on the Caribbean coast. The literacy rate, more than 90 percent, is the highest in Central America and among the highest in the world. Costa Ricans, or Ticos, as they call themselves, maintain a strong sense of national pride in their educational and governmental accomplishments.
The Monteverde Community
Monteverde is a rural, mountainous community located in the beautiful Tilarán Mountains of Costa Rica at an elevation of about 1500m. To the west are the Pacific facing slopes and the Nicoya Peninsula, which is seasonally dry. The crest of the mountains just above Monteverde is blanketed by a cool, wet cloud forest. Verdant wet forest extends from this crest down to the Atlantic lowlands, providing a striking contrast to the drier Pacific slope. East of the crest is the Peñas Blancas Valley, a relatively unexplored expanse of tropical rain forest. The unique situation of contrasting wet and dry forest presents an extraordinary opportunity to study plant-animal interactions, ecology, and natural history. Monteverde is world famous for its private and public reserves which protect more than 100,000 acres of endangered tropical forest.
The road up to Monteverde (35 kms from the Pan-American Highway) is only partly paved. This seemingly short distance from the highway actually takes about one and a half hours on the bus, which makes Monteverde feel pretty far away from anywhere else. Going down the mountain to any of the Pacific beaches takes about four bumpy hours, and other destinations are better saved for long breaks. A few kilometers of road around Santa Elena (our downtown) have been paved, but most of the roads are not. Walking, the public bus (periférica) and taxis are the main forms of transportation. Some locals have cars, motorcycles, bicycles, or four-wheelers.
The approximately 5,000-person population of the Monteverde Zone embodies a diverse group of people. The original population of Costa Rican farmers was added to in the early 50’s when a group of fifty Quakers settled nearby, naming the area Monteverde, or “Green Mountain”. In 1951 they founded Monteverde Friends School. The native Costa Rican population, known as Ticos, primarily live in and around Santa Elena, the main “town” of the Monteverde Zone. They work in the tourism industry, other businesses and farms. There is also a steady stream of students, scientists, and ex-patriates who come through for a year or more, interested in the unique ecosystem and community here in Monteverde. In addition, about 250,000 tourists come through Monteverde each year.
There are three main seasons here. Dry season is from February to May, and has light wind, sunny days, and cool misty evenings. The rainy season is from May through October. It is very wet, especially in the afternoons, and the roads become muddy. Mornings are often clear and sunny, but especially during October, it can rain for a week or more at a time. During the rainy season, things do not dry easily, and you need to combat mildew and mold in your house. The transition period, from November to February, has strong winds, rains and mists. Nights are cool during the rainy and transition period, and the daytime temperature is moderate year round. Down the mountain, as we say, it is hot, hot, hot and humid.
Insects will be part of your life here. Butterflies, beetles, scorpions and spiders are common. Don’t worry, scorpion stings are like bee stings and they can control the cockroaches. Ticks do not carry diseases here and mosquitos are generally rare at this elevation.
Getting from San Jose to Monteverde
Buses leave San Jose for Monteverde twice a day, at 6:30 am and 2:30 pm. The journey to Monteverde usually takes four hours. The roads in Costa Rica are not in the best of conditions and can make traveling long and tedious. This bus has NO bathroom facility, and it takes one pit stop for fifteen minutes, about midway into the ride. We suggest that anyone who experiences motion sickness take preventative medicine. This bus is for the Monteverde zone, but has its main stop in a small town called Santa Elena. Please let us know when you plan to come up the mountain and we’ll make sure someone is there to meet you. Another convenient but more expensive option is the Interbus shuttle.
We are happy to help you arrange a homestay with a local family here in Monteverde. Homestays are a wonderful opportunity to get to know the local culture and community and to improve your Spanish. Homestays will be with families of students from our school. Your hosts will provide a private furnished room and three meals a day. Houses usually have an electric shower and a telephone. Internet is not avilable in every home but many restaurants and cafes now have Wi-Fi.
You should consider bringing a gift for your home. This is usually for the woman of the household as she is most likely the one to take care of you. A mug, t-shirt, chocolates, dish towels, or other items for the house are always good ideas.
If you do not choose to live in a homestay, you may rent a house on your own, with others in the Monteverde community or stay in a local hotel. While there are frequently apartments or houses available to rent, we cannot guarantee this option. If you prefer to rent or stay in a hostel, you will need to make those arrangements on your own.
When in San José one should be on guard as in any big city. Be conscious of your belongings at all times, especially at the bus stop. Do not wear a wallet in your back pocket, have a camera around your neck, or wear valuable jewelry. If you are taking the local bus from San José to Monteverde, be aware that there is a high incidence of theft near the bus station, which is located in an undesirable section of town. Do not leave your belongings unguarded in the bus station or on the bus. When on the bus, keep your belongings on your lap or between your feet; do not put them in the storage areas above the seats. Keep your belongings with you at all times.
The Monteverde area is relatively safe and peaceful; however house theft does occur. We advise you to insure computers and any expensive electronics you may bring with you. Otherwise, take care to always lock your house and store valuable items out of sight or take them with you. While it is usually safe to walk around at night unaccompanied, it is suggested that you do walk with another person, as a precaution.
Health Insurance and Health Care
There is a public health clinic in Santa Elena, which is part of the national health care system. It is a good option for minor ailments, dental care and gynecological visits. You will have to pay the clinic for your visit, but if you keep your receipt, you may be able to get reimbursed through your health insurance. Children up to age 18 receive free medical treatment at the clinic. There is also a private clinic which charges $75 for a visit. Emergencies or severe medical problems are better handled in San Jose or Puntarenas, where the quality of care is comparable to that in the United States. Alternative health care (chiropractors, massage therapists, herbalist, etc.) is frequently available through the yoga studios in town.
Doctors will recommend Hepatitis (A & B) vaccinations, but other than that, you do not need to take any special health precautions before coming to Monteverde. Malaria is not present in the highlands nor in most of Costa Rica, although there are isolated malaria and dengue fever regions on the Caribbean coast. In general, Costa Rica has on-going and very successful public health campaigns against contagious diseases, and the standard of living in terms of health concerns is quite high.
Click on this link for the CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) health information for travelers to Costa Rica.
The water in Monteverde (and most of Costa Rica) is potable and of excellent quality. You do not need to further purify it or buy bottled water.
You do not need any converters to use electrical devices in Costa Rica if you are coming from the US. You will need adaptors or converters if you are coming from other countries. We highly recommend using a surge protector, as there are frequent outages, surges, and lightning strikes during rainy season in Monteverde.
There are three banks with ATMs in Santa Elena, and there is one ATM in Cerro Plano. In order to withdraw money inside the bank, you will need to present your passport. You cannot deposit money at the ATM’s. Visa and Mastercard debit and credit cards are accepted at the bank teller. You can expect a fee at the ATMs, and your credit card may also charge you a foreign transaction fee. While many restaurants and stores in Monteverde accept credit cards, you should also be prepared to pay with cash (US dollars or colones).
Although mail is relatively reliable, it is not advisable to have your credit card bills or other bills forwarded due to delays and occasional disappearances. If possible, have some reliable person take care of your bills from outside Costa Rica. Both incoming and outgoing mail can take anywhere from five days to five weeks to arrive. Please do not have any boxes mailed to you at school! All boxes are delayed at customs in San Jose, three to four hours from Monteverde. You will have to pay per day while your packages wait in customs, arrange to get to San Jose, and then pay again to receive the items. Smaller packages in envelopes are generally fine. We have a relatively steady stream of visitors coming and going who are often willing to “courier” items to you.
If you are part of the Monteverde Friends School, your friends and relatives can write to you at the school:
Escuela de los Amigos
300 metros al sur de La Fabrica de Quesos
Monteverde 5655, Puntarenas
Parks and Reserves
Volunteers at MFS will receive a letter stating that they are currently residing in Costa Rica. With this letter, you will usually be able to pay the local price to enter all local parks. Depending on the park, you may be able to use this letter in parks outside the zone as well. This amounts to a substantial savings on the entrance fee- as little as 530 colones (about $1) in comparison to six to twenty dollars for tourists.
Food costs in Monteverde are relatively high due to location and availability. We have found food costs close to food prices in the US.
Location of School
The school is located on the way to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde. It is approximately a 40 minute walk to Santa Elena and a 30 minute walk to the Monteverde Reserve. The school and local library are on the left side of the road (if coming from Santa Elena) shortly after La Colina Lodge.
Monteverde is at a high altitude and therefore tends to be cool in the early morning and evening. On the other hand, it is also located in the tropics and can be quite hot during sunny mid-day times, so it is a good idea to dress in layers. Warm clothes such as fleece jackets and wool socks are recommended for the cool evenings and the damp, chilly rainy season. In the wet, humid weather, quickly-drying clothes are a plus. It is helpful to bring high quality, durable hiking boots. You will probably be walking anywhere from 30-45 minutes to and from the school on unpaved, mountainous roads. You can expect rain and mist from February to May, so bring a waterproof raincoat, rain pants, and umbrella. We are pretty casual here- wear clothes that are comfortable and functional- dress clothes are, for the most part, impractical for work. For a more detailed list, see our page on What to Bring.
Many people find Monteverde a dynamic and interesting place through its cultural mixture, conservation efforts and ongoing biological research. We are a small and special community. Please ask us any questions to help you decide if Monteverde is the place for you.
For more information, please contact us