Though Costa Rica’s literary output is sparsely translated and little known outside the country’s borders, there are some notable authors to look for, especially if you can read Spanish.
Some of the books mentioned below might be difficult to track down in U.S. bookstores, but you’ll find them all in abundance in Costa Rica. A good place to check for many of these titles is at a well-stocked gift shop, or any branch of Librería Internacional (tel. 800/542-7374), which has storefronts at most major modern malls, and several other stand-alone locations around the country.
General Interest — For a straightforward, albeit somewhat dry, historical overview, there’s “The History of Costa Rica,” by Ivan Molina and Steven Palmer. For a more readable look into Costa Rican society, pick up “The Ticos: Culture and Social Change,” an examination of the country’s politics and culture, by Richard, Karen, and Mavis Biesanz. Another book worth checking out is “The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics,” a broad selection of stories, essays, and excerpts edited by Steven Palmer and Ivan Molina.
To learn more about the life and culture of Costa Rica’s Talamanca coast, an area populated by Afro-Caribbean people whose ancestors emigrated from Caribbean islands in the early 19th century, look for “What Happen: A Folk-History of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast” by Paula Palmer. This book is a collection of oral histories taken from a wide range of local characters.
Fiction — "Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion,” edited by Barbara Ras and with a foreword by Oscar Arias Sánchez, is a broad and varied collection of short stories by Costa Rican writers, organized by region of the country. Entries include works by many of the country’s leading literary lights. Availability of Costa Rican fiction in English is very limited, but if you’re lucky, you might find a copy of “Stories of Tatamundo,” by Fabian Dobles, or “Lo Peor/The Worst,” by Fernando Contreras.
Among Costa Rica’s most famous novels is “La isla de los hombres solos,” or “The Island of the Lonely Men,” a semi-autobiographical novel by José León Sánchez based on his years of imprisonment at the ghastly prison island of San Lucas in the Gulf of Nicoya.
Young readers will enjoy Kristin Joy Pratt’s “A Walk in the Rainforest,” an introduction to the tropical rainforest written by Pratt when she was still in high school. Young children will also like the beautifully illustrated “The Forest in the Clouds,” by Sneed Collard and Michael Rothman, and “The Umbrella” by Jan Brett. Pachanga Kids has published several illustrated bilingual children’s books with delightful illustrations by Ruth Angulo, including “Mar Azucarada/Sugar Sea” by Roberto Boccanera and “El Coyote y la Luciernaga/The Coyote and the Firefly” by Yazmin Ross, which includes a musical CD. Another bilingual children’s book worth checking out is “Zari & Marinita: Adventures in a Costa Rican Rainforest,” the story of the friendship between a morpho butterfly and a tropical frog.
One of the most important pieces in the Costa Rican canon, Carlos Luis Fallas’s 1941 tome “Mamita Yunai” is a stark look at the impact of banana giant United Fruit on the country. More recently, Fernando Contreras takes up where his predecessor left off in “Unico Mirando al Mar,” which describes the conditions of the poor, predominantly children, who scavenge Costa Rica’s garbage dumps.
Natural History — “Tropical Nature” by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata is a wonderfully written and lively collection of tales and adventures by two neotropical biologists who spent quite some time in the forests of Costa Rica.
Mario A. Boza’s beautiful “Costa Rica National Parks” has been reissued in an elegant coffee-table edition. Other worthwhile coffee-table books include “Rainforests: Costa Rica and Beyond” by Adrian Forsyth, with photographs by Michael and Patricia Fogden, “Costa Rica: A Journey Through Nature” by Adrian Hepworth, and “Osa: Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea” by Roy Toft (photographer) and Trond Larsen (author).
For an introduction to a wide range of Costa Rican fauna, there’s “The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide” by Fiona Reid, Jim Zook, Twan Leenders, and Robert Dean, or “Costa Rica: Traveller’s Wildlife Guides” by Les Beletsky. Both pack a lot of useful information into a concise package and make great field guides for amateur naturalists and inquisitive tourists.
“A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch is an invaluable guide to identifying the many birds you’ll see during your stay. This classic faces competition from the more recent “Birds of Costa Rica” by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. Bird-watchers might want a copy of “A Bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica” by Barrett Lawson, which details the country’s bird-watching bounty by site and region.
Costa Rica has a budding and promising young film industry. Local feature films like Esteban Ramirez’s “Caribe” (2004), about the confrontation between environmentalists and oil developers on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, and “Clara Solo” (2021), the sexual awakening tale of a 40 year old woman in a remote village can be found on streaming platforms. “El Camino (The Path)” by filmmaker Ishtar Yasin Gutiérrez was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, while Paz Fabrega’s “El Viaje” (2015) was shown to rave reviews at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Released in 2010, Hilda Hidalgo’s “Del Amor y Otros Demonios (Of Love and Other Demons)” is a compelling treatment of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel of the same name. But the film that really took Costa Rica by storm was 2014’s “Maikol Yordan de Viaje Perdido” (“Maikol Yordan Traveling Lost”), a comedy in which a happy-go-lucky Costa Rican campesino goes on a voyage to make money to save his farm. It has been watched by more people in Costa Rica than any movie in history, even Hollywood blockbusters like “Titanic.” More recently, 2016’s “Entonces Nosotros” (“About Us”) tells the tale of a hopeless romantic trying to save his relationship while on a beach vacation.
If you want to see Costa Rica used simply as a backdrop, the major motion picture productions of “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (1992) by Ridley Scott, starring Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver; “Congo” (1995), featuring Laura Linney and Ernie Hudson; “The Blue Butterfly” (2004) with William Hurt; and “After Earth” (2013), a box-office bomb starring Will Smith and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, all feature sets and scenery from around the country. Costa Rica also appears prominently in the seminal surfer flick “Endless Summer II” (1994).
Several musical traditions and styles meet and mingle in Costa Rica. The northern Guanacaste region is a hotbed of folk music that is strongly influenced by the marimba (wooden xylophone) traditions of Guatemala and Nicaragua, while also featuring guitars, maracas, and the occasional harp. On the Caribbean coast, you can hear traditional calypso sung by descendants of the original black workers brought here to build the railroads and tend the banana plantations. Roving bands play a mix of guitar, banjo, washtub bass, and percussion in the bars and restaurants of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.
Costa Rica also has a healthy contemporary music scene. The jazz-fusion trio Editus has won two Grammy awards for its work with Panamanian salsa giant (and movie star) Rubén Blades. Malpaís, the closest thing Costa Rica had to a super-group, suffered the sudden and tragic loss of its lead singer, but still has several excellent albums out.
You should also seek out Cantoamérica, which plays upbeat dance music ranging from salsa to calypso to merengue. Jazz pianist, and former Minister of Culture, Manuel Obregón (also a member of Malpaís) has several excellent solo albums, including “Simbiosis” (2011), on which he improvises along with the sounds of Costa Rica’s wildlife, waterfalls, and weather; as well as his work with the “Papaya Orchestra,” a collaboration and gathering of musicians from around Central America.
Local label Papaya Music has done an excellent job promoting and producing albums by Costa Rican musicians in a range of styles and genres. Their offerings range from the Guanacasteca folk songs of Max Goldemberg, to the boleros of Ray Tico, to the original calypso of Walter “Gavitt” Ferguson. You can find their CDs at gift shops and record stores around the country.
Classical music lovers will want to head to San José, which has a symphony orchestra, youth symphony, opera company, and choir. The local symphony sometimes features the works of local composers like Benjamin Guitiérrez and Eddie Mora. On occasion, small-scale music festivals will bring classical offerings to some of the beach and inland tourist destinations around the country.
Bars and discos around the country spin salsa, merengue, and cumbia, as well as more modern grooves that include house, electronic, trip-hop, and reggaeton.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.