Costa Ricans see Easter in one of two ways: the most important religious celebration of the year, or as an opportunity to hit the beach!
Either way, it’s a family occasion and as a consequence, expect to share your Semana Santa with hoards of happy Costa Ricans — who like nothing better than big gatherings of extended family.
Unlike North America, where the celebrated day of Easter is Sunday with Monday being back to work as usual, here in Costa Rica, schools, and this year, governmental institutions, and public services are closed for the entire week — not just Thursday and Good Friday as many private companies and businesses will be. Most families will take this break to start their annual vacations — away from home and to make the most of the traditional end of the dry season.
As such, predictions for beach hotel occupancy are for 95% or more during this week, beginning with the Thursday prior to Easter and peaking by the weekend. Make sure your accommodations are booked in advance if you want an ocean view! Bear in mind that Costa Rican beaches, other than the most popular, are nearly deserted year round. So if you’re used to Daytona Beach, Florida during Spring Break week, it’ll still seem very subdued.
What could be a more authentic trip to Costa Rica than sharing the beach with locals? Ticos are extremely friendly, and my kids were presented with plastic plates of beach BBQ with rice and juice by a family who knew how to picnic in style last year. The plump abuela was clearly horrified that my children would be satisfied by a few limp sandwiches wrapped in foil! The four generations then split into two teams and we joined in for a long and seemingly ruleless beach soccer game to end the afternoon.
Driving to the coast? The roads will be a living hell starting the Wednesday afternoon prior with droves vacating the capital and then, everyone migrates from the water inland on Sunday. Picture long lines of traffic filled with overheating cars and overflowing with their overheated passengers combined with horns blaring and impatient drivers taking ill-advised risks. This is Easter on the highways. If at all possible, extend your beach trip to avoid the busiest days and travel stress-free instead. It could make the entire difference between a happy get-away and a miserable one. If it’s too late to adjust your timeline, be prepared to wait in lines or to move slowly in your chosen direction. Pack plenty of provisions too!
Bad timing in the country’s electoral process has led to the national elections for the next president of Costa Rica to be scheduled for April 1st — ironic and unfortunate. There is fierce campaigning for the second round of voting and citizens have been encouraged to return home on Saturday to participate in elections the following day. Expect roads to be very busy as a result. Route 27 (Autopista del Sol) will operate line reversal on both Saturday 31st of March and April 1st to avoid traffic buildup as locals return from the Pacific Coast.
Should you choose not to follow the crowds, the capital is unusually quiet other than the religious services and processions that are scheduled for the week. Although museums and galleries are closed during this period, hotels and restaurants won’t be crowded and discounts are a possibility. Tourist attractions, such as the Serpentarium or Zoo Ave can all be enjoyed without the usual mass of people.
"La Merced in San Jose"
photo © Sara Ford
"Metropolitan Cathedral in the Capital"
photo © Costa Rica Travel Scout
The country’s main churches: La Merced and the Cathedral in San Jose, and the Basilica in Cartago will be popular places for the faithful if you’re looking for the real meaning of Holy Week.
For an equally fervent, but decidedly more kitsch tribute to the Easter celebrations, the town of San Joaquin de los Flores is famed for its retelling of the Jesus’ journey to the stations of the cross, his death and resurrection through an incredible jack-in-the-box style Jesus and the cast of Roman soldiers and religious followers recruited from the town’s residents. It’s worth a picture snap or two because your friends won’t believe your stories.
Alcohol-Free: The Ley Seca, or Dry Law, made the nationwide sale of alcohol illegal on Easter’s holiest days; however, each county decides whether or not to apply this law, and more and more areas, especially those where tourism is an important industry, choose not to enforce it. This year, only twelve of the eighty-one counties that make up the country have declared the Dry Law in place for the Holy Thursday and Friday.
If you think you’ll be at one of these places where religion and alcohol don’t mix, stock up in advance for your poolside Imperial beers and sunset cocktails as stores and restaurants selling liquor will have their fridges taped shut and bar doors receive the same treatment. While these laws are bent by some; don’t depend on finding a dishonest vendor! Fines are steep for breaking these laws!
Drinking alcohol, on the other hand, is completely acceptable and in fact, it’s almost a compulsory part of the holiday for those at the beach. Restaurants may allow you to bring in an alcoholic drink to accompany your meal, but in a plastic cup and not its original bottle or can.
Banks will be closed from Thursday to Monday and with the rush of tourists, many ATMs in beach towns and popular resorts, like Arenal will be empty fast. Make sure you have enough local cash to see you through.
Try to time your flights and accommodation bookings to avoid the worst of the traffic and you’ll still have a blast on an Easter vacay in Costa Rica — whether you choose with or without the local flair!