Holiday Season in Costa Rica
The holiday season in Costa Rica is a confluence of ideal conditions. Christmas fever in this tiny Central American nation kicks off toward the end of November and beginning of December, which happens to coincide with the end of Costa Rica's rainy season. The clouds disappear, weather turns predictably pleasant, and beaches are once again ready for sunseekers. Can you imagine a better place in which to escape the colder temperatures of North America?
There's another important reason Costa Rica makes a great destination at this time: holiday tradition. Visitors will recognize much of the same Christmas fun that’s such an ingrained part of the culture in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Costa Rica celebrates with nativity scenes, holiday parties, and appeals from children to Saint Nicolas for a Christmas Day present or two. As for New Years, they do it big, with no shortage of revelry.
Check out the details of the major festivals and parties below, along with bonus recommendations for must-try local foods—in Costa Rica, you certainly won’t be hungry over the holidays.
Christmas in Costa Rica
Christmas is one of the biggest holidays in Costa Rica, and it's marked with a series of chronological events all leading up to the big day.
Festival de la Luz
For locals, the Christmas season officially kicks off with the Festival de la Luz (Festival of Lights). This extended celebration begins with a parade in the capital of San José on the second Saturday of December, which travels from the Paseo Colón to the Plaza de la Democracia. The procession is so grand that closest thing U.S. travelers can compare it to is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (floats here are even sponsored by major brands just like they are in New York). The difference is that this parade takes place during the late afternoon so that all of the street lights and bulbs adorning the floats light up the night sky as soon as the sun goes down. You'll see many spectators holding candles and lanterns during the occasion, too. This is a symbolic act, as to light a flame during the festival is to celebrate the life we currently lead while being grateful for the life that lies ahead.
The Festival de la Luz is an extended party, and until it ends on the 1st of January, cities are filled with masquerade shows, street dancers, marching bands, fireworks, concerts, and other revelries. Don't worry about the exact schedule—as long as you're visiting sometime after the second Saturday in December, you'll be able to enjoy the party.
This is Costa Rica's equivalent of Christmas Eve. For the occasion, families prepare traditional dishes and take them to relatives' houses where they feast after midnight. Locals typically spend Christmas Day the same way as in the United States and elsewhere, with families gathered together and opening presents.
El Tope Nacional
The most popular equestrian parade in Costa Rica, El Tope Nacional, occurs on December 26th. The largest version of this nationwide annual celebration takes place in downtown San José. Thousands of people come dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, with many showing off their horses as well as their riding skills. The festival is an extension of the country's rich agricultural tradition, and it's a great event to take in the local flavor and imbibe in much local beer.
New Years in Costa Rica
If you plan to stay in the country for both Christmas and New Years, you'll find no shortage of fun. Also, once January 1st rolls around, locals go on vacation and crowd the Pacific coast towns. Know that while this makes major tourist destinations like the Nicoya Peninsula, Punta Arenas and Jacó more festive, they'll also be more crowded. Still, you'll find some great New Years Eve celebrations in these areas, particularly in Tamarindo. If you are here for New Years, be sure to eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. This is a symbolic tradition that represents each new month to come—and make a wish after each grape!
Here are some ideas for parties and places to visit to ring in the new year.
Fiestas de Zapote
Starting on Christmas Day and finishing on January 3rd, the Zapote neighborhood in southeast San José turns into ground zero for New Years celebrations. The local farmers market, in fact, gets converted into a fairground complete with carnival rides, bullfights, street food vendors, bars, and all sorts of other activities. This is where all the action will be in San José, with plenty of locals enjoying the festivities.
If you want to indulge in holiday merrymaking like a true Tico, you'll continue the party past January 1st. Beginning on the second Thursday of January the city of Palmares, north of San José, plays host to two weeks of non-stop raging. The population here swells to around one million revelers, and during this time there are horse parades, live music concerts, stand-up comedy acts, soccer matches, lantern processions, amusement-park rides, street food, and an almost endless supply of beer. The good thing is that because the festival is so long, it gives you the flexibility to arrange a visit of just a day or two (or even a long weekend), depending on your schedule.
New Years in San José
Note that most locals in San José take a week off around New Years and head for the beaches. That said, if you happen to be in the capital during this time and want to see a fireworks show, then you should head to high ground for a panoramic view of the Central Valley as the lights wash over it. One great vantage point is the view from Tiquicia Restaurant, located in the western hilly suburb of Escazú, in the west of the city. Known as a mirador (viewpoint), this eatery serves traditional Costa Rican fare and features wraparound windows and a terrace overlooking all of the valley below. Another restaurant that features jaw-dropping views perfect for firework-spotting is Le Monastere, also located in the western hills. If you don't feel like making the drive out west, you can also go to the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, in downtown San José. The top floor of this Hilton hotel has an opulent restaurant dining room with wall-length windows looking out over the whole city.
Those interested in a holiday party in the city can head to downtown San José's Parque Central on New Year's Eve. In this large park you can dance the night away with other revelers.
New Years in Tamarindo
If you do decide to ring in the New Year on the Pacific coast, make sure you head straight to the surf village of Tamarindo. It's renowned throughout the country as having one of the biggest parties, so you'll definitely want to be here when the clock strikes 12. You'll likely be spending most of your time on the mile-long central beach, Playa Tamarindo, because this stretch of sand is the perfect vantage point to view the fireworks and bonfires. Also, all the bars and restaurants fronting the beach, as well as those on the town's main drag, will be open and raging until well after midnight. Don't try to drive here, though, as the streets will be packed.
Holiday Foods in Costa Rica
Whether you're lazing on the beaches of Tamarindo or ringing in the new year at Palmares, you're going to have plenty of options for holiday food. Here we list some of the must-try staples of the holiday season. Know that most Costa Rican families typically eat their big holiday meal at midnight on Noche Bueno.
If you're a North American, you're likely aware of tamales. This is a popular Latin American dish comprised of corn masa (dough) filled with meat, wrapped in leaves and steamed. Tamales are a staple of holiday cuisine in Costa Rica, with many families preparing big batches to take to friends and relatives' houses for holiday parties. Typical Costa Rican tamales are made with pork or chicken and wrapped in plantain leaves.
Pierna de cerdo
When Ticos want to feast, be it during Christmas or New Years, they often go right for the pierna de cerdo, or roast leg of pork. At all the holiday festivals, you'll find vendors selling not only these morsels but other barbecued meats as well.
This is a delicious, decadent fruit cake that Ticos love to prepare over the holidays. Typically, it's made with dried fruit and soaked extensively in rum before baking.
The best way to think of this holiday drink is a Latin American version of eggnog. Popular in Mexico, Costa Ricans loves it too, and their version includes milk, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, and nutmeg. They'll either spike this concoction with rum or guaro (local cane liquor).