5 Great Books Set in Costa Rica That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Costa Rica That We Love

Wednesday, 25 August, 2021

The friendly inhabitants of Costa Rica are known as Ticos and Ticas — and they embrace the life philosophy of pura vida, the commitment to living a good life with a chill vibe.

You can hardly blame them. Costa Rica is a nature-lovers paradise with lush rain forests, soft sand beaches, and dozens of National Parks populated with colorful birds, mischievous monkeys, sweet sloths, and noble turtles.

After adventuring, you can while away the hours sipping a cup of rich Costa Rican coffee or nibbling on fried plantains. Pura vida, indeed.

Here are five books set in Costa Rica that will take you there on the page: a must-have coffee table book, a surprising family memoir, two action-adventure novels with wildly different approaches to nature, and a magical short story collection.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Costa Rica: Cloud Forests, Coffee, and Capuchin Monkeys.


Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion - Barbara Ras

Costa Rica
> Barbara Ras, Oscar Arias

The 26 short stories in this compelling collection — written in Spanish by 20th-century Costa Rican authors and beautifully translated — are arranged by geography. When read in order, they’ll take you on a literary journey from the north near Nicaragua, then head to the capital region of San Jose. Next, you’re off to the sunny beaches of both coasts to end your trip at the southern border.

In the standout mini-thriller She Wore a Bikini by Alfonso Chase (translated by Leland H. Chambers), the beautiful and mysterious Adelita Gonzalez goes missing. As the unnamed (and sympathetic) narrator explains, ‘no death notice has come out because the family isn’t certain whether she has been drowned, kidnapped, or murdered, since her body has never appeared. It seems that she spent those days writing in a notebook that has never been found…’

There are also stories laced with magical realism, literary meditations, fairy tales and fables, revenge plots, and 19th-century morality tales. The common thread? Vividly rendered settings that place you firmly in the jungles, villages, cities, and beaches of Costa Rica — against which family drama, history, colonialism, and daily life unfold. {more}

After we pass the city of Bagaces, we will arrive in Liberia, the White City, so called because in the past it was paved with limestone gravel, of which now barely a trace remains. But in point of fact, I must tell you this: our mothers and grandmothers recount that at night, in the moonlight, the city appeared completely white and luminous, and such was its brightness that you could read in the middle of the night without electric lights. Mystery Stone, Rima de Vallbona (translated by Barbara Paschke)

Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton

Jurassic Park
> Michael Crichton

If you’ve seen the movie, you might think you know the story, but we’re here to tell you, you need to read the book.

On the page, this story has all the elements we loved in the film — characters who are intelligent, complicated, flawed people; dinosaurs that are both terrifying and sympathetic; challenging conversations about science versus ambition; and some of our favorite lines, like: ‘God created dinosaurs. God destroyed dinosaurs. God created Man. Man destroyed God. Man created dinosaurs… Dinosaurs eat man… Woman inherits the earth.’

In print, there’s time for Crichton to really dig into the problems inherent in bringing extinct animals back to life. There’s the dawning realization that things have gone horribly awry, perilous dinosaur-vs-human fight scenes, peaceful moments with the most amazing creatures to walk the planet, and interpersonal sparks, romantic and otherwise — all played out in the lush, tropical jungles of an isolated island.

The story is told from several characters’ points of view, so we get to know the heroes and villains in equal measure. And you must read to the end to learn their fate! And along the way, brave the T. Rex, the pterodactyl, the stegosaurus, and — of course — the raptors. {more}

You know what’s wrong with scientific power? It’s a form of inherited wealth. And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are. — Michael Crichton

National Parks of Costa Rica - Gregory Basco, Robin Kazmier

National Parks of Costa Rica
> Gregory Basco, Robin Kazmier

Plop this gorgeous, large-format book on your coffee table and get lost in the candy-colored wonder that is Costa Rica.

Photographed by award-winning photographer Gregory Basco (who lives in Costa Rica) and written by Robin Kazmier — science editor at PBS’s long-running science series NOVA, this is an immersive exploration of 10 of Costa Rica’s national parks.

The small nation of Costa Rica takes its national parks very seriously. Parks comprise 25% of its total landmass, and some of them are reserved exclusively for the animals and plants that live there. No humans allowed. Costa Rica is home to the largest remaining (and growing) tropical dry forest in the world, the largest mangrove forest in Central America, legendary cloud forests, and numerous sea turtle nesting sites.

Arranged by park, this book uses almost-painfully beautiful photos to take you on a tour of the flora, fauna, and landscapes of Costa Rica, from rainforest to coastlines, mountains and rare dry forest.

Kazmier’s accompanying prose is incisive and insightful, delivering context — location, must-see details, and the park’s significance – along with vivid flavor text. You’ll feel the humidity and hear the chattering of the monkeys. {more}

How did such extraordinary diversity of wildlife and habitats come to be? Millions of years ago, the North and South American continents were separated by an ocean, and each landmass had a distinct set of plant and animal species. Geological processes, driven by plate tectonics, slowly began to form the Central American isthmus. Somewhere between 15 and 12 million years ago, the gap between the continents was finally closed, with the gradual emergence of what are now Costa Rica and Panama; this ‘final’ piece of the isthmus is often referred to as the Panamanian land bridge. With this linking of the continents, animals in the north began to move south and animals in the south began to move north, an event known as the Great American Interchange. This led to the mixing of species — many meeting for the first time in Costa Rica — and the extension of the ranges of many. Today, a number of animals originally from North America reach their southern limit in Costa Rica, and the same is true for several animals originally from South America, who reach their northern limit in Costa Rica. — Gregory Basco & Robin Kazmier

Wide-Open World - John Marshall

Wide-Open World
> John Marshall

Author John Marshall and his wife had been married for 20 years — with a teenage son and daughter and all the other responsibilities that come free-with-purchase when you’re an adult. They’d always had a dream to travel the world as a family, and the time to make that happen was ticking out.

While discussing ways they might be able to afford flights, hotels, and meals for four during a global adventure, they had a brainstorm: Why not volunteer in exchange for room, board, and transport? Eventually, with their house rented, jobs abandoned, school put on hold, and personal effects in storage, the Marshall family was on the move with backpacks and good intentions.

This honestly written, funny, and moving memoir tells the story of their six months exploring Costa Rica, New Zealand, and India — and the family dynamics along the way.

Their first stop is a wildlife center in Costa Rica amidst 700 acres of rainforest. It’s reachable only by boat, and there are no roads, hotels, or restaurants. But there are plenty of free-range spider monkeys, and for a month, the family act as monkey nannies to the furry orphans.

There are plenty of problems along the way: monkey bites, internet withdrawal, humidity, bug bites, seemingly endless, bumpy bus rides, and hundreds of other indignities, small and large. There’s beauty and insight and connections with people from different cultures in this story of an extraordinary family vacation. {more}

We wouldn’t just be sightseeing. We’d be helping. Instead of impersonal hotels and budget restaurants, we’d be in communities where we were needed, making connections to local people, eating with them, living with them. Some people report having their lives forever altered by a single week of overseas service. So what could a whole year do? — John Marshall

Operation Tropical Affair - Kimberli A. Bindschatel

Operation Tropical Affair
> Kimberli A. Bindschatel

Imagine the exact opposite of an idealized U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, and you’ve got our heroine Poppy McVie. She’s six-feet-five-inches of attitude stuffed into a cute, 5’2” woman’s frame. And she’s routinely underestimated by wildlife poachers right up to the second she’s slapping the handcuffs on their wrists. She’s also dangerously obstinate and is challenged by following rules — any rules.

When the story opens, she’s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, tracking poachers she’s convinced are after a recently released bear. After handily saving the bear and kicking the poachers’ butts, she gets a call from Special Ops: They’re nine months into an undercover operation to bust a ring of exotic animal traffickers in Costa Rica. And they need Poppy to join the team.

In her quest to thwart the bad guys and save innocent animals, she routinely picks fights with her investigative partner, gets tangled up with a sexy animal rights activist, befriends a one-armed monkey, and finds herself at a beach party and a high-stress dinner with the smugglers — both of which threaten to blow her cover.

Author Kimberli A. Bindschatel is an animal lover and wildlife photographer on a mission to bring attention to the global problem of animal trafficking — now an annual $20 billion business third only to drug and weapons sales. Her novel is an exhilarating way to explore this Central American country and raise awareness of the blight of animal trafficking. {more}

There was no denying though, this truly was a nature lover’s paradise. The trees were filled with birds, squawking, chirping, chattering. An iguana scampered off the path where it had been basking in the morning sun. From above, I heard a distinctive swish in the canopy. Two white-faced capuchin monkeys scampered across a limb like a couple of squirrels. The way these two could romp through the treetops was breathtaking to watch. They dropped down, one at a time, to swing on a hanging vine, then flip over onto the next limb, keeping balance with their prehensile tails. One seemed to notice I’d stopped. He sat back on his haunches, his arm around a branch, his round, black eyes lit with curiosity as he chittered at me with his high-pitched call. — Kimberli A. Bindschatel

Top image courtesy of Atanas Malamov/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

Costa Rica offers a sweet combination of chill (sunny beaches, pura vida) and action (volcanoes! ziplining! surfing!). Join us on a virtual trip to Central America and prepare to blow up your TBR with great books.
Costa Rican meals are usually a rainbow of fruits and veggies with rice and black beans making an appearance on almost every plate. This comfort food is gussied up with the ubiquitous elixir known as Salsa Lizano.
Brilliant green birds and sweet-faced sloths. Turquoise blue water and treetop hotels. Fried plantains and ceviche. The photos on these Instagram accounts are everything you need to fully understand the pura vida.
Bright lime juice, fresh fish, and a surprising secret ingredient combine in this simple recipe that will instantly transport you to a beach in Costa Rica. Fresh and flavorful, it's a tropical vacation in a bowl.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.