Each year we get many questions about what it is like during Christmas and New Years in Costa Rica. People want to know about the weather, local traditions, and which businesses will be open during the holidays. This time of the year is one of our favorites. In this post, we’ll let you know what to expect during these festive times.
Preparing for the Holidays in Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, the first signs of Christmas begin to appear in early November. At that time, you’ll find a few Christmas trees shining brightly in people’s homes and on outdoor porches. By early December, most locals have their homes and businesses modestly decorated.
Christmas trees are mostly artificial in Costa Rica. In the mountains though, where it is cooler, you can find real trees. These look something like an arborvitae, with fine fluffy needles. They are usually about three or four feet tall. Occasionally, real trees are sold near the beaches, but they tend to dry out quickly from the heat.
Along with Christmas trees, there are lights, ornaments, nativity scenes, and even the occasional reindeer or Santa Claus statue. The big shopping malls in and around the capital of San Jose have giant artificial trees decorated, garland hanging, and Santa’s Workshop setup. One year there was even a snow machine and ice rink in the mall. It was melting fast but still fun!
The local municipalities also decorate for Christmas since the Catholic religion dominates in Costa Rica. Lights and nativity scenes are placed in each town’s central square or park.
Parades and Activities
Though this year (2020) was different, bigger towns usually have a Christmas parade as well. These are usually held in early December.
One of the most famous is the Festival de la Luz (Festival of Light). This nighttime parade has lots of bright floats and marching bands playing holiday tunes. It also has traditional dancers and mascaradas (life-size masks) and is a big cultural event. The Festival of Light brings together tens of thousands of families along Second Avenue and Paseo Colon in downtown San Jose.
Another tradition is El Tope Nacional in San Jose, right after Christmas on December 26. Hundreds of horses and their riders prance a high-step trot through the city streets.
For New Years, many municipalities have a fireworks display. Locals set off smaller ones too in their communities and on the beach.
Costa Rica’s Weather in December and January
December is the beginning of the dry season for most parts of Costa Rica. By Christmas and New Years, rainfall is very infrequent in most places. Temperatures range from the mid-70s (low or mid-20s °C) in the mountains to high 80s or even low 90s (30s °C) at the beach. Read our post Weather in Costa Rica: What You Need to Know for a more detailed breakdown.
One fun thing about the weather for January is a local belief, called La Pinta. According to some Ticos (Costa Ricans), the first 12 days of the year will predict the weather for each month. For example, if it rains on January 6, then June (the sixth month) will experience higher than normal rainfall. We have actually found this to be mostly true!
Peak Season for Costa Rica
Along with the warm weather in December and January comes the peak tourist season. Many foreigners travel to Costa Rica during Christmas and New Years, as they have time off from work and school.
Crowds are then compounded by local tourists as well. Costa Rica’s school year ends in early/mid-December, so the kids are released for summer break. Locals also get their yearly bonus (aguinaldo) and many have vacation time in late December/early January.
Since the majority of Costa Rica’s population lives inland around the Central Valley, it is a big tradition to head to the beach. Large groups of family and friends normally meet up at the country’s various beaches. They fill hotels, resorts, and even camp out in tents right along the sand.
Traditional foods are shared like ceviche made from fresh fish or olla de carne, a traditional beef stew. While it changed a bit this year with Covid, we still have seen many families camping out and picnicking.
What is Open During Christmas and New Years in Costa Rica?
If you are traveling during Christmas and New Years in Costa Rica, expect most things to be open for you. Tour operators, attractions, national parks, restaurants, shops, and other businesses related to tourism are busiest during these dates and remain open. Restaurants often will have special menus for Christmas and New Years.
Grocery stores, mini-markets, and large retail stores will be open too but may have different hours. For example, they may close early on Christmas Eve or open late on Christmas Day/New Years Day.
On the other hand, things like banks, government offices, supply stores, and anything else non-tourism related likely will have different hours or be closed. We once waited about four weeks for a car part when we tried to order it right before Christmas.
Our Favorite Things About Christmas and New Years in Costa Rica
Having spent six of the last seven years in Costa Rica for Christmas and New Years, we have begun to develop some traditions of our own. Some of these are borrowed from back home in the United States, and others we have picked up from Costa Rica.
Food for the Holidays
In our home, we traditionally bake Christmas cookies sometime in mid-December. We decorate them and give them to neighbors and friends. Ticos are lovers of sweets, but as far as we know, don’t make cookies for the holidays. They are always very well received!
Though we haven’t made them ourselves yet, one classic Costa Rican dish that we always enjoy around Christmas and New Years are tamales. They are often gifted to us or we buy them from a local family.
Tamales are made with corn flour, vegetables, rice, and usually chicken or pork. They are elegantly wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed to cook. We’ve tried many variations, and they are all delicious.
For New Year’s Eve, we like to partake in a Costa Rican tradition of eating 12 grapes. Grapes are a luxury fruit in Costa Rica since they are imported and expensive. It is said that if you eat 12 grapes, one for each month, at midnight, your year ahead will be prosperous. Hey, it’s worth a try!
A Tasty (Spiked) Drink
Rompope is a traditional Costa Rican drink that we enjoy for the holidays. This one we had back in the United States as well, but it is called eggnog. You can purchase Rompope in stores and we even ordered some from a local dairy farm this year. Most Rompope already has rum added, but for the batches we make at home, we add our own.
A Festive Mood
Probably the thing we love most about the holidays in Costa Rica are how festive it feels. Everyone seems to get into the holiday spirit. At stores and restaurants, people will say Feliz Navidad (Merry Christmas). Families will take pictures in front of a Christmas tree in the park. And there are lots of charity and toy drives to help those in need.
Like we mentioned above, the beach is one of the most festive environments. And while sometimes large groups at the beach can be a bit loud and obnoxious, for the most part everyone is cheerful and friendly.
We always seem to park ourselves next to some nice family, barbequing delicious food, sharing stories, and laughing. It’s even common to see rocking chairs set up for the elderly family members.
Christmas and New Years is definitely different in Costa Rica. But culturally, it is very similar to what many of us grew up with. It’s about giving, spending time with family, reflecting on the year gone by, and looking forward to the year ahead. If you are planning your travel during this time, we hope you take part in some of Costa Rica’s traditions and bring along your own as well.
Have a question about visiting Costa Rica during Christmas or New Years? Ask us below.
Looking for more information to plan your trip? Check out these posts:
Planning a Family Vacation to Costa Rica – Coming with the kids? Use this post to pick an airport, narrow your destinations, and get useful tips about traveling as a family.
Costa Rica Destination Guide – This post summarizes all of Costa Rica’s top destinations and some off-the-beaten-path ones as well. We also link to our full destination write ups so you can further plan.
Rental Car Discount – Rental car agencies often run out of inventory around Christmas and the New Year. Book early and save money with this discount.