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Thread: Weather in Costa Rica

  1. #1
    Moderator Speedy1's Avatar
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    Dec 2013
    San Sebastián, San José, Costa Rica

    Weather in Costa Rica

    I've been compiling data for a report for a client concerning weather in Costa Rica, and thought it would be a good idea to share some point with the board which I haven't mentioned in a long while, and which are of interest to visitors... and particularly of interest to potential residents of Costa Rica.

    There are a lot of misconceptions about Costa Rican weather. The travel guides talk about Rainy season and Dry season, as well as earthquakes and volcanoes. My report will include geological activity, so I'll include that information here, as well. The full report will be about 50 pages long, so I'll post the "CliffsNotes" version here...

    The major travel guides tend to discuss weather in Costa Rica in terms of weather in the USA, without actually comparing Costa Rican weather in a practical sense to the weather in the USA. Here is some real, comparative information on Costa Rican weather, in terms of weather in the USA...

    1) Residents of the San Diego, California area in the USA are familiar with the term "microclimate", but the term doesn't do justice to the weather in Costa Rica. The provinces of Guanacaste and Limón have large swaths of land with relatively uniform climates, and portions of the Alajuela and Heredia provinces have some climate consistency, particularly in their northern sections, most of the rest of Costa Rica experiences what I would call "Ultra-Microclimate." For example, my current home is 1.81 miles from my former home. Both are within the "Circunvalación" (beltline road/highway) of San José, and their altitudes at ground level differ by less than 30 feet MSL. However, the average daily temperature here is 8° (Fahrenheit) higher than the temperature at my former home, and I only get about 1/2 to 2/3 of the rainfall here that I got in my former home. My old home is close enough to my current home that I could easily see it without binoculars if its roof were high enough. I can count the windows in the taller buildings near my old home from the balcony of my current home. Nevertheless, the climate here is significantly different than the climate there. I miss the cool air and extra rainfall.

    If you're looking for a home here and weather is important to you... it's important to get accurate information regarding that subject. Moving just 5 or 6 blocks can make a drastic difference in the weather at your home. If you're interested living near or in downtown, comparing the climate right in downtown with the climates 2 miles north, east, south or west of downtown is like comparing the climates of 5 completely different countries.

    2) Ticos make a big deal out of their "extreme, severe weather", but severe weather in Costa Rica is extremely rare. At least... it was rare until about 5-10 years ago. Global climate change is glaringly evident in Costa Rica. Nevertheless, almost all of the "extreme, severe weather" shown on the 6 o'clock news here is not extreme weather at all...

    Flooding isn't caused primarily by torrential rains... The biggest culprit is poor drainage and clogged drainage systems. The ditches and storm sewers of San José probably contain more garbage than Costa Rica's landfills. Vegetative debris also clogs our storm sewers. Fortunately for me and my neighbors, a recent large project widening the nearby Circunvalación has brought a large number of road workers into our neighborhood. There is a constant line of them flowing in and out of the Mini-Super right across the street from my home. Over a year ago, I got together with my neighbors, and we pestered the road workers until they cleaned out the storm sewers in our neighborhood. We don't flood, but the neighborhoods 3 blocks around us, in all directions, do flood. We even get the flood waters spilling into our neighborhood from their neighborhood, but our storm sewers take care of all that extra water, too. We never have any standing water on our streets. For a people that are supposed to be so eco-friendly, most Ticos seem to view littering as some kind of National Sport.

    Thunderstorms over land here are a lot more common than just 5 years ago, and are even sometimes accompanied by strong "gust fronts", a phenomenon which was unheard of in Costa Rica 5 years ago. I was in a restaurant about 2 years ago and saw the storm moving in. The waiters and the manager didn't understand what I was trying to tell them. The rectangular restaurant building was built without 3 of the usual 4 exterior walls. For security reasons, the restaurant did have one exterior wall, on the side of the building facing the street. They had never seen rain "blown into" a building like that. Until recent years, rain always fell straight down in Costa Rica. Many homes here are built with "missing" exterior walls, as well. This is particularly true of the $1 Million-plus luxury homes built here. That method of construction is now being re-thought, as Costa Rica is experiencing a brand-new climate that is incompatible with that traditional style of construction. However, it's still not "severe weather"... Rather, it's just weather that is relatively tame by U.S. standards, but which is exacerbated by outdated design and construction.

    The winds during these storms, as well as the fair-weather winds during the high season, also cause problems for these "missing wall" buildings, since the furniture, fixtures, and inhabitants are not protected from the winds and wind-driven rains. Another problem with the winds is that the construction, in general, is not wind-resistant. Roof tiles are just "laid" onto the roof surface. Roofing on many buildings, even expensive luxury homes, is not attached to the building in any way, relying only upon gravity to hold itself in place. This is changing too. This type of roofing has worked in Costa Rica for hundreds of years, but it doesn't work any more. Flimsy, thin, single-pane window glass is also on the outs, as the wind can now shatter that glass and/or drive rainwater right through the glass, into the building.

    But... It's very easy to see that a halfway-decent house built "up to code" in the USA would not be affected in any negative way by this kind of weather.

    One of the biggest killers here in Costa Rica, during the rainy season, is floods followed by mudslides, which wipe out homes and kill a lot of people each year. But the weather is not the culprit. The Costa Rican government does a poor job of addressing the real issues, such as sheer vertical mountainsides and cliff faces composed mostly of loose rock and dirt, with little or no vegetation to hold the whole mess in place. This, of course, is a catastrophic landslide just waiting to happen, and all that is needed are 2 or 3 hard rains. The Costa Rican government is entirely reactionary in this regard. Nothing is fixed until after it breaks and kills people. Additionally, many of the homes in the landslide-prone areas are poorly constructed. It really doesn't take much of a mudslide at all to completely wipe out these buildings and everyone inside of them. A house in the USA that is built even remotely close to building codes would be impervious to these mudslides, which shouldn't even be occurring, anyway.

    At any rate, your best protection against flooding and mudslides in Costa Rica is easily understood by the average 8-year-old child... Don't purchase, rent, or build a home in a dumb-ass location, such as right under the rock and dirt vertical face of a 2000-foot-tall mountain, or at the lowest point of a "bowl", surrounded by mountains, with inadequate drainage.

    3) The really extreme weather of the USA, such as squall line thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes (or tropical storms) don't exist in Costa Rica... at least, not yet. One exception is the rare tornado here. About once every 3 or 4 years, Costa Rica experiences one confirmed Tornado. It's usually an F1 which is on the ground for less than a minute. Any building damage is, once again, primarily the fault of shoddy construction.

    It is possible, of course, for a hurricane to strike Costa Rica, but the shape of the Central American coastline and Costa Rica's proximity to the equator make it extremely unlikely that Costa Rica will ever be directly hit by a hurricane. In all of recorded history, Costa Rica has never been directly struck by a hurricane. However, the outer bands of a few hurricanes passing by have dropped torrential rains and have caused some wind damage in the past. Once again, that damage occurs mostly because Ticos are completely unaware of the dangers of such storms and how to protect themselves and their property against those dangers.

    Never say "Never"... but as a former resident of the USA, I have the knowledge and experience of these storms, combined with the modern construction of my current home, which will statistically protect my home and its inhabitants for over 100 years, with zero damage or injury. The kind of weather which can harm a well-constructed home in the USA simply does not exist in Costa Rica... yet.

    4) The travel guides make a big deal out of defining the "High", "Low", and "Green" seasons, but the truth is that the season in Costa Rica are far more complex than that. However, these "defined" seasons are important for vacationers and other visitors, because many of the hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-oriented establishments adjust their prices to coincide with that antiquated "season" system. Costa Rican tourism businesses shoot themselves in the foot by reinforcing the season concept in the minds of tourists. Tourists all over the world have been convinced by everyone, including Costa Rican businesses, that outside of the December - April high season, it rains 24 hours per day here, and its a terrible time to visit Costa Rica. The truth is that, for most people, if you plan your trip well, anytime of the year is a great time to visit Costa Rica. There are a few exceptions, such as river-rafting trips. It is true that most river-rafting operations cease for all or part of the green season, for two months or more, due to the higher, more dangerous river water levels. Also, because Costa Rica has scared away most of the tourists during green season, many popular tourist hangouts are closed for all or part of August - November.

    The real benefits of visiting Costa Rica during the low season or green season are:

    a) Many hotels, restaurants and tour operators are significantly cheaper outside of the high season.

    b) The long lines at the airport, which are common during high season, are rare during the rest of the year, with the exception of major holidays.

    c) Attention is often much more personalized. My girlfriend and I were the only guests at a 24-suite luxury 4.5-star resort during September 2015. The resort retains it full staff of 25 people year-round, so that the staff doesn't have to worry about their pay being interrupted or chaotic. The two of us had 25 staff members waiting on us hand-and-foot for 4 days. That was nice... but it's not an uncommon experience at that time of year. There are no crowds to fight and the traffic in the tourist areas is much lower.

    d) Although continuous multi-day rains do sometimes occur, they are rare, and they don't occur in all parts of Costa Rica simultaneously. The "Rainy" season in Costa Rica is not what most people in the USA think it is. A typical day in the "Real" rainy season in the central valley or on the Pacific Coast beaches goes something like this...

    You wake up in the morning to clear skies, or maybe a little mist and a few clouds. A couple of miles offshore, if the air is clear enough, you can sometimes see an army of rainclouds forming up for their daily afternoon assault on Costa Rica. If want to sunbathe or get some other kind of outdoor time before the rain starts, it's best to wake up early. If this is your first visit to Costa Rica, you'll quickly notice that Tico culture has adapted itself to this concept. If you don't wake up at or before 7:00 a.m., you're already way behind the power curve. Rush hour in San José starts early. On weekdays, no later than 5:30 a.m., the Circunvalación is already clogged with cars, trucks, and buses... all of the pulperias and mini-supers are open, and all of the restaurants that serve breakfast are already serving. Tourist-oriented hotels and resorts almost always serve breakfast until at least 9:00 a.m., but at 9:00 a.m., most Tico restaurants and sodas are already gearing up for lunch. Ticos know... if it doesn't get done before 2:00 p.m., then it doesn't get done. The rains move in at about 2:00 p.m. on most days, and the days' work is done. The rain usually starts earlier on the Pacific Coast, then moves quickly towards San José.

    It's also important to note that season and daily times most common for rain vary greatly throughout Costa Rica. Guanacaste, San José, Limón, etc... they all have different "Rainy" seasons and times of day when the rain usually starts and stops.

    5) Geological concerns in Costa Rica are real, but much like the mudslide and flooding issues, those concerns can be eliminated simply by not choosing a home in a dumb-ass location, such as at the base of an active volcano... and yes, there are plenty of idiots who do just that, all the time. Volcanoes are easy to identify, and therefore the life-threatening dangers of those volcanoes is easily avoided.

    The threats of earthquakes are a bit harder to predict and avoid. However, the earthquake threat in Costa Rica is largely overstated. Costa Rica has only experienced 3 earthquakes with a force of over 7 Mw in over 100 years. While there has been a tragic loss of life and substantial damage from the strongest earthquakes, most of the injuries, death, and damage are the fault of substandard construction, poor safety standards, and inadequate preparation.

    Nevertheless, the earthquake threat is, in the opinion of most people, including myself, the most serious weather or geological threat in Costa Rica. But I reiterate... choosing a good location for your home and ensuring that your home is "up to code" will protect you more than 99% of the time. New multi-level construction in Costa Rica -- just like my current, newly-constructed home -- is subject to strict earthquake-resistant building codes. I remember this well, because it cost me almost $20,000 U.S. to modify the original building plans for my home to comply with the latest building codes. The building has no foundation, in the traditional sense. Rather, the entire building is suspended from a steel grid, with each of the 24 steel columns supporting my home anchored into the ground by its own independent concrete/synthetic foundation. The second floor swings back and forth like crazy, even in the smallest quakes, but I guess that's the point. Just like the wing of a heavy airliner, if it's flexible and can bend, then it won't break. I have four cats in my home, and when my house starts rocking and rolling, the cats... well, suffice it to say that you can't buy comedic entertainment of that quality for any price. My home is certified to withstand a 9.1 Mw quake, although I was told that any unsecured furniture would be flying around the house like ping-pong balls during such a strong quake.

    You're more likely to get injured in an earthquake while you're not in your own home, particularly in a hotel, bar, restaurant or other business establishment. Nobody who is just visiting knows the details of the building's construction, and even a mild earthquake almost always causes a little confusion and panic. If it's nighttime in a crowded bar, I'd be more worried about getting trampled than any damage caused by the earthquake itself. Here's my personal opinion regarding earthquakes, and I've experienced a lot of them...

    Most people, especially those who have been in a few earthquakes in the past, usually subconsciously make a split-second "evaluation" of any building that they walk into. I know that I do. I don't really plan to do that... it's just natural. In San José, when you walk into a place like the Sportsmens Lodge or Key Largo, you'll notice, without even consciously thinking about it, "Hmmm... 19th-century Spanish construction... 3-foot thick concrete walls... even an army tank would just bounce off of this building." That's not entirely true, of course, but we do notice whether or not a building looks or feels like a "death trap" when we first walk into it.

    So... If I feel like a building is reasonably sturdy, I'm not going into full panic escape mode at the slightest tremor. As long as the place doesn't look like it would collapse just because I give it a stern look, I'm going to stay put and evaluate the situation before I move. My first primary concern is seeing if there is any glass or heavy furniture that is getting ready to fall on top of me. If not, I'll stay put and anchor myself... wide stance and grab onto something that isn't going to move in a million years. Ticos, on the other hand, are trained to panic and run at full speed for the closest exit, regardless of the nature of that exit. I have seen, on a couple of occasions, Ticos trying to descend a narrow, steep staircase in a maximum-speed sprint, while the whole building is rocking and rolling. It looks like a bunch of Ticos trying to run down the center aisle of a bus on an unimproved mountain road littered with rocks and potholes. They're banging into walls, falling down stairs, and running into each other. Even without the stairs, trying to get to an exit on the typical smooth-tile floors here in Costa Rica during any earthquake is just asking for a fall and a broken hip. If is currently raining or has rained recently, the floors will be at least slightly damp, and the rush for the front door will look like a bunch of cats trying to ice-skate.

    I'm not an earthquake professional, and I am not trying to give out any unsolicited advice, but I do truly believe that unless you feel that building collapse is imminent, it's best to get yourself stabilized. Don't move around any more than necessary to avoid imminent danger, such as a huge bookcase falling on top of you, or a huge glass window shattering right in your face. Your chances of not getting hurt, in my opinion, are far better if you stay put until the shaking stops. Once the quake is done, move cautiously towards the exit (an aftershock might strike quickly). If it was a strong quake, you'll want to get out after the shaking stops and have an expert inspect the building before you go back inside. Of course, every situation is different, and every situation requires a personal judgment call. If you get caught indoors during an impressive little shaker, you need to take a second and think, "Do I really want to run for the exit right now? Or should I hang on for a second and avoid falling down the stairs and breaking my neck?"
    Last edited by Speedy1; 08-17-2016 at 04:21 AM.

  2. #2
    Moderator Speedy1's Avatar
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    Dec 2013
    San Sebastián, San José, Costa Rica
    Be extremely cautious about traveling when the weather is questionable. Two large boats have capsized within the past two years. Ticos just hate to say "No" to anything. If you feel the trip is unsafe, then don't go. Don't ask... TELL the tour operator that you're not going and want to reschedule. If you're renting a car and driving yourself, be careful on mountain roads, especially at night. It's not unusual for the weather to be clear and beautiful, and then the road curves, and suddenly you can't even see the hood of the car, the fog is so thick. Most of Costa Rica's mountain roads are very narrow two-lane roads, with no shoulders and no guardrails. A few times, each year, a tourist driving a rental car just disappears. We tend to think that they accidentally drove off the side of one of those precarious mountain roads, but we don't know for sure, because most of them are never found. The drop is often more than 1000 feet into thick forest or jungle with no roads or people living anywhere nearby. Don't let a hired driver or aircraft pilot take you into an unsafe situation, either. About two years ago, a hiker, by sheer luck, stumbled upon a helicopter that had been missing for 8 years. The pilot apparently crashed into a mountain cloud forest in thick clouds and fog. The pilot's body was still inside the helicopter.

  3. #3
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    To add to Speedy's 'Wall o' Text' comprehensive post, my part of Costa Rica (the extreme northeastern Caribbean coast just shy of Nicaragua) - which is part of Limón province - has no defined rainy season.

    Our weather at the Lodge is consistent - low 90s / low 70s, chance of rain. Sometimes it rains more. Last spring (2015) was rainy as hell (March - May). This year (2016) it was dry as hell (the river was down so low the bus boat couldn't get over some of the sand bars with passengers onboard).

    I have people who book who are influenced by the whole 'dry season - green season' concept - which could be true for Los Suenos or San Jose, but we aren't there.

    But Limón province also has a significant inland half - with mountains that seperate the coast from a valley that runs southeast to northwest with inland towns like Guápiles - and those areas have another microclimate - they are seperated from the Central Vallley by the Cordillera Central mountains and from the northeast by 'mountains' (more like big hills) with Limón (the city) at the coastal end of the valley.

    So when I see a weather forecast for Guápiles (the nearest actual municipailty), it never matches the weather at the Lodge - or the weather in Limón city.

  4. #4
    Moderator Speedy1's Avatar
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    San Sebastián, San José, Costa Rica
    Quote Originally Posted by MM54 View Post
    To add to Speedy's 'Wall o' Text' comprehensive post
    I do tend to make some long posts, don't I?

    That's just because a big part of my job is travel-related writing, and I also do a lot of cut-and-paste from first drafts of my reports (which explains the occasional typo). I try to chop everything up into small paragraphs so that folks can skip over the boring bits if they want. Not much else to do on my breaks or when waiting for emails, spending 16 hours per day in front of a bank of monitors and computers.

    my part of Costa Rica (the extreme northeastern Caribbean coast just shy of Nicaragua) - which is part of Limón province - has no defined rainy season.
    But MM54 drives home the point... There is weather to suit your trip at any time of the year in Costa Rica, with few exceptions (like the aforementioned river-rafting trip). It's just a matter of matching your vacation time to the right location.

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