When you travel to another country, you’re most likely looking to have a great time and to do some celebrating. Well, Costa Rica is a great place to go for celebrations. Whether you’re looking for a ready-made party where you can celebrate your honeymoon, promotion, or birthday or you're looking to immerse yourself into the local culture, January is a great time to head to Costa Rica.

Concert at Fiesta de Palmares 2012 (courtesy of www.fiestaspalmares.com
Concert at Fiesta de Palmares 2012 (courtesy of www.fiestaspalmares.com

1. Fiestas del Palmares

There are many ways for people to kick off the new year, but there aren’t many ways that compare to how Ticos kick off the new year. Fresh off the festive feeling of the holidays, residents of Alajuela throw one of the country’s biggest – and most anticipated – parties of the year. This traditional Costa Rican celebration, Fiestas del Palmares, takes place in Palmares, which is a small coffee town with a big heart. It lies between Alajuela and San Ramón, and it becomes the focus point of the country in the first month of the year. This huge event is a grand party that includes a number of events for music lovers, sports event enthusiasts, and families. It’s a great way to get familiar with local food and to sample local beers and alcohol, and travelers with families will enjoy the fireworks and all of the fun games and rides that are available at the carnival. The festival also features bullfights and lots of fun international music and comedy entertainers. There are several sporting events to attend as well, which is a great activity for families and for groups of travelers.

A large crowd at the Palmares Fiestas, Palmares (photo by vmv205)
A large crowd at the Palmares Fiestas, Palmares (photo by vmv205)

The celebrations kick off with a tope, which is a horse parade. Participants go all out, dressing up in their cowboy and cowgirl gear and riding through town (on a parade route, of course). This is a sight to see, since the parade can include thousands of horses from all over the country! Not all the riders are just riders, either. Many of them will also do tricks while riding, such as standing up on their saddles or dancing on their saddles.

For those looking for a good party, you’ll find it after the horse parade. There are tents set up everywhere, serving food and drinks and more food and more drinks. Those spending a night drinking in the tents will meet not only locals, but Costa Ricans from all over the country that are there to celebrate. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes that you can dance in!

One of the clear favorites of the festival are the concerts. There are a wide range of stage acts, and there are also street performers. The stage acts pull international superstars from Reggae and Latin rock genres, among others. The biggest acts take the stage on Sundays, so clear your schedule for that! There are several fireworks displays throughout the festival, so plan to stay past sunset.

No festival would be complete without a rodeo. The fairgrounds at Palmares fiestas feature traditional bullfighting and a rodeo. The "redondel" will feature Toros a la Tica during the the first two weeks of the celebrations. This is a style of bullfighting that is traditional in Costa Rica. The event is an attention-grabber, and there are thousands of spectators and participants. What makes this event fun is that the bullfighters are not trained – it is really just anyone that is brave enough to face a bull. Anyone is allowed to get into the pit with the bull, to taunt him. Though the bulls can be scary, the bullfighting events usually end up being more comical than serious. Don’t worry – this event is not a duel, and the bulls are never harmed and certainly aren’t killed! There are some events that feature performances from Spanish-style bullfighters, though these are more rehearsed professionals, and not random festival attendees. Either way, the bullfighting show is a hoot to attend and watch.

Hat sale in PalmaresHat sale in PalmaresPhoto Credit : crissorama

2. Fiesta Patronal de Santo Cristo

Catholicism is a major part of Costa Rica's national identity, and the Fiesta Patronal de Santo Cristo is held every January to honor Santo Cristo de Esquipulas, or the Black Christ of Esquipulas. This depiction of Jesus hangs in the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala, but the festival is also held in Santa Cruz in the province of Guanacaste. Taking place in mid-January, the Fiesta Patronal de Santo Cristo is an important religious festival, and a traditional ox cart parade is a central part of the event.

Catholic church in Palmares
Catholic church in Palmares

3. Festival de las Mulas

To experience a uniquely Costa Rican celebration in January, head to the town of Playa Esterillos near Jacó for the Festival de las Mulas. The main attraction of this event is the mule races that take place on the beach, and riders from all over the country gather on the sand to test their mule-racing skills to the delight of the crowd. Traditional Spanish bullfights are another big draw. The Festival de las Mulas also features live music and a large arts and crafts fair - perfect for finding an authentic souvenir of your trip. No matter where you're planning to visit, a traditional Costa Rican festival is the ideal way to experience the pura vida lifestyle for which Ticos are famous. Be sure to dress appropriately in sun-friendly attire. Bring sunglasses and sunblock, and don’t forget to stay hydrated throughout the day (beer doesn’t count!).

Unlike North America, January in Costa Rica is the height of the dry season, meaning you're in for sunny weather and lots of reasons to celebrate with the locals. Keep in mind that these festivals will mean big crowds. Plan your trip out in advance and be sure to book your hotels before they fill up and sell out. Check to see if any of the events you want to attend have advanced tickets for sale, and scoop up what you can ahead of time.