A trip to Costa Rica is on almost everybody’s bucket list. Students from all across the globe choose to study Spanish in Costa Rica, families take advantage of the National Park system for vacations, and an increasing number of people every year choose to relocate permanently to this Central American country, either to start a business or for retirement. Whatever your reason for going to Costa Rica, we guarantee you will love it. With white sand beaches, jungle excursions, and the best weather on Earth, what’s not to love? Make the most of your time, whether that be for 1 week or the rest of your life, by reading through these 15 quick facts about Costa Rica. Understanding some basics of Costa Rican culture will help you avoid a lot of confusion and make the most of your time in this tropical paradise.
1. Ticos and Ticas
Costa Ricans call themselves ticos. Women are ticas, men are ticos, and the generic “tico” is used when talking about a group of people. You may not have heard this word before, but it’s very well-known across Central America and you’ll hear it a million times before you make it out of the airport. Tico is a respectful term and can be used to describe anything Costa Rican. Before you leave Costa Rica, be sure to learn some tico recipes and purchase a hand-made, tico hammock to bring back home with you.
2. Clothes and Fashion
You may be excited to see the traditional indigenous garb of Central America, with its bright colors and beautiful patterns, unfortunately, you won’t see any of that here. In some Central American countries, such as Guatemala, women still wear traditional garb. In Costa Rica, however, the clothing is all modern and Western styled. People will wear the same clothes as you do, so no need to purchase new clothing for your trip. If you want to see some traditional garb, you’ll need to go to a dance performance at a cultural event.
Costa Rica enjoys an exceptionally high life expectancy of 79 years, and it’s not much of a mystery why. Healthy life choices are part of the Costa Rican way. Internationally praised for the modern healthcare system, Costa Rica has been ranked the 36th healthiest country in the world by the World Health Organization. During your time in Costa Rica, you’ll be served lots of fruits and vegetables, do a lot of walking, and be asked to go on hikes and to active events. Take this opportunity to catch up with some of your health goals, your journey will be a lot easier surrounded by supportive, health-conscious people.
Be prepared to do a lot of kissing in Costa Rica. This may not be strange to Europeans, but visitors from the United States and Canada have a hard time adjusting. Every time you meet a new person or run into an acquaintance on the streets, you’ll kiss their cheek. Women kiss everyone, men only kiss the woman and offer a handshake to the men. Often, you’ll share a kiss on the cheek as both a greeting and a goodbye. And yes, you have to go around the room and kiss everyone there.
5. Environmental Care
25% of Costa Rica is protected territory. This country has 12 unique microclimates, 121 volcanic formations, and is filled with beaches, rainforests, mountains, and fertile lowlands. Culturally, caring for the environment is very important to Costa Ricans. Make sure you use reusable containers whenever possible and please don’t leave any trash outside, it will be very offensive to your local hosts. Costa Ricans turn on lights only during the nighttime, produce less waste, and will probably choose to pick up that spider in your shower and carry it outside instead of smashing it.
6. Tico Time
If you’re planning a long-term stay or a permanent move to Costa Rica, you’re going to need to learn a bit of patience. In Costa Rica, everything runs on tico time, that is to say, late. If you were promised lunch with a friend, don’t be surprised if your friend shows up nearly an hour late. This goes for friend outings, official business, and governmental processes. This can be very frustrating for newcomers to the area, but Costa Rica is the healthiest country in Central America and the happiest country in the world, so maybe we have something to learn from their pace. Enjoy your time and learn to go with the flow.
7. Local Military
If you haven’t heard much about the Costa Rican military, it’s because there isn’t one. Costa Ricans are very proud of having disbanded their military after the last civil conflict, and see the absence of an army as a promise for peace and prosperity. This will be mentioned to you by proud Costa Ricans multiple times during your trip, so it’s good to understand a bit of history.
8. Pura Vida
If you’ve spent more than an hour in Costa Rica, you’ve already heard the phrase “pura vida,” literally translating to “pure life.” This phrase is used constantly and has become known as an emblem of Costa Rica. It’s used as a greeting, to say thank you, to comment positively on something, and as a compliment. Get used to hearing this phrase in multiple contexts, all of which are happy and optimistic. Pura vida is much more than a phrase in Costa Rica, it’s a way of life that includes happiness, health, and relaxation.
Costa Ricans are happy and hospitable people, but above all, they’re polite. Adults use “please” and “thank you” with everything they do and an exchange of pleasantries is expected upon any meeting. When you walk into a room, you’ll greet everyone there and ask about their well-being. You need to offer your guests drinks when they enter your house, and you’ll be expected to chitchat with the people in line with you at the grocery stores. If you’re a Spanish speaker, get used to using the “usted” form above all else.
10. Roads and Addresses
Unfortunately for newcomers, Costa Rica still doesn’t have a totally developed address system. Most roads are not labeled and you’ll be hard pressed to find a decent map of the area. Houses don’t have addresses, just “direcciónes,” usually using a nearby landmark or church. You’ll get used to navigating this small country, but need to know how to ask for directions in Spanish, because sooner or later, you’re going to get lost. Try using map applications and online GPS systems for the best routes.
Costa Rica is still developing, but its educational system is top notch. If you are hoping to move to Costa Rica full time, you’ll have no difficulties finding public or private schools for your kids, and the university options are endless. Currently, Costa Rica has a 96% literacy rate, and even extremely poor families in rural settings can listen to free classes on the public radio.
12. Attempting Spanish
Your Spanish may be rusty and limited, but this is the time to practice. Costa Rica has a very active tourism sector, and the people are used to talking to people with language barriers. They’ll speak slowly, clearly, and be patient with your blunders. In a worst-case scenario, there’s usually a bilingual person nearby, as almost any high school or college student has a couple years of English under their belt. For those who already speak Spanish, you’ll need to adjust to some local words and sayings, such as “mae,” meaning dude, which will be dropped every other sentence.
13. Last Names
For whatever reason, names in Latin America is an endless source of confusion for visitors. Costa Ricans have 2 first names, your culture might call this a first and a middle name, but they also have two last names. The first last name is from their father, and the second last name is from their mother. Women do not change their names when they get married, and any baby will adopt the first last names from both parents, the father’s goes first, followed by the mothers. Often, people will present themselves to you by their first first name, and their first last name. All clear?
14. Ask Questions
Costa Rica does not have a shy or tentative culture, and you are expected to speak up. Feel free to be curious and ask questions to everyone. You’ll find yourself in deep conversations with taxi drivers, vegetable vendors, and the people in line at the bank, so take the opportunity to learn something new.
15. Relaxation Culture
Costa Ricans have their priorities straight. They work hard so they can live happy, relaxing lives with the people they love. Regardless of how busy a person might be, they’ll know how to enjoy a beer in a hammock after work or take a hike every weekend. During your time in Costa Rica, you’ll learn to balance work with a happy lifestyle. This may sound ridiculous, but you need to practice setting aside relaxation time every day. Don’t leave this habit behind when you leave either, you’ll need it if you want to live out the Pura Vida in your home countries.