Costa Rican Culture – Ten Things to Know

Many hopeful Costa Rica expats are interested in knowing what the Costa Rican culture here is like. As with all Latin American countries, Costa Rica is rich in culture and tradition. Of course, the concept of “culture” cuts across all aspects of life.

Based on my observations after living here for some time, here are ten aspects of the Costa Rican culture that you might want to know about.

1. Ticos are a very peaceful people, except when driving automobiles (or motos, i.e., motorcycles). They are decidedly non-confrontational. Therefore, even if they don’t agree with you, there may be signals that they do. This can, at times, be a bit confusing for expats.

2. As far as Costa Rican food is concerned, the signature “dish” of Costa Rica is gallo pinto, which is a rice and beans mix that is served at breakfast. Also, the “típico” (or traditional) meal served at lunch is called a “casado” and is a “marriage” (hence the name casado, which means married in Spanish) of rice, beans, a meat of choice, platano maduro (or, ripe plantain), salad and potato or yuca, sometimes also served with a fried egg on top.

3. Ticos are very laid-back when it comes to time issues and punctuality. Hence the often heard phrase, “tico-time,” usually used by gringos to refer to the fact that ticos are routinely late.

4. Like all Latin countries, ticos have their own idiosyncratic and colloquial expressions. The two most noticeable are the use of the phrase “pura vida” and the repeated use of the word “mae” in informal conversations. Pura vida literally means “pure life” and is used most often in greetings…such as in the exchange…”como esta?”…response: “pura vida.” Mae is a slang expression, and is used to represent what in English would commonly be replaced with “man” or “dude,” as in “how’s it going, dude?”…”como esta, mae?”

5. Costa Ricans love their music and dance. The most típico (again, traditional) style of dance is the “swing-criollo” style of cumbia that ticos dance in a way that is very unique to their culture. If you ever get a chance to watch a couple who really know their stuff, it can be quite an amazing sight.

6. Ticos are very family-oriented. The country is small, so you are never too far away from extended family members. Family get-togethers are a frequent happening, especially on the weekends. Holidays are always family-centered events.

7. Tico men are not shy at all about expressing the fact that they believe a woman to be attractive. So if you happen to be the object of admiring glances, or “piropos” (flirtatious remarks), it is better to be flattered than offended.

8. A man can be fooled into believing that due to the sensuality and sexiness of the ticas (Costa Rican women) that their attitudes about sex in general are liberal. That can get you into trouble. The normal Costa Rican lady (note, that I am not talking about the ones found in the “Hotel Del Rey”) is quite conservative, even though not shy about dressing and carrying herself in a way that men find irresistible.

9. Ticos are extremely patient people for the most part. I believe they have had to learn that from enduring endless lines at banks and government run monopolies like ICE (the telephone company). They are also known to administer “lessons in patience” when confronted with examples of gringo impatience.

10. Tico culture is for the most part extremely polite and cordial. It pays to learn to hold one’s temper and learn to say please and thank you. A good example of tico politeness is their non-use of the informal form of the personal pronoun you, which in Spanish is “tú,” opting rather to use the more formal “usted.”

I could go on, but I believe the above list represents common aspects of the Costa Rican culture that can help you adapt and have a better experience as an expat in Costa Rica.

Pura Vida!

Scott Bowers

I’ve been a resident of Costa Rica for the past 15 years. I first arrived in 2001 to broker the deal that sold one of the country’s premier private universities to a U.S. publicly-held education company. For the past decade I’ve been arranging eco-intensive Costa Rica vacation tours to locations throughout the country, as well as Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia. I’ve also worked with many of the indigenous tribes in Costa Rica, helping them sell their arts and crafts and keep their cultures alive. My most recent project, in addition to joining the Coldwell Banker Dominical Realty team, is to bring the joy of growing your own food with hydroponic gardening to homes throughout Costa Rica. In a former life, prior to becoming an expat in Costa Rica, I practiced tax and corporate transactional law in the Carolinas. I also have extensive experience as a business valuation consultant and mergers and acquisitions advisor to companies in a wide variety of industries. My wife and I have seven grown children between us. I love exploring the nature of Costa Rica and I am a life-long surfer. I’ve been a blogger about all things Costa Rica for the past decade and I’ve published one popular eBook entitled 100 Cool Things to do in Costa Rica. Credentials… - Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Campbell University School of Law - LL.M in Taxation, with distinction, from Georgetown University School of Law - M.B.A. from University of South Carolina - Chartered Financial Analyst - Former Certified Business Appraiser from the Institute of Business Appraisers - Former Licensed Real Estate Broker in N.C. and S.C.