Introduction to Costa Rican Culture

Costa Rica is a small country of just under 5 million people situated in Central America. With an area of just 19,730 square miles – slightly smaller than West Virginia – it nonetheless packs a heck of a natural, ecological, and cultural punch. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Caribbean Sea in the east, around five percent of the planet’s biodiversity can be found within Costa Rica. Lush steaming jungles, towering green-clad mountains hosting misty cloud forests, fertile coffee-growing valleys, arid grasslands, and of course those pristine, tropical beaches draw in tourists, volunteers, and expats from all over the world every year to share in what Costa Ricans call the “pura vida“.

Pura vida” (pure life) is more than just two words. It’s an intrinsic part of Costa Rican culture, of Costa Rican life. In Costa Rica “pura vida” is that extra ingredient that makes life good. It’s a sense of being, almost, that feeling of low stress and low pressure that pervades throughout the country. “Pura vida” is a big reason why Costa Rica is often counted amongst the happiest countries in the world each year. Visitors to Costa Rica will hear these words as a greeting, as an expression of satisfaction, or simply as an exclamation. They truly sum up the Costa Rican way of life.

Costa Rican History

Columbus arrived on September 18th, 1502 on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. Anchored off of what is now the Caribbean province of Limon, he was greeted by friendly indigenous people. Columbus noted the warmth and friendliness of these people, the gifts that they gave, and – most notably – the fact that they wore a lot of gold. Later explorers also found gold in the country, lending the area the name of Costa Rica or “Rich Coast”.

The story of Costa Rica from this point onward is the all too familiar narrative of oppression and suffering as European conquistadors searched for glory and riches. Despite early finds of gold (in the Osa Peninsula – still today a center of low key gold mining) and the initial stories of fabulous wealth, Costa Rica turned out to be less fruitful than neighboring countries. The Spanish crown turned their attention to Mexico and Peru, which were both yielding vast sums of wealth for the Empire, while Costa Rica fell into obscurity. Costa Rica lingered in poverty-stricken obscurity for centuries.

Years later, modern Costa Rica has a very important export: coffee. It is now one of the most developed (and wealthiest) countries in Central America. It is also paving the way for peace and sustainability. It is now the oldest, most stable democracy in Latin America. Since the 1948 Civil War, the army has been abolished and successive governments have invested more into healthcare and classrooms than security. This has led to a reasonably well-educated population, which in turn as led to a large middle-class.

Costa Rican Culture & Lifestyle

The culture of Costa Rica is typically Latin American in that it’s heavily based on the Spanish culture and way of life. One major difference is the relative lack of indigenous influence within that culture that permeates more in other countries in Central America. Costa Rican culture reflects more on a farming, agricultural society, which is exactly what it was before the tourism boom of the past 30 years or so. Please find some bullet-pointed specifics below:

Costa Rica Today

Costa Ricans today live well in comparison to many of their neighboring countries. Tourism has replaced agriculture as the main source of income for the country, and Costa Rica has essentially written the book on eco-tourism. Costa Rica has also become a major service-industry provider, with companies like Amazon arriving to make use of the educated populace in their centers, providing well-paid jobs.

The Costa Rican People

Costa Ricans are overwhelmingly Europeans, mostly from Spain. The mestizo culture that is seen elsewhere in Latin America is not as prevalent here due to the decimation of the indigenous in the early days of Spanish settlement. The Caribbean coast is predominantly Afro-Caribbean due to the number of workers who arrived from Jamaica in the 19th and early 20th centuries to work on the railroads and banana plantations. There is also a small but Chinese population in Costa Rica. Today, many local convenience stores, all around the country, are Chinese-run. Costa Rica has also seen a large number of immigrants arrive from neighboring countries, particularly Nicaragua to the north. Nicaraguans make up the overwhelming majority of immigrants living in Costa Rica. There are also sizeable Colombian and Venezuelan communities, as well as around 50,000 North American and European expats. Costa Rican indigenous tribes are mainly limited to the Talamanca Mountains where the BriBri represent the largest native populations.

Costa Ricans are extremely non-confrontational people. This could be due to their recent non-military history. A Costa Rican will rarely tell anyone “no” for fear of offending them. Costa Ricans are also sticklers for “Tico Time”, which means they adhere to their own schedule and take their time. For example, if you agree to meet someone at 10, that may really mean 10:15 or 10:30. This isn’t considered rude, it’s just life in Costa Rica! Other typical examples of Costa Rican mannerisms and etiquette are the act of kissing/shaking hands for each greeting or goodbye – even if you’re in the street and only chatting for a couple of minutes.

Costa Ricans used to be conservative with their clothing. For the older generation, that still holds true, but anyone 45 or younger is generally more casual. No one will look twice at someone wearing shorts and t-shirt anymore, although most Costa Rican men will be in long pants and button-down shirts. Feel free to throw this concept away at the beach, where the “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” lifestyle is prominent.

Language

Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica, and the language that everyone speaks. On the Caribbean coast, English is widely spoken – or patois in any case (a form of English, Spanish and BriBri) – due to the Jamaican heritage of the Afro-Caribbean people who live there.

Relations with other countries

Costa Rica has good relationships with other countries on the whole. There are sporadic tensions with its northern neighbor, Nicaragua, partly due to access rights to the Rio San Juan, which forms much of the border and partly due to the amount of Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica. Outside of this, Costa Rica is well respected throughout the world as a peaceful beacon of democracy in a traditionally turbulent region.

Food and drink

Costa Rican food is quite basic and plain. It’s wholesome and healthy, consisting of chicken, beef or fish, with rice and beans. Rice and beans are the Costa Rican staple, and many people, especially those living in the countryside, eat nothing but this every day. Unlike Mexico, Costa Rican food is not spicy. Many Ticos also eat international food or fast foods nowadays, and most towns have all of the usual pizza joints you’d find in other countries. There are also a myriad of great international restaurants from all over the world, especially in the Central Valley.

Festivals, parties, and holidays

Costa Rica, like most Latin countries, has plenty of festivals. Every town and village has its own saint’s day. National holidays include Independence Day (September 15th), which is celebrated by parades in the street. Mother’s Day in Costa Rica is celebrated on August 15th to coincide with the feast of La Virgin de Los Angeles, the patron saint of Costa Rica. This is celebrated with a pilgrimage on foot to the Basilica in the city of Cartago by thousands of people each year. Another Holiday is the Annexation of Guanacaste Day on July 25th, celebrating the Province of Guanacaste joining Costa Rica from Nicaragua. This day is celebrated cowboy-style with horse and oxcart parades. Easter and Christmas are also popular holidays in Costa Rica. Costa Ricans also like to dance, and the Palmares Festival in January offers plenty of music, libations, and partying each year for a full week.

Nature and Conservation

Costa Rica is all about nature and wildlife. Jungles, mountains, and national parks are abundant. It’s also an adventure capital, with zip lining, rafting, surfing, hiking, and many other outdoor activities plentiful. If you enjoy the outdoors and an active lifestyle, Costa Rica is the place for you!

Currency

The currency in Costa Rica is the colon. The U.S. dollar is accepted throughout Costa Rica, although smaller bills are recommended. Credit cards are also accepted in larger cities and towns, and most ATM machines can deposit both colones and dollars.

So where is Costa Rica going? It’s a beautiful country, but it’s not without its problems. Costa Rica is the most expensive country in Central America – some would say in Latin America – by far, and price inequality is getting worse. Many people are finding the rising prices of basic staples a struggle. In the long-term, Costa Rica’s future is a bright one.

Build Abroad in Costa Rica

We work in the Central Valley – the most urban, populated part of the country where San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is situated. San Jose itself is relatively small, but the Gran Area Metropolitano (GAM) – Greater Metropolitan Area – which also includes the outer suburbs of the city stretching into the neighboring cities of Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago, is home to well over a million people. San Jose was an easy choice to hold our headquarters – it’s where people, buildings, and infrastructure are rapidly developing. It’s where we are needed most. We specifically work on repairing and renovating existing buildings rather than constructing from scratch. These include community buildings, schools, churches, women’s shelters and housing. We work with local organizations to determine best where we are needed.

San Jose is in the center of the country, making it an ideal base for exploration on the weekends. Most travelers leave San Jose to go on short trips to the coasts.

Conclusion

Costa Rica is a small country but a fascinating one. What it lacks in colonial heritage and history is more than made up in sheer, natural beauty and opportunities for adventure. A stay in Costa Rica is a stay in a tropical paradise. The most wonderful thing about Costa Rica, though, is its people. Costa Ricans are wonderfully welcoming. Working with Build Abroad in Costa Rica will allow you to experience all aspects of the country – the people, the natural beauty, and the pura vida!