As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at a Spanish language school in Heredia, beginning my next slow travel adventure. Having 3 weeks here, I plan to learn as much as I can about the culture of Costa Rica and its way of life. The upcoming information in this blog post is only the tip of the iceberg. So, rest assured you will be reading much more about Costa Rica over the next couple of months here. Pura Vida!
Disclaimer: The links at the end of this post are affiliate links, meaning that if you click through & make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
Where is Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is in the southern part of Central America, right above Panama.
The country is also perfectly situated to receive the northern trade wind, which hits one of its mountain ranges, the “Cordillera de Tilarán.” The mountain slopes then push the air upwards to cool down, resulting in low-hanging clouds of mist hugging the higher parts of the mountains, hence its famous “Cloud Forests.”
What makes Costa Rica cool?
First off, the literacy rate of this country is 96%. NINETY-SIX. And education has been free and mandatory since 1869. How cool is that?!
If you’re still reading, I might just get you with this one… One of the country’s biggest exports is COFFEE. They have the best-tasting coffee, and I can attest to this. It’s also home to the most stunning nature destinations like the massive La Fortuna Waterfall, or the coast of Paquera where you can see the bioluminescence.
The national army was also abolished in 1948 in stark contrast to the rest of the continent, which use their armies as a defense. This leads me to the next cool thing about the culture of Costa Rica…
La Pura Vida
The most important phrase to the lifestyle and culture of Costa Rica is “Pura Vida.”
It directly translates to “Pure Life” in reflection of the way the locals (Ticos and Ticas) live in this country. Five percent of the planet’s biodiversity is in this tiny country. Ticos depend a lot on their environment and natural resources. They eat the healthiest food I’ve ever tried, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re very polite and very considerate of other people. Sustainability and eco-tourism are right on trend in Costa Rica.
Because of this, Costa Rica has been ranked the happiest country in Latin America, year after year. The 23rd happiest country in the world as of March 2022, winning over Singapore by 4 placements and just closely topping the United Arab Emirates.
When you’re in Costa Rica, you will hear this phrase EVERYWHERE, all the time. But what exactly does it mean? Here are some of the occasions you can usually get away with just saying “Pura Vida.”
- Greetings (Hello, goodbye)
- Thank you
- You’re welcome
It also can be used in a sarcastic context. Say, when your friend posted a really fun picture from her trip to Monteverde and she never told you she was going… and you commented TFTI (Thanks for the invite).
In Costa Rica, you’d trade TFTI for “Pura Vida!” This is under a sarcastic context, used with friends.
You can also use Pura Vida as an adjective! If a friend is introducing you to her other friend and she says “Relax, she’s very Pura Vida!” This means that woman is very nice!
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish, with its own variations on smaller things like the local sayings or word choices.
The thing that took me aback the most was the fact that Ticos use “Vos” instead of “Tú” to address a second person. However, people barely use the informal form of “You” outside the home, even with friends.
My host family never even uses “Vos” within the family. It’s always “Usted” which is the most polite way in Spanish to address someone. It feels almost too formal in countries like Spain and Mexico, like a mark of distance. But Ticos simply see it as the usual way of addressing other people. Sometimes, using tú can even feel like a lack of respect.
About the Cats and Dogs…
Cats and dogs have made their way into a lot of Costa Rican sayings. For example:
- El gato está echado. (The cat is asleep.)
- This means there is food in the home, but no one to cook them, so the children are starving.
- El gato está muerto. (The cat is dead.)
- Taking it a bit further than the previous, this means there isn’t even any food in the home!
- Tener un perro suelto. (To have a loose dog.)
- If you have a loose dog, it means you’re starving.
- You can also say “I’ve brought home a loose dog” when you return home from work or school if you haven’t eaten anything all day and are starving!
But you know the funniest part about this? When it comes to rain, they don’t say “It’s raining cats and dogs.” They say “It’s raining toads and snakes!”
Money and Shopping
The Costa Rican currency is called “Colón” or “Colones” in the plural. One US Dollar currently equals 653.02 Colones, so don’t panic if every price tag in this country looks terrifying to you.
Food and Drinks
From my point of view, traditional Costa Rican food sits somewhere between Mexican and Caribbean cuisines. It’s also my opinion… that it’s the best of them all. Sue me.
Below I’m listing out some of the most typical dishes, and ones that I’ve already tried.
The traditional Costa Rican breakfast! Gallo Pinto is rice and black beans cooked in broth. It’s usually served with some form of cooked eggs (scrambled, sunny-side up, etc), with a block of white cheese and some sour cream.
As much as we’d eat eggs and bacon any time of day, it’s much less typical to see a Tico eat Gallo Pinto for lunch or dinner.
Casado means “Married.” Confused?
Back in the days when men would go work on coffee plantations, everyone would bring their own lunch. And word has it that the married men always brought so much more food, enough to share with everyone (because he has a wife at home cooking for him). If someone shows up with a full plate of food, it was always the married man.
So there you have it! Casado is a BIG dish that consists mainly of rice, a type of meat, black beans, fried plantains, and as many other toppings and sides as you can think of. And it is the most common dish the locals have for lunch or dinner.
Directly translated to “Black Soup,” Sopa Negra is made of black beans, onions, bell peppers, and garlic stewed in chicken broth. It’s usually topped with cooked eggs in any style, some hot peppers according to preference, and A LOT of cilantro.
Known as Tostones in some Latin American countries, “Patacones” is a Caribbean specialty from the East Coast of Costa Rica. It’s basically mashed and deep-fried pieces of unripe plantains.
In Costa Rica, they’re usually eaten alongside a meal, like a Casado. It can also be treated like crackers, where you’d top it with meat and sauce, or mashed and spiced black beans, sausages, and so on.
Tortilla de Queso
Done Costa Rican style, the cheese is added to the Tortilla flour before cooking. These tortillas are not as thin as Mexican tortillas. They are more like savory pancakes than anything. You can either snack on them alone, or have them with sour cream and other side options like beans, sausages, or vegetables.
Arroz con Leche
Although this rice pudding isn’t strictly a Costa Rican specialty, it is to die for.
Arroz con Leche is widely consumed in Spain and Latin American countries, each country having its own variation of the dessert. The Costa Rican version follows the Spanish recipe of milk, cinnamon, and sugar. Sometimes local produce like pineapples or raisins is added.
At first glance, this typical Costa Rican drink looks like coffee… It’s unrefined cane sugar dissolved in water. This means it has the beautiful aroma of brown sugar, but with an absolutely perfect sweetness level. Imagine that…
The locals usually have Agua Dulce hot with breakfast. But it’s totally fine to have some at any time of day. I may have had a bit too much of it…
When ordering Agua Dulce, you can either get one with water (called Agua Dulce Negra) or with milk (con Leche). The second option spares no victims. It is CRAZY GOOD.
This is another must-try drink. Cas is a fruit native to Costa Rica. To me, it looks and tastes very similar to any guava you’d find in Thailand. But I have to say, Cas is just a little bit sourer and tastes fresher than your average guava juice. It also balances out a heavy plate of Casado very well.
So there you have it! Your first dose of the Pura Vida lifestyle. If you’re considering visiting the country, check out my list of top things to do there to help you plan. And if you plan on renting a car, make sure you know the driving situations there as well!