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Native coffee cart | © Amanda/Flickr
Native coffee cart | © Amanda/Flickr
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Traditions and Customs Only Costa Ricans Understand

Picture of Jenn Parker
Updated: 11 March 2017
There are a great deal of customs, traditions, and even vocabulary that is endemic to Costa Rica, and natives are proud of their heritage, roots and history. As a visitor, there might be actions and words that come across as rude, offensive, or bizarre, but in reality are polite, endearing, and part of the nation’s fabric.

Non-confrontation

In general, Costa Ricans are very well-mannered and taught at a young age to always be polite. The act of confrontation or accusation is considered impolite. Even when there is a time of civil unrest, those involved typically demonstrate dissatisfaction through peaceful and organized marches. Because of this ingrained attitude and behavior, most Costa Ricans will sway away from giving direct answers unless they are absolutely certain. A common phrase “puede ser” translates to “maybe” in English. This phase is often used, not to lie or mislead, but to avoid potentially hurting someone’s feelings.

Peaceful in nature
Peaceful in nature | © Roman Koenigshofer/Flickr

Punctuality

La hora tica” pretty much sums it up. “Tico time” is fully accepted around the country. It is common and not considered rude or disrespectful to show up 30 minutes late (and sometimes even more) to an engagement, whether it be dinner or a party. It is part of Costa Rican culture to arrive “fashionably late.” However, it is quite rare for one to be late to a movie or a healthcare appointment; most of the time Costa Ricans line up early for these two things.

Traditional oxcart
Traditional oxcart | © Alberto Gonzalez/Flickr

Some slang

There is a very long list of Costa Rican slang. Oftentimes, the literal translation in English makes absolutely no sense, but has great meaning in Costa Rican Spanish. Some words and phrases only have meaning in Costa Rica. For example:

Mae” (pronounced like “my”) is a word that is used in the same way that we might say “dude.”

Tuanis” translates to “cool,” and is often paired with “que” to mean “how cool?” or “very cool.”

Que chiva” is another commonly used phrase that means “awesome.” The literal translation of this phrase though is “what goat.”

Despiche” is a word that is used when everything feels like it is falling apart or is a mess. The root of the word “piche” is slang for penis though…

Goma” is a word that means a hangover, but, more literally, means glue.

Terms of endearment

Costa Ricans just call it as it is sometimes. If someone called you “little chubby,” it is likely that you would be highly offended and self-conscious. However, calling a friend or loved one “gordito/a” is an endearing term. The same goes for “flaco/a” for a friend or loved one who is on the skinny side. Costa Ricans oftentimes will refer to those with darker skin as “Negro,” or someone of Chinese decent as “Chino.” Again, in Costa Rica there is nothing offensive or politically incorrect about these “pet names.”

Bombas

Bombas are improvised oral limericks or poems that are a tradition in the Guanacaste province. Limericks are four lines with the second and fourth lines rhyming. The interjection “bomba!” is the cue that a bomba is about to be shared and everyone stops and listens. A lot of times, a bomba battle will take place and bombas are exchanged back and forth between two or more people. Bombas can be humorous, romantic, naughty, or even derogatory; but nonetheless entertaining. Example of a bomba (The English translation doesn’t rhyme):

Quisiera ser escalera (I’d like to be a ladder),
con un solo escalon (with one rung),
para subir a tu pecho (to be able to climb your chest),
y hablar con tu corazón (and talk to your heart.)”

Family values

It is common for multiple generations to live within one house and take care of one another. There is a high respect for elders in the Costa Rican culture. Family units are typically very tight knit. Oftentimes, children, even as adults, will continue living in his or her parents’ house until they are married. While in other cultures it might seem strange or taken as a sign of laziness or lack of success for an adult to live with his or her parents, in Costa Rica this is completely normal regardless of age.

Father and son moment
Father and son moment | © Guillermo A. Duran/Flickr