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Costa Rican culture and lifestyle

Like many countries, Costa Rica feels different depending on where you are, but one thing you will hear from coast to coast, from north to south is ‘pura vida’.

This national cliché is not just for tourists, as you’ll hear locals using it with each other as well as visitors. The literal translation is ‘pure life,’ but its use is more akin to saying, ‘this is the life, ‘that went well’, or simply ‘OK’. It can also signal agreement to something, ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ or a warm welcome/goodbye.

Costa Ricans are friendly, helpful, honest and welcoming people. Many people from the West, especially cities, notice how people routinely say ‘buenas dias’ to each other in the street.

Costa Rica will never become famous for the speed or efficiency of its table service. With a friendly and relaxed atmosphere comes a relaxed approach to service in most restaurants.

Costa Rica — rural and urban — has more in common with South America than with Mexico. This is due mainly to the early and predominant Spanish influence felt in cities such as Santiago in Chile. 

The interior of the country has a rural Latin charm with small towns showcasing beautiful colonial churches, neat parks and low-rise homes surrounded by mountains. 

San Jose

Possibly due to its small size, San Jose has yet to carve out a unique identity among southern and central American and Caribbean cities. Places like Kingston, Havana, Cancún, Mexico City, La Paz, Bogotá and even Guatemala City feel unmistakable, while San Jose feels almost ‘generic’.

The city has many great things to offer from food and markets to the opera house and fantastic Museo del Oro Precolombino in the Museums of the Central Bank of Costa Rica, but few would deny that Costa Rica’s charms lie outside its capital. Based on the latest figures (from 2011), San Jose is not a culturally or ethnically mixed city: the country as a whole is 84% Mestizos and whites, with indigenous people making up only 2.4% (though most live in isolated communities, mostly living in isolated communities).

The Caribbean Coast

The Caribbean Coast has a very Caribbean vibe with a more ‘developing country’ feel: relaxed beach atmosphere, reggae, driftwood bars, outdoor living, punctuated by small industrial towns and the odd port. This Afro-Latin culture is heightened by Western travellers who revel in its exotic Central American feel, Mexican food and Jamaican outlook — even boosting the latter, as Afro-Caribbeans still only make up 1% of the population (2011 figures). 

The Pacific coast

The Guanacaste region (north west) is mainly agricultural, while towns and the coast attract travellers with great surfing beaches and wildlife reserves. American and European influences can be felt in the many Western-oriented services from pubs and restaurants to surf schools and the ubiquity of English as a second language.  

The Southern Pacific coast is more American still, though nothing compared with US home-from-home cities such as Cancún. The local culture is there, it’s just increasingly interwoven around the service industry and infrastructure for (and by) Westerners.

While some expats seek full cultural immersion by getting off the beaten track, most people value the perfect combination of western comfort in a laid-back paradise. One expat we spoke to explained that he has never normalised or taken the lifestyle for granted, waking up every morning and appreciating it.

Attitudes to expats

Costa Ricans (‘Ticos’) are renowned for their friendliness and openness. But this is usually heard from Westerners themselves. Is it a true reflection of the locals’ feelings towards them?

Costa Ricans’ views of foreigners are mirrored by other countries, driven by the same issues. They don’t view foreigners negatively unless they feel their jobs or lifestyle are threatened, with negative opinions associated with perceived links to crime, public insecurity or exploitation of public systems.

One official survey, conducted in 2012, found that many Costa Ricans view US expats as “wealthy” and “powerful”. They are “tourists who come with dollars and contribute to the country’s [development],” or “entrepreneurs who come to establish businesses.” Ticos (what Costa Ricans call themselves) gave a mixed, even contradictory, view of Americans: “They are admirable people,” “very hard working,” “good people,” “people who come to work in the community,” “very friendly,” “sociable,” “tranquil,” “humble,” and “intelligent.” But many said that: “They think the world revolves around them”; “they treat us as inferiors”; “they think they’re superior to us”; and “they have inflated egos”.

Other expat groups were not addressed directly — or views were harder to come by — due to a lack of migrant populations on which to base opinions.

Find out what food and drink you can expect from the Costa Rican Diet.

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