An Overview of Traditions and Culture in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is noted more for its natural beauty, with long stretches of deserted beaches, dense jungles teeming with exotic wildlife, and lush green valleys, than it is for its culture. Given its small pre-Columbian population, Costa Rica had no huge unique culture, like the Mayans or Aztecs, with powerful and unusual art forms that could continue to influence. There are of course, a few notable exceptions like the pottery of Nicoya, the ceramics of Santa Ana, the balsa-carved masks of the Boruca Indians, and the most famous of all, the gaily painted oxcarts of Sarchí.

Costa Rica is, however, a country with strong traditions—so much so these have become its culture.

Religion in Costa Rica

Even though 70% of Costa Ricans identify as Catholic, since the earliest colonial times, the Catholic church has not exerted a powerful influence politically or culturally. In fact, most Costa Rican Catholics view their religion as more a tradition than as a practice. The main religious events here revolve around three things: Easter Week (Semana Santa,) Christmas Week, and August 2. But, because Costa Rica practices a somewhat laidback Catholicism, there is more partying as a celebration than religion during these holidays.

For Easter Week, nearly everything in Costa Rica shuts down, and droves head to the beaches for family vacations and is mostly a time to relax. Everything closes again around Christmas, with some religious processions, but they are not on the scale as those you’d find in Mexico or Guatemala. The biggest event is August 2, where half the population walks from all the corners of the country to the Basilica in Cartago and the city swells from 150,000 to over 2 million. The romería, the annual pilgrimage, is in honor of La Negrita—the Virgin of the Angels.

Traditions in Costa Rica

One unshakable tradition, deep-rooted in Ticos (Costa Rican natives), is that they are remarkably friendly and welcoming towards foreigners, often inviting them to family gatherings or celebrations. Ticos act with utter humility and judge boasting as ill-mannered. This comes from the attitude of quedar bien (literally, to remain well), the desire to leave a good impression, and they are acutely worried about embarrassing themselves or of appearing rude. To act so, from their perspective is to be mal educado (badly educated). Costa Ricans are also courteous in an almost bygone manner, showering guests with formal greetings and compliments.

This idea of quedar bien goes hand in hand with their tranquil nature. Violence of any kind is especially rare, and hostility is almost never seen. Democracy is their most treasured principle, and the concept of personal liberty is held dear. In fact, the aversion to anything that impinges on their personal liberty or that of their nation is about the only thing that will ruffle their feathers.

Being on time for anything in Costa Rica, except the movies or a doctor’s appointment is considered strange, if not almost rude. This has given rise to the expression la hora tica (the Tico hour). Being late is a given, and therefore, they don’t understand expats frustrations with their lack of punctuality. In fact, as I write this, I have been waiting for the exterminator, who verified twice his appointment would be a 1 p.m. He just called to say he would be here “soon.”  It is now 3:30 p.m.

Slang in Costa Rica

In terms of colloquialism, or Tico slang, much of it makes no sense as a literal translation, and only has meaning in Costa Rica. You will blend right into the culture if you understand and adopt some of the more famous phrases. If you know anything of Costa Rica, you probably are already thinking of pura vida—but here are a few more examples:
Mae—most like our use of “dude.”
Tuanis—means “cool.”

Qué chiva—use it along the lines of “awesome.”

Be advised though, Ticos often use words that may appear offensive but are meant as terms of endearment. For example, somebody may have the nickname Gordito. Literally translated, it means chubby. While you might think that’s offensive, it’s actually a term of endearment.

Culture in Costa Rica

Ticos love to dance, enjoying huge clubs in the major cities, to small dance halls in the rural areas. When outside the dance halls, at home or in the car, listening to British and American rock is preferred among the young people; inside they prefer the mesmerizing rhythms of the Latin beat.

Costa Rica stepped onto the world stage in 1970 with the formation of the National Symphony Orchestra. They’re also avid theatre lovers, with many tiny theaters dotted around the country. This is most likely the result of drama being established as part of the school curriculum in the early 1900s. My favorite is in Tres Rios, south of San Jose, with high-quality works that any theatre buff would admire filling this well-equipped 200-seat venue.

Unfortunately, as Costa Rica’s post-colonial evolution was devoid of social tensions, which are often stimuli for artistic expression—native arts and crafts are relatively lacking in Costa Rica. But, it doesn’t stop them from borrowing and enjoying those from other parts of the world.

Today, Costa Ricans, especially the younger generation, are adopting more cultural influences from the U.S., such as Halloween, in contrast to other Latin countries. They see it as just another reason to get together with friends.