Learning Spanish and More in Costa Rica

Another perfect day in Costa Rica. It’s bright and sunny and the temperature is a comfortable 72 degrees. A hummingbird flutters outside the window.

Then there’s a knock at the door. It’s one of my tica friends (the name Costa Ricans use to identify themselves). She’s come to visit, walking 2.5 miles to get to my house.

Sitting and chatting, she stays for over an hour, and I find myself understanding most of the conversation and immensely enjoying our visit. She tells me about customs of her country, and proverbs that her father used to tell her about planting, the birds, and Pacha Mama (Mother Earth).

Before she leaves, we arrange to get together on Saturday. She’s going to show me how to make a Caribbean dish called ricenbeans (sounds like “rice and beans” but with a Spanish accent and it is the name of the dish). We’re going to make it the traditional way, meaning we’ll make coconut milk from coconuts, and cook our chicken over a fire. She’ll bring her family with her and we’ll watch a football game together.

My children and I practice our Spanish as part of a daily practice that helps us learn the language. Greg, my husband, learned Spanish while he was a young adult and spent some time living in Peru. He has been speaking Spanish for 17 years, and has spoken it to our oldest child since she was born.

As a family, we’ve spent time living in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and twice in Costa Rica. Having friends who speak the language has been excellent for helping my children learn.

Saturday is another beautiful day with more perfect weather. My tica friend comes over early, so we can begin the lengthy process of preparing our afternoon feast. We start by dicing vegetables, peeling coconuts, making coconut milk, cooking the beans and rice, and then making more coconut milk for cooking the chicken. The chicken is actually cooked in a pot outside over a wood fire to give it more flavor, she tells me in Spanish.

Learning Spanish has helped expat Rachel Denning and her family to dig even deeper into the culture and traditions of the people of Costa Rica.

While the chicken, beans, and rice are simmering, she cuts limes, which she squeezes into a pitcher, then fills it with water and adds shavings of a block of hardened sugar cane juice. Because of its natural maple color, it turns the water brown, “Which is why this drink is called agua de sapo (toad water),” she explains.

Five hours later, our feast is finally finished. Her family has arrived, and we serve up plates, then settle down onto the couch to watch Costa Rica play football. Cheering and whooping for “our” team, I feel grateful for the added connection, insight, and unique experience that learning the native language has provided for our family.

Without making the effort to master the basics of Spanish, the many opportunities we’ve had similar to this would have been unavailable. Learning to speak the language has helped us to dig deeper into the culture and tradition of the people, connect as friends with the locals, and added richness to our time abroad.

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