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Costa Rica’s Customs & Etiquette

Are you planning to spend time studying, volunteering, interning, or teaching in Costa Rica? If so, you may want to prepare yourself on what to expect from this beautiful country whose borders touch Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south in the middle of Central America. Situated right between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Costa Rica offers a tremendous amount of diversity in its wildlife and geography, making it the perfect escape for just about any traveler. Yet, you may find yourself surprised to learn about the traditional customs and etiquette of the people who live here.

Understanding customs and etiquette will help you to more seamless adapt to a new way of living before diving in. Here are a few tips before starting your program in Costa Rica:

Greetings

The Latin culture overall is one more affectionate than the typical North American culture. It’s common to hear people use overly affectionate wording when chatting casually such as macha/o, blonde, amor, love, or mi vida, my life. So, it should come as no surprise to realize the typical greeting from women is a kiss on the cheek. Women kiss other women, as well as men to say hello. Sometimes an air kiss using the smooch sound is also used. Note however, that men do not kiss men, but instead might engage in an uncommitted one arm hug. A firm handshake is standard in business settings.

Living the Pura Vida

Pura vida is an expression you’ll hear constantly in Costa Rica translating to “pure life”. This phrase is sometimes used as a greeting, “what’s up”, a response, “everything’s good”,or even as a “thank you” (and “you’re welcome!”). It may sound confusing now, but you’ll quickly become accustomed, and even understand the energy of this saying after spending some time living amongst the ticos.

Even more than a saying, pura vida is truly embraced as a form of living here, creating a cool, laid back vibe that some North Americans just can’t seem to understand. For ticos, the time is not now, but always. With such a lenient way of living, timing just isn’t a concern of theirs. Meeting with someone at a specific time means that person will likely show up about 15 minutes late, if you’re lucky. Dinners, party invites, and appointments are all the same.

Instead of getting irritated, just ask your friend to meet a bit earlier than you intend. Movies and appointments at public health clinics see ticos lining up way in advance. Some things are just necessary.

Gender Equality

Gender equality is not an issue specific to Costa Rica. Gender equality is a global issue that sees modern civilizations taking these issues seriously and working to help create equality among women and men. Like the U.S, Costa Rica traditionally saw men working and earning wages to support the women who kept up the household and lived up to the beauty and fashion standards set forth.

Today, gender inequality is no longer as acceptable as it once was. Unlike the past where men flaunted mistresses as a source of pride, infidelity today is attempted to be kept behind closed doors and women work outside of the home making comparable salaries to that of men. However, Costa Rican men will probably always appreciate female beauty so try not to be offended by the common whistle or cat call–these behaviors are typical and often meant as a compliment.

Confrontation: A Big No No

Much like the north, Costa Rica is a bit put off by confrontations. It is considered rude to make outright accusations, and seldomly will you see anyone get angry in public. Yet, that doesn’t mean this peaceful group aren’t fighters. Costa Ricans understand the impact of protest, and therefore most of their fighting is expressed through peaceful, organized, planned marches.

Similarly, locals hate to be upfront with a “no” answer. Instead, you might think your new friend led you on by saying “maybe” to an invitation when they had no intention to show. Don’t take it personally. We all know people like this. In fact, they really are just doing their best to be polite–even if it does come off as rude to those who aren’t used to it.

Dress

Appearance is important to ticos. Whether in business or casual settings, how you’re dressed and how you look is a big first impression. Both men and women dress formally in business settings, though not as strict as corporate America. However, casual occasions call for more formal attire than that of the average U.S local. Men are rarely seen in shorts, unless they’re at the beach, and women dress up jeans with heels and make-up.

Better Avoid

Costa Rica is a catholic country big on traditional values and holidays. Religious taboo subjects that should be avoided include premarital sex, abortion, and gay marriage. Though, we should also state that Costa Rica is a leader in making strides toward social acceptance.

Manners should be shown by saying please and thank you, not making scenes in public places, and being respectful of common spaces.

As in most countries, small rural towns are more conservative than the bigger cities. Beach towns influenced by tourists tend to be more liberal by agreeing to disagree, if needed, but walk on the side of caution until you learn what’s acceptable in your new neighborhood.

Now that you have a better understanding of how to maneuver through social and business settings in Costa Rica, we’re hoping you feel more comfortable about your trip! Check out the your options to volunteer, intern, study, or teach English and book now!