Culture Corner

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Costa Rican Culture

Pura Vida
The term "Pura Vida", or pure life, is a phrase that truly embodies the Costa Rican (Tico) way of living. As a term that Ticos use day in day out, it is a constant feature in both the spoken language and every day life of Ticos. It basically means that Ticos live their lives to enjoy it. They relax and they enjoy the little things that life gives them, while taking full advantage of the beautiful place they live.

Friendliness and Avoidance of Conflict
Ticos are extremely friendly and welcoming people and will do anything to leave a good impression on you. They take this so far that in friendly conversation and interactions they will rarely say no to you. You will find that on the street, if you ask somebody for directions, even if they don't know where to direct you, they will give you directions (even if wrong). This may be difficult for newcomers who don't realize this, and end up getting very lost. On the flip side, enjoy this friendliness and be welcomed into your host family's home, just as though you are a member of the family.

Tico Time
Ticos are fairly liberal when it comes to time considerations. It is common to set a meeting time and then be about 15-20 minutes late to it. This is expected, and if you show up on time, that will be seen as more strange than showing up later. It is expected, for example, if somebody tells you to meet them at a restaurant at 8pm, they will, most likely, plan on being there around 8:15pm. It is important to understand that this practice is normal, and not considered rude at all. This practice is generally in decline, as more and more foreigners influence Costa Rica, however, Tico Time lives on still. In school and university environments, Tico Time is not followed. Students show up to class on time or early.

Costa Ricans are very prideful people. They take pride in themselves, their country, and what their country stands for. Costa Rica has a long history of peace and democracy. Ticos are very vocal in letting you know this fact, and because of this, peaceful conflict negotiation is very highly regarded. Furthermore, they take great pride in the fact that their country is one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world and has a spectactular record for conservation of its natural wonders and resources. Lastly, it is good to note, that Ticos are proud of the good economic development in the country, very high literacy rate, and the fact the country is not in political turmoil. Be prepared for Costa Ricans to speak about these topics.

Multicultural and Diverse Society
Costa Rica is a country that is very multicultural. Although the majority of people are white or mestizo, there is also a sizeable Afro-Caribbean population, European population, Asian population, and North American population. The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is largely populated by Afro-Caribbeans. This gives the Caribbean region a distinctly different feel from other parts of Costa Rica. European and North Americans, in the past 20 years, have purchased a lot of land along the coast and English is now a widely used language, both spoken and on signage, throughout Costa Rica. Approximately 80% of Costa Rica's coastal land is owned by foreigners. Other forms of immigration have brought people from all over the world to San José for work opportunities. By and large, Costa Ricans have welcomed the influx of foreigners into the country, however xenofobia and racism still are present. Recently, Nicaraguan immigration has been blamed for various problems in Costa Rica, although these claims are not backed up by any facts.

Importance of Family
In Costa Rica, the family is the center of all cultural and social life. Ticos value family above all else and extended families tend to live very close together and see eachother at least once a week. It is very common in Costa Rica to have children, in their late 20's and early 30's, living at home.

As with most Latin American countries, fútbol is a very important element of life. Every town in Costa Rica, even small villages, have a soccer field which is many times the centerpiece of the town. There is a national fútbol league which Ticos follow very closely. In Heredia, you can watch the city's fútbol team, Club Sport Herediano, take on their big rivals. Every Costa Rican has their team that they follow with pride and intensity. Despite this, all Costa Ricans come together to cheer on the Costa Rica National Squad (La Sele) in international matches.

Costa Rica is not a vehemently religious country, unlike a lot of Latin American countries. Almost 75% of the population is Catholic, however, the majority of people attend church only on holidays or other important days. All across Costa Rica, however, you will see a deep respect for religion along with many beautiful and well-kept churches that Ticos are very proud of.

Along with family, food is the other key to all social gatherings. Anytime you visit somebody expect to be offered a snack or meal of some sort. Costa Rican food is generally not very spicy and is pretty basic. Ticos absolutely love their Gallo Pinto (Rice and Beans) and this staple is eaten at just about every meal. For breakfast, you can expect gallo pinto, eggs, cheese, fruit, and coffee. Lunch tends to be the heavier meal of the day, with heartier food, while dinner you can expect to eat a variety of foods including spaghetti, sandwiches, pizza, or leftovers from lunch. Costa Ricans enjoy a sauce called Lizano with just about everything. Salsa Lizano can be found at every table and is a sweet and tangy sauce that is a great addition to any meal.

Cultural Activity Suggestions

San José has many activities and events for international visitors to enjoy. Listed below are some different cultural activities to do while in San José. You can do many of these activities on your own, with friends, or they may be sponsored by ISA. Upon arrival to San José and during your time there, different sponsored cultural activities will be announced.

During your time in San José it is highly recommended to head down to the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium north of downtown to check out a match San José's hometown soccer team, Saprissa. Saprissa's colors are purple, white and orange and their mascot is a sometimes fierce and sometimes friendly dragon. Fans get most excited when Saprissa is playing their nearby rival Alajuela. Tickets are fairly inexpensive.

Almost outdoing Ticos love of fútbol, is there love for dancing. All over San José there are numerous spots to try out the new salsa, bachata and cumbia moves that you learned in dance class. The most famous spot in San José to salsa is called Castro's and the best evening to go is on Thursday.

See a Performance at the Teatro Nacional
A quintessential San José experience is seeing a performance at the elegant National Theater. On offer are a variety of musical acts, including regular performances by the National Symphony, musicals, and other stage shows and performing arts.

Take a day trip to Cartago
Cartago served as the first capital of Costa Rica and has a rich history and many well preserved buildings. Of special note in Cartago are the pristine Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles and the Santiago Apóstol Parish Ruins which are the beautiful remains of an unfinished building that was detroyed in an earthquake. While in Cartago, stroll the pleasant streets and relax in the many parks and plazas.

Enjoy seeing a parade with countless people wearing costumes with gigantic heads resembling anything from average people to famous figures to cartoons. The largest countrywide Mascarada event is on October 31st, however the mascarada can be seen at many festivals year-round.

Check out a traditional Costa Rican bullfight. These fights are a little more lighthearted than other bullfights as the bull is not actually killed. It's just a good excuse to run around with a bull for awhile and for others to watch.

Take a cooking lesson and learn how to make traditional Costa Rican staples. You will want to know how to make some gallo pinto for your family and friends when you return home.

Cultural Immersion

Students may have the opportunity to meet local and international students wishing to share their knowledge of Spanish and learn English in exchange. This activity, based on student interest, is a great way to get to know other students in San José, and share your culture and language with others while learning more about your surroundings and Costa Rican student counterparts.

ISA Service-Learning takes students beyond the classroom by providing them with a unique opportunity to work at local non-profit organizations, municipal offices, schools, or clinics abroad. Students may choose to add service-learning to their Semester, Summer or Intensive month ISA academic program. Please see the ISA Service-Learning website for specific placement options offered in San José.

ISA Student Blog
Stay connected while you're abroad and share your experience with your peers back home on the ISA Student Blog, one of WordPress' top 23 recommended travel blogs! Each summer and semester the ISA Student Blog features current ISA students as bloggers, photo bloggers, and video bloggers who document their time abroad to share with their friends, family, prospective students, advisers, and more. If sharing your study abroad experience through writing, photos, videos and other media while receiving professional guidance and feedback appeals to you, consider applying to be an ISA Featured Blogger, Photo Blogger, or Video Blogger. The Site Specialist for your program will email all accepted students to notify you when ISA is accepting applications for all ISA Featured Blogger programs. Please contact the ISA Blog Team at if you have any questions.

Cultural Blogs
We also suggest you check out the plethora of other cultural blogs available on the web to learn more about others' experiences in San José, cultural happenings, and expat lives.

Language Resources

Helpful Phrases
Pura Vida - Pure life. It is the essence of Costa Rica, basically meaning everything's good. It is used as a greeting, to say goodbye, or to ask somebody how they are.
Mae - Dude, man, friend. Commonly only used between men.
Chunche - Knicknack, thing.
Qué tuanis - How cool. It come from the English "too nice".
Estoy limpio - I'm broke.
Salveque - Backpack.
Con gusto - With pleasure/you're welcome. Used instead of "de nada".
De hoy en ocho - One week from today.
It is also important to not that Ticos rarely use the informal "tú" in conversation. Instead they use the formal "usted" when speaking with anyone from a close friend or a child, to a formal business acquaintance.

Online Dictionary

Verb Conjugation: We suggest you look up some helpful websites dedicated to verb conjugations in Spanish. The book 501 Spanish Verbs is also a great resource to bring with you to Costa Rica.

Listening and Speaking: Check out some different Spanish podcasts available to practice your verbal and listening skills.

Beware of translation websites... much can be lost in translation.

Monuments & Must-Sees

National Museum
The museo nacional is located inside the forbidding Bellavista Fortress in downtown San José. The museum features exhibits on Costa Rican history, art, and a number of other historical artifacts.

Gold Museum
The Museo de Oro is located directly underneath the Plaza de la Cultura. This museum houses a large collection of pre-colombian gold and an exhibit on Costa Rican currency through history.

Jade Museum
Located on the 11th floor of the Instituto Nacional de Seguros, the Jade Museum houses an extraordinarily large collection of Jade. Each jade piece has been carefully crafted and provides the visitor with a great glimpse into Costa Rica's history.

Museo de los Niños
This childrens museum is directed at kids, of course, but actually provides fun and informative exhibits for all ages. It is houses in what used to be a very large penitentiary, thus providing a very unique and ominous environment for a childrens museum. One of the most intriguing parts of the museum is the National Gallery, where pieces of modern art can be seen on display in the penitentiary's old jail cells.

Metropolitan Cathedral
The Catedral Metropolitana is a very popular place in San José to attend a Sunday mass service. Centrally located in the Parque Central, this picturesque cathedral offers a break from the busy streets of San José.

La Sabana Park
This park, west of downtown, was once the sight of Costa Rica's first international airport. Some of the aiport remains and is now home to an art museum. This is a great park to meet to play some fútbol or enjoy a midday run.

Central Park
This park is located in the center of it all in San José. Surrounding it are the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Teatro Melico Salazar.

Plaza de la Cultura
The Plaza de la Cultura is the geographic and cultural "center" of San José. When standing in the plaza, you are standing directly above the underground Museo de Oro. Also, in the plaza stands the grand National Theatre. Surrounding the plaza are numerous restaurants, cafes and shops. From here you can stroll the pedestrian boulevard of downtown San José.

The National Theater
The Teatro Nacional is the most impressive and beautiful building in San José. Located in the Plaza de la Cultura, it stands out as being a grand testament to Costa Rica's history. This beautiful building, both inside and out, is home to musical and theater performances.