Customs and etiquette

The Costa Rican way of life

Customs and etiquette

The culture of Costa Rica can be seen as a reflection of its geographical location, with influences coming from the Caribbean and its North and South American neighbours. Nevertheless, Costa Rican society does things a la tica, or, the Costa Rican way.

The Costa Ricans locally refer to themselves as Ticos. They are proud of their shared heritage and a traditional folk song contains the words ‘I’m Latino inside, but Tico at heart’. The most important things in life to the Costa Ricans are family, democracy, peace, education and stability.  

Pura vida

Arguably the mantra of the Costa Rican people, pura vida can be heard throughout the streets of the country. Literally translating as ‘full of life’, it is most commonly used to mean that things are going great. It is the customary response to being asked ‘how are you?’ in passing.


The Costa Rican people are passionate about maintaining the natural environment of their country, and more than a quarter of the green landscape is protected within the country’s constitution.

Nicknamed the ‘Switzerland of the Americas’, in 1948 the government of Costa Rica abolished the national army. The country instead chose to focus its efforts on conservation and teacher training; the benefits of which can be seen in the high level of education, when compared to neighbouring countries, and a literacy rate of 96%.


The shared national pacifism can also be seen in the attitude of the Costa Rican people. There is a culture of non-confrontation in Costa Rica, probably as a consequence of the country’s laid-back way of life. It is considered extremely impolite to raise your voice in a public place and it is very uncommon to see any expression of anger in the street.

Politeness in general is an integral part of the culture of Costa Rica. Unlike the informality seen in some other hispanic countries, Costa Ricans will always say please and thank you to each other.


Another way in which the Ticos demonstrate their near obsession with politeness is through their desire to please others and make a positive impression on everyone they meet. It is extremely rare to hear the word ‘no’ used in Costa Rica; declining is a concept wholly unfamiliar to the Costa Ricans. Instead it is usual to respond to a question or invitation with an ambiguous ‘puede ser’, meaning maybe. This is in no way meant to mislead, but is an attempt to avoid causing any offence. This tendency to beat around the bush is also seen in the phrase ‘mas o menos’; a straightforward yes or no is far too definite for these relaxed people.

It will be necessary to alter your understanding  of ‘maybe’ when in Costa Rica, or you may find yourself disappointed.  


Much like in other Latin American cultures, the Costa Ricans do not put a great deal of emphasis on timekeeping and a strict schedule is rather rare. La hora tica, as it is known locally is another aspect of life in Costa Rica that can baffle and infuriate people from overseas.  

It used to be common to even arrive to business meetings late, but this happens less and less frequently nowadays as more business is done with foreigners.    

Another word that is somewhat lost in translation is ahora; literally meaning ‘now’. To the people of Costa Rica it denotes later and sometimes even tomorrow.


Constitutionally the official religion of Costa Rica, some 70% of the population is Roman Catholic; although in practice this number is considerably lower. Nevertheless, as a consequence of the country’s catholic heritage, there are many topics of conversation that should still be avoided in public or with people with whom you are not personally acquainted. Premarital sex, abortion and homosexuality continue to be taboo subjects in Costa Rica.

Historically, Costa Rica has always leaned towards secularity and there remains an emphasis on freedom of religion. Maybe surprisingly, approximately 11% of the population defines itself as irreligious.

This is just a taste of what makes Costa Rica such an attractive prospect for those looking for a different way of life. Of course, the best way to learn about life a la tica is to get stuck in: so pull up a pew, dig into a plate of gallo pinto and do as the Ticos do.

Further reading

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