The Lay of the Land
Costa Rica occupies a territory of about 20,000 square miles in the southern
part of Central America, and includes several small islands, mostly on the
Pacific side. It is much like the state of Florida with two long coastlines. The
country is only about 200 miles long and 70 miles wide at its narrowest part.
Costa Rica is often compared to Switzerland and Hawaii because of
its mountains and forests. The country’s three mountain ranges create five
geographically diverse areas, the Northern Central Plains, the Northwest
Peninsula, the Tropical Lowlands on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and
the Central Valley where 70 percent of the population resides. The country
is divided into seven provinces: Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia,
Puntarenas, Limón and San José.
Unlike many areas of Mexico, Central and South America, Costa Rica
remains beautiful and warm year-round. This is partly because it borders
the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, and has a
string of towering volcanoes on the Central Plateau. Combine all this and
you have a unique tropical paradise with 11 climatic zones.
COSTA RICA General Information
Capital San José
Size 19,730 square miles
Quality of Life Excellent,(good weather,
friendly people, affordable)
Official Language Spanish
(English is widely spoken)
Political System Democracy
Investment Climate Good-many opportunities
Per capita income $4,288
Official Religion Catholicism
(U.S., Canadian and European) Over 50,000
Longevity 77.49 is almost as high the U.S.
Time Central Standard (U.S.)
Costa Rica has a tropical climate since it lies so near the equator. In
fact, the country is famous for having one of the best climates in the world.
You dress in lightweight clothing year-round; a jacket may be necessary for
higher elevations and cool nights. For the rainy season U.S.-style rain gear
is too warm and cumbersome for the tropics.
Temperatures vary little from season to season and fluctuate with altitude.
The higher you go, the colder it gets, and the lower you go the warmer it
gets. In the Central Valley, spring-like daytime temperatures hover around
72 degrees all year, while lower elevations enjoy temperatures ranging from
the upper 70s to the high 80s. Temperatures at sea level fluctuate between
the high 80s and low 90s in summer with slightly more humidity than at
Like other tropical places, Costa Rica only has two seasons. The summer,
or verano, is generally from late December to April with March and April
being the warmest months of the year. The rainy season or invierno, runs
from May to November. January is usually the coolest month. At times,
there is an unseasonably dry spell or Indian summer either in July, August or
September. The Costa Ricans call this pause in the rainy weather, veranillo,
or “little summer.” A relatively dry period at the end of July is referred to
as canícula when there is a respite in the May to November rains. Light
rains mixed with sunshine characterize this period, which can sometimes
extend into August.
Unlike many of the world’s tropical areas, almost all mornings are sunny
and clear, with only a few hours of rain in the afternoons during the wet
season. Since the temperature varies little, the wet months are usually as
warm as the dry months. It is unusual to have two or three days of continuous
rainy weather in most areas of the country. October is usually the rainiest
month of the year. However, the Caribbean coast tends to be wet all year
long. For this reason, many foreigners choose to live on the west coast of
Costa Rica. This climate, along with a unique geography, is responsible for
Costa Rica’s lush vegetation and greenness at all elevations, especially during
the rainy season.
Foreigners should not let the rain get them down, since there are a variety of indoor activities available. San José’s many museums, theaters, malls, casinos, roller skating rinks, Internet cafés and other indoor activities will more than keep you busy when it rains.
Here are several good sites that offer information about Costa Rica’s
Costa Rica’s Unique History in Brief
Traditionally Costa Rica has been a freedom-loving country living by
democratic rules and respecting human rights.
According to archeologists, the northern part of Costa Rica was originally
inhabited by the Chortegas, who got their name from an ancient place in
Mexico called Cholula. Another group of pre-Columbian people migrated
from northern South America. They were skilled gold artisans.
When Columbus set foot on the Atlantic coast at a place called Cariari
(Puerto Limón) on September 18, 1502, he anticipated finding vast amounts
of gold, so he named this area Costa Rica “rich coast” in Spanish. However,
unlike Mexico and Peru, Costa Rica had neither advanced indigenous
civilizations nor large deposits of gold. The small Indian population offered
little resistance to the Spanish and was eventually wiped out by disease. Faced
with no source of cheap labor, the Spanish colonists were forced to supply
the labor themselves. Consequently, the people became quite independent
and self-sufficient, and were basically very poor. Thus, a sort of democratic,
equalitarian society developed with everyone doing their share of the work,
and few becoming very rich or very poor.
For a couple of centuries Costa Rica was almost forgotten by Spain
because it lacked trade and wealth. In fact, Costa Rica became so isolated and
unimportant to the mother country that it didn’t experience the same conquest
and domination that took place in countries to the north and to the south.
Costa Rica was so far removed from the mainstream that there was no War of
Independence from Spain in the early 1800s, as there was in the rest of Latin
America. Costa Ricans learned of their newly won independence from a letter
that arrived one month after independence was officially granted in October
of 1821. During this period, coffee became the leading export and the wealth
it brought to the coffee growers allowed them to dominate politics.
In the mid-1800s the country experienced imperialism first-hand when
an impish American, named William Walker, tried to establish himself as
dictator in Central America. Costa Ricans rallied to defend their sovereignty
and soundly beat Walker’s mercenary army in a couple of battles. Walker
was eventually executed in Honduras when he tried to conquer Central
Coffee continued to be the mainstay of the economy and allowed the
rich coffee growers to dominate politics for the rest of the 19th century.
During this time, construction on the railroad began on the Atlantic
coast and was eventually finished in 1890.
Costa Rica’s development continued well into the 20th century with
only a few minor interruptions. In the 1940s Rafael Angel Calderón
Guardia became president and initiated a series of reforms, including a
labor code and social security system to protect the rights of workers and
citizens. The most notable achievement was the abolition of the army
forever in 1948 after a brief civil war. The same year, a new constitution
was drafted that laid the groundwork for the most enduring democracy
in Latin America. Women received the right to vote and all banks and
insurance companies were nationalized. Presidential terms were also limited
to prevent dictatorships.
Although the military has frequently threatened democratic institutions
throughout the rest of turbulent Latin America, this is not the case in Costa
Rica. Costa Rica has a 5,000-man, non-political National Guard or police
force under control of the civilian government. Like the police in the United
States, they concentrate on enforcing the law and controlling traffic.
Instead of devoting a large budget to maintain an army, Costa Rica
has put its money into human development and has been able to establish
one of the best all-encompassing social security systems in the world. It
also developed an excellent public education system, hospitals, housing,
modern communication systems and roads. Every school now has at
least one computer. As a result, Costa Rica has the largest proportion of
middle class citizens in Latin America and a literacy rate of over 90 percent.
Furthermore, the prohibition of armed forces guarantees political stability
and peace for future generations and reaffirms Costa Rica’s dedication to
respecting human rights.
Costa Rica’s government has been an outstanding example of an enduring democracy for over 50 years. This is quite an achievement when one looks at the rest of the world—particularly Latin America. In an area of the world noted for wars, political chaos and even dictatorships, Costa Rica stands out as a beacon of democratic tranquility.
The World Bank rates Costa Rica and Chile as having the best governments
in Latin America and the highest degree of governability. According to
the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Costa Rica and the annual Democratic
Development Index Costa Rica is the country with the most democratic
development. The country is also number one in the region in the number of
citizens who love their democracy according to Latino barómetro Corporation
which did the study.
Costa Rica is compared to Switzerland because of its neutral political
stance, with one exception: Costa Rica has no military. As mentioned earlier,
in 1948 Costa Ricans did what no other modern nation has done — it
formally abolished its army. That same year, the country limited the power
of its presidents, began universal suffrage and dedicated its government to
justice and equality for all, thus ending discrimination and making Costa Rica
a truly unique nation. Consequently, in Costa Rica you do not see any of
the racial tension so prevalent in the United States and some other parts of
the world. Non-citizens have the same rights as Costa Ricans. Today there
is even a growing women’s – rights movement.
Costa Ricans set up the legislative, judicial and executive power structure
to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power in order
to ensure the continuity of the democratic process. For example, to eliminate
the possibility of a dictatorship, all presidents are limited to four-year non consecutive terms.
In April of 2003 the Sala IV constitutional court reinstated
Article 132 enabling past heads of state to run for president again eight years
after their term expired.
The members of the legislative assembly are limited to a single four-year
term and cannot be re-elected. There are 57 seats in the national legislative
assembly, elected by proportional representation from seven districts. Seats
are allocated to districts by population: San José has 20, Alajuela has 11,
Cartago has seven, Heredia, Limón and Puntarenas have five each, and
Guanacaste has four.
Costa Rica’s government is divided into four branches: the Executive
(the president and two vice-presidents), the Legislative Branch (Legislative
Assembly and 57 legislators), the Elections Tribunal and the Judicial Branch
(the Supreme and lower courts).
The court is divided into four sections. The first court, called the Sala
Primera, decides civil matters. The second court is called the Sala Segunda,
and is the labor court. The third court, the Sala Tercera, is the criminal court.
The fourth court is the Constitutional Court, called the Sala Cuarta, and
by its name it is obvious that it decides constitutional issues. Its decisions
can override laws made by any of the lower courts.
The country’s two main political parties are the National Liberation
Party and the Social Christian Unity Party.
The Costa Rican National Assembly has an Internetsite (www.asamblea.
go.cr) that you can visit to keep up with new laws and legislation and contact
local legislators and politicians.
Since Costa Rica is such a small country, voters can participate more
directly in the democratic process. Each vote carries more weight, so
politicians are more accessible and have more contact with the people. Costa
Ricans approach the presidential elections with such enthusiasm that they
celebrate Election Day as if it were a big party or national holiday. People
wearing party colors, honking car horns and, bands playing Latin music all
contribute to the festive atmosphere. For the 2010 presidential election
the turnout was about 90 percent— a figure that dwarfs that of the United
States,’ meager 50-percent turnout.
In Costa Rica people settle arguments at the ballot box, not on the
battlefield. A group of American Quakers established a colony here because
of this peaceful democratic tradition, and the University for Peace was
established and still exists near San José.
In 2006, former president Oscar Arias Sánchez, who during his first
presidency was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to
spread peace and democracy from Costa Rica to the rest of strife-torn Central
America, was re-elected to the country’s highest office. In 2009 Mr. Arias
was considered the most popular president in Central America according to
a CID Gallup poll.
Much has been made about corruption in Latin America. According to the
Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Costa Rica is ranked
third in all of Latin America in a list of least corrupt countries. As a whole
Costa Rica is considered the 40th least corrupt country in the world. This is
a very favorable ranking since there is currently a worldwide corruption crisis.
All government services may be accessed at Gobiernodigital.org.
Presently, tourism and high technology have replaced coffee and bananas
as the main income earners for the country. Costa Rica’s reputation as the
“the premier Latin American destination“ has helped the economy.
According to an article that appeared in a June edition of La República
(Costa Rica’s Financial newspaper), Costa Rica will be one of the countries
in Latin America whose economy will rebound starting in 2010. In addition,
“Latin America in general, will experience a quicker recovery that the larger
economies”according Nicolás Eyzaguirre Director of International Monetary
Funds (IMF) for the Western Hemisphere.
Moody’s considers the Costa Rican economy stable and sees improvement
in the country’s fiscal and debt positions despite ongoing global turbulence.
Furthermore, according to The International Organization of Work (OIT),
Costa Rica has the lowest unemployment rate in Latin America and the
According to Costa Rica’s Central Bank, foreign investment in Costa
Rica topped a $1 billion in 2007.
Because of its endless beauty, natural wonders and peaceful atmosphere,
Costa Rica has become very popular with nature lovers, adventurers and others.
Costa Rica’s strategic location, political stability and adventure tourism,
have all contributed to increased tourism development. Tourism is now the
number-one source of income for Costa Rica. Since 1993 to the present
the tourism industry has been the prime source of foreign capital. In 2004
Costa Rica’s tourism industry had its best year ever, with an estimated 1.5
million foreign visitors. From December 2004 to May 2005 the occupancy
rate of hotels was between 85 and 90 percent as compared to the same period
in 2004 when it ranged between 75 percent and 90 percent. The average
tourist spent $1,938, which is a 23 percent increase over the previous year.
In 2005, 1.7 million tourists spent more than one billion dollars. In 2008
Costa Rica was the most visited nation in the Central American region.
With a $2.2 billion per year tourism industry, the2 million foreign visitors
in 2008 translates into a relatively high expenditure per tourist of $1,100 per
trip. Most of these travelers arrived on an ever-increasing number of flights to
the country. Approximately 310,000 came through the new Liberia airport.
In 2009 there was a drop in tourism due to the crisis in the United
States. In the response to this drop, the Tourism Institute or ICT launched
a massive campaign to promote tourism in the U.S. Locally they urged Costa
Ricans to take trips within the country at discounted prices. Fifty to one
hundred thousand more tourists are expected in 2010 according to Cantur
(The national Chamber of Tourism).
The publication Travel Weekly rated Costa Rica as the best tourism
destination in Latin America at the annual International Tourism Fair. Forbes
rated the country as the fifth cleanest nation in the world only topped by
Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
In 2009 the New York Times called Costa Rica a Disney land for ecotourism.
Interest in Costa Rica and development continues
Good news! The Walt Disney Company announced that Costa Rica would
be the only country in Latin America selected for their new vacation program
called Adventures by Disney. The only other countries selected in the world
were the United States, Italy, Great Britain, Canada and France. Travelers will
view Costa Rica’s natural wonders on these highly specialized tours.
Costa Rica is now on the map for the rich and famous. A Saudi prince
visited the country and met with the president. Celebrities like Bill Gates,
Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matthew McConaughey,
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,Charlie Sheen, Steven Seagal, Caroline Kennedy,
Woody Harrelson, Tom Brady and his model wife Gisele Bundchen and
other stars have visited the country in the last couple of years. Mel Gibson
liked Costa Rica so much that he personally invested over $25,000,000 in
real estate. More and more luminaries will visit Costa Rica as the word get
out about all the country has to offer to both tourists and investors.
Real estate investment increased during the last few years. Big players
Monroe Capital Corporation and Hyatt Regency Hotels are investing heavily
in real estate projects. This activity is sure to boost investor confidence in
Steve Case, co-founder of AOL and of Time Warner fame, spent millions
on beach property to build an upscale resort in the Northwest Pacific area.
Solarium is a $250 million dollar project being built right across from the
Daniel Oduber Airport in Liberia. When finished it will be a virtual city
with shops, a hotel, homes, a free trade zone, warehouses, a hospital, movie
theaters and restaurants.
In 2007 Ritz Carlton announced the construction of a $250 million
tourist complex at Playa Guacamaya. A one hundred fifty room hotel and 800
homes will be built in the complex. Plans also call for a marina with 250-slips.
The list of new multinational hotel groups includes:
• Ritz Carlton
• St. Regis
• Mandarin Oriental.
These large resort developers are helping to expand the Costa Rican
economy. The following new projects have broke ground recently.
• The 310-room J.W. Marriott, will be built inside the Hacienda Pinilla
beach resort community in Guanacaste.
• The 214-room Hyatt Azulera Resort formally broke ground in Playa
• The Rosewood Hotel and Spa on 45-hectares (112 acres) of property
fronting Playa Guachipelín in Guanacaste.Rosewood’s Costa Carmel
tent village, which is expected to be completed in 45 days, is not just
about showing off the facilities of the 80-room hotel, rather it is part of
an aggressive sales and marketing campaign.
Outsourcing, high-tech, bananas, pineapple, coffee, retirees, gambling and more
The most dynamic segment in the service sector in Costa Rica during
the last few years has been call centers customer service: Customer service
call centers require from its workforce the ability to speak English fluently.
All of these companies find in Costa Rica’s labor force the quality and the
language skills that enable them to provide world-class service worldwide.
Bank of America has 600 employees whose ages run from 18 to 25 working
at their local call center.
The 2005 Global Outsourcing Report ranked Costa Rica third in
outsourcing potential behind only India and China. This study takes such
factors into consideration as cost, reliability and efficiency. My son works at
Amazon.com’s call center in Heredia.
Procter & Gamble has opened a facility in Costa Rica that showcases the
possibilities and opportunities that this country has to offer. Other Shared
Services operations include Chiquita Brands, GTC, Baxter Americas Services
and British American Tobacco SSC. There are many other outsourcing
operations of companies such as Hewlett Packard and IBM that have
created a platform to serve their clients from their centers. Costa Rica also
hosts regional offices and headquarters for several Fortune 1000 companies
such as Motorola, Pfizer, Roche, 3M, Kimberly Clark, Cisco, Microsoft and
Oracle, among others. Lastly, the availability of a very productive work force
enables the operation of data processing centers in Costa Rica, such as the
ones operated by Equifax and Maersk Americas.
According to the World Bank, Costa Rica is the number four exporter of high technology behind, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. More than 13,000 Costa Ricans are employed by high-tech firms. U.S. high-tech firms are drawn by Costa Rica’s lower costs,educated and bilingual work force, political stability, tax breaks and proximity to the Unites States.Consequently, the electronic sector, led by multinational microchip manufacturer intel, became one of the country’s top foreign currency earners by the end of 1998.
Micro chips, the country’s smallest export, continue to be its biggest
moneymaker. The Intel plant has turned Costa Rica into a leading exporter
of computer parts. It produces about one-third of the company’s computer
chips. In 1999, microchips exported by Intel continued to drive the Costa
Rican economy and were responsible for about half of the country’s booming
8.3 percent growth (GDP), which gave rise to some of the decade’s best
economic indicators. In 2009, Intel exported 75 million microprocessors
and chips accounting for $2 billion in sales for the third consecutive year.
Intel plans to invest $90million more in its Costa Rican facility to update its
equipment. Hopefully this will lead to more foreign investment in this area.
Emerson is hiring 200 local employees for its new technical support
center. The company has 265 offices around the world and over 140, 000
employees. Digicel plans to invest $350 million as a cell phone provider
once the telecommunications market opens up.
Banana exports continue to be a major source of income. After Ecuador,
Costa Rica is the second-largest banana exporter in the world. However,
worldwide fluctuations in prices have affected this export in recent years.
Pineapple could soon be the number one agricultural export. In the period
between October of 2008 and September 2009 bananas generated $604
million while pineapples accounted for $574 million.
Ideal growing conditions have enabled Costa Rica to produce some
of the world’s best coffee for over a hundred years. Other exports include
electrical components, sugar, cacao, papaya, macadamia nuts and ornamental
household plants. Some of these non-traditional export items are beginning
to rival traditional exports such as bananas, coffee and sugar.
Another surprising source of income for the country is its foreign
residents. According to the November 14, 2005, edition of the Wall Street
Journal, “Costa Rica’s retirees contribute significantly to the $1.4 billion
a year in direct spending by Americans according to the government. The
multiple effects — salaries in health care, construction, retail and other
services — could bring the total benefit to $4 billion , nearly 25 percent of
Costa Rica’s gross domestic product.” The waves of almost 70 million baby
boomers are sure to increase the figures as Costa Rica becomes even more
popular as a retirement haven.
Surprisingly, sports books contribute more than $100 million a year to the
Costa Rican economy. More than 100 such firms are presently operating in
the country. Local workers make good salaries in the online betting industry.
Costa Rica is sometimes referred to as the “Las Vegas of the Internet” because
of the number of sportsbooks that operate here. One wealthy sportsbook
owner was recently featured on the cover of Forbes magazine.
Lately, new companies have invested in Costa Rica, which should help
the domestic and export economy. The California-based wholesale shopping
chain PriceSmart has opened five warehouse-style stores in the San José ,
Alajuela and Heredia areas in the last several years. The PriceSmart concept
has revolutionized shopping in other Central American countries as well. In
2005 several big players made sizable investments in Costa Rica. Wal-Mart
purchased a large portion of Supermercados Unidos and built five Hipermás
mega-markets to rival PriceSmart. Western Union expanded its facility in
Costa Rica and now employs 600 Costa Ricans.
The Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche announced it would build its
operations center in Costa Rica to service its plants in Central America and
the Caribbean.U.S.health products manufacturer Several U.S. pharmaceutical
companies also have opened plants here.
Many U.S. companies are setting up shop here
U.S. all-night diner franchise Denny’s opened its first two restaurants
and will open several more in coming years. The GNC nutritional chain has
opened several stores in the San José area. Multinational tire manufacturer
Bridgestone Firestone inaugurated a new plant in April of 1999, promising
to double its exports. This wave of new foreign investment will create
thousands of jobs for Costa Ricans. Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts
plan to open branches in Costa Rica in the near future; Cinnabon already
has. Midas Shop plans to open franchises in the country within a year. They
boast over 2,500 shops worldwide. Wendy’s hamburger chain is expected
to open 15 restaurants in Costa Rica over the next five years.
General Electric bought 50 percent of the stock in BAC San José, one of
the country’s best private banks. The largest US bank, Citigroup, purchased
Grupo Financiero Uno, and Banco Cuzcatlán both of which had a presence
in Central America. Shortly afterwards both banks were incorporated into
Citibank. This acquisition follows earlier purchases of Corporación Interfín
by Scotiabank of Canada, and the recent purchase of Banistmo de Panamá
by HSBC of England.
Dependence on foreign loans and investment
Despite the new areas of investment and exports just mentioned, Costa
Rica is still heavily dependent on foreign investment and loans to help fund
its social programs and keep its economy afloat. However, the country no
longer receives as much foreign aid as it used to and still has one of the
highest per capita debts in the world. The government has, at times, been
hard-pressed to meet loan payments from abroad, which take up most export
earnings. Foreign debt has hindered economic development to some extent.
Gradual currency devaluations have helped the country meet its obligations.
Fortunately, these devaluations have been in small increments.
China is Costa Rica’s new bedfellow and is providing a lot of money
in exchange for trade privileges and other perks. The new state-of-the-art
National Stadium in the Sabana Park is gift from China. They even provided
the workers and all of the materials for this project. China is likely to keep
money and investment flowing Costa Rica’s way as long as it is feasible.
One problem is the number of people employed by the government’s
massive bureaucratic apparatus. About one of every seven Costa Rican
employees works in some way or another for the government. Consequently,
large parts of the country’s resources go toward workers’ salaries, benefits
and operating expenses instead of toward pressing needs such as road repair.
Some economists believe one way to help the country progress is to lay off
all of the unnecessary government workers.
Hopefully the present growth in tourism and continued foreign investment
will help the country’s economic future. President Clinton’s trip to Costa
Rica in May 1997 set the wheels in motion for a free-trade treaty with the
Central American countries. Costa Rica has voted to adopt the Central
American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and it promises to be much like
the NAFTA treaty between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
The Central America Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will help
all of the Central American countries’ economies. The most salient feature
of the new trade pact calls for the partial opening of the government-run
telecommunications monopoly. Costa Rican and foreign companies will be
able to offer their telecommunication services, despite the seeming strangle
hold of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, commonly referred to by
its acronym, ICE. Broadband Internet and cellular phone service will be
affected by the opening up of telecommunications. The treaty also calls for
the complete opening of the country’s insurance monopoly or the Instituto
Nacional de Seguros (INS) by 2011. Costa Rica must allow foreign companies
to sell all types of insurance except mandatory policies.
Other sectors of the economy affected by the new treaty are rice, sugar,
beef, chickendrumsticks, pork, oils,ethanol,dairy products,industrial goods,
free zones, textiles and intellectual property.
In an effort to control inflation, the Central Bank of Costa Rica modified
its system to establish the rate of exchange in October 2006, by switching
from the mini-devaluation one to one in which the rate is allowed to fluctuate
between two ranges. Mini-devaluations had been applied for 22 years and
they consist basically in a gradual increase of the price of the U.S. dollar. In
the past the dollar increased an average 13 cents of a colón a day.
According to the Central Bank, Costa Rica’s inflation rate was an
estimated 9.3 percent in 2007, 13.9 percent in 2008 and between 7 to 9
percent in 2009.
The Gross Domestic Product or PIB (producto interno bruto) in Spanish
for the last couple of years: 4.2 percent in 2004, 5.8 percent in 2005, 8.7
percent in 2006 , 7.7 in 2007 and 2.9 percent in 2008 and 4.0 in 2009.
Central Bank economic indicators and other financial information
are available (in Spanish) on the bank’s web site: www.bccr.fi.cr.
The people of Costa Rica
Besides its excellent weather and natural beauty, Costa Rica’s unique
people are probably the country’s most important resource and one of the
main factors in considering Costa Rica as a place to live or retire.
Costa Ricans are the happiest people in Latin America and thirteenth
happiest people in the world according to a study by Leicester University
in England. The Costa Ricans are also the most satisfied with their lives
according to the Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID) or Bank of
Costa Ricans proudly call themselves ticos.They affectionately and playfully
use this nickname to set themselves apart from their neighbors. This practice
is derived from their habit of adding the diminutive suffix -”ico” to words.
Pura Vida and other tico greetings
by Guillermo Jiménez
Pura Vida and other tico greetings
by Guillermo Jiménez
Greetings in Costa Rica are always backed by a smile. If a tico
doesn’t feel like smiling he/she will say something other than
a greeting, maybe equally dignifying. In the worst of cases and
forced to say something a tico will use a greeting but qualify it
somehow to avoid coming across as a liar, for instance: Diay,
pues estoy Pura Vida (Hey, I’m kind of Pura Vida) is not by any
means an unqualified ¿Pura Vida, mae, y vos? (Pura Vida, buddy,
and you?). Greetings are that important in the tico language.
You should know however that the ability of a Costa Rican
to smile has very little to do with his or her personal situation.
Even in the worst of moments a tico usually smiles and is eager
to say `hi’ but that doesn’t really mean he is happy, only that he
still keeps his hopes up and thinks he will come out on top of the
When a tico is indeed happy however you can bet his greeting
will be contagious and all of the features of his expression
will tell you so. In fact when a tico is happy he purposely abandons
all semblances of education and resorts to slang to express
his mood. Of course, for the non-Spanish speaker this may be a
problem, but don’t worry this is why I am writing this to begin with.
So you have heard of Pura Vida, but have you heard of
Pura Davi? A common technique of people in the street is to
flip Syllables in well-known greetings so that they come out funny.
Davi is of course vida. You may have also heard Tacuen or
Cuenta (tell) which we also use to start conversations as
in ¿Qué mae, que me tacuen/cuenta? (What’s up?).
Along side these more `proper’ greetings you will also hear
variations on Pura Vida, like Pura Carnita and Puros Dieces.
These two phrases always bring a big smile to the receiver because
they are intended to bring forward the reason why a word
like carnita (diminutive of meat) and dieces (plural for 10) have
any relevance in a greeting.
In my case carnita always reminds me of tica moms telling
their kids to look for meat that has more meat than fat, or in
the meat tortas (beef patties) they put in hamburgers. I know it
sounds weird but that means that the higher the ratio ˆto say it in
gringo-speak˜of meat to straw/fat the better, hence `Pura Carnita,’
in a circuitous kind of way comes to have a similar meaning
than Pura Vida that is I’m full of life, 100% pure meat.
This is also true of Dieces or 10s. You see Pepito one of our favorite
characters in jokes came back home to his mom really happy
one day to tell her that he had scored puros dieces (all 10s) in all
of the subjects in school. His mother got really happy, jumped
up from the chair to hug her baby and congratulate him. Then
Pepito said: “And that’s nothing mom, many of my friends scored
Puros Cienes (straight 100s).” Get it?
Back in the old days grades in schools were based on a 10
scale, where 10 was the equivalent of A+, but that was in Pepito’s
Mom’s Youth. The new scale is based on 100 points and
Pepito was supposed to score at least 65 to pass so in the end he
came up with a clever way to break that news to his mom.
Pura Galleta’ is another one of these strange word plays
that ticos like to play a lot. Galleta means `Cookie’ but it is not
used as in the English `smart cookie’. Some 20 years ago Pozuelo,
the big cookie making manufacturer here in Costa Rica came
up with a new slogan: Pozuelo es Muuuchaaaa Galleta (Pozuelo
is A lot of cookie) referring to their great assortment of products.
Soon Mucha Galleta became synonymous with `Top of my
game,’ which then yielded sentences like Es que vos sos mucha
galleta (That’s because you are a lot of
cookie (figuratively). It didn’t take long for the Pura Galleta
phrase to be coined and to become the equivalent to Pura
Think of all the variations as slang of slang. Pura Vida is still
the official tico greeting and it is in fact a bit more formal than
the rest. The other sare considered pachuco (vulgar) and therefore
their use is more restricted. Have a Pura Vida day!
Instead of “ito,” as is done in most Spanish-speaking countries. For example,
instead of saying un ratito (a little while), ticos say un ratico.
Foreigners who have traveled in Mexico and other parts of Central
America are quick to notice the racial and political differences between Costa
Ricans and their neighbors.
Costa Ricans are mostly white and of Spanish origin, with a mixture of
German, Italian, English and other Europeans who have settled in Costa Rica
over the years. This makes Costa Ricans the most racially homogeneous of
all the Central American peoples. More than 90 percent of the population
is considered white or mestizo. Argentina and Uruguay are the only other
countries in Latin America with similar racial compositions.
There is also a small black population of about two percent, living mainly
on the Atlantic coast. Indigenous groups in the mountainous areas of the
Central Plateau and along the southeastern coast account for one percent
of the population. Costa Rica has never had a large indigenous population
compared to other countries in the region.
In recent times, the country’s stability and prosperity have made it a kind
of melting pot for people from less stable Latin American countries, such as
neighboring Nicaragua, Colombia, Cuba and Argentina. Many Colombians
have sought refuge in Costa Rica because of the strife at home and similarities
between the two countries’ food, culture and language.
Nicaraguans make up 10 percent of the population. About 400,000
Nicaraguan immigrants make their home in Costa Rica. Economic hardship
in their own country has caused them to flock to Costa Rica to find work.
Most Nicaraguans work as domestics, in construction, picking coffee, cutting
sugarcane and in other types of manual labor. As prosperity and opportunities
have increased, fewer and fewer Costa Ricans will do this type of work.
Most of these new immigrants come to Costa Rica to seek a piece of the
so-called, sueño tico or “Costa Rican dream,” the Latin American equivalent
of the American dream.
Unofficially there are about 50,000 North American English-speaking
residents living in Costa Rica. Many more North Americans and Europeans
live here illegally as tourists. Some are “snow birds” who spend only part
of the year in the country.
Politically, Costa Ricans have always been more democratic than their
neighbors—especially during the last 45 years. Indeed they should be
congratulated for being the only people to make democracy work in such
a troubled region.
National Geographic reported several years ago that, when asked why
Costa Rica isn’t plagued by political instability and wars like its neighbors,
a Costa Rican replied, in typical tico humor, or vacilón, “We are too busy
making love and have no time for wars or revolutions.”
Because they have the largest middle class of any Central American
nation, Costa Ricans love to boast that they have a classless society. Most
people share the middle-class mindset and tend to be more upwardly mobile
than in other countries of the region.
Although there is some poverty, most Costa Ricans are well-to-do when
compared to the many destitute people found in neighboring countries.
Another thing setting Costa Ricans apart from other countries in the
region is the cleanliness of its people. Costa Ricans take pride in their personal
appearance and are very style-conscious. I know a tico of modest means who
dresses so well he is often mistaken for a millionaire. Men,women and children
all seem to be well-dressed. Above all, you don’t see as many ragged beggars
and panhandlers as in Mexico or in many other Latin American countries.
Costa Ricans are healthy people and have a life expectancy on par
with most first-world countries — 76.3. In fact, they have the highest life
expectancy in all of Latin America and just about the same as people in the
United States. This is primarily due to the country’s excellent Social Security
System that provides “cradle-to-grave” health care.
The people of Costa Rica place great emphasis on education. Education
has been compulsory in Costa Rica since 1869, and the federal government
currently spends about 20 percent of its budget on education. Costa Rica’s
95 percent literacy rate is among the highest in Latin America. A higher
percentage of the population is enrolled in universities than in any other
country in Latin America.
Costa Ricans are friendly and outgoing and will often go out of their
way to help you even if you do not speak Spanish. They are also very pro-
American and love anything American—music, TV, fashion and U.S. culture
in general. Because of these close ties to the United States and just the right
amount of American influence, Costa Ricans tend to be morel ike North
Americans than any other people in Latin America.
Much of the ticos disposable income is spent all at once, on clothes,
entertainment, makeup, jewelry, or the latest gadgets on the market. Ticos
are consumers and this mentality has led many of them to get deeply in debt
with their credit cards.
Surprisingly, Costa Ricans, especially the young people of the country,
seem to have more liberal attitudes in some areas. Costa Rican women are
considered to be some of the most sexually liberated females in Latin America.
Their liberation is due in part to the fact that the Catholic Church seems
to have less of a foothold in Costa Rica than in some other Latin American
However, you should not get the wrong idea from reading this. The vast
majority of the people are Catholic and can be conservative when it comes to
such issues as movie censorship.
Communicating with Costa Ricans
by Eric Liljenstrope
On many occasions I have been engaged in a conversation with
a Costa Rican friend or acquaintance when a very basic conversational
miscue occurs. I ask a question and my friend responds by
saying yes. I assume that the yes I receive means an affirmative
response, i.e. Yes, I’ll be there, yes, I’ll do it, or Yes you can dress
like that in public without people laughing at you. However, my
experience in Costa Rica and other Latin American countries has
taught me a different meaning of the word yes of which I was
not previously aware . Yes, can be merely an acknowledgement
of the fact that I am talking, that the listener has heard me, or a
reflection of what I want to hear. Yes does not necessarily mean
an affirmative, positive response. The person may not show up,
may not do what you thought they would do, and you may be
dressed ridiculously and shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public.
Costa Rican playwright Melvin Méndez from the book, The
Ticos, expands on this point. He writes of his fellow Costa Ricans,
“We beat around the bush to avoid saying ’No’, a syllable which
seems almost rude to us. And rather than hurt someone, we say one
thing and do another.” I had an experience recently that illustrates
this point. I was supposed to meet a friend at a party and when I
called him after arriving at the party he assured me that, yes, he’d
be right over. When I called again, an hour later, he said, yes, he
was almost ready and was just leaving the house. He never showed
up. The truth was that he was waiting for a phone call from a girl
that he wanted to go out with but didn’t want to tell me that he
was choosing her over me, so in order not to hurt my feelings he
just told me what I wanted to hear. This was not the first time I had
experienced such difficulties in basic communication, and experience
has taught me to take such snubs in stride. No disrespect or injury
was intended. My friend was doing the culturally acceptable, correct
and polite thing by expressing to me that he wanted to be at the
party with me and that he liked me. He was answering a different question
than the one I was asking. I was literally asking, “Are you coming to the party?”
But he was answering a question much like,
“Would you like to come to the party with me if you could?”
So,how in the world can a person adjust to such conversational
conundrums? Understanding the basic differences between the
communication styles of indirect culture and direct culture can
be helpful. A person from a culture with direct communication
style values “putting all the cards on the table” and “cutting to the
chase.” Direct communicators do not place as much emphasis on
context or on body language to get their point across. For direct
communicators, if it is not verbally stated, it is not communicated.
In contrast, indirect communicators place a heavy emphasis on
context and often consider stating what appears to be obvious as
insulting. It is assumed that an intelligent person will read the
context and body language in communication, whereas direct
communicators assume that if something is important then it will
be stated clearly with no room for misinterpretation.
Perhaps you are left feeling a little overwhelmed at the prospect
of having to reinterpret what people are saying to you with the
added complexity of communication in a foreign language. The
good news is that one gets better at interpreting indirect speech
patterns as well as adjusting expectations appropriately. In the
example above, I knew after the second phone call that my friend
was not going to be coming. or at least I knew there was a strong
possibility he wouldn’t be there. Something in his tone of voice
tipped me off. Of course, the ability to read those subtleties took
years to develop, so one must have patience during the process.
What well-adapted Costa Rican residents know about adapting
their communication style.
(1) Give people an option. Sometimes one doesn’t know ticos
are sincere until you give another option.
(2) Ask in another way, using qualified speech. You might try to
say something like, “Is it difficult for you to come tonight?”
(3) Ask a third party. Sometimes a friend of a friend or someone
else who is familiar with the situation is the only source for
(4) Ask a Costa Rica. Costa Ricans will always be able to interpret
their compatriots much better than foreigners.
celebrate the many religious holidays that occur throughout the year. (See
Chapter 12 for a list of some of the most important holidays.)
Generally speaking, the people of Costa Rica love to have fun, to live
with “gusto” and know how to enjoy themselves. One has only to go to
any local dance hall on a weekend night to see ticos out having a good time,
or observe entire families picnicking together on any given Sunday—the
traditional family day in Costa Rica.
Soccer is king in Costa Rica
Soccer or fútbol is by far the most popular sport here. All of the locals
have their favorite team. When there is an important game everything comes
to a virtual standstill. The atmosphere is festive and beer flows freely. Things
really heat up when the national soccer team (la sele) plays another country.
The day of the game there is a sea of red white and blue soccer jerseys on
the streets as the people show their support for the national team. If the
national team wins the people party all through the night.
They say there are three important things in a Costa Rican man’s life:
soccer, beer and women — although not necessarily in that order.
The people of Costa Rica, no matter what their station in life, seem to
enjoy themselves with less and do not give as much importance to materialism
as do North Americans. Even people who can’t afford to seem to be able to
eat, drink, be merry and live for today.
Recent polls indicate that the majority of Costa Ricans are happy with
their quality of life. Out of 162 countries polled, Costa Rica is in the top
40 when it comes to quality of life. More and more job opportunities,
accessibility to education and a state-run health care system are cited as the
prime reasons for the country’s excellent quality of life.
Basic old-fashioned family values and unity are very important to Costa
Ricans. Just as in the rest of Latin America, a strong family unit seems to be
the most important element in Costa Rican society. Social life still centers
around the home. Much of one’s leisure time is usually spent with family.
Mother’s Day is one of the most important holidays. Parents and relatives
go to almost any length to spoil and baby their children. Elderly family
members are revered and generally treated better than their counterparts
in the United States or Canada. Most are not sent to nursing homes as in
North America. Young adult singles, especially women, tend to live with
their families until they marry.
Costa Rican families help each other through hard economic times and
in the face of poverty. Some foreigners complain that it is difficult to develop
deep friendships with Costa Ricans because the family unit is so strong and
Generally speaking, most ticos live at home until they are married. This
is especially true of young single females. When grown children get married,
generally a room is built on to the family home to accommodate the young
couple or a little house is built on the family property. Most of their disposable
income is spent all at once, on clothes, entertainment, makeup, jewelry, or
the latest gadgets on the market.
Nepotism, or using relatives and family connections to get ahead, is
the way things work in business and government in Costa Rica. In many
instances it doesn’t matter what your qualifications are but who your family
knows that helps you.
Despite all their admirable qualities, there is a negative side to the
character of the Costa Rican people. While similar to North Americans in
many ways and with a fondness for some aspects of gringo culture, Costa
Ricans are distinctly Latin in their temperament. They suffer from many of
the same problems common in Latin American societies.
Corruption and bribery are a way of life, bureaucratic ineptitude and
red tape thrive, the concepts of punctuality and logical reasoning are almost
non-existent by North American standards, and the “Mañana Syndrome”—
leaving for tomorrow what can be done today—seems to be the norm rather
than the exception.
Unfortunately,as in most Latin American countries, machismo(manliness)
is prevalent to some degree among Costa Rican males. Machismo is the belief in
the natural superiority of men in all fields of endeavor. It becomes the obsession
and constant preoccupation of many Latin men to demonstrate they are macho
in a variety of ways. Fortunately, the Costa Rican version of machismo is much
milder than the type found in Mexico, but it nevertheless exists.
A tightly-knit Costa Rican family
There is no telling to what lengths some men will go to in order to
demonstrate their virility. A man’s virility is measured by the number of
seductions or conquistas he makes. It is not unusual for married men to have
a querida or lover. Many even have children with their mistresses. Since many
married men do not want to risk having a lover, they sleep with prostitutes or
loose women called zorras. For this reason many Costa Rican women prefer
American men to Costa Rican men. As the ticas say, “Costa Rican men are
machista and always have to prove it. You marry a Costa Rican man today
and tomorrow he is out chasing other women and drinking.”
Costa Rica is said to have the highest rate of alcoholism in Central America
–-an estimated 20 percent of the population are problem drinkers. This should
come as no surprise, since drinking is part of the macho mentality. Making
love, drinking and flirting are the national pastimes of most Costa Rican men.
As discuss in Chapter 8, foreign women walking along the street will
be alarmed by the flirtatious behavior and outrageous comments of some
Costa Rican men. Many of these flirtations or piropos, as they are called in
Spanish, may border on the obscene but are usually harmless forms of flattery
to get a female’s attention. Foreign women are wise to ignore this and any
other manifestations of Costa Rican men’s efforts to prove their manliness.
Sadly, many Costa Ricans have misconceptions about North Americans’
wealth. A few people seem to think that all Americans and Canadians are
millionaires. It is easy to understand why many ticos think this way because of
the heavy influence of U.S. television and movies that depict North Americans
as being very affluent. Also, the only contact many Costa Ricans have with
Americans is primarily with tourists, who are usually living high on the hog
and spending freely while on vacation.
It is therefore not surprising that some individuals will try to take
advantage of foreigners by overcharging them for services and goods. Others
will use very persuasive means to borrow amounts of money ranging from
pocket change to larger sums of money, with no intention of ever repaying
the debt. Please, take this advice: do not lend money to anyone, however
convincing their sob story.
Another thing to be wary of is the “regálame mindset” of some Costa
Ricans. Basically this term comes from the Spanish verb regalar, which means
to give something as a gift with no intention of repayment. The verb dar is
the correct verb to use when requesting something. People here use regalar
in a figurative way in everyday conversation when asking for everything from
small items in stores to ordering a beer in a bar. Unfortunately, too many
people take this verb literally and expect something for nothing.
There have been many instances where foreigners have been overly
generous to locals. As long as they continued their altruistic ways, they
were liked. Once they got wise or decided to curtail their generosity, they
were considered cheapskates. The bottom line is not to be too generous or
spoil people here. Some people will take advantage of your generosity and
misunderstandings inevitably will arise.
There have been cases of foreigners who have married Costa Rican
women, being taken to the cleaners. Because family ties are so strong in Costa
Rica, you can end up supporting your spouse’s whole family. I talked to one
retired American who could not live on his $2,000-a-month pension because
he had to support not only his wife and stepchildren, but his wife’s sister’s
children as well. Furthermore, he had to lend his father-in-law money to pay
off a second mortgage because the bank was going to repossess the latter’s
house. This is an extreme example, and though I have heard many similar
stories while living in Costa Rica not all Costa Rican families are like this one.
When doing business with Costa Ricans, you should exercise extreme
caution. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of dining with a prominent Costa
Rican banker who eventually became the country’s Minister of the Interior.
I mentioned that I wanted to start a business in Costa Rica. He replied,
“Be very careful when doing business with Costa Ricans. This is not to say
that all people are dishonest here. Just be cautious with whom you deal.”
Do not dwell on these negatives but realize how difficult it is to
generalize about a group of people. After you have resided in Costa Rica
and experienced living with the people, you will be able to make your own
judgments. The good qualities of the Costa Rican people far outweigh any
shortcomings they may have.
One View of Living in Costa Rica
By Martha Bennett
Costa Rica is, quite naturally, very Latin. The Ticos are fatalistic
and live for the moment. They have extended families which
often supply most of their social life. By and large they are a
happy people, accepting their lot in life and finding a bright
side to dark issues. Music and laughter are common sounds
everywhere. For me, these are the positives.
Ticos do things that amuse rather than irritate me, such as
shoot off fireworks to celebrate a Virgin’s Day. Do virgins like
fireworks? On the negative side, I must tolerate what appears to
be a total lack of planning. Things happen when they happen no
matter what promise has been made. It is not a place where ”to
do” lists get done. Long lines are common in banks, telephone
offices or almost everywhere.
Costa Rica is caught between the old world where oxen still
pull carretas (carts) and the new world of TV and computers.
Because of this, there is apt to be confusion about what North
America is like, and problems with computers that don’t compute
because there is a lack of training of the user.
Ticos seem to have a love-hate relationship with the U.S.
They want to be like it, but resent it at the same time. This
sometimes produces jaded dealings with Gringos, i.e.: special
prices for blue eyes. But it doesn’t happen all of the time and
sometimes they cheat each other too. I am a guest in their
country and don’t try to tell them how to run it.
Since I used to live in Michigan, I find the climate in Costa
Rica perfect. It’s the same all year round. The sun shines daily and
the rain keeps everything green. The countryside is outrageously
Ticos are paranoid about crime and all houses in the cities have bars.
Yes there is crime here, but I feel safer here than I did in Detroit.
Driving here can be a nightmare. This combined with some
bad roads can ruin your day. Buses are cheap and go everywhere.