An understanding of Costa Rican customs and etiquette will not only help you blend in, but will also help you adapt on your visit. Jump into daily life, make friends, practice patience and treat each new situation as a learning opportunity. Most importantly, take surprises in stride and try to laugh off your cultural faux pas; laughter is always the best medicine!
It is common to say hello and goodbye to friends and acquaintances with a light kiss on the cheek – or an air kiss accompanied by a kissing sound. Note that women kiss women and women kiss men, but men do not kiss men; instead, they either shake hands or give each other a one-armed hug. In formal or business settings, a firm handshake is the typical greeting.
Costa Ricans are famous for observing Tico time, known locally as “la hora tica.” Costa Ricans habitually arrive late, often by 30 minutes or more, to dinner, appointments, and get-togethers – anything but the movies or the appointments at the public health clinics, for which they line up hours in advance. Many Costa Ricans do not view late arrivals as rude – and their tardiness is not meant to offend – so it’s best to adjust your expectations and tell your friends to arrive earlier than you’d like.
Similarly, the word “ahora,” which is Spanish for “now,” means “later” or “tomorrow” in Costa Rica. If someone tells you they’ll meet you “ahora” or are leaving “ahora mas tarde,” it’s best to clarify exactly when you’ll see each other.
Costa Rican culture is historically machista, or male-dominant – similar to 1950’s America. For example, women traditionally take care of household chores, while men strive to be the breadwinners. Women are expected to dress nicely and wear makeup, and men don’t hesitate to show their appreciation with whistles and verbal compliments. Machismo has also fueled relationship infidelity; taking (and flaunting) a mistress was once considered a source of pride.
However, Costa Rica has changed over the last several decades. While machismo and gender differences still exist, sexism and gender inequality are no longer as acceptable as they once were. Infidelity is mostly kept behind closed doors. Women often work outside the home, earning salaries equal to their male counterparts. However, Costa Rican men still appreciate female beauty, and they don’t hesitate to show it. Women, try not to be offended if a man stares at you, whistles or tries out a pickup line; in most cases, these behaviors are harmless and are meant as a compliment.
Costa Rican culture is very courteous, and confrontation and accusations are usually considered impolite. It’s uncommon for a Costa Rican to get angry in public, even when complaint is warranted. In fact, Costa Ricans are taught from a young age to protest peacefully, and civil unrest is almost always expressed in planned, organized marches.
Additionally, most locals are loath to say no, instead promising “maybe.” Keep in mind that a maybe is not an attempt to lie or mislead; it’s simply the Costa Rican way of not hurting a friend’s feelings. To blend in, try not to stir the pot or get offended when a maybe turns out to mean no; just adjust your expectations and interpret “puede ser” (it could happen) the way a Costa Rican would.
Costa Ricans take pride in their appearance and dress well. In business situations, both men and women dress formally but not as conservatively as in North America. Outside the office, men and women dress informally, although casual dress in Costa Rica is fancier than you might expect. For example, men rarely wear shorts except at the beach, and women’s jeans are often accompanied by stiletto heels and heavy makeup. Women of all sizes wear very tight and revealing clothes – bras are often color-coordinated to match an outfit’s accessories.
Costa Rica is a Catholic country, and religious values are respected, if not always observed. Topics such as pre-marital sex, abortion, and gay marriage are generally avoided. Costa Ricans are very polite, so be sure not to put your feet on furniture; always say please and thank you, and try not raise your voice in anger, at least in public.
Typically, small towns and rural areas are more conservative than big cities, especially those in the Central Valley. Beach towns, which are frequented by tourists and expats, are also more liberal than other parts of Costa Rica. The best tactic is to err on the side of caution at all times, or at least until you have discovered what behavior is acceptable in your town.
Giving gifts is common practice in Costa Rica. Presents are exchanged on Christmas, Father’s Day and birthdays, and Mother’s Day is one of the most important gift-giving holidays of the year. It is also appropriate to take a bottle of wine to a dinner party, or give flowers to celebrate any occasion. (Avoid lilies, as they are usually reserved for funerals.)