Just Cultural Things

I am closing in on the end of my second year in Costa Rica, and I definitely think I am much more adjusted this year than I was last. Before I moved, I never really thought the States had all that much of a “culture,” but I don’t think I ever actually understood what that word meant until I was removed from my own.

What do you mean, not everyone in the world says “cawfee” and says “no thank you” politely when you aren’t able to accept an invitation?

There was some stuff that jumped out at me right away when I moved. Manners, communication rituals, music, food, tico time, and soccer are some of the big ones that took me a while to understand (and I’m definitely still learning).

But lately, I’ve been noticing some little cultural things that I thought I’d share. These are not things that I love or hate about Costa Rican culture, but simply quirky differences that I find fascinating to ponder. So, with no judgment (since there’s never one “right” way when we’re talking about culture), I present you with my list. Feel free to suggest more if you can think of any!

Crossing the street

Living in Costa Rica has actually emboldened me quite a bit when crossing the street. Note to self: Do not stay this emboldened when back in New Jersey!

Traffic (presa, if you want the tico slang for it) here is, let’s just say, an issue. In some spots, if you are a pedestrian, you might have some trouble waiting for both sides of the traffic to clear so you can cross the street. Therefore, many people cross half the street first and then stand on the middle line in the middle of a busy street waiting for the other half to clear. I have to say, it’s terrifying, but I’ve gotten quite good at it (sorry Mom).

Hungry while paying a toll? No problem!

Most of the time, when you slow down on the highway to go through a toll, there are a bunch of people selling things in the middle of the street. This also applies for certain red lights if you’re in downtown San Jose (Chepe for short).

So, if you’re looking for some mango, coconut water, plantain chips, lollipops, dashboard phone holders, Costa Rican flags, lottery tickets, cashews, coloring books, or pens, don’t look any further than the closest toll booth or busy red light!

(And yes, that list is accurate.)

The slow walk

When I lived in New Jersey (and indeed, when I go back to visit), I walk pretty normal. In fact, I have always felt that I live a pretty slow pace in comparison to most other New Jerseyans. However, I am basically a speed racer when I am here in Costa Rica!

I don’t know if it is that ticos walk slowly or I walk fast, but let’s just say there’s a discrepancy. The first time I noticed it was when a colleague asked me “what’s the matter? Why are you rushing?”, when in actuality I thought I was doing no more than a steady meander.

Since then I have realized that it is literally not physically possible for me to walk as slowly as ticos do. I just don’t know how. I’ve pretty much given up trying, but I can’t help but wonder if people are curious about where I’m always rushing off to.


So, Costa Rica doesn’t have lemons. At least lemons as I know them. You know, these things:


And whenever I mention to a tico that I miss lemons so much, their response is always, “but we have tons of lemons!”

But they mean these:


And when I try to explain that those are limes, they don’t believe me. So yeah, an entire country believes that the green things are lemons. And since I did state that this post would be without judgment, I will just go with it.

Six continents?

So, remember when we were in school and we learned that there are seven continents?

Not everyone learned that!

For many other people in the world, there are only six continents (Africa, Europe, Asia, Oceania (not just Australia by itself like we learned), Antarctica, and the Americas).

That’s right; to much of the world, North, Central, and South America are all one big continent. I mean, I guess that really does make sense, given the fact that it actually gives Central America a place in the world. I am fairly certain I remember learning that there’s North America (Canada, the States, and Mexico) and South America (the ice cream cone), and then Central America was sort of just floating there without a continent.

And don’t even get me started on the whole use of the word “America” for the United States! That’ll be part of a post about language if I ever get around to writing one of those.

Grocery store samples

Everyone knows the best part about Costco is the free samples. Well, how about extending that to the regular grocery store? And then how about taking it a step further and making the samples booze? Yep!


A few things about motorcycles in Costa Rica:

  • Babies ride on them sometimes.
  • They don’t follow the rules of traffic.
  • No really, they don’t follow rules. It’s freaking scary.

Fixing things

I’m trying to keep my bias in check for this post, but I have to say, I really do love how much people fix things here. Cars, especially. Cars are not cheap here (hence I don’t have one), but the value also doesn’t depreciate like it does in the States. I’m pretty amazed by how long people keep cars running here.

And it’s not just cars that people fix. In general, it is part of the culture to repair or repurpose items, rather than just throwing them out like so many people do at home. I have been trying to pick up on this habit as best I can, so I am not a wasteful person!

Plastic on silverware

Ok, this one really does make me crazy. Many restaurants bring you silverware that is tucked neatly into a little sleeve of plastic, which gets thrown out after each use. I think it relates to what could actually be another section of this post, which is a high level of concern for hygiene here in Costa Rica (people brush their teeth a lot here).

Honestly I don’t see the need for the plastic sleeve thing, and I am left wondering if there is some plastic sleeve mogul living here that I don’t know about.

Other restaurant stuff

Speaking of restaurants, there are a few other things that happen here that are different from home.

  • It is EXTREMELY rare for there to be pepper on the table at a restaurant.
  • The chances of salt being there are 50/50.
  • You are pretty likely, however, to get a little caddy filled with ketchup and mayo packets.
    • The place I went tonight even had a pair of scissors in the caddy to open the packets! (Still can’t believe I didn’t take a pic of that!)
  • Napkins here are tiny, and people don’t seem to place them on their laps.
  • A rice entree comes with a side of fries (this one is perhaps my favorite).

Coins galore!

Sometimes I purge my wallet of change if it’s weighing me down. But that doesn’t usually last for long, because the change here builds up so darn fast! In the States, because of how the currency works, it’s pretty rare to get more than a few coins at a time, and even then, they’re usually the small ones (maybe 2 quarters, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies or something). But here, if you need to get like 900 colones change (which actually kind of makes you the jerk b/c you should’ve given a 100-colones coin to the cashier), you might get that in 9 separate 100-colones coins. And those are heavy!

Although honestly it’s better to have the heavy ones than the 10-colones coins, which feel more like arcade tokens than actual money!

Women don’t get frisked

Chivalry outweighs safety, it seems. Quite often, because I am a woman, I get to pass through security at certain places due to the fact that a male security guard can’t frisk a woman. Some places like the National Stadium do have women friskers, and they are the only ones who can frisk another woman. One time I was even forced to get back on line (or “in line,” if you’re from anywhere except New Jersey) because I had waited on a male security guard’s line, and he made me go back and start over in a female guard’s line.

Good thing I’m not a smuggler, because who knows what I’d sneak in to places knowing that I won’t be checked!

High school Spanish class was one big lie

  • The thing over the “ñ” is not called a tilde. It’s called a virgulilla.
  • The accent mark over vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú) is not called an accent mark. It’s called a tilde.
  • If you’re in Costa Rica, it’s not “coche;” it’s “carro.”
  • If you’re in Costa Rica, it’s not “cerveza;” it’s “birra.”
  • No one here says “de nada” after “gracias.” It’s “con gusto.”

There are countless other Spanish differences that I’ve learned, but I can’t think of them at the moment. And I definitely won’t get into tico slang, which is a whole other story!

Coffee shops are for friends

My favorite way to spend alone time in New Jersey is in a coffee shop (man, I miss Barnes & Noble!). I love sitting by myself for a few hours, sipping on a cold brew or a nice mocha, reading a book or doing my work. However, if I do that here, I’m in the minority. Although more and more people are going to cafes alone here, the majority make it a social event. The whole point of going for coffee (un cafecito) here is to spend time with friends and make it a group event. Why bother going otherwise?

Police lights

Police cars here always have their police lights on when they drive. So, if you are driving down the road and there’s a police officer behind you, you will always feel like you’re getting pulled over. You aren’t. At least I don’t think so. I guess if you were getting pulled over, they’d put the sirens on? I haven’t been pulled over (aren’t you proud of me, Mom and Dad?), so I have no idea actually!

That’s all, folks!

Well, that’s about all I can think of! I hope you learned a little something about Costa Rican culture, even if they are things that you don’t usually think about when you hear the word “culture.”

One of my favorite parts about living here has been learning that “culture” really is more than food and flags. There are so many little cultural things that make people who they are, and half the time you don’t even realize it. Being out of my own culture has made me learn more about myself and where I come from than I had expected to learn!

I hope I haven’t stereotyped anything in this post; I know that not everything can be generalized. I just find it super fun to compare and contrast these things. Hope you did, too!

4 thoughts on “Just Cultural Things

  1. You are pretty spot on! I might add the fact that an ENTIRE family (consisting of Dad, Mom and at least two children) can ride ONE bicycle into town. And, being the horsewoman that I am, I was totally unprepared to see horses in the back of a pickup truck that is being used as a “horse trailer”. But, I know that I am really happy that I learned about cows on the road and traffic coming to a standstill while they pass….never quite know when I might run across that here in Florida! I am so grateful for the ability to learn Costa Rican culture over the four years that I lived there.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story with us, it is interesting to learn about the differences, both great and small. I have friends true tico’s and tica’s that I visit with. They are all educated, intelligent and fun to communicate with. Perhaps another time you would write about holidays. This is where I seem to be lacking. Happy Mothers Day for instance, not the same. Why would it be the same?
    Thanks again

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