How to Live Like a Local: A Beginners Guide to Tico Culture

What does it mean to live like a local in Costa Rica?  First of all, know that locals rarely call themselves Costa Ricans, rather Ticos or Ticas.  This isn’t a small distinction, more an example of a very personal, laid-back, and close-knit country.  With that in mind, here are a few ideas that you can adopt to fully embrace life in our adopted home.  

Learn Spanish

Speaking of reading the room, know that not all Ticos speak English, and even if they do, it is important to them that you are trying to speak their language.  While there are many local dialects and indigenous languages, Spanish is the official and primary language.  Yes, we assume most speak English, but you are here for a reason and that is not to speak as you do to your local vendors or neighbors.  (I for one feel this about ANY traveling, even for vacation: make the effort.)  With tons of local and online tutors and language programs, it’s not hard.  Personal note: I would recommend a program that teaches more than just sentences, but rather grammar, conjugation, and tenses as well.

Understand the layered meanings of “Buenas”

Much like “Aloha”, “Ciao” and “Shalom”, “Buenas” is a word that can mean both hello and goodbye. More so, it is a way to make even time familiar.  Why distinguish between día, tardes, or noches when we can just be happy to say “hello”?  Yes, this can be overused, so read the room when it’s appropriate.

Embrace “Tico Time”

This is a challenge for internationals: punctuality.  Tico Time is another laid-back feature.  People are generally a bit late — be it because of traffic, family, or just a lull.  You need to understand that in most cases “one hour” can mean “later today” but can also mean “tomorrow”.  Your Pura Vida will help with some items to get people to you faster, but it is important to always remember you are moving here and you need to adapt.

Avoid Comparisons

This one gets the best of us.  If I had 25 colones for every time I’ve said “it doesn’t work like this back home” I’d be able to pay my car insurance!  But some of the things you need to try and get over and embrace from a comparison standpoint:

  • Metric vs. Imperial: yes, you can forever factor temp, weight, distance, and speed in imperial, but to truly be able to convey ideas on weights and measurements with locals you’ll need to figure out how to translate that into metric.  So for me, I’ve just tried to adopt the metric system and only use it.
  • Business systems: True, setting up a bank account takes a ton of documentation and time.  You can get angry about it, but you won’t be changing the system anytime soon.  The same is true with websites, addresses, customs, shipping, etc.  

Many find the bureaucracy and methodology maddening and not necessary, but there are reasons: from vetting any funds coming into the country to ensure there is no money laundering or drug connections (using the banking example), to ensuring that expats are able to support themselves without draining the social security system.  

Adopt “Pura Vida”

You will hear this phrase daily: from the store clerk, your waiter, a neighbor, or a toll booth cashier.  While not the “official” phrase of Costa Rica, it actually goes a lot deeper than a phrase — it may well be the soul of the country.  The dictionary definition translates to “pure life” or “simple life”, but it means much more:

Like Buenas, you will see that it demonstrates a sense of collective familiarity and belonging as one would expect from a laid-back country.  For Ticos, Pura Vida is about enjoying the life you have, as it is, regardless of the good/bad you may be experiencing.  It’s about truly understanding and being aware of all around you: those you are connected to, the environment, the country, and your collective sense of community.  This phrase often makes the challenges more manageable, and the issues ones of perspective.  

Having a bad day?  Pura Vida.   Seeing an old friend?  Pura Vida!  Experiencing a fantastic sunset?  Pura Vida.  

This isn´t instinctive for many of us.  But adopting the Pura Vida approach can not only help you feel more connected to Costa Rica, but it may also lower your blood pressure… 

Don’t Try to Go It Alone

For many, having the tenacity to move to another country means you feel you can tackle anything.  I applaud this in you and feel it in myself as well.  But know that the systems in Costa Rica are complex and work differently than they do in Canada, Europe, or the States.  You may figure out things, but there will be a lot of trial and error.  And if you don’t live in a community with a ton of other internationals, going it alone may mean more errors and headaches than you need to have.  Reach out to Your Pura Vida and let us help you lean into your inner Tico/Tica.  

We truly are here to help you thrive on your journey.  We want to hear from you about what does work and how you are adapting to Costa Rica. 

And as always, Pura Vida!