Understanding Costa Rican culture will enrich your time here with Pura Vida Adventures by immersing you more fully in the warmth and positive energy everywhere. Costa Rica is considered by many to be the happiest country in the world. One of the best ways to give back some of those good vibes and make your vacation even more special is to understand and honor the basic cultural practices that make life feel so good in Costa Rica.
Whether it’s as simple as sharing a smile, slowing down and taking your time, or just saying gracias (thank you), these common courtesies show that you are a respectful and open-hearted traveler while you also help brighten someone’s day.
Don’t be shy! It doesn’t matter if you’re a total beginner, Costa Ricans love it when you make your best attempt to speak Spanish, and many consider it a sincere gesture of respect. Try these simple phrases to add a bit of the local language to your everyday interactions.
Start with the ultimate lingo of Costa Rica! The exact translation is “pure life,” but kind of like “aloha” in Hawaii, this phrase is a vibe all its own. Use it anytime you want to add extra warmth to a conversation, express your agreement on something positive, or comment that something is pretty wonderful. And if you’re ever not sure what to say in Spanish but want to say something nice, just go with pura vida and you’ll be all good.
If you’re going to learn to surf in Costa Rica, you’ve got to be on the lookout for ¡buenas olas! And one of the best parts of being a surfer is telling a friend about the buenas olas that morning. They just might respond with ¡pura vida!
This extremely common phrase is often used as a question: ¿Todo bien? To which the usual response is simply Todo bien. In restaurants, you’ll hear waiters using this when they pass by your table to ask if everything is okay. It’s also commonly combined with a greeting: Hola, buenos dias! ¿Todo bien? – Hi, good morning! All is good?
Use these basic greetings throughout the day to recognize the many local folks who help make your visit run smoothly:
Buenos días – Good morning
Buenas tardes – Good afternoon
Buenas noches – Good evening
¿Cómo estás? – How are you? And one of the easiest responses to this is of course, ¡Todo bien!
Por favor – please
Gracias – thank you
Life moves at a slower pace in Costa Rica, where living well in the moment is more valued than rushing around and stressing out. It’s so pronounced here that it even has its own name: “tico time.” Costa Ricans (who call themselves Ticos) have this beautiful way of taking their time with nearly everything, and if you can relax into this flow as a visitor, your time on vacation will be even sweeter.
“Tico time” is not something to be challenged; if you arrive in Santa Teresa and expect things to run on the same exacting timetable as in the United States, your nerves will quickly become frayed. Rather, take “tico time” as an invitation to let go a bit – enjoy a longer conversation with friends at sunset, simply observe the natural world around you without the pressure to take photos, or linger for a while at a good restaurant for decadent dessert. When life finally slows down all around you, there’s no better way to be present for it.
You can eat very well in Santa Teresa, whether it’s at our retreat hotel’s restaurant, one of the many hot spots in town serving international cuisine, or at a simple local restaurant. Look out for these national favorites if you visit a restaurant serving Costa Rican food and give them a try!
Pipa | Fresh coconut water right from the coconut, best enjoyed after a sunny surf session.
Café con leche | Simply, coffee with milk. When ordered in a café or restaurant it often resembles a cappuccino, with warm frothy milk on top of a strong dark coffee. Costa Ricans love their late-afternoon coffee hour, usually around 4 p.m., when a café con leche is usually enjoyed with a small piece of cake.
Gallo pinto | The classic Costa Rican breakfast, served with eggs, rice and beans, cheese, plantains, and a homemade tortilla. Don’t forget to try some Salsa Lizano on your eggs or beans, it’s savory and uniquely Costa Rican.
Casado | The lunch of choice is called casado. Typically it’s servied with fish or chicken plus salad, rice and beans, and sometimes French fries or another side such as pasta salad. This meal also goes great with a bit of Salsa Lizano or hot sauce.
Batido | Spanish for “smoothie,” these simple blended drinks are always made with fresh fruit. Order a single fruit or a combination of your favorite flavors, and ask for it served with water or milk. Some of the best fruits to try are mango, watermelon, papaya, and passionfruit (maracuya).
Cerveza | There’s nothing like a cold beer (cerveza) after a hot day on the beach or a dreamy surf session. The local beers of choice are Pilsen and Imperial. For a local twist, try a michelada: a cold cerveza over ice with a bit of salt and freshly squeezed lime.
You may hear that tipping is not really a thing in Latin America, and in more undeveloped areas of Costa Rica this is somewhat true. But Santa Teresa is most definitely a tourist town filled with very hardworking hotel staff, waiters and bartenders, maids, taxi drivers, tour guides, and more—many of whom travel long distances to get to their jobs and make rather low hourly wages. Therefore, any bit of gratuity you choose to leave for a job well done will be very greatly appreciated.
When dining out at restaurants, a 5% tip is customary (you will already see a small service charge on your bill, so this is added on top of that). Tip your hotel maid a few dollars per day, and if a hotel staff member or a tour guide does something extra special to make your stay more enjoyable, tip an amount that feels right to show your appreciation. For longer taxi rides, such as to and from the Tambor airport, taxi drivers can be tipped $5 to $10, especially if they assist you with your luggage. Tipping is not customary for short taxi rides around town.
Renting ATVs has become an extremely popular adventure activity in Santa Teresa, and with it has come some wild driving on our main road. This is not a very “tico time” or “pura vida” way of doing things, and those tourists who speed down the main road are actually creating a dangerous environment. Now, we absolutely love a fun ATV tour through town and the surrounding jungle backroads, but the local folks also appreciate it if you keep the pace slow.
Many will even tell you that the number one way to be a respectful (and respected) tourist here is to just drive slowly and carefully. It keeps the main road safe for the kids who walk to school each day, minimizes the clouds of dust on unpaved sections in the dry season, and helps protect the many cherished doggies and other wildlife that make Santa Teresa their home. There’s really no need to rush – remember, you’re on vacation! And if you’re driving too fast you just might miss the howler monkeys swinging in the trees above.
And what’s more pura vida than that?