This past Monday, October 5, marked my one year anniversary of living in Costa Rica. Reaching this year milestone makes Costa Rica the country abroad that I’ve lived in the longest, surpassing Australia (six months) and Spain (ten months).
I didn’t celebrate this milestone Tico-style because I wasn’t actually in Costa Rica – I was, and am, in Maryland, where I celebrated my 27th birthday with my family on October 3. However, even though I may be away from Costa Rica, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve experienced while living abroad in Central America.
Apart from the duration, my time in Costa Rica has also been much different from my other long-term experiences overseas because it has involved less traveling and more living. In both Australia and Spain I focused on using my location in Melbourne and Madrid as a base to explore my surroundings as thoroughly as possible. In Australia I visited five of six states and two territories, and in Europe I visited 25 countries in one year.
Compared to these experiences, my travel in Costa Rica has been minimal. Costa Rica is a small country, but road conditions are poor, traffic is heavy and buses are slow, making travel times to popular destinations longer than my weekend permits.
I’ve explored the country some, most notably visiting Arenal Volcano and the Pacific and Caribbean coasts with my mom and taking a ten-day hike through the cloud forest. However, most of my time in Costa Rica has been spent just plain living – sitting at a desk and working, hiking to and taking the bus to run errands, socializing with coworkers, and passing rainy evenings by reading, writing, or dreaming up future travel plans.
Traveling less and living more has allowed me to learn how to experience Costa Rica like a local in my interactions with the people that make up my community in the mountainous rainforest of San Ramon de Tres Ríos, and I want to share what I’ve learned over the past year with you.
How to Experience Costa Rica Like a Local
1. Take a hike
If there’s one general statement I could make about Costa Ricans, or Ticos, it’s that they love the outdoors. The government does much to preserve nature; 25 percent of the land is designated as protected land in national parks or reserves. During the rainy season which runs from May to December, there is still bright sunlight most mornings, so many Ticos rise early for a morning walk before the rains set in for the remainder of the day and into the night. Hiking is a great way to truly experience the rainforests or cloud forests found in the country.
2. Visit the beach
If there’s a second general statement I could make about Ticos, it’s that they love the beach. Ask any Tico what they like to do on the weekends and the answer will almost always include visit the playa. Nearly two-thirds of Costa Rica’s borders are coastline so there’s no shortage of beaches, however, the most popular beach is Playa Jaco. True, this is far from being the most beautiful beach in Costa Rica (the beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula or Guanacaste Region usually take this claim). However, it is the closest beach to San Jose, the capital city where a third of Costa Rica’s population lives, so it is the most convenient for many locals.
3. Drink Imperial (or Pilsen)
And while you’re on the beach, why not drink a local beer? While craft beers are on the rise, Cerveceria Costa Rica still dominates the country’s beer scene. Their two most popular brands of beer are Imperial, an American adjunct lager, or Pilsen, a Czech pilsner. They taste the same to me, but every Tico has a favorite. Try them both and decide for yourself whether Imperial or Pilsen is your Tico beer of choice.
4. Pura vida, Mae
Costa Rica is a casual country that has a set of laid back slang to go with the chill attitude of its people. Porfavor (please) gets shorted to porfa and Gracias (thank you) occasionally is shortened to Grac. The two pieces of slang you most need to know to fit in with the locals are pura vida and Mae. Pura vida, literally translated to “pure life” is a saying that gets tossed around for a variety of purposes including greeting, saying goodbye and describing your mood. Mae is a term that can loosely be translated to mean “bro” or “man.” It is mostly used by men, but I like to throw it out there sometimes when I’m with local friends for comedic affect.
5. Drive to a Mall
If I had a nickel for every Tico who pointed out a strip mall of an example of why Costa Rica is such a great country, I could buy… at least a whole case of Imperial! While foreign tourists are more likely to be impressed by the abundance of rainforests and beaches, Ticos are very proud of the abundance of strip malls and modern malls found within their country, which serve as a source of entertainment and symbol of the country’s strong economy relative to other countries in Central America. The largest mall in Central America is currently being constructed near the airport in Alajuela.
6. Eat at a mirador restaurant
On the weekends a popular place for families, couples and tourists to place time is at a mirador restaurant. The central valley is full of hidden restaurants that overlook the coffee plantations, mountains and buildings of the central valley. If you go in the afternoon it is a fun spot to watch the rain roll in and pour down on different suburbs in the area. Mirador Tiquita in Escazu is my personal favorite.
And there you have it — six ways to experience Costa Rica like a local. Let me know what your favorite Costa Rican customs are in the comments below. ¡Pura vida, mae!