San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Surviving Costa Rican culture: What students wish they had known

From sprinting ridiculously across the street to avoid becoming the next panqueque al Gringo, to getting served beer at a college function, there are many things that foreign students may find a bit shocking about living and studying in Costa Rica.

One of the big differences students must adapt to is driving.

“Beware of the traffic,” warns Winthrop University Spanish major Antonio Artis, currently studying at Universidad Veritas in Zapote, a southeastern district of San José.

It is sound advice. Unlike in the United States, where pedestrians have the right-of-way, the laws in Costa Rica are a bit different. Drivers aren’t required to stop for pedestrians, and this can make for some very interesting experiences. While there are crosswalks, they are fewer in number. Be careful when crossing the street and make sure to look all around you.

Another thing to be aware of is the pricing of goods and services. Costa Rica is one of the most expensive countries in Latin America, and prices truly add up. Many students don’t realize this and equate Costa Rican prices with those of poorer countries in the region.

Lauren Gabauer, a student from Winthrop University majoring in Spanish and education, says, “I ran out of money at the end [of a Costa Rica trip], and if I would have known more about the actual prices of lunches and taxis and things like that, I could have planned better.”

Students often end up phoning home to ask mom and dad for money. Make sure to budget well in advance.


Watch out! Crossing the street in Chepe is a special art.

Jordan Lent | Special to The Tico Times

Taxis in San José, unlike some cities in the U.S., are plentiful. As a tourist you never really have to worry about getting home if you’re lost, provided you have money for a cab.

Upon entering your chosen taxi, make sure it has a meter, or “María” as it’s known in Costa Rica. Once you know your way around the city a bit more, be sure to pay attention to where the drivers take you. Not all of them are dishonest, but some will take you the long way to get as much money as possible. Just be aware.

Sophomore biology major Colleen Keller from Western Michigan University advises, “Always make sure to take note of the company and number, in case you leave something, which I did.”

Here is something teenagers will find particularly interesting: Costa Ricans have a hard time saying “No.” In the U.S., people tend to say what they mean and mean what they say. Such brusque talk is not as commonplace in Costa Rica. When Ticos want to say no to you, they often will seem to talk around the subject.

“Oh you want to go out? Well how late do you think it will be? Are you sure it won’t be too cold? Do you think it’s a good idea?” etc.

Of course, it varies with each individual. (Kids in the U.S. could learn from this, i.e., perhaps it’s time to talk your parents into making a move down south.)

One final piece of advice about visiting Costa Rica: Embrace the Tico concept of time. It is very different than in the U.S. (the absence of clocks in many places is sure to be noticed), and it does take some getting used to for those from a culture obsessed with punctuality.

In Costa Rica, being late is not a faux pas as it is in the U.S. Although a bit taxing and frustrating at first, once you learn to focus less on your watch and more on taking in the moments, it can help you lead a more relaxed lifestyle.

So embrace “Tico time” and make the most of your trip to the country of “no artificial ingredients.”

Jordan Lent is a senior at Winthrop University, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, United States. She studied Spanish in Costa Rica for three months and hopes to one day become a foreign correspondent.

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