If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica, or even if you’re just curious about the country, there are a few things that you should know before you come here. Here’s a crash course in the top five important things to know about Costa Rica that came to my mind as I wrote this:
1. Costa Rica is not Puerto Rico.
This is a controversial point, but no matter how much you try to insist on this issue, you’ll notice that the normally easygoing Costa Ricans won’t budge on this matter. With this fact also come a few implications; for example, Costa Rica isn’t an island, it isn’t part of the United States, its capital isn’t San Juan, and it’s also not home to pop music sensation Ricky Martin. Sorry, but all that is Puerto Rico. So what is Costa Rica, then? Read on…
2. Costa Rica should actually be called “Costas Ricas.”
The name Costa Rica is Spanish for “Rich Coast,” which of course is short for “Richard Coast”…but please, call him “Rich” or “Ricky.” Costa Rica could also be translated as “Coast Tasty,” which I definitely prefer. Anyhow, the Spanish conquistadors who landed here way back in the day were evidently a bit slow on the uptake, since Costa Rica actually has two coasts: The Pacific and The Caribbean. That’s right, Costa Rica isn’t an island (another common misconception; see item 1 above for clarification) but like the rest of Central America, it is actually part of an isthmus!
3. Costa Ricans call themselves “Ticos.”
Tico (masculine) and Tica (feminine) are actually diminutive forms of nouns here in Coast Tasty. In most Spanish-speaking countries, the diminutive suffixes are -ito and -ita; if something is small, you can say it’s chiquito or chiquita; in Costa Rica, you’d say it’s chiquitico or chiquitica. Evidently Ticos used these suffixes so often that the people themselves became known as “Ticos.” It’s unknown if the name was meant ironically but whether it was or not, in the end it stuck, and to this day it’s quite common. There’s even an English-language newspaper called Tico Times.
4. The phrase of the day –every single day– is “Pura Vida.”
This literally means “pure life,” but it’s used as a sort of Costa Rican aloha. In other words, it can be a greeting (“Hola, pura vida“), a goodbye (“Adiós, pura vida“), a way to say thanks (“Pura vida!“), a way to check if everyone’s doing OK or needs a refill (“Qué, pura vida?”), and probably even a swear word (“Pura @#$^!* vida!“), but I’ve not tried that last one personally. I’m sure there’s some history around the ubiquity of this phrase, but I don’t know it. Just be prepared to hear it come out of everyone’s mouth nearly constantly, and also to find every other business named something like Hotel Pura Vida, Cabinas Pura Vida, Supermercado Pura Vida, Transportes Pura Vida, or Casino Pura Vida.
5. Get ready to eat rice. And lots of it.
I originally came to Costa Rica with very little warning. I inquired with a friend about a possible job here one day in 2006, and less than two weeks later I was in the country. I believe I had bought a book with a title like How Not to Get Killed in Costa Rica, the main purpose of which was to inform the reader about the splendors of Costa Rica by pointing out all the things that can go horribly wrong in one’s visit. It seems like I read something in that book about rice being prominent here, but I imagined it was only eaten occasionally, and that it was like the “Spanish” rice served at many Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants in the US. In fact, it’s something much more plain and disheartening: just plain, white, non-seasoned, non-sticky rice. And it’s served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you’re (un)lucky, it’s also served as a dessert in arroz con leche, or rice pudding. The breakfast rice is arguably the best, since it’s mixed with beans and mild seasonings to make gallo pinto, the national dish. But for the other meals, expect the main dish to be served with a big bowl of white rice, even if that main dish is something carbo-heavy like spaghetti, toast, potatoes, or even fried rice. Take that, Señor Doctor Atkins! I’ll do a separate post about rice sometime since it’s such an integral part of life here.
So, there’s your crash course in one post, but we’ll be exploring Costa Rica more and more with each post. Stay tuned!
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