Culture is the worldview that is shaped by our behavior, and projected in our behavior. Everything human-made, learned and transmitted is our culture. Language, especially, is a way to take in, and to give out, culture.
We learn culture through the process of enculturation, which includes religion, mythology, and history. These shared sets of beliefs and stories help people who co-exist in a geographic area to deal with the basic social problems that concern them all.
Here in Costa Rica, both sacred and secular stories often revolve around the themes of a working class people living with respect for their land and people, and how they respond to the external forces that want to exert their influence on the land and the people.
Culture in Costa Rica revolves around the close knit bonds of the family structure. These are traditions that are acknowledged, taught, and practiced from birth until death, and religion holds a strong force in Costa Rica society as a set of customs consistently practiced as a community.
During colonial times, Costa Rica was strongly impacted by Spanish customs. Because Spain was a Catholic nation, the Catholic faith had a substantial effect over local traditions. In reality, many of the present day customs in Costa Rica come from the Catholic religion.
The national religion in Costa Rica is Roman Catholicism, and the church’s influence holds dominance over many aspects of the daily life of Costa Ricans. Names of towns are adorned with the saintly prefixes “San” or “Santa” and customs revolve around traditional beliefs that stem from The Bible. Despite this, religious freedom is endorsed by the Costa Rican Constitution and the country is one of the most secular in Latin America.
Several of the primary traditions that relate to religion include: Holy Week, Christmas, the feast day of the Virgin of Los Angeles, baptisms, first communions, confirmation, engagement parties, weddings and funerals. These kinds of events include all members of the immediate family, as well as the majority of members of the extended family, and several neighbors and friends.
Religion presupposes that a supernatural force takes an interest in and influences human affairs. This means that humans can directly appeal to these forces for aid, and many here do.
Reminder: non-believers are often quick to dismiss another culture’s religious and sacred stories as mythology. We should resist this diminutive impulse, and understand that what one might call “myth” can be another culture’s religious “belief.”
Houses of Worship
Churches in Costa Rica tend to be meticulously preserved from the 16th century onwards. Stained glass, religious images and artifacts are commonly found in churches both large and small all over the nation.
The Basilica de Los Angeles is the largest Catholic Church in Cartago, and the most famous of the churches in the country. Every Tica wants her dream wedding in this immaculate space, which features the famous statue of the Virgin Mary called La Negrita.
Every town has at least one Catholic Church. Other than the Basilica in Cartago, a few churches of note are:
Templo Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes – the metallic church in Grecia
La Iglesia de Cañas – a stunningly intricate mosaic-tiled church
San Juan Bosco – in La Fortuna is Costa Rica’s most-photographed-house-of-worship. The view of the church from across the central park, with the volcano in the background, makes a great photo of the sacred and the menacing.
San Jose de Orosí – one of the oldest buildings in Costa Rica and a National Monument
Iglesia de San Rafael – cottage-style, full of paintings and a garden with sculpted hedges
Iglesia de Coronado – French and German gothic architecture.
By using rituals (religion in action)– e.g. prayer, song, dance, offerings– people honor their religion in an attempt to avoid tragedy and to appeal to supernatural forces, which are believed to aid and protect their human subjects. Most cultures have religious experts like shamans, priests, and theologians who are trained in addressing supernatural powers, mediating between the spiritual and human worlds.
Of Costa Rica’s official holidays, 33% are religious affairs and other celebrations throughout the year also revolve around faith.
Holy Week (Semana Santa) – the week leading up to Easter is full of elaborate celebrations that includes reenactments of the crucifixion.
Our Virgin of Los Angeles Day – August 2nd pilgrimage called the Romería to the Cartago Basilica. 25% of the country makes this pilgrimage, usually on foot, and from starting locations all over the country, sometimes consisting of many days. They do this in worship of La Negrita, who is the Patron Saint of Costa Rica, said to cure many illnesses.
Christmas – celebrated with fireworks, family meals, gifts and mass.
Apart from these traditions, Costa Ricans, particularly younger generations, are embracing a growing number of cultural elements from North America. Outside cultural influences are a result of many expats moving to Costa Rica in the last 2 decades.
A great example of this influence is in the adoption of Halloween, which used to be thought of as a holiday devoted to the devil and therefore largely ignored and avoided by Costa Rican society. Perspectives have shifted and younger generations see that Halloween is just another reason to gather with friends, to dress up and have a good time. Some neighborhoods have even adopted trick or treating for their children.
Shamans also play a significant role in the indigenous and the spiritual cultures that exist in Costa Rica. Traditions that stem from a long history of working with native plants and animals in the medicinal jungles of Central and South America, and around the world, continue to find space in Costa Rica, largely thanks to the prevalent cultural ideology of the protection of native wildlife. Many traditions from around the world have made their home in this land, which regularly hosts shamans from around the world, and their followers who are seeking alternative methods to healing their physical, mental and spiritual ills.
Stories passed down over time are used to explain the consistent experience of the world in which Costa Ricans live. These often begin as sacred stories that offer supernatural explanations to things that cannot easily be explained. They provide a rational for a culture’s practices, and how people relate to one another in every day life.
Creation myths explain how the world came to be in its present form. When you ask members of a few of Costa Rican indigenous tribes about the origin of the world, most frequently they will tell you a story about white stone. According to them, a big bird had fed of heaven’s fruits and then rose high up in the air. From its excrement was formed the planet, with continents and seas, mountains and forests. This bird also dropped a piece of heaven’s fruit, from which were formed the first people and animals.
The bird created among others one woman, who was made to care for Indian men. But, Indians were forbidden from seeing her face and they knew she was a woman only because of her long hair and soft voice. They lived in happiness because they couldn’t work and hunt. Everything they needed they got from this woman.
One day, a young Indian fell in love with her and foolishly looked at her face. In that moment, the woman disappeared. In her place, a large lake began to form. Indians say that this lake still exists today in Cordillera Talamanca. In its centre, white stones can be found on which there often stands a grey-brown bird. It is believed that the direction the bird is turned means good or bad news. When the bird is turning to the north, it is a sign of approaching summer. When it is turned to the south, it means rains and bad weather.
When a tribal community in Costa Rica births a child, people check if the newborn has his fists balled tightly. They say that if this occurs, that child may be holding a piece of white stone, which some tribes believe was put in the mother’s lap earlier by God. This child will likely be chosen to be a priest/shaman in the future.
Many myths are found in Costa Rica’s traditional stories, adding an element of the ephemeral world to everyday life. Stories like the ones below were likely thought up to protect children and villagers from danger by adding a bit of mystery to the experience of some special places.
In the year 1635, a young mestiza girl named Juana Pereira who was looking for firewood and led herself to a stream. There, atop a boulder, she found a stone that seemingly looked like a doll. She brought it home but it disappeared. She went back to the stream and found the stone on top of the same boulder. She took it back home and again, it disappeared and was found on the same boulder.
Thinking that these occurrences were supernatural, Juana brought the stone to her priest, Father Baltazar de Grado, who called it a ‘miracle.’ A church was built around the boulder where Juana first found La Negrita. The statue has since been transferred to the Basilica in Cartago, but the boulder remains where it was up to this day.
La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”)
A bereaved woman who mourns the loss of her children after drowning them. She discovered her husband left her for a younger woman and so she drowned her children as a form of revenge. She then threw herself in the river after she realized she killed her own children. At the gates of heaven, St. Peter questions her on the whereabouts of her children and sent her back to look for them for all eternity. La Llorona has been seen in rivers throughout Latin America, and heard to be crying for her loss.
A beautiful, long haired girl who stands close to a path, late at night, before the sun rises. When a passing young man stops to offer help or to talk, she is first reluctant and does not turn around. After some persuasion and a chase through the forest to a more secluded location, she accepts the offer, only to later reveal that she is actually a demon with the face of a horse. The (often unfaithful) men who see this apparition either die of shock or are permanently driven mad by the experience. This myth was said to be brought from Spain by the colonists as a method of frightening and controlling the local population.
Club Sport Cartaginés Curse of 1941
The Club Sport Cartaginés futbol club has not won a national title since 1941, and it is believed that the club suffers a curse due to some actions taken by the team in that year. After winning their last national championship, some of the team members rode their horses into the cathedral at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels in Cartago. The priest sent them away immediately and is thought to have cursed them as they left.
La Careta Sin Bueyes
The Oxcart without Oxen is a cart that shows up in the early hours of the morning to collect the dead.
Myths of Semana Santa
Superstitions surround this week that leads up to Easter, including mermaids grabbing and drowning swimmers, or turning them into a fish if you enter the ocean on Good Friday.
Mythology of Quetzals
Considered gods of the air by various indigenous tribes, tribes like the Aztecs and Mayans revered this sacred bird as the representation of the snake god, Quetzalcoatl, as symbol of goodness and light. It has always been a symbol of wealth, highly prized for its long tail feathers. They are said to kill themselves in captivity, so they are also regarded as symbols of freedom and liberation.
La Mona is half monkey and half woman. It lives in the forest and only appears on the darkest of nights. If a man is walking alone at night and he hears the laughter of La Mona, he is best to run. At first, it sounds like the laughter of a child. Then, as La Mona approaches, the laughter becomes hysterical and terrifying. If the unlucky soul cannot escape, La Mona touches him on the head, and he becomes insane.
Stone Spheres of the Diquís
In the cosmogony of the Bribri, which is shared by the Cabecares and other American ancestral groups, the stone spheres are “Tara’s cannon balls.” Tara or Tlatchque, the god of thunder, used a giant blowpipe to shoot the balls at the Serkes, gods of winds and hurricanes, in order to drive them out of these lands.
Two dogs that show up in the night, one black and one white, representing the forces of good and evil. Which color represents which is the subject of debate. The emissary of good is said to watch over passers in the night like a guardian angel. The emissary of evil trails people and is a portent of unfortunate events.
Myth of Rio Celeste
Its origins are said to be with the sky gods, who are said to have dipped their paintbrushes in the river when painting the sky.
Fountain of Youth in Cartago
A hot spring retreat thought to be the fountain of youth was found by Spanish colonists in the 1600s. They said it had miraculous healing properties, and local indigenous people living nearby carried pouches with water and mud from the spring to heal injuries incurred during long journeys. This spring was said to have been destroyed in a major earthquake that leveled Cartago in 1910. It has since been excavated, and is being renovated into a spa/resort called Purapora Palace (although it is still not open after 10 years of construction).
The Old Woman’s Corner (Rincón de la Vieja)
A local legend about a girl whose lover was thrown into the crater of a volcano by her father (this volcano is named after the legend, Rincón de la Vieja). She became a recluse living on the mountain, and was credited with powers of healing. It is believed her ghost roams the mountain paths, helping lost travelers make their way through the forest.