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Culture in Costa Rica: Part 3

In the last two weeks, we discussed the culture of Costa Rica in relation to the arts, and common beliefs. This week, we will touch upon the history of this region of the world, and how it affects the nation’s politics today, and the customs that are commonly found in most regions of the country.

For a culture to take root and flourish, it must first satisfy the basic needs of the people who live within its borders. And if a culture is able to find a place in its people’s lives, it will ensure the continuity of this culture across generations.

Culture needs to satisfy both individual needs, and those of the community, to continue to be influential. The dominant population’s interests will have the most influence, but successful cultures are also dynamic and able to adapt to changing circumstances, influences, and its people’s changing perceptions of existing circumstances.

A condensed history of Costa Rica

The first natives in Costa Rica were tribes of hunters and gatherers.  Costa Rica served as an “Intermediate Region” between Mesoamerican and Andean native cultures. Then, in 1502, Christopher Columbus made landfall in Costa Rica and his forces overwhelmed the indigenous people. He incorporated the territory as a province of New Spain in 1524, and for the next 300 years, Costa Rica served as a colony of Spain. And because of its lack of gold and silver, it was considered the poorest of Spain’s colonies and left to develop largely on its own.

During this period of Spanish colonialism, Costa Rica remained sparsely developed and impoverished.  Following the Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821), Costa Rica became part of the independent Mexican Empire in 1821. It gained full independence in 1838, although its economy continued to struggle, this time due to a lack of connections with European suppliers.

In 1856, Costa Rica resisted American settlers from mounting a take-over of the government, and in 1869, Costa Rica established their own democratic government.

After the Costa Rican Civil War in 1948, the government drafted a new constitution, guaranteeing universal voting rights and the dismantling of the military. Today, Costa Rica is a democracy that relies on technology and eco-tourism for its economy.

Ancient sites

Humans have been living in Costa Rica for around 10,000 years. Although there is a noticeable lack of the traditional Central American archaeological sites like pyramids, ziggurats and temples, there are historical ruins that are worthy of remembrance for their impact on the local culture.

The oldest evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica is associated with the arrival of groups of hunter-gatherers, who were nomadic and organized in family-based tribes of about 20 to 30 members. Ancient archaeological evidence (stone tools, quarries and workshops) suggest the possibility that two different cultures coexisted in this area during that time.

Guayabo National Park and Monument – most significant ancient site with 540 acres of ancient stonework and man-made mounds. The area was occupied 1000BC to 1400AD. Higher ranking individuals had larger mounds on which they would construct their housing.

Santiago Apóstol Parish Ruins in Cartago – a series of ruins on which several churches were constructed and destroyed since the 1500s.

Ujarras Ruins – hauntingly beautiful stone walls against a backdrop of green hills in the town of Orosí. These are the remains of a church from the 16th century

Palmar Sur Archeological Site – Originally uncovered by the United Fruit Company in the 1940s when clearing land for an irrigation system. They came across many large stones that are carved into perfect spheres. Called the Stone Spheres of the Diquis, these spheres have been found in the thousands, varying in size and weight, but all perfect spheres. Their source remains a mystery, with only speculative theories surrounding their origin. They are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Museum of Indigenous Culture – A collection of artifacts of note that give a good purview of what historical life was like in the last 10,000 years of human occupation.


Costa Ricans are considered some of the most highly educated and socially aware people in the world. Costa Rica has managed to avoid the bulk of recent political and social turbulence that typically plagues Latin American countries. Stability is a characteristic that distinguishes Costa Rica in contemporary history as a strength, giving the nation success with foreign investors.

There has been a stable democracy in the nation since 1949. And Costa Rica was the first country in the world to constitutionally abolish its army, which it did following a civil war in the 1940s.

The nation’s strong democratic constitution aided in President Arias Sanchez being awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 1987 for Costa Rica’s high ethical standards.

There have been no economic crises in Costa Rica in the last 20 years – a great accomplishment for any developing nation. Less than 20% of the population live in poverty and the economy is growing steadily about 2.5% per year.

Costa Rica receives $1.9 billion a year from its tourism industry, making this the most visited nation in Central America. This fact is a mark of cultural pride in the people, who value what makes their nation special and work hard to preserve it.

Customs and Traditions

Customs and traditions are actions and beliefs that have become a cultural norm over time. These include things like what to wear, what to eat, and how to converse with one another.

A custom is a cultural habit, practiced without much thought about the action being unique, and a tradition is largely considered as special and unique to the culture.

Below are a few Costa Rican customs and traditions that expats and visitors notice as special and unique:

Greetings – a kiss on the cheek for women or a one armed hug between men are the common conventions.

Tico time – “la hora tica” is the accepted habit of late arrival. This is not viewed as rude and it is instead an expectation. “Ahorita” in Costa Rica can mean “later” or “tomorrow” instead of the traditional translation of “now”.

Machismo – whistles and shouts of compliments towards women are generally well-meaning and will not likely result in further aggressive behavior. Men and women are expected to act differently from each other and to respect their roles. A large proportion of Costa Rican women are professionals and hold important positions in both businesses and the government, but they still retain some traits that are traditional and conservative. Even if a woman holds a high position, they still cook, clean, and raise the children.

Non-confrontational – confrontation and accusations are considered rude and Costa Ricans rarely get angry in public. They are taught from a young age to protest peacefully. Most Ticos will not say “no”, preferring to say “maybe” to protect the other’s feelings.

Dress – Costa Ricans take pride in their dress, which is formal and conservative in business, and casual dress is fancier than expected. Men rarely wear shorts and women pair jeans with stilettos and heavy makeup to always put their best foot forward, no matter the circumstance.

Taboo – topics like pre-marital sex, abortion, gay marriage are avoided. Keep your feet off the furniture. Always say please and thank you. Try not to raise your voice in public.

Gifts – presents are exchanged on Christmas, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and birthdays. Gifting a bottle of wine at a dinner party or flowers during a celebration are expected. Lilies are reserved for funerals only.

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