Exploring the Spanish Speaking World: ¡Vámos a Costa Rica!

Costa Rica means “rich coast” and if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know why that name was chosen. It is FULL of natural riches. Right in the middle of Central America, it’s nestled between Nicaragua and Panama with beautiful coasts on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides. As a travel destination, Costa Rica has incredible appeal.  It has a welcoming, lively culture that blends Spanish, Caribbean, and European influences. You’ll get a taste of these in the language, culture, food, and architecture throughout the country.  

Although it’s small, Costa Rica has five ecosystems and amazing biodiversity! The year-round tropical climate makes for an ultra-lush landscape, full of flora and fauna.  Add the beauty of lakes, mountains, forests, volcanos, rivers, and beaches and you have a paradise for nature lovers, photographers, and explorers!

Here’s a glimpse of life in Costa Rica and a peek at some of the most iconic sights and flavors of this vibrant country.

Meet the Ticos! 

Costa Ricans are known as ticos (or ticas) and they’re a warm and fun-loving group. Ticos share an attitude of embracing life with a carefree optimism.  This is seen and heard all over the country with a much-loved expression – ¡Pura vida!  It’s Costa Rica’s motto and is used as a greeting, farewell, to give emphasis, or just to say that life is good!  Pura vida translates to “pure life,” “simple life,” or “real life.” You’re bound to see signs or hear shouts of pura vida wherever you go!  Another word in Costa Rican lingo (interchangeable with pura vida) is tuanis. This sums up everything positive, meaning “nice,” “excellent,” “cool,” or “very well.”  Say tuanis and you’ll sound like a real tico!

Culturally, Costa Rica is a true melting pot. Spanish colonial influence is strong, but the culture is enriched by indigineous groups and by immigrant cultures like Jamaican and Chinese.  Spanish is the official language, but English is widely taught in schools and there are pockets of the country where you may hear indigenous languages, like Bribri, or the creole language, Mekatelyu.

Wondrous Wildlife

The Costa Rican wildlife is breathtaking!  Let’s check out a few of nature’s treasures.    

Almost one-fifth of the world’s butterfly species are found in Costa Rica. In fact, it’s home to 90% of all the butterflies in Central America. You can spot them easily in the rainforests and you’ll surely see them if you visit the Corcovado National Park, where there are over 200 varieties!  Probably the most memorable and captivating are the vivid Blue Morpho butterflies. They live along the coasts, rivers, and forest edges and they have a wingspan of 5-8 inches!

Costa Rica is also home to four species of ADORABLE monkeys – the white-headed capuchin, the mantled howler, the endangered Geoffroy’s spider monkey, and the Central American squirrel monkey. They are delightful to see and hear, swinging in the trees above you and howling from up to two miles away!

If you’re lucky, you might also come across a brightly colored toucan!  There are six different species in Costa Rica – all unique and beautiful.  You’ll often see them in tourism advertising as a friendly face of Costa Rica. These awesome birds have a 15-20 year lifespan and thanks to conservation efforts, you can spot them in the mountains, valleys, and coastal areas.

Ecotourism – Costa Rica Does it Best

There’s no better way to see all this wildlife than to visit Costa Rica’s many refuges and national parks. Some of the most popular national parks are the Arenal Volcano National Park, the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Manuel Antonio National Park, Tortuguero National Park and Cahuita National Park. There are 14 volcanos and you might get an extra thrill as several have been active in the past 75 years.

If you want to see even more than lakes, rivers, beaches, waterfalls, volcanos, and wildlife, join an adventure tour!  Energetic travelers can experience jungle canopy tours, ziplining, river tubing, horseback riding, and volcanic mud baths all in one stay!  

The Iconic Oxcart

One cultural-artistic treasure you’ll notice throughout the country is the famous Costa Rican oxcart.  These decorated carts have been a part of Costa Rican history since the 1800s when they were a main form of transportation. They were used for moving cargo (such as coffee beans) to the ports. The spokeless wheels were based on Aztec and Spanish designs and allowed people to maneuver the carts through sand, streams, mountain terrain, hills, and curves.  

Owners began painting them with unique designs to identify their carts and the designs became more elaborate over the years.  Today they’re a treasured part of the country’s history and are symbols of the hardworking, persistent nature of its people.  Artists decorate them with pride for local festivals and contests, and they’ve become one of the iconic images of this colorful land.

After All That Touring, You’ll be Craving Beans and Rice!

Something you’ll definitely see on Costa Rican menus is the national dish – gallo pinto. It means “spotted rooster” in English, but don’t worry – there’s no rooster involved! This is a combination of black beans and rice with coriander and onions. It’s served as part of a traditional breakfast with natilla (like sour cream), corn tortillas, fried plantains, and eggs.  What a hearty way to start your vacation day!

Don’t be surprised if a similar dish appears at lunchtime. Casado is the lunch combo that includes rice, beans, plantains, and salad, served with beef, chicken, or fish. You’ll be offered a variety of natural, freshly-squeezed tropical juices to go with your meal.  You can order them de agua (water-based, like a juice) or con leche (milk-based, like a smoothie).  Save room for some of the traditional desserts though. The flan, tres leches cake, rice pudding, and merengues are delicious!

At any time of day, coffee lovers will find a non-stop supply in Costa Rica. It’s known as some of the best in the world and is one of the country’s top exports. The soil conditions and climate are ideal for coffee beans, and ticos have perfected the craft as they’ve been producing since the late 1700s.

Check Out Pura Vida for Yourself!

There’s so much more to see and do in Costa Rica than we could highlight here.  We hope you’ll have a chance to see why it’s called the “Rich Coast” and check out the pura vida lifestyle in action.  If you’ve been lucky enough to visit, share your tips in the comments below.

At SSH we’re fortunate to have teachers and directors from all over the Spanish-speaking world and we love the ways our Costa Rican staff contribute their unique culture to the mix! 

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