Culture Shock in Costa Rica

Culture shock is a common occurrence for people who relocate. Culture shock has varying degrees of how it affects people depending on their overall expectations and tolerance levels. Culture shock refers to the feelings of anxiety, disorientation, surprise; uncertainty, etc... felt when people are outside their social or cultural comfort zone.

Culture shock typically happens in stages:

1)    First, there is the honeymoon stage a time when one feels excitement about everything going on around them. Any differences in culture are seen in a romantic light. The scenery is different, the food is great, the people are nice, and so on.

2)    Second, comes the negotiation phase which tends to occur a few weeks after arriving and directly after the honeymoon phase. This can also be considered homesickness, a time when one longs for things, places, familiarity, and people from home. Mood swings and depression are common in this phase.  This phase warrants several different outcomes:

  • a) One finds it impossible to integrate and one rejects the host culture, becomes isolated, and usually flees the host culture. This is considered the Rejector group which is the most common.
  • b) One completely takes on the host culture and integrates, and usually stays living in the host culture forever thereby losing their original culture. This group is called the Adopter and is the least common occurrence.
  • c) One maintains their own culture and accepts completely the host culture creating a blend and balance of the two. These are usually the most adaptable people and can live almost anywhere. This group is known as the Cosmopolitans.

3)    If an individual can survive phase two then they make it to the adjustment phase three in which one no longer notices the differences between the home culture and host culture, because the host culture has now become so normal.

4)    If one returns to their home culture after significant periods of time the reverse can happen which is called reverse culture shock. This sometimes can be a stronger emotion than the original shock. Often people view their previous state in a nostalgic way and one misses the host culture. An individual can feel nostalgia even if they have had a negative, unpleasant, or didn't enjoy the experience because sometimes it is romanticized upon returning home and experiences the differences again.

If someone is considering moving to Costa Rica, it might be a good idea to spend some significant time here in the country to be sure it is exactly what one expects it to be and want. Many people who move here on a whim, suffer and then move out within a year.

There are some strategies to overcome culture shock so the transition can be an exciting, positive experience. In order to counter culture shock one can:

  • Realize that life as you know it is going to change drastically. Every aspect can change. Knowledge is power and when one knows something is coming then they can better prepare mentallyfor the change even if one has no idea exactly what to expect.
  • Be proactive and try and make an effort to understand and accept the differences.
  • Embrace one's home culture as well as the host culture, use cultural exchanges to look for similarities instead of dwelling on differences. The more people travel the more they will realize that people in general despite their differences are really fairly similar in the basics.
  • Know one's own culture, history, etc... because people will ask about it and challenge it, be prepared to answer questions.
  • Make an active effort to learn as much as possible about the host culture.
  • Try and research about social life in the country to avoid embarrassing situations.
  • Know oneself,  limits,  personality traits, and how to cope with adversity.
  • Do not take on a victim mentality and try not to complain at least openly, it will only affirm any negative thoughts one may be having, and the locals won't want to hear it.


Sometimes the shocks are positive and sometimes they are negative. Being from North America or Europe and moving to Costa Rica can be hard. Here is an interesting list of common things one is likely to encounter:

  • Uopen entering a person must greet everyone in the room with a kiss and say good bye to each and every person or else one will be considered a very rude person.
  • Even if someone knows Spanish, Costa Rican's have their own dialect and their own slang so one may have trouble adjusting and understanding at first.
  • More than likely one will have difficulty finding all of the products and services from home.
  • One needs to bathe at least once a day.
  • Some Costa Rican showers are metal or plastic with a bunch of wires. These are only heating the water as it comes out. One can tell when it is working because it makes a swishing sound. Be careful not to raise the arms too high or one might get a shock, literally.
  • Costa Rican's take a lot of pride in looking and smelling good. Because it is hotter people tend to sweat more. Keep clean and use baby powered, foot spray, perfumes, colognes, soap, shampoo, and mouthwash.
  • One needs to brush their teeth three times a day just as the Costa Ricans do after every meal.
  • It is not uncommon to see babies drinking coffee in their bottles or small children with their own coffee mug at afternoon coffee time.
  • McDonald's, Burger King and many other fast food places all the others have HOME DELIVERY in Costa Rica. Even the local ice cream shop Pops has delivery.
  • Fast food in Costa Rica will look and taste different as well as offer different options such as gallo pinto for breakfast.
  • Ticos love to gossip about everyone they know. Don't be surprised if they gossip about you behind your back anyways.
  • Ticos love Soap Operas especially the ones from Colombia, Mexico and even Brazil.
  • Ticos are in general short statured people; therefore, chairs, couches etc sometimes are built about 6-8 inches lower than standard US furniture.
  • Cigarettes are comparatively less expensive and cost around $1.50 per pack.  For this reason many Europeans come and buy cartons upon cartons of cigarettes.
  • Children take their father's last name followed by their mother's last name.
  • Costa Rican women do not take their husband's last name.  The woman uses her full maiden name for life.
  • Costa Rica has a very what they call "machista" culture. Not everyone shares in this collective culture centered around males being the dominant family member, the bread winners, and authority figures. It may seem a little repressive like you are living in the 50's at first, or very male chauvenistic. Notice lots of housewives who treat their husbands like kings.
  • Because of this machista culture one will see lots of news stories on TV about men beating or killing their girlfriends or wives. Honestly, this happens all over the world and as in any culture it is usually the poorer sectores that are affected sadly.
  • When someone dies here they are buried the very same day or very soon after. Sometimes there is a quick service called a "vela" to say good bye to the deceased.  There is no embalming process like in the USA.
  • Obituaries are big in newspapers and in between news segments on TV.  Death is viewed in a very serious manner here and there are no wakes. Also usually people will pray 9 days after someone dies in large groups.  Monthly and yearly anniversaries of one's death are commemorated with a mass and used as a time marker to decide when other important life events have occurred.
  • Getting around in Costa Rica can be challenging because there are very few street signs and even fewer addresses.  All addresses are in terms of a well-known building or landmark; often the local Catholic Church, cemetery, or another fixed location. Sometimes addresses are phrased in terms of building that may not exist anymore like the Old Hardwarestore etc.
  • People will often give directions using North, South East and West and will be given in meters; however, meters usually equates to city blocks ie 100 meters would be 1 city block.
  • Here Diet Coke does not exist even though one might be fooled by Coca Lite.
  • In every small town and area every Saturday or Sunday there is a farmer's type market where you can buy produce cheap.  Many times 4 kilos of mangos cost 1000 colones or $2 USD. Pretty sure you can't buy 1 mango in the US for that or 3 pineapples for a dollar, one in USA costs around $7 USD.
  • Tangerines are called mandarins here. Limes are limónes. One can find yellow lemons at specialty stores only.
  • The word for handcuffs here "esposas" is also the same word as wifes.
  • Locks in Costa Rica almost always work turn backwards.
  • We say in English "She had a baby" or She just gave birth", but in Spanish they say, "Ella dio a luz" or translated, "She gave light."
  • When a woman is about to have her baby they always ask "cuando se mejorara?" or translated means when is she going to get better" They really know how bad pregnancy is huh?
  • Front doors of almost all commercial establishments almost always open INWARDS.
  • If going to the immigration office for any reason or to the police station for fingerprint do NOT wear shorts!  One will not be admitted!  Shorts are considered disrespectful.
  • There are Bullfights in Costa Rica. There are also a bunch of silly and dangerous games that average people play with the bulls like the human see-saw. Additionally, there is some stiff competition about who has the biggest, baddest, and meanest bull in the country. It makes the news here.
  • There are also very intricate secret rings of people in Costa Rica that host very elaborate cock fights with prize roosters.
  • The general population is not very informed about environmental issues surprisingly. One may see people who throw trash just anywhere and many people do not recycle because it has not become convenient nor has their been educational programs set in place promoting a clean, healthy planet.
  • Refrigeration or lack there of on certain items could be surprising. Milk, eggs, and many other items that one has been trained all their life to refrigerate, are available off the shelf (un-refrigerated) at almost every super market.
  • Also, if you venture inside many Ticos refrigerators one will find that they just put things away without covering or using containers so often that piece of sweet cake could have a little onion after bite.
  • In Tico kitchens there are usually not dishwashers or hot water at the sink. Dishes are rinsed with cold water and scrubbed with a sponge which is why when one person in a family gets sick everyone gets sick. It is not the most sanitary thing, but they seem to live a long time here so they are doing something right. Some bacteria is healthy as it builds up your immune system.
  • The word for HOT, in Spanish, is caliente.  Caliente begins with a "C".  Water faucets imported from the USA almost all have a "C" on them.  If the Hot Water never seems to get HOT in Costa Rica, try the handle with the  "C".  Note, this may change from bathroom to bathroom within the same house.
  • Lots of Ticos do not have clothes dryers. If someone is living with a family they will wash and line dry clothes, so sometimes the clothes will end up with "wings" on the shirts where the hanger left an imprint.
  • Ticos love to iron everything, even underwear and especially tablecloths and napkins. Expect to look as presentable as they do.
  • Ants are everywhere here, and they out number us about a zillion to one.  If living here one must adjust and deal with it. Although in cooler climates here there are significantly less bugs.
  • Do not be surprised to see a cockroach. No matter how clean a place is one can find cockraoches. Costa Rica is a tropical climate and cockraoches thrive in it.
  • In the countryside you will see a LOT of folks carrying machetes, really long, sharp knives which are usually used to cut foliage in the jungle. Here almost everyone has one for day to day gardening and construction purposes.
  • You will notice that outside banks and high end stores guards that are very heavily armed.
  • Chinese food is different here and usually served with French fries. I have found that Chinese food anywhere is different they just adapt to the countries likes and dislikes.
  • In general meat is something one is going to have to spend a little more on especially for a more decent cut. There are specialty stores with great meat and also good restaurants.
  • Pedestrians must be very careful they do not have the right of way. No one will stop for them so do not risk it and always look everyway to be sure. Especially be careful of the speedy motorcycles.
  • At 7 AM every morning, most if not all Costa Rica radio stations broadcast the exact same program.  It begins with the Costa Rican National Anthem and provides the government and other authorized entities a way to send messages or information nation wide.
  • The meter in a taxicab is known as the Maria. There are bunches of dishonest cabbies trying to rip of foreigners so stay on guard and be educated.
  • Costa Rican's call speed bumps "muertos" which translated into dead people.
  • There are lots of street vendors and beggars. Even some people on buses with causes, recovering drug addicts,  and small children with notes it is a case by case call will request money, give on a case to case basis.  Don't be surprised if a beggar refuses a food donation, sometimes they get offended.
  • The big yellow hearts with halos painted in the streets are painted there when someone has lost their life in an accident. The government department MOPT does this to remind people to be cautious and slow down in these places.
  • Ticos are obsessed with soccer aka futbol if there is a game on; everyone will be watching, especially if it is the national team La Sele. These are usually the best times to run errands as no one is in the streets.
  • If there is no topic for discussion with Ticos one is always welcome to talk about soccer or the latest news or gossip.
  • When one goes to the gas station, they will notice that one does not pump the gas there are specialized employees for that. They are usually nice enough to clean the windshield, check the air in the tires, and check the oil. No one is obligated to give them anything extra  for this service, but they sure do appreciate it.
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