Costa Rica, as you have imagined or have already seen, is a land of great beauty, extraordinary biological riches, and warm, friendly people. But the same could be said for many tropical countries.
Here we want to focus on what is truly unique about Costa Rica, and how it came to be the very special place that it is. Costa Rica is remarkably different from its neighbors in Central America, and has been fortunate in escaping many of the problems that affect the region as a whole. We will explore some of those differences, and try to understand how Costa Rica’s early history set the stage for its later pattern of development. We will consider the role of geography, history, and even serendipity in shaping the character of the country and its people.
Geography is always important. Costa Rica is a small country; the guidebooks tell us it is a little smaller than West Virginia, but who knows how big West Virginia is, anyway? We could just as easily say that Costa Rica is a little smaller than Togo, or almost exactly the size of Bhutan. Everyone has a different frame of reference. Perhaps it would be more helpful to say that Costa Rica is around twice the size of Vermont; 1/3 the size of Georgia; 1/8 the size of California; or 1/13 the size of Texas.
Within its borders, it has quite varied topography, with several high mountain ranges. The climates are also varied, with cooler temperatures at higher elevations, and warmer conditions near sea level. Rainfall ranges from 2-8 meters (that would be 80”-320” of rain). The country has extensive coastlines along both the Caribbean and Pacific shores. The combination of topography and high rainfall produces spectacular rivers and waterfalls.
The landscape is geologically young, dynamic, and subject to frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. The soils are comparatively fertile, as a consequence of their volcanic origin and relatively young age.
Early post-European life Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colon, as his name is said in Spanish) reached Costa Rica on his fourth and final voyage in 1502. The indigenous peoples that lived in Costa Rica at the time belonged to nine tribes—the Chorotega (which lived in the San Luis/ Monteverde area), the Boruca, the Brunca, the Bribri, the Huetar, and a few others. These groups formed loose bands, and subsisted by hunting, gathering, and simple agriculture, growing beans, squash, corn, cotton, and various tubers. They did not have the sophisticated, advanced cultures that we know of from the same period in Mexico, for instance, such as the Aztec or Maya societies.
Archaeologists do encounter beautiful artifacts and elaborately decorated objects in Costa Rica. The National Museum in San Jose is filled with these kinds of items; they are found quite frequently by farmers throughout the Costa Rican countryside.
the local indigenous people were not in high density, and a great many of them were killed in early skirmishes with the colonists
they did not have the integrated, complex societies that the Spaniards found elsewhere in Central America.
and they did not willingly interact with the Spaniards.
Thus immediately we can see a major difference evident between Costa Rica’s early colonial period and that of the rest of Central America: there was no possibility of dominating and enslaving indigenous peoples as a work force, because there were few indigenous people left alive.
The early European colonists had a very meager existence. Although they had come to the New World to find a new life and to make their fortunes, they found no easy wealth to be had. King Philip of Spain wanted nothing to do with the new colony, as it clearly had no major potential as a source of gold.
The colonists had to fend for themselves, feed themselves, and learn how to survive on their own. Although there was plenty of land available to plant, each family held only as much land as it could till; they had no labor (slave or otherwise) but themselves. The colony was essentially cut off from Europe as it had nothing to export. Trading with the outside was difficult in any case, as there were constant pirate raids, and the British navy blockaded Caribbean ports when it was at war with Spain.
The culture that was being shaped during these early days had certain clear features; it
placed great value on self-reliance and independence;
showed respect for drive, entrepreneurship, and resourcefulness;
was egalitarian in the extreme;
respected the dignity of labor;
and was close to the land.
Few missionaries were sent, as Costa Rica did not have large numbers of indigenous people to be converted to Catholicism. The role of the Catholic Church in Costa Rica’s early history was thus rather different than that elsewhere in Central America.
And because there was no unruly or unwilling labor force to control, Costa Rica never had the type of large military presence that was seen in other parts of Central America.
The first capital was established in the town of Cartago, at the eastern end of the Central Valley, just under the shadow of the Irazu Volcano, the tallest volcano in Costa Rica. There the colonists built a church in honor of the patron saint of Costa Rica, La Virgen de Los Angeles [the virgin of the angels], whose image was found nearby miraculously carved in stone.
The basilica, built of stone, was destroyed several times by earthquakes related to activity of the Irazu Volcano, and each time was rebuilt anew. The decision was finally made to rebuild the basilica in wood and this building still stands, having now withstood a number of major eruptions and earthquakes. The Basilica de la Virgen de Los Angeles is one of Costa Rica’s most significant architectural and cultural treasures.
And so the colony survived, always poor in material wealth, largely in isolation from the rest of Central America and Europe, but developing its own unique character and strengths. The population settled largely in the central valley or Meseta Central, with centers developing in San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia, and Grecia. The population density remained low, and most people lived on small family farms. There was land for everyone, and no one held huge amounts of property.
With virtually no contact with indigenous people, the way of life of the early Costa Ricans was essentially European. Nowhere does one see the Native American influence---the spicy seasonings, the brilliant textiles, the linguistic influence, or the ceramics, carvings, metal-working, and other art forms--which is so evident in the mainstream cultures of other Latin American countries today.
Coffee wealth and cultural enlightenment Things remained largely unchanged until the early 1800’s when one key event altered dramatically Costa Rica’s prospects and began to shape a different future for the country. The event was the introduction of coffee. Originally from Africa, coffee thrives best with a cool, tropical climate with relatively fertile soils, exactly as is found with the mid-elevation volcanic soils of Costa Rica. Coffee proved to be ideally suited to conditions in Costa Rica.
Coffee at that time was hugely popular in Europe, creating a demand that was for all practical purposes insatiable. In a government move designed to encourage planting of coffee, land was granted to anyone who would agree to grow coffee. For the first time, Costa Rica had a valuable product that it could produce for export; a ready market; and the opportunity to acquire wealth.
The practice of homesteading land to acquire title is still legal, and is still practiced; Costa Rica’s land laws are explicitly designed to put land in the hands of as many people as possible, and to prevent huge holdings that preclude others from owning land. Whether you refer to this process as “settling”, “homesteading”, or “squatting” depends on your stake in the issue; but Costa Rica law strongly defends the rights of those who show the highest need for the land.
The capital outlay necessary to start growing and harvesting coffee, processing the beans, transporting them to the port, marketing and shipping the beans was handled by forming coffee cooperatives--small family farms joined forces with one another, sharing the major costs, and then sharing the profits proportionally at the end of the season.
Some families in Costa Rica established substantial fortunes in the coffee industry at this time, and many of these families are still in the forefront of Costa Rican society, politics, and wealth. Some common brands of coffee still bear the names of the important coffee families, such as Volio coffee.
This pattern of land tenure remains predominant today in Costa Rica: small family farms united by cooperatives, rather than enormous agribusiness enterprises, are used for production of most crops; the exceptions---bananas and palm oil to name two---are interesting in their own right, and we will talk about them shortly.
Transportation remained a problem---there was still no road from the central valley to the Caribbean. The unstable, mountainous terrain, high rainfall, dense tropical forest crisscrossed by river gorges, and steep cliffs, made it impossible to make a road large enough for a wheeled vehicle. The only traffic to the Caribbean was on foot and by horseback, and this was very difficult indeed.
Shipping of coffee to Europe was therefore done from the Pacific port of Puntarenas, from where the ships sailed the long way around, undertaking the very dangerous and stormy voyage around the Horn of Africa. The trip from San Jose to Esparza (one of the important early way-stations) and then on to Puntarenas took a week by oxcart; the trip takes a couple of hours at most today.
The new-found wealth that Costa Rica enjoyed from coffee revenues brought with it some choices---such as what they were going to spend it on. One of the first decisions was to levy upon the coffee growers a voluntary tax that would be used to build the National Theatre, a move designed to attract visits by musicians, orchestras, singers, and dramatic groups.
The building, which was completed around 1865, was a replica of the Paris Opera House, and was built of materials imported from all over Europe---marble from Italy, stone, wood, and metals, as needed---and using craftsmen, artisans, and builders brought from Europe for the purpose.
The results were as hoped for. San Jose became a cultural center, and the world’s best performers began to include Costa Rica on their Western Hemisphere tours. This edifice is well worth visiting when you are in San Jose, and if there is a performance scheduled, so much the better---tickets are very cheap, making the performances available to everyone.
A second decision for the expenditure of coffee revenues was to send the country’s younger generation away to be educated in the world’s best universities. This they did, and the timing was propitious: Europe at this time was undergoing a social and intellectual upheaval, with such revolutionary notions as individual freedoms, civil liberties, the responsibility of the state to its citizens, social welfare, labor rights, universal education, democratic ideals, and egalitarianism.
These were progressive, liberal ideals that took firm root in the hearts of Costa Ricans, who because of their own history and values were more than ready to embrace them. And from this generation came Costa Rica’s first teachers, writers, philosophers, lawyers, doctors, and scientists.
One of these was Clodomiro Picado, a Costa Rican biologist whose work on the natural history and systematics of tropical creatures was vast, and who is best remembered for his pioneering work on snake venom. San Jose’s Instituto Clodomiro Picado is open to the public and is a fine place to learn about poisonous reptiles. The institute also milks snakes to produce anti-venoms. Important poisonous snakes in Costa Rica are the fer-de-lance, bushmaster, and eyelash viper (all in the rattlesnake family) and the coral snake.
Costa Rica’s phenomenal biological riches attracted the attention of others, and a strong tradition of Costa Rican naturalists and biologists was started.
Political and Economic developments Meanwhile, other events had been taking place---Costa Rica and the rest of Central America declared their independence from Spain on September 15, 1821, taking advantage of the fact that Spain was distracted by Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Costa Rica, along with Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua were originally provinces within the Captaincy General of Guatemala, itself within the Vice Royalty of New Spain.
In 1822, following independence, the Captaincy General of Guatemala (now calling itself the Central American Federation), was annexed by the Mexican Empire. The Federation broke away from Mexico 18 months later, but lost Chiapas in the process, which remained a part of Mexico (and still does). The effort to unite Central America under a single flag ultimately failed; the Federation ceased to exist in 1839, after a period of unrest, at which time each of its constituent provinces became an independent nation.
The capital city of Costa Rica was moved from Cartago to San Jose, after a short period of civil strife in which Alajuela, Heredia, and San Jose all vied for the honor. The principal battleground was at a place called Ochomogo, located between Cartago and San Jose.
In 1856, Costa Rica was invaded from the north by William Walker, a U.S. adventurer and soldier of fortune backed by U.S. financial interests including Cornelius Vanderbilt. Walker had gained control of the armed forces of Nicaragua as its president, and dreamed of controlling all of Central America. Volunteers from all parts of Costa Rica came to the defense of the country; this ragtag citizens’ army marched 12 days from San Jose to the northern border, bearing knives, machetes and any kind of firearms they could find, and included around 9,000 people, from campesino farmers and artesans to teachers, students, lawyers, and businessmen. In a battle that lasted only minutes at the Casona in what is now Santa Rosa National Park, the well-armed mercenary force (known as “filibusters”) were driven off. The army was pursued into Nicaragua, where at Rivas a brave young boy from Alajuela, Juan Santamaria, volunteered to set fire to the Walker stronghold, and was killed in the ensuing exchange of gunfire. Today Juan Santamaria is a national hero, and the international airport in San Jose bears his name. Walker died before a firing squad in Honduras in 1860.
But by the late 1800’s, there still had been no solution to the terrible problem of transportation between the Central Valley and the Caribbean. A deal was struck between Costa Rica and the British government, in which Britain agreed to put in a road. Most of the funds in Costa Rica’s national coffers were spent, and they failed.
Bear in mind that road-building under these conditions of climate, soils, and topography is never easy. Even the modern blacktop roads of Costa Rica today periodically fail and have to be rebuilt or repaired.
In the 1900’s, after the British had failed to build a road to the Caribbean coast, a U.S. engineer named Minor Keith appeared, offering to solve the problem of access to the coast. Costa Rica declined the offer as it had no more money to devote to the project. Keith suggested that they pay him in land.
Minor Keith built a railroad, not a road, and was able to span the impassable gorges and raging rivers with bridges. He took as payment a wide belt of land surrounding the railway right-of-way, and planted it in bananas. This was the start of the United Fruit Company, the first of the multinational fruit producers to work in Costa Rica.
Having no labor force to turn to the purpose—other Costa Ricans being more interested in working their own farms—he imported black laborers from the islands of the Caribbean. They settled around Limon and other coastal areas, and the black influence is still felt there in terms of music, food, and the ethnic composition of the population. It is likely that the blacks that were brought to work in the railroad and the banana plantations were wooed with promises of high wages that they could retire on in their home islands; needless to say, the wages were less than hoped for, and few ever returned home. The cultural influence of the black population has remained concentrated along the Caribbean coast in Costa Rica—in fact until 1948, blacks were not permitted to live west of Turrialba, hence were excluded from the urban areas of the Central Valley.
Thus United Fruit was the first instance of large corporate agriculture in Costa Rica. In the 1950’s, the labor force working for United Fruit, or “Mamita Yunai” (“Mommy United”) as the company was irreverently called, went on strike, demanding better wages, working conditions, and benefits.
The company broke the strike by firing the workers, converting the fields from bananas to African oil palm, a crop that requires almost no labor force at all. Now much of the area in the Central Pacific part of Costa Rica, around Parrita and Quepos, is planted in oil palm. The oil is used in making soap as well as cooking oil.
Conservation At the time Costa Rica was first visited by Columbus, around 95% of the country was covered in forest. The most rapid and most extensive loss of forest has happened during the past 40-50 years, with an increase in population size and a tendency to convert forest to pastures to grow beef.
At the same time that this was taking place, the conservation movement was just beginning. Costa Rica’s world renowned system of national parks and protected areas was started in 1963, with the establishment of Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve. This country now protects some 25% of its land area as parks, reserves, and refuges, making Costa Rica a world super-power in the area of conservation.
Costa Ricans are fascinated by nature, and take pride in their leadership role in conservation. The spectacular biological diversity of the country of course has attracted the attention of scientists and students from all over the world.
Many other things are uniquely Costa Rican. The Institute of Biodiversity has as its goal the collection, naming, and cataloging of every form of life in the country---an endeavor never attempted anywhere before.
The development of ecotourism and educational tourism as a means to help pay for the costs of conservation has been remarkable, and some of the most innovative, and highly-regarded efforts of this kind were started in Costa Rica. New paradigms of conservation, designed to include, not exclude, human beings, have taken hold here, along with novel ways to place conservation and economics on the same path.
With a healthy economy, no military spending to support, and a large middle-class, Costa Rica has been able to place emphasis on the arts. There is an outstanding youth symphony orchestra, world-class dance and theater groups, and a thriving drama scene.
Costa Rica has become a magnet in Central America for scientific research and education, and has welcomed the presence and participation of tropical biologists from all over the world.
Current standard of living and cultural values Modern Costa Rica can be understood best with reference to its early history and antecedents. The country is a peaceful democracy, with no armed forces, with free presidential elections every four years, and with voter turnout typically over 90%.
The country is justifiably proud of its diplomatic tradition, and was overjoyed when President Oscar Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his role in negotiating an end to ten years of devastating civil war in Nicaragua.
Education is free and compulsory, and the country’s literacy rate is around 95.9%. The rate is about equal for girls and boys (USA, Canada are at 99%, Mexico is at 92.8%). University education is very inexpensive, and there are several colleges and universities in the country. The three largest public universities are the Universidad de Costa Rica (San Pedro); Universidad Nacional (Heredia); and Instituto Tecnologico (Cartago).
The population is healthy and well-fed, and has the second-highest life expectancy (78.8 years) in the western hemisphere. The highest is in Canada (80.7). The U.S. is third (78.3).
Sports are immensely popular. Every town and village has a soccer field, where organized competitions with other teams or just pick-up scrimmages (“mejengas”) take place.
Costa Rica produces almost all of its own food. Supplementary amounts of beans and rice are imported in most years, and wheat is imported from temperate countries. In general, though, Costa Ricans eat fresh food produced near where it is consumed year-round.
The economy is strong and diverse. The current top sources of foreign exchange include computer chips (Intel operates a large factory in the San Jose area), ecotourism, agriculture (led by coffee and bananas), and textiles (clothing sold by Gap, Jordache, and many others is assembled in Costa Rica).
Around 50% of the population of 3.5 million lives in rural areas, and they still retain rural manners---they are unfailingly polite; they take time to talk and listen to one another; they are non-violent and diplomatic in all they do; and they take every opportunity to make one feel welcome.
Costa Ricans are very close to their families. Mothers and fathers both spend lots of time with their children, and clearly enjoy their company. At a typical rural dance, one might find three to four generations all having fun together, dancing to the same music, and talking to one another. The extended family is important--aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents are all involved in the life of a child.
In cuisine as well as other areas, Costa Rican has borrowed from others but still developed its own traditions---for example, tamales (an indigenous dish of steamed corn meal, meat and vegetables) are made with all the local ingredients but omitting the hot chiles that must have been so foreign to the palate of the European colonists.
Conversely, influences from Europe have been adapted to suit a Costa Rican sense of values. Bull fighting, a tradition from Spain, is enormously popular, but----it is illegal to kill the bull! There is excellent one-on-one cape play between the bull and the bullfighter--but no goring of the bull from horseback, nor stabbing of the bull with colorful flagged banderillos, nor killing of the bull by the matador. Killing the bull is in fact prohibited by Costa Rican law. At the end of the event, the bull is roped from horseback with fancy lasso work and led from the arena.
And to make the tradition even more typically Costa Rican----the bullfight is completely democratic is that everyone can---and does---take part! Spectators may drop from the stands into the arena and see how close to the bull they can get.
In the last 150 years, immigrants from all over the world have come to make Costa Rica their home. Attracted by the vision of prosperity, freedom, opportunity, and escape from repression or war, they have mixed ethnically and culturally with Costa Ricans. Scan the surnames in the San Jose phone book---you will find names from all parts of the world, including Spain and other parts of Latin America of course, but also from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia, Great Britain, the United States, Greece, Lebanon, Israel, Japan, Korea, China, and India, among many others. As you look around you on any street in San Jose or in any rural community, look closely and you will see people with dark hair and dark eyes, and also people with light hair, and with blue or green eyes, and with black features, Amerindian features, or oriental features. This latter wave of immigration continues today, and continues to enrich the country’s cultural and ethnic diversity.
The two principal political parties are both moderate in their philosophy: the more conservative, right-leaning party is PUSC (Social Christian Unity Party), and the more liberal, left-leaning party is the PLN (National Liberation Party). One can spot the colors on bumper stickers, clothing, and flags: PUSC supporters show red and blue, while green and white are the Liberacionistas’ colors.
Costa Ricans celebrate the political process and the exercise of their democratic freedoms. Of course, with voter turnout over 90%, people tend to feel that the results represent the will of the people! And if they are dissatisfied at some point with the programs of a given politician, they do not blame the political process itself.
This brief survey of early Costa Rican history should shed some light on current differences between Costa Rican and her neighbors in Central America---and in particular how Costa Rica came to be spared the ravages of civil war, inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity, and repressive governments. It also explains why the food, the artistic traditions, and material culture of Costa Ricans show their Spanish origin, and are generally devoid of the Native American influence that characterizes the cultures of other parts of the region. Moreover, conservation biology is a natural fit with the historical land stewardship culturally ingrained early in post-European history.
As a guest of this small but enchanting country, you will be warmly welcomed, meet new friends, and share fully in the enjoyment of life Costa Rican style. For your part as a visitor, you can best show your respect for Costa Ricans and their culture by learning all you can about customs, traditions, values, and manners, and putting that understanding into practice---and the outcome will without a doubt be the experience of a lifetime.
CULTURE AND CUSTOMS
Costa Ricans are a courteous, warm, and friendly people, which of course makes travel in Costa Rica especially delightful. It also means that, to conform to local customs and be accepted by members of your host country, you need to think about your manners as well.
As you should when you are in any new culture, watch what others do. Learn from their behavior. Discreetly notice, and copy, such things as:
------how loudly or softly they speak (Costa Ricans never raise their voice to one another in anger)
------how far apart from one another they stand when they converse
------how much they smile;
------how much space they occupy when they walk and stand;
------how formal or informal is their stance, and
------how flexible or formal their use of furniture (for instance, you might curl up with your feet under you on a couch, or sit on a table--Costa Ricans don’t).
You will find that people smile at each other and make friendly eye contact; they are not afraid to meet one another on a casual basis. If you are in line at the bank, or in an elevator with other people, or on a bus--it is normal to smile at the people around you, greet them, and chat with them. It's good language practice, and also customary. If you deliberately avoid eye contact, you will be seen as cold and lacking manners.
It is never necessary or expected that you show more affection or friendliness to anyone than you feel is appropriate. Costa Ricans often flirt, and will certainly try to flirt with foreigners as they do with one another. If the person is a stranger, ignore the flirting and by no means encourage it, but don't get upset or angry. There is no reason to be offended by it--- it's meant to be flattering, even if it's someone you have met and consider a friend--if you don't want him (or her) to hug you, don’t let him.
It is customary for young people to hold doors and give up their seats on the bus for older persons; for men to hold doors for women; for anyone to give assistance as needed to a pregnant woman or a parent with a small child. In general, people try to help when they can, and to lend a hand to one another.
In general, Costa Ricans feel that North Americans pay too little attention to manners, and too much attention to time. North Americans do tend to set their priorities differently, and often appear to value time over courtesy.
Costa Ricans take time for human interactions. Expect to greet people and shake hands with them not only when first meeting them, but any time you enter or leave their house or meet them on the street.
When you see someone for the first time in the morning, you ask “¿Cómo amaneció?" (Literally, “How did you wake up?”, meaning, “How are you this morning?”).
People who know each other reasonably well often greet each other with a kiss on the cheek (this applies to two women, or a woman and man). To avoid banging heads together, this is always done by passing your head to the left of the other person's, and kissing them on their right cheek. You might practice this once or twice ahead of time to get it right!
Learn a few basic expressions: when you are introduced to someone, the correct response is "Mucho gusto" (It's a pleasure). If you are passing someone and there is no time or opportunity to stop and chat, you say "Adiós" (which in this case means “hello-and-goodbye”); the same is done if you are greeting someone at a distance (across the street, in a field, and so on), and cannot really conduct a conversation.
A few words of greeting are always appreciated. If you enter a room, leave the table, walk between two people, interrupt a conversation---you must say “Con permiso” (With your permission). The response to you will be “Propio” (Permission is yours). When you enter a room and find that people are eating, it is customary to encourage them to continue by saying "Buen provecho" (Enjoy!).
In English we use “Excuse me” to cover a multitude of sins; Costa Ricans distinguish among them, using different phrases for different situations. If you wish to say apologize because you have actually stepped on someone's foot or dropped your ice cream on them, use “lo siento” or “discúlpeme”, which really means “I’m sorry” or “forgive me. If you wish to say “excuse me” because you want to squeeze past someone or to get their attention, you say “con permiso”, which means “with your permission”.
People older than oneself are shown respect by the form of address. If you know the last name, you would call a man "Señor López" and a woman "Señora Valverde" .or “Señorita Valverde” if she is single. If you know them by their first names, you would add Don or Doña to their first name, calling a man "Don Pedro" and a woman "Doña Alicia". First names alone are not acceptable, except with people your own age or younger.
Each person has two last names: the first is the last name of their father, and the second is the maiden name of their mother. Women do not change their last names when they marry, so don't assume that the wife of Felipe Obando also has the last name Obando.
Costa Ricans tend to be conservative in their social views. They have very strong family values, and strong family ties. They spend time with their families and enjoy doing so. Fathers as well as mothers are closely involved with their children, and take time for all aspects of child rearing. Costa Ricans do not approve of immodest dress, nor of loud voices and disruptive behavior. They dress rather conservatively, and they speak softly to one another. They are intolerant of drugs: there is no bail for arrests related to drug use.
At the same time, Costa Ricans have many progressive ideas. Women are as well represented in the professions as are men (you could check the yellow pages under physicians or attorneys to get a feel for this). Women are also well represented in the national legislative assembly, hold several important cabinet posts, and both vice presidents at this time are women. Through free public education, there is much opportunity for social mobility. Attitudes are very egalitarian; Costa Ricans respect the dignity of labor, and do not look down on people who have less money or education.
Costa Ricans are officially neutral and pacifist as a nation, proud of their diplomatic traditions, and opposed to war and violence. They appreciate their tranquility, peace, and traditions. They tend not to embrace a consumer culture: that is, they are not obsessed with earning more and owning more stuff than their neighbors.
CULTURAL SENSITIVITY People naturally gravitate toward people they recognize as their own kind, and away from people who seem strange or odd. If you want to meet ordinary Costa Ricans, try to act, dress, move, and behave in every way like those around you. Here are some pointers.
Dressing neatly and carefully is a form of respect for others, and you will be judged by how you dress. When in doubt, observe the Costa Ricans around you, and try to blend in. As a general rule of etiquette, don’t enter buildings without a shirt or shoes, or be seen on the street without a shirt or shoes.
Hygiene and personal appearance
Costa Ricans bathe or shower frequently-at least once a day-and visitors to the country should do likewise. Apart from social issues, personal hygiene is important for health, especially in the tropics. Costa Ricans prefer moderate hairstyles. Long hair in men is rare, especially in the countryside. Shaved heads, unnatural hair colors, and long ponytails are considered odd. Men most often are cleanshaven or wear short moustaches; the occasional beards are short and well trimmed. Women likewise wear moderate hairstyles. Jewelry worn by Costa Ricans is fairly conventional. Men and women wear chains or necklaces, and rings on their fingers. Almost all women, and almost no men, wear earrings. Piercing of other body parts is not widely accepted.
When you are out walking in towns or cities, don't go out in large groups if possible. Separate yourselves into groups of 34 persons to blend in. If you walk around as a herd, you will stand out as foreigners.
Be sensitive to the privacy of others. Most people will be delighted to have their picture taken, but you must ask. There are several options, all perfectly OK. (1) Stay far enough back, use a telephoto lens, or aim the camera a little obliquely, so that the subject of the picture doesn't feel singled out. (2) Ask the person if you can take a picture; if appropriate, offer to send a copy (take down the person's name and address---and then do be sure to send one!). (3) If you want to take pictures of children and the parents are around, ask the parents first, and offer to send a copy (take down the person's name and address).
On a related topic, it is never acceptable to pick up other people’s children without the explicit approval of the parents.
If you have a problem-perhaps a travel agent is uncooperative, or a bank is unable to help you, or a hotel employee can't find your reservation-never display your temper, and never raise your voice. Remain calm and gracious. Explain that you have a problem and really need their help. If necessary, ask to talk to a supervisor or other person in authority. If the problem really can't be solved to your satisfaction, try to find some other solution you can live with, thank them for trying, and leave without creating a fuss.