Tico Time: In which I debunk some stereotypes and affirm others

In preparation for my trip, I read a couple of books on Costa Rica, so I thought I had a pretty good idea what the culture would be like here. I was mistaken—not because the culture is so different from mine, but because in many ways it is more similar than I expected.

Pura Vida!

Sad to say, I have only heard the phrase “pura vida” once since I’ve been here, and it was me saying it to the taxi driver. I think this national slogan may have become such a cliché that the Ticos (Costa Rican people) avoid saying it. Que mal!

Tico Time

I had read that, as in many Latin American countries, schedules and appointments are more of a suggestion than exact rules in Costa Rica, so I was surprised to find that the buses here seem to be more punctual than in most American cities I’ve visited. Seriously, Albany, get your shit together, because Costa Rica has this dialed. Granted I’ve only been here three days, but I’ve seen no indication of this relaxed idea of time. It is true that (in smaller towns at least) a lot of businesses close in the middle of the afternoon, but they keep their posted hours.

Downtown Alajuela


I was told that Ticos are extremely friendly and welcoming, and that Americans have a reputation of being somewhat cold and antisocial (and I’m notorious even among Americans for excelling at both of these traits), so I went out of my way to greet strangers I passed in the streets with a friendly “Hola!”

Okay, first of all, not very many Ticos say “hola.” Neither do they use the standard Spanish greetings, Buenos/as Dias/Tardes/Noches. The greeting I hear most often is simply “Buenas.” Easy, right? Any time of the day, you just say “Buenas,” and you’re covered. It doesn’t make much sense, literally speaking, but then neither does saying “Morning,” to someone.

Alajuela, obviously

Second, there’s a difference between “friendly” and “outgoing,” and there’s also a difference between “friendly” and “intimate.” Ticos tend to be friendly. They aren’t necessarily outgoing, in the sense of greeting strangers on the street. Nor does striking up a conversation with a stranger on the street mean you are going to be invited back to their house for dinner that evening. A better word than friendly might be agreeable or amiable. Costa Rica is a very small, rather insular country, so there’s a feeling of everybody being in this together—and they’re well aware how much of their economy relies on tourism, so they are helpful to foreigners. Just don’t expect to become best amigos with everybody in town as soon as you arrive. People do seem fairly happy, a fact that I attribute primarily to the climate. I’m sorry, but there’s a reason that people in Buffalo and Philadelphia are grumpy.

Walking home from the corner store

That said, I honestly don’t find the people here much different from the people in Grand Rapids or anywhere else. When I was going to visit New York, I was told that New Yorkers are rude. No, they aren’t. They’re just busy and a little brusque and loud. Because they have to be. I think we love to characterize people from other places as being somehow different from us. But mostly they aren’t. Ticos are just like you and me, except shorter and browner. I took Uber home from Alajuela, and when the driver was having trouble finding me, I gave him the description “Soy el hombre mas alto en Alajuela” (“I am the tallest man in Alajuela”).


There’s a hilarious section in my Costa Rica guidebook in which the authors take great pains to neither condemn nor endorse the chauvinistic bent of Latin American cultures. In particular, they suggest that if you’re a woman and a Costa Rican man whistles at you in the street, you should try to take it as a compliment.

Words to live by

There is definitely more adherence to gender stereotypes here than in the U.S. I’ve never seen a female cab (or Uber) driver, for example, and the stores in places like Alajuela love to hire pretty young girls to hawk their wares. (And then there’s the whole legalized prostitution thing, which is a whole other topic.)

I once confronted a douchebag in New York who was making suggestive comments at a girl in the street, because cultural differences be damned, this guy was being an asshole. But–and I know this sounds a little crazy–the whistling thing here is completely different. The two times I noticed it, it was a very subtle, high-pitched whistle, almost as if the guy didn’t want the girl to know who was making the noise. The New Yorker I had words with was pretty obviously sexually propositioning the girl, but the Ticos seem to basically just be saying “You’re a pretty woman, and somebody has noticed it.” I suspect that this behavior is frowned on by the more “sophisticated” elements of Costa Rican society, but I actually thought it seemed pretty harmless and even kind of sweet. Not that I’m going to be trying it anytime soon, either in Costa Rica or anywhere else.

“What is that on your shirt?” Norma says to me as I’m leaving for Alajuela. “It looks like the end of the world.”

More to come!

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3 Comments on Tico Time: In which I debunk some stereotypes and affirm others

    • Bienvenidos, gringo!
      You are spot on. We are more alike than we are different, except those differences are somewhat important. 70% of the Costa Ricans live in or near San Jose, so there is as much difference as Grand Rapids and Hastings. It is easier to be a neighbor in a small town, and that is my attraction to the far south (or whatever direction this is).
      Each day is a new adventure. If you observe people and love them, you will see random acts of kindness so frequently that you will catch yourself grinning for no reason. If you arrive with a bag full of USA it will take at least two weeks for it to scrub off. Show up at “winter camp” as a guest, learn the camp slogans, eat the camp food, share the latrine, and you will create your own “tranquility” in a few days.
      We don’t have a vehicle. Cars and trucks are a curse. We love the buses, use the same taxi-drivers, and young men will come over and help out for less than minimum wage. We feed birds and belong to the San Vito Bird Club where we walk the Wilson Botanical Garden grounds every other week.
      We are blessed with barely adequate Spanglish. We never understand conversations that are about unhappiness. We support Saprissa or Liga depending on which rival fans we are with. There are lots of newspapers that we don’t understand so we are free of Trumpishness and mass gunmanship.
      It is rude for me to enter the village and not shake the hand of every guy I make eye-contact with. Each Christmas a Canadian and I give horseback rides to local kids at the Festival of Lights. You never know who belongs to which baby since they get constantly passed from Mom to Mom.
      People in the USA ask if I am a “missionary” and if I feel safe down here. I laugh and say I am a missionary when I return and that I am not making much progress. I feel safer when I leave Miami on my way south.
      Visit any time

  1. Living in Atenas for five years, I have a somewhat different take on a couple points.
    First, I hear “Pura vida” all over town from Ticos.

    Second, we have become friendly with a half-dozen Tico families having been invited to their homes.

    Third, there are women lawyers, doctors, and business owners all over Atenas.

    The women in Atenas are the most beautiful in Costa Rica. :-)


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