Costa Rica Spanish - a guide to the best tico phrases in Spanish

a yellow and brown bird sitting on a tree branch

Costa Rica, known for its stunning landscapes and vibrant culture, also boasts a unique version of Spanish that is rich with local expressions and slang. This guide will help you navigate the fascinating world of Costa Rican Spanish, often referred to as 'tico' Spanish, by introducing you to some of the most common phrases and idioms you'll encounter. Whether you're planning a trip or simply want to enrich your Spanish vocabulary, understanding these phrases will give you a glimpse into the heart and soul of Costa Rican life.

Key Takeaways

  • Costa Rican Spanish, also known as 'tico' Spanish, has unique phrases and slang that set it apart from other Spanish dialects.
  • Common greetings in Costa Rica include variations of 'hello' and 'how are you?' that reflect the country's friendly culture.
  • Essential slang terms like 'pura vida' and 'mae' are integral to everyday conversations in Costa Rica.
  • Knowing phrases for specific situations, such as shopping, dining, and socializing, can enhance your experience in Costa Rica.
  • Understanding the cultural context behind these phrases can provide deeper insights into Costa Rican life and traditions.

Understanding Costa Rica Spanish

a man riding a skateboard down a street

Costa Rican Spanish, often referred to as Costa Rican slang, is a unique variant of the Spanish language spoken in Costa Rica. While Spanish is the official language in 20 countries, each has its own distinct flavor, and Costa Rica is no exception. The country's rich history and cultural influences have shaped its language into something truly special.

The Influence of Indigenous Languages

Costa Rican Spanish has been influenced by various indigenous languages, which have contributed to its unique vocabulary and expressions. This blend of languages adds a layer of depth and richness to the way Costa Ricans communicate.

Differences from Other Spanish Dialects

Costa Rican Spanish differs significantly from other Spanish dialects, such as Mexican Spanish or Castellano Spanish. These differences can be seen in pronunciation, vocabulary, and even in the use of certain phrases. For example, the word "mae" is a common term in Costa Rica, similar to "dude" in English, but it is not widely used in other Spanish-speaking countries.

Why Learn Costa Rica Spanish?

Learning Costa Rican Spanish can be incredibly rewarding. Not only does it allow you to communicate more effectively with locals, but it also gives you a deeper understanding of the country's culture and traditions. While you’re visiting Costa Rica, take a bold step and learn some of its most iconic Spanish phrases. Many Costa Rican Spanish phrases have delightful and humorous backstories, making the learning process both fun and educational.

Common Costa Rican Greetings

Hola and Other Ways to Say Hello

In Costa Rica, greetings are an essential part of daily interactions. Aside from the standard hola, buenos días, and buenas tardes, Costa Ricans often use the single word buenas, especially when greeting strangers in passing. When answering the phone, Ticos say aló instead of the Mexican bueno.

Tico Ways to Ask 'How Are You?'

Costa Ricans are as fascinated by foreigners and their background as you may be with Costa Rican culture and lifestyles. It isn't unusual to be plied with questions when meeting someone for the first time, and any effort to reply in Spanish will be appreciated. A common way to ask 'How are you?' is by saying ¿Todo bien?, which means 'All is well.'

Farewell Phrases

One of the most beautiful pieces of Central American slang is the phrase pura vida. You'll hear pura vida used as a greeting, a goodbye, or a way to say 'thank you' or 'you're welcome.' It's basically like the Costa Rican 'aloha.'

Pura vida is more than just a phrase; it's a way to send or share your good vibes with others.

Essential Costa Rican Slang

Pura Vida: More Than Just a Phrase

Pura Vida literally translates to "pure life," but in Costa Rica, it means so much more. It's a way of life, a philosophy, and a greeting all rolled into one. You can use it to say hello, goodbye, or even to express that everything is going well. When in doubt, just say "Pura Vida!"

Mae: The Costa Rican 'Dude'

In Costa Rica, you'll hear the word Mae (pronounced like "my") used frequently. It's the equivalent of saying "dude" or "bro" in English. Whether you're talking to a friend or a stranger, using "Mae" can make your conversation sound more local.

Tuanis: Everything's Cool

Tuanis is a Costa Rican slang term that means "cool" or "awesome." If someone asks how you're doing, you can reply with "Todo tuanis" to let them know everything is great. This word is unique to Costa Rica and is a must-know for fitting in with the locals.

Learning these essential Costa Rican slang terms will not only help you communicate more effectively but also endear you to the locals. The more you use them, the more you'll feel like a true Tico.

Costa Rican Phrases for Everyday Situations

Navigating daily life in Costa Rica is made easier with a few key phrases. Whether you're shopping, dining out, traveling, or socializing, these expressions will help you communicate effectively and blend in with the locals.

Expressions of Emotion in Costa Rica Spanish

Costa Rican Spanish is rich with expressions that convey a wide range of emotions, from joy and excitement to frustration and surprise. Understanding these phrases can help you connect more deeply with locals and appreciate the nuances of their communication style.

Nature and Wildlife Vocabulary

Common Animal Names

Costa Rica is home to a diverse range of wildlife. Here are some common animal names you might encounter:

  • Mono: Monkey
  • Perezoso: Sloth
  • Tucán: Toucan
  • Jaguar: Jaguar
  • Rana: Frog

Plant and Tree Terminology

The lush landscapes of Costa Rica are filled with unique flora. Here are some essential plant and tree terms:

  • Ceiba: Ceiba Tree
  • Orquídea: Orchid
  • Bromelia: Bromeliad
  • Helecho: Fern
  • Palma: Palm Tree

Understanding the weather is crucial for planning activities in Costa Rica. Here are some key weather-related terms:

  • Lluvia: Rain
  • Soleado: Sunny
  • Nublado: Cloudy
  • Húmedo: Humid
  • Tormenta: Storm
Tip: Costa Rica's weather can be unpredictable, so it's always good to be prepared for sudden changes, especially during the rainy season.

Food and Drink Terminology

Costa Rican cuisine is a delightful blend of indigenous, Spanish, and Afro-Caribbean influences. Some of the most popular dishes include:

  • Gallo Pinto: A traditional breakfast dish made of rice and beans, often served with eggs and tortillas.
  • Casado: A typical lunch plate that includes rice, beans, salad, plantains, and a choice of meat.
  • Olla de Carne: A hearty beef and vegetable stew.
  • Tamales: Corn dough filled with meat and vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.
  • Chifrijo: A popular bar snack made of rice, beans, pork, and pico de gallo.

Beverages and Drinks

Costa Rica offers a variety of unique beverages that are worth trying:

  • Guaro: The national liquor, often enjoyed in cocktails or straight.
  • Agua Dulce: A traditional drink made from unrefined sugar cane.
  • Refrescos: Fresh fruit juices that are blended with water or milk.
  • Café: Costa Rican coffee is renowned for its quality and flavor.
  • Imperial: The most popular local beer.

Dining Etiquette

Understanding local dining etiquette can enhance your experience in Costa Rica:

  • Sodas: These are family-run restaurants that serve homemade food at affordable prices. They are a great place to try authentic Costa Rican dishes.
  • Tipping: A 10% service charge is usually included in the bill, but leaving an additional tip is appreciated for exceptional service.
  • Punctuality: Costa Ricans are generally relaxed about time, so don't be surprised if meals take longer than expected.
  • Sharing: It's common to share dishes, especially when dining with family or friends.
Exploring Costa Rican food and drink is a journey through the country's rich cultural heritage. From hearty stews to refreshing beverages, each dish tells a story of tradition and community.

Tips for Learning Costa Rica Spanish

green and yellow bird in close up photography

Learning Costa Rica Spanish can be a rewarding experience, especially if you immerse yourself in the local culture. Here are some tips to help you on your journey:

Immersive Learning Techniques

One of the best ways to learn Costa Rica Spanish is through immersive learning techniques. This means surrounding yourself with the language as much as possible. Consider enrolling in a local language school, such as the Manuel Antonio Spanish School, where you can learn Spanish and get a unique look at the culture.

Using Media and Technology

Utilize media and technology to enhance your learning. Watch Costa Rican TV shows, listen to local music, and use language learning apps. These resources can help you get accustomed to the accent and slang unique to Costa Rica.

Practicing with Locals

Practice speaking with locals whenever you can. Use some of the words and phrases you've learned to impress ticos when you first arrive. Another trick for language learners in Costa Rica is to use the “usted” form of verbs rather than the “tú” form.

I can tell you from personal experience that you experience the culture of an area differently when you can speak the language.

By following these tips, you'll be well on your way to mastering Costa Rica Spanish and fully enjoying your time in this beautiful country.

Cultural Insights Through Language

woman in red and gold dress statue

Understanding Tico Humor

Costa Rican humor, often referred to as Tico humor, is a delightful blend of wit, irony, and playfulness. Understanding this humor can provide deep insights into the Costa Rican mindset and social interactions. It's common to hear jokes that play on words or cultural references unique to Costa Rica. For example, the phrase "pura vida" can be used humorously in various contexts, showcasing its versatility and the light-hearted nature of Ticos.

The Role of Family in Language

In Costa Rica, family is at the heart of social structure, and this is reflected in the language. Terms of endearment and familial references are frequently used in everyday conversations. Words like "mami" and "papi" are not just for parents but can be used affectionately among friends and loved ones. This strong emphasis on family highlights the close-knit nature of Costa Rican society.

Festivals and Celebrations

Costa Rican festivals and celebrations are vibrant and full of life, and the language used during these events is equally colorful. During festivals like "Día de los Muertos" or "Fiestas de Palmares," you'll hear a mix of traditional phrases and modern slang. These events are a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and pick up unique expressions that are not found in textbooks.

Dive into the rich tapestry of Spanish history and the unique nuances of Costa Rican Spanish. Explore culture, language, and heritage in a vibrant journey.

Using 'Usted' vs. 'Tú'

In Costa Rica, the use of 'usted' and 'tú' varies depending on the level of formality and familiarity between speakers. 'Usted' is used in formal situations or when addressing someone older or in a position of authority. On the other hand, 'tú' is used among friends, family, and peers. In some areas, such as the capital San José, you’ll also hear 'vos', which is similar to 'tú' and common in Central and South American countries. Conjugations using 'vos' are a bit different but can be easily learned.

Formal Phrases for Polite Conversation

When engaging in polite conversation, it's important to use formal phrases. Here are some examples:

  • Buenos días (Good morning)
  • Buenas tardes (Good afternoon)
  • Buenas noches (Good evening/night)
  • ¿Cómo está usted? (How are you?)
  • Mucho gusto (Nice to meet you)
  • Por favor (Please)
  • Gracias (Thank you)
  • Disculpe (Excuse me)

Casual Speech Among Friends

In casual settings, Costa Ricans often use more relaxed and informal language. Here are some common phrases:

  • Hola (Hi/Hello)
  • ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)
  • ¿Qué tal? (What's up?)
  • Pura vida (Pure life, used as a greeting or response)
  • Mae (Dude)
  • Tuanis (Cool)
Switching between formal and informal speech can be challenging, but don't fret. It's perfectly acceptable for foreigners to use the form they are most comfortable with. Over time, you'll get the hang of when to use each form based on the context and relationship with the person you're speaking to.

Costa Rican Idioms and Their Meanings

Costa Rica's rich biodiversity is reflected in its language. For instance, the phrase "estar en la luna" (to be on the moon) is used to describe someone who is daydreaming or not paying attention. Another common idiom is "más loco que una cabra" (crazier than a goat), which is used to describe someone who is acting irrationally.

Idioms About Daily Life

Costa Ricans have a unique way of expressing everyday situations. The idiom "echarle ganas" means to put in a lot of effort or to try hard. Another popular phrase is "darle vuelta a la tortilla" (to flip the tortilla), which means to turn a situation around or to change one's luck.

Humorous Idioms

Ticos love humor, and their idioms reflect this. The phrase "tener malas pulgas" (to have bad fleas) is used to describe someone who is in a bad mood. Another funny idiom is "comerse el cuento" (to eat the story), which means to believe something that is not true. Costa Ricans also have a keen sense of irony – and a wicked sense of humor.


Learning Costa Rican Spanish is not just about mastering a new language, but also about immersing yourself in the vibrant culture and unique expressions of the Ticos. From the ubiquitous 'Pura Vida' to the amusing and insightful local phrases, understanding these idioms will enrich your experience and help you connect more deeply with the people. Whether you're planning a visit or just curious about the linguistic quirks of this beautiful country, this guide provides you with the essential tools to speak like a local. So go ahead, embrace the Costa Rican way of life, and let these phrases bring a touch of 'Pura Vida' to your Spanish vocabulary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Costa Rica Spanish?

Costa Rica Spanish is a unique dialect of Spanish spoken in Costa Rica. It incorporates elements from indigenous languages and has its own distinct slang and phrases.

Why should I learn Costa Rica Spanish?

Learning Costa Rica Spanish can enhance your travel experience, help you connect with locals, and give you insights into the culture and way of life in Costa Rica.

What does 'Pura Vida' mean?

'Pura Vida' is a popular Costa Rican phrase that translates to 'pure life.' It is used to express a positive outlook on life, and can mean everything from hello and goodbye to thank you and you're welcome.

How is Costa Rica Spanish different from other Spanish dialects?

Costa Rica Spanish has unique slang, phrases, and pronunciation that set it apart from other Spanish dialects. It also includes influences from indigenous languages.

What are some common Costa Rican greetings?

Common Costa Rican greetings include 'Hola' (hello), '¿Cómo estás?' (how are you?), and 'Pura Vida' (pure life).

What is the significance of the word 'Mae' in Costa Rica Spanish?

'Mae' is a colloquial term in Costa Rica Spanish that is similar to 'dude' in English. It is used informally to address friends or peers.

How can I practice Costa Rica Spanish?

You can practice Costa Rica Spanish by using immersive learning techniques, engaging with media and technology, and practicing with locals.

Are there any books to help me learn Costa Rica Spanish?

Yes, Christopher Howard's Guide to Costa Rica Spanish is a highly recommended book that includes a primer on Spanish pronunciation, theme-oriented vocabulary, and many idioms to help you sound like a local.

Curtis Duggan

Curtis Duggan

Curtis is a serial tech entrepreneur, content creator and the host of the Remotely Serious podcast on the future of remote work and digital nomadism.


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