10 Words to Know Before Arriving in Costa Rica

Original post can be found here.

Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, far behind Chinese in first and barely snuffing out English in third. With so many native speakers scattered all over the globe, accents and dialects run rampant, making Spanish sometimes tricky but mostly fascinating. Each region’s dialect offers a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle of its people, and Costa Rica’s is no exception.

Get to know these words and phrases to get a taste of Costa Rica before you even arrive:

1. Tico

Let’s start with the basics. A tico – or the feminine tica – is the colloquial term for a Costa Rican native. Costa Ricans themselves and foreigners alike use this term.

2. Pura vida

Literally translated to “pure life,” pura vida encompasses the relaxed and carefree Costa Rican lifestyle that so many have come to know and love. This phrase is thrown around often in everyday conversation and can be used as a greeting, response, thank you, goodbye, and more.

Though it’s used casually, there’s no doubt that Costa Ricans truly take pura vida to heart, something you’ll quickly grow accustomed to in Costa Rica.


3. Mae

Mae is the Costa Rican equivalent of “dude.” It’s heard most frequently among good friends – especially among boys and men – but can also be used when speaking to a stranger or acquaintance. Pura vida, mae.

4. Goma

Most of us are familiar with this feeling: waking up the morning after a fun night out at the bars, one too many glasses of wine, or beer at the beach all day, head pounding, mouth dry. Literally translated to “glue,” a goma is the ever-dreaded hangover that sometimes sticks around a little longer than you’d like.


5. Tuanis

Pronounced twa-nees, the origin of this word is unclear. Meaning “sweet,” “cool,” “nice,” “awesome,” or anything of the like, some say that it stems from the English phrase, “too nice.” Wherever it comes from, locals will think you’re pretty tuanis if you make this word part of your regular vocabulary.

6. Upe

This is a simple and friendly way to announce your arrival to somebody’s house. The term originates in Nicoya, Guanacaste, where people would announce themselves by saying, “Nuestra Señorita (Señora) la Virgen de Guadalupe,” meaning, “Our Lady the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Eventually shortened to just upe, this is commonly used when making yourself known or checking to see if somebody’s home.

7. Gallo pinto

Say hello to your new favorite breakfast (and lunch and dinner) dish! Gallo pinto, literally translated to “spotted rooster,” is recognized as the typical breakfast in Costa Rica and most likely takes its name from the color of the rice and beans resembling that of a spotted rooster. A tasty and filling mix of rice and beans, commonly prepared with onions, peppers, garlic, and the local Lizano sauce, typically will come with two eggs made to order, tortilla, queso fresco, sour cream, fried plantains, and a steaming cup of coffee.

For around $5 a plate and a full belly for hours, you really can’t go wrong.


8. Casado

Similar to gallo pinto, casado is a traditional Costa Rican lunch or dinner dish. Translated to “marriage,” this dish is a union of rice, beans, meat or fish, and greens, and comes with a variety sides, depending on where you order it or how you decide to make it. Typical sides include fried plantains, fries, cheese, a cooked vegetable or potato medley known as picadillo, tortilla, avocado, and more. Healthy, hearty, and delicious, it’s no mystery why this is a staple in the tico diet.

9. Un rojo

Costa Rica’s local currency, the colón, is pure art, in my humble opinion. The 1000 colones bill, which is currently worth just under 2.00 USD, has on one side a portrait of Braulio Carrillo Colina, one of Costa Rica’s Heads of State in the early-to-mid 1800s. On the other side, the bill has the Guanacaste tree and a white-tailed deer, among other things. The bill is also the color red, or rojo. So, a 1000 colones bill can also be called un rojo.


10. Soda

Looking for somewhere to find a good plate of gallo pinto or casado? Look no further. Found in big cities and small villages alike, sodas are the typical family-owned restaurants that serve local, fresh, and delicious dishes at reasonable prices. Think of your favorite mom-and-pop restaurant from your town, add tico flavors, and boom, you’ve found your new favorite spot.


Río Celeste in the Rain

I’m told rain is coming. On the days that reach 92, 95, 97 degrees and the air conditioning at school breaks, I’m told rain is coming. Every morning after having woken up the night before around 2:00am to a pillow drenched in neck sweat, I’m told rain is coming. I’ve seen intermittent evidence of this, small drops heavy with potential, but so far this supposed relief from the heat remains a rumor.

Two of my roommates, Erik and Sigrid, are moving back home to Sweden in a couple weeks after living in and traveling around Latin America for the last 7 months. I’ve had the privilege of becoming very good friends with the couple and am dreading their departure, but I know life will bring us back together again. As part of their see-as-much-as-possible-before-we-leave campaign, we decided to visit the famous Río Celeste, a river known best for its vibrant turquoise color. Located inland and at a higher altitude in the Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio, we were advised to pack our rain jackets, a thought that thrilled me to my very core. As much as I enjoy life in Costa Rica, my body was not built for this constant sun and heat. I hoped for a reprieve.

The three of us went along with an expat family also living in Potrero: Andrea and Linda, their two tween daughters, and Andrea’s mother and her husband who were visiting from North Carolina. In two cars we drove to the park, spying grey clouds and feeling our ears pop as we reached higher altitudes. We arrived to our cabins in the early evening and were able to spend some time in awe of the river’s brilliant blue before enjoying a typical Costa Rican dinner prepared by the cabins’ owners.


As the sun went down, so did the temperature and for the first time in months, I happily threw on an extra layer for dinner. The nine of us enjoyed each other’s company over fresh fish and chicken before heading back to the cabin I was sharing with the Swedes for some pre-bed card games.

I slept all the way through the night and even slipped under the blanket at some point because I was chilly. Bless up.


We awoke Monday morning to a light drizzle and thick fog blanketing the treetops. We ate another typical Tico meal for breakfast in preparation for our morning’s hike to the waterfall through the national park. By the time we got to the park around 9:00am, the rain was coming down steadily. I bought a $2 poncho to put over my $70 raincoat because Columbia apparently makes useless products, and off we went. Five minutes in, I gave myself a mental pat on the back for opting to wear my Teva sandals instead of my hiking boots because the mud was really on another level. I’d had visions of seeing sloths and tropical birds on this hike, but could focus my eyes only on the ground and my energy in staying upright, engaging in a sort of dance with the slick mud and rocks.


We made our way to the end of the trail, passing over rickety bridges, climbing steep stairs, spotting natural hot springs, and catching the occasional intense whiff of volcanic sulfur along the way. There we were able to see the origin of the river’s distinct color. Río Celeste is fed by two other rivers, Río Buena Vista (“Good View River”) and Quebrada Agria (“Sour Creek”). The combination of the specific particles in Río Buena Vista and the high acidity of Quebrada Agria results in the turquoise of Río Celeste.


One of the cooler things I’ve seen, I tell ya. We turned around to make our way halfway back before taking another turn to see the park’s waterfall. The trail’s foot traffic had increased a bit, so finding the balance between passing and letting others pass without slipping and dying was a fun challenge. (If I can give any advice about this, it’s to begin this hike early in the day to avoid the crowds, especially if you plan to go to the waterfall.)

The rain had become more of a drizzle, but it was still difficult to differentiate between the sweat and water dripping down the side of my face. We followed the sounds of the rushing water and hustled down the 250 steps to the waterfall, the first of its size that I had ever seen. The fog was still low and the water was loud and powerful. I could have stood there for hours.


We trudged back up the stairs and the only thing I could think about was how badly my glutes were burning. By the time we got to the top of the staircase, I was admittedly ready for the hike to be over. The rain had majorly slowed down and my poncho/raincoat combo was beginning to feel like an incubator. Onward we trudged, dodging even more oncoming traffic and focusing still on the ground beneath us.

By the hike’s end, the rain had stopped entirely. Of course. I bought a much-deserved ice cold pipa at the park’s entrance before peeling off my poncho, jacket, and shirt. I attempted to scrub off the mud caked onto my legs and feet, put a dry shirt on, and climbed into the air conditioned car for the drive back to the coast. As we got closer to sea level, we rejoiced at the sight of blue sky. Though we were trading the lush, green colors of the jungle for the various shades of brown on the dry coast, we smiled, knowing we were going back home.

Back at the beach, we still have no rain. This past week, the air conditioning went out at my school two days in a row. For about 24 blissfully cool hours however, the burden of beach life was temporarily lifted and I got the rain I’d been wishing for, plus a little more. I know the rain will come soon and I’ll be grateful when it does. But for now, I’ll enjoy the sunshine while she’s here.




Puerto Viejo: Child Psychopath

I think we can all agree that 5:00am is too early for just about anything.

Our long, arduous journey from the northwest side to the southeast side of Costa Rica began on a Thursday morning at 5:00am. Actually, it began at 4:10am when I forced my feet on the floor, but at 5:00am, Eli and I were settled onto an air conditioned bus headed directo for San Jose. The bus was quiet despite its fullness, with all riders in silent, mutual agreement that it was time to go back to sleep for a couple hours.

In the two seats in front of us sat a middle-aged woman, a woman in her 20’s, and a toddler: presumably three generations. Toddler was a little fussy but relatively well behaved, equipped with huge brown eyes and a head of dark, tight curls that made it hard to be mad at her for much. At 7:00am, we stopped at a rest stop for coffee and a bite to eat. Getting back on the bus after the break, everyone seemed more alert, toddler included. Grandma moved to a different seat, so mom and toddler had more space. With a couple hours yet to go until San Jose, toddler stood up in her seat and faced us while mom changed her diaper. We smiled at her and waved, attempting to get a smile back from her, but her expression and gaze were unwavering.

After a few minutes of this, I felt a cool splash of something on my foot. Before I knew what it was, Eli jerked, grabbed his bag from the floor, and said, “Oh my god, she’s peeing.” I followed suit, but only after my foot and sandal were doused in toddler piss and a small puddle pooled on the floor at our feet. Mom did not seem to notice. Overcome with surprise and disgust, a moment of stunned silence was followed by laughing through a series of what-just-happened’s and are-you-kidding-me‘s and I-wish-I’d-brought-wet-wipe‘s.

The rest of the trip to San Jose was uneventful, peppered only with the occasional wave of nausea and the scent of piss wafting through the stale bus air. We arrived at 9:00am, thus beginning phase two of the Puerto Viejo travels.

I think it’s important to note that the child’s stone cold stare did not falter whilst peeing. Psychopath?

Selfish in Costa Rica

When I first visited Costa Rica in May 2017, it was my first time in Latin America. The culture, the people, the music, the beaches absolutely swept me off my feet. I spent the week doing things I’d never done before: scuba diving, riding horses on the beach, skinny dipping, drinking beer in the bed of the truck in the middle of a rain storm. My friend Tori and I clocked countless hours laughing until our bellies hurt (something we can often be found doing together). We also spent time in heartbroken mourning together, as John had died only 2.5 months before then.

That week was unbelievably enriching and eye opening. I had found a sense of solace in the salty sea, an overwhelming calm in the colors of the setting sun. I knew I had found a place that could bring me peace and mend my tattered heart. When I climbed onto the US-bound plane, I told myself I was going to get back somehow.


Back in Indianapolis, I had no idea what I was doing. I was looking at jobs that I knew I was totally capable of working, jobs that would allow me to live very comfortably on my own. As I scrolled past Marketing Manager this and Communications Coordinator that, I was underwhelmed by the idea of getting back to the 9-5, florescent light grind. I couldn’t imagine myself finding joy in the confines of a cubicle or office. My mom, the patient angel that she is, asked me, “Well, what do you want to do then?” In a moment of exasperation, I said, “I don’t know, maybe I’ll just move to Costa Rica.”

The idea stuck.

Through some Googling I found Costa Rica TEFL and applied for the November/December program. I sat down with my parents and created a savings plan (that I sort of stuck to). They graciously agreed to keep my cat until I got back. I got a job as a receptionist at a real estate company, downloaded Duolingo, and began my journey towards Costa Rica. I had a really great season in Indianapolis, spending a lot of time with old friends and getting to re-know a city I hadn’t lived in in a long time. I traveled around the States as much as I could to see my homies and even threw myself a going-away party with the goal of seeing as many people as I possibly could before I left.

On November 6, I boarded a plane back to Costa Rica, one-way ticket in hand. I moved to Samara and completed the Costa Rica TEFL program, forming incredible relationships and memories along the way. I hostel- and house-hopped for a few weeks after the program’s end, unsure of where exactly I would end up. I was determined to live by the beach, but was having a difficult time finding a full-time teaching job along the coast.

When I had visited Tori in May, she’d been working for a nonprofit in Guanacaste called Abriendo Mentes, an organization that provides free education and community development programs to the underserved beach towns of Brasilito and Potrero. She suggested I get in touch with them. One thing led to another and I found myself moving to Potrero in January to be AM’s new volunteer Adult English Teacher. I began doing some freelance digital marketing to bring in a little income. I was eventually put in touch with a nearby private school and offered a full-time teaching job that begins in March. Aside from all things work-related, I continue to meet and befriend the best people. The other AM volunteers and staff are a richly diverse and uniquely wonderful group of people and I’ve found fast friends in quite a few of them. Afternoons at the beach, movie nights, early-morning hikes, and meals together are aplenty. On weekends they don’t come visit me at the beach, I hop on the bus to go see a couple of my TEFL friends where they now live and teach in Liberia. Life in Costa Rica has been good to me.

Just a couple days ago, I was sitting in the weekly AM communications team meeting, discussing the overall goals of this year’s marketing campaign. I was listening to Kirsti, the Brasilito Site Director, speak about her community, a community that’s in many ways been abandoned by its government and the tourism industry that grows around it. She spoke passionately about the mothers and children that she sees every day, about the challenges they face, about ways we can help them overcome some of these challenges, and I was suddenly struck by a realization: I have been so selfish.

My coming to Costa Rica was entirely selfish. When I decided to make the move here, I was seeking something: peace, healing, relief, an escape, something, I’m not totally sure. I wanted to go somewhere new and live a completely different life, one entirely separate from the one that John and I lived together because I couldn’t stand going through the same old motions without him. I used earning my TEFL certificate as my means to get here, but I didn’t have a particular passion for teaching. I hadn’t actually considered that I would be thrust into a community or environment where what I was doing really mattered; all I thought about was moving to the beach, making new friends, and hopefully learning Spanish. Listening to how impassioned Kirsti spoke about her community and her work made me realize just how little I had really mentally and emotionally invested in this new life. Yes yes I know, I experienced something terrible and traumatic so my selfishness isn’t necessarily bad or unexpected, but now that I’m coming out on the other side in many ways and seeing a little more clearly again, it’s high time I – as the kids say – get my shit together.

This community does not need me. The school I’ll be working for does not need me. There’s an endless supply of people looking to do exactly what I’m doing and I know that I’m replaceable. But now that I’m here, even though my journey here was mostly ego-fueled, I need to really be here. I have the opportunity to get to know the people who bring so much passion and energy of out Kirsti. I have the privilege of doing good work and contributing something of value. I have the chance to sit down and be humble, all the while still going to watch the sunset every evening, making new friends, and continuing down the path of healing.

Turns out, what I didn’t know I was seeking has been right here all along.