They say that Costa Rica is “The World’s Happiest Country.”
I’m not sure if that’s true, but it does seem like people who visit Costa Rica return to their home countries with a stellar impression of this Central American country.
Why Learn Costa Rican Slang?
But if you’re visiting Costa Rica, a lot of those phrases from other countries are so different they might as well be in Portuguese—what you need is Costa Rican slang!
This conclusion comes only after much deliberation.
As a language teacher myself, I often wonder if it’s a good idea to teach or learn slang words. Slang changes so often, and certain words can be relegated to only certain times and places. Just imagine an English learner using words like “groovy” and “the bee’s knees.” It’s not that they’re not real expressions, or that we wouldn’t understand them, but they sound old fashioned and strange to our ears.
I think I just have a mental picture of some poor tourist in a bar, and everyone is trying to get him to say funny things to have a laugh at his expense. The way to avoid this is to learn the right slang for right now. I don’t think that will happen to you if you use these phrases, at least not in Costa Rica. People there are generally quite warm, patient and helpful—and the slang here is the bomb.
Plus, the slang in Costa Rica has been constant for a while now, so I can confidently tell you what you need to know.
If you don’t know it, you simply might not understand what your Costa Rican friends have to say!
Like the slang-loving man in the video above, Costa Ricans are indeed well known for being friendly and welcoming to tourists and new people, and if you can speak Spanish, you’ll have an even easier time fitting in.
Furthermore, if you can understand or even pull out a few words of Costa Rican slang, you’ll likely get a positive reaction from most Costa Ricans. In fact, instead of getting you to say humiliating things at the bar, they might just buy you an Imperial to welcome you to the country!
So, you can go ahead and use these words if you want. If you’re a bit too timid to try them yourself, you can learn them just to be sure that you understand them. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.
I’ve lived in Costa Rica for nearly 10 years, but I have to admit that I don’t use several of these myself. It’s just not my style. That’s every foreigner’s choice to make! However, I do feel like it’s been very helpful to understand what they mean, since people do use them all the time.
Finally, I ran all of these words by multiple Costa Ricans. I talked to my students, whose ages range between 13 and about 55 years old. Some were people who live in urban areas, and others live out in the boondocks surrounded by coffee fields. I tried to get a wide range of comments and opinions regarding which words to include here.
Although nobody gave me exactly the same list of words, most people mentioned the majority of the words on our list today. Quite a few of the words that people suggested are also used outside of Costa Rica, so most of those particular words aren’t on this list. Instead, we’re trying to keep this as specifically Costa Rican as possible, although that doesn’t mean that you’ll never hear any of these words outside of the country.
We’ll start off with a brief note about forms of address in Costa Rica, then continue by looking at 23 really common slang words that you’ll hear nearly every day in Costa Rica.
At the end, we’ll also check out some really common expressions that start with the word qué—there are more than you might have imagined!
Who Are “You”?
It’s definitely worth mentioning that if you’re going to travel to Costa Rica and you’re planning on speaking Spanish, the way they say “you” may be different from what you have learned in your classrooms or Spanish books.
I want to mention this because you’ll be interacting with Costa Ricans, and one of the most common words you’ll hear or say is “you.” However, there are three ways to say “you” in Costa Rica. So what gives?
You’ve probably learned that the formal way to say “you” is usted, while the informal version is tú.
That’s basically correct, but it’s not really that clear cut. It becomes even more complicated when you add in the pronoun vos, which is roughly the same as tú but arguably easier for students to learn. Vos is really common in South America, but can also be heard frequently in Costa Rica and other parts of Central America.
So, how do you know which one to use? Should you say usted, tú or vos?
First of all, in some other languages that have formal and informal pronouns, the use of one form or another is usually dependent on the relationship between the two people, or on one’s social status or age as compared to the other person. In many parts of the Spanish-speaking world, this is true too. See an overview of usted and tú here.
In Spanish, generally speaking, the difference is usually due more to geography.
In Costa Rica, you’ll likely hear usted more than any other form, even if the relationship isn’t formal in any sense of the word.
Where I live (in the mountains west of the Central Valley), everyone uses usted for everyone and everything. Old friends talking? Usted. A parent scolding a child? Usted. Spouses whispering sweet nothings into each others’ ears? Usted. Calling your dog? Usted.
From my experience with visitors who visited us from other Spanish-speaking countries, as well from my own experiences traveling in Latin America and Spain, this can be profoundly weird. Argentinians thought I was some kind of deviant for saying “usted” to my wife, but I couldn’t help it! I learned almost all my Spanish in Costa Rica, so I have trouble switching to other forms, even though I can understand them with no problem.
Here’s a rule of thumb: When in doubt, use usted.
That’s a pretty easy rule to remember, right? But don’t worry, people won’t think you’re pretentious or overly formal, unless you happen to also be wearing a top hat and a monocle when you use usted.
If you’ve learned tú, then also feel free to use that. People may ask where you’re from, but that will probably happen anyway. Supposedly, tú is more common in the northwest part of the country, but I’ve not really noticed it more there.
And as for vos, it seems to be mostly used in the capital (San José) and the surrounding area. It might just be my imagination, but there’s often also a bit of a negative reaction to the use of vos. I get the feeling that people outside of the capital think that people from San José can be a bit arrogant, and possibly look down their noses a bit at other more rural parts.
Personally, I’ve noticed that the only time I hear vos near where I live is if the person I’m talking to happens to be from San José, or if they’re asking me for a favor. It’s almost like usted is formal, tú is informal and vos is “buttering up.”
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s get down to the real nitty gritty!
23 Classic Costa Rican Slang Words
This is a word that means “Costa Rican.” A Tico is a Costa Rican man and a Tica is a Costa Rican woman.
This comes from a tendency to make things diminutive by adding the suffix -tico.
For example, the word for small is chico. In other Spanish-speaking countries, people may say chiquito, or literally “little small,” I guess. The point is that, in most places, the suffixes for small things are -ito and -ita.
You’ll hear them in Costa Rica, and you’ll also hear things like chiquitico, which is just another way to describe something that’s apparently incredibly tiny. Anyhow, it seems that people in Costa Rica did that so much that this tendency gave them a national nickname.
2. Pura Vida
This literally means “pure life,” and you’ll hear it 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.”
It’s also a phrase that tourists seem to love, and really, what’s not to love about it? For a country that bills itself as the world’s happiest country and proclaims its lack of a military, it does seem to focus on the good things that make life pure.
Still, it can be a bit confusing if you’re looking for a business named Pura Vida, since seemingly every second store in the country is named something like Pura Vida Surf Shop, Pura Vida Pet Supplies or Pura Vida Schoolbook Depository.
This is another multipurpose word, but instead of meaning “pure life,” it means something akin to “dude” or “guy.”
It’s generally used by men referring to other men, but it can occasionally be used to refer to a woman. If used to talk about a woman, though, it’s not usually a flattering reference.
Truth be told, if you call a male a mae, it’s also not terribly flattering. At best, it’s neutral, but it can often be negative. I would maybe equate it to the word schlub or schmo in English. Friends may use it as a jokingly-insulting term of endearment, but if you say it to someone else, it might cause trouble.
The short-lived online satirical newspaper El Pejibaye even had a column called “Mae of the Week,” which featured fictional mediocre guys who were generally unemployed and living with their grandmothers or sisters. Check it out to get a better feel for this word.
But that meaning of the word only accounts for maybe 20% of the times you’ll hear mae in Costa Rica. For the other 80%, it’s used mostly by young men as linguistic filler. For many of them, it’s like the Costa Rican version of the word “like,” “uh” or “um.”
If you don’t believe me, just eavesdrop on a conversation between two Costa Rican guys in their early 20s. No matter what the topic, you’ll likely hear mae more than you’ll hear words like “the.”
This word means basically “cool.”
In fact, there’s an interesting theory that it’s actually a weird variation on the word bueno (good) that was passed through a process to make it a kind of code word, but it’s also a slightly confusing theory.
In any case, this word is usually included in the pantheon of Costa Rican slang, but I honestly almost never hear it. I get the sense that it’s less common, especially with young people, but that may be wrong.
5. Diay / Idiay
This is usually an exclamation that expresses disbelief or confusion, but it can also be used as a pause in the conversation.
You can almost get a sense for all three meanings in the following exchange between Ana and María:
Ana: ¿Y su novio? ¿Ya no están juntos? (And what about your boyfriend? Are you not together anymore?)
María: Diay, no sé. Es que… (Diay, I don’t know. It’s just that…)
6. Chepe, Moncho and El Puerto
These are nicknames for cities, specifically San José, San Ramón and Puntarenas, respectively.
Of course, many cities in many countries have different nicknames, and Costa Rican cities are no exception.
For example, Escazú, the suburb of San José, is called la ciudad de las brujas (the city of witches), but these seem a bit different. El Puerto (the port) is the most conventional, and it makes sense since there’s a port in Puntarenas, but the other two are more interesting.
Chepe is the nickname for the name José (although it seems strange to me that the nickname is longer than the original name) and Moncho is the nickname for Ramón. So basically, they took the nicknames for the people and applied them to the cities.
It kinda makes me want to visit Saint Joseph, Missouri, just so I can say I’m going to visit “Joey.”
This is a word that you should be very careful with, since its root, picha, is a slang word for penis.
A despiche is when everything seems to fall apart or go wrong. Basically it’s a big mess.
A similar word is pichazo, which could literally mean something like “a big penis.” In colloquial use, though, it means a ton of something. Un pichazo de gente would be “a bunch of people.”
It can also mean a “hit,” but we’ll get to that near the end of this article.
I wouldn’t advocate using these unless you’re really comfortable with Costa Rican slang—and with the people you’re talking to! But it’s still good to recognize and understand these two words if you hear them, since there’s a decent (indecent?) chance you’ll hear them.
8. N.J. (Nos Juimos)
This basically means “We’re outta here!”
I’ve heard that the phrase nos juimos, in which a j is substituted for the f in fuimos, is common in other countries, but the Costa Rican twist is that here they also just say the two letters to abbreviate it: N.J.
Of course, you’d pronounce the letters in Spanish, roughly like “en-ay hota.”
This is a word that means a pick-up soccer game or informal soccer game among friends.
Nearly every weekend or weeknight evening, you’ll see many ticos—both maes and non-maes alike—getting together for a mejenga, either at an outdoor field or, if it’s during the September-December rainy season, indoors on artificial turf.
This is a term that means “head.” If someone is stubborn, that person may be called jupón (big head).
Since you remember your Spanish pronunciation, this is pronounced “hoopa,” and you may hear it in a phrase like me golpeé la jupa (I banged my head).
This is a Costa Rican word for “horse.” It can also refer to an old man, especially an old bachelor.
To be honest, I had never heard this word until I asked around for good slang words, and I even live in a place where people still ride horses. But a few people I interviewed insisted that I include this word in the list, so here you go!
If you pronounce this slowly, it sounds a bit like “watchy-man,” right?
Well, that’s exactly what this word means, and it’s even a bit of a deviation from an “Englishy” phrase.
If you go to any city or even medium-sized town in Costa Rica, you’re likely to come across a guachiman or two. They’re the guys who watch parked cars in exchange for some spare change. Some are more formal about it, even wearing a reflective chaleco (vest), and others may have just shown up right before you got back to your car, since they saw you coming.
I believe this word, or a variation of it, may be used in other parts of Latin America, but I still wanted to leave it in because it’s just such a great word. Plus, if you rent a car here, you’ll likely come across more than one guachiman.
In any case, even though it may seem like extortion (“if you don’t pay me, I’ll mess up your car”), it’s usually just easiest to give your local guachiman a few spare coins, since becoming confrontational or argumentative rarely works. The only time I tried to confront one and say that what he was doing was only questionably ethical, I ended up hanging out with him and buying him some fried chicken. True story. True Costa Rican story, that is.
13. Jalarse una torta
Literally, this phrase means “pull a torte” or “pull a cake,” but it’s an idiom that means to do something dumb or regrettable. It’s basically like “mess up” or “screw up.”
If you hear “ellos se jalaron una torta y ella quedó embarazada,” then you’ll be able to catch the figurative meaning of this phrase.
This word usually denotes alcohol made from sugar cane, but it can also be used to refer to any kind of alcohol, kind of like the word “booze” in English.
15. Una Teja
A teja is a word for a roof tile, but in Costa Rica it’s also used to refer to 100-colones coins. Don’t forget, the currency in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican Colón, and Colón is the Spanish name for “Columbus,” as in the (in)famous sailor, Christopher.
In the past, the phrase una teja was used to refer to 100-colón bills, but with the exchange rate currently at about 540 colones to a US dollar, bills of such low denominations are distant history. So now the same word is used to refer to the coin.
As a fun fact, Costa Ricans also use different slang words to refer to other denominations of bills. For example, un rojo (a red one) is a 1,000-colones bill (since it’s red), and you may hear a 5,000-colones bill referred to as un tucán (a toucan) because the old 5,000-colones bill had a toucan on the back. The new bill, which was introduced a few years ago, actually has a monkey on it, which is also pretty cool, but you don’t really hear people asking for their buddies to loan them un mono so they can buy some guaro.
Maybe it’ll catch on in the future, but even if it doesn’t, the idea of a name being based on a point of reference that no longer exists is very Costa Rican (learn more about addresses in Costa Rica if you don’t believe me).
Finally, La Teja is a trashy daily “newspaper” that’s published throughout Costa Rica. It focuses mostly on soccer, breasts and classified ads. I believe it was given that name because it originally cost 100 colones, but in the meantime the price is now at 150 colones, which is still a veritable bargain. Even at that price, you’ll still be hard pressed to find a higher proportion of bikinis per colón in any other Costa Rican newspaper.
Enough with the long explanations. Tata means “father.” Presumably, it’s easy for even infants and toddlers to say, but it’s still used by grown adults to refer to their fathers.
This is a hangover, or to be hungover. You may hear something like ‘Tengo (una) goma” (I have a hangover) or Estoy de goma (I’m hungover).
The word goma can also mean “gum,” although not like chewing gum (that’s chicle), but instead any gummy substance.
This is a sort of bonus section of common slang phrases in Costa Rica—separate because they all start with the word qué (“what” or, in most of these cases, “how”).
Most of these are exclamations, the kind of thing you might say if you’re in Costa Rica and you see something awesome (like a Hyundai Elantra fitted with gull-wing doors) or something terrible (like two drunk guys fighting at the Palmares Festival).
18. ¡Qué pichazo!
As you probably remember from #7 above, a pichazo can mean a “big ol’ penis,” but it can also be used to refer to a beating, a hit, people fighting or even just getting hurt in general. It’s sort of like the phrase “wipe out” when talking about surfing. You can find a few YouTube videos with this exact title, but as a warning, they’re not entirely intellectual.
You can also use it as a verb. If you get beat up, you can say “me pichacearon,” which would mean something like “I got my butt kicked,” only a bit more vulgar.
19. ¡Qué jeta!
The word jeta is a slang word for “face” or “snout,” so in some contexts, this can mean something like “what cheek,” as in the person is being insolent.
But more commonly it’s used to mean something like “Yeah, right,” “No way” or “Wow.” “Wow” is probably the closest equivalent, since you can also use inflection and context to give it different meanings.
20. ¡Qué chiva!
Literally speaking, a chiva would be the female form of chivo, or “goat.”
But usually this phrase means “How cool!” or “Awesome!” If you’re familiar with Mexican slang, it’s basically the same as Qué chido there.
Also note that chiva is pronounced like “cheeba.”
21. ¡Qué madre!
One of the first Spanish words you probably learned was madre, or “mother.” But in this context, mother has gone bad.
¡Qué madre! means “Bummer!” I’m not sure where madre got its negative connotation, but the word desmadre is similar to despiche (see #7) or, in other words, a chaotic situation. If you call someone la pura madre, it can be something like “a pain in the butt.”
22. ¡Qué salidas!
A salida is a departure, so you could be excused for thinking this has to do with the airport. But it actually means “What nonsense!” or “How crazy!”
The verb salir can be used sometimes to mean “say,” as in “Él sale con cada cosa” (Literally, “He leaves with such things,” but it means more like “He says the strangest things”).
23. ¡Qué chirotada!
This final phrase was requested specifically by my wife. Chirotada can mean “luck” or “happiness,” so if you say “¡Qué chirotada!” you may be exclaiming because you found a rojo on the street.
Of course, like so many other things, this can also refer to genitalia. I included this one because my wife told me a story about a guy in our town who had a run-in with a mean dog. He later exclaimed “¡Ese perro casi me arrancó la chirotada!” (That dog almost bit off my junk!)
So there you have it: you’re fully equipped for your next conversation with some ticos.
Whether you want to have a friendly chat with a guachiman over a glass of guaro at a bar in Moncho, or use allusions to genitalia to make a passing comment when you see two maes knock their heads together during a mejenga, you should be able to hold your own.
Good luck, and… ¡pura vida!
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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