Pura Vida! 22 Costa Rican Spanish Phrases for Living the Good Life

In Costa Rica, you’re going to have to make some hard decisions.

Like, should you spend the weekend basking in the sun on a Caribbean beach or catching waves in the Pacific?

But before you venture out to any Spanish speaking country, brush up on the local vocabulary—some words have extremely different and sometimes offensive meanings depending on where they’re spoken.

Here are a few important colloquialisms to keep in mind when visiting Costa Rica.


1. ¡Pura vida!

This phrase is first because it embodies Costa Rican culture and the country as a whole. This phrase is said pretty much anytime and essentially embodies Costa Rica. Seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it’s the first thing you hear upon arrival. As it’s plastered on almost any souvenir you can think of, it may as well be the country’s catchphrase.

It’s a positive phrase about seizing the moment and enjoying life. It can be said as a greeting, in the middle of a conversation, after you have said or heard someone say something exciting… it’s basically a one-size-fits-all phrase! Every Costa Rican will be delighted to hear you say this.

2. Usted

Even if you think you’re pretty close with someone in Costa Rica, it’s still better to refer to him or her as usted. In fact,  is rarely used. Instead, Costa Ricans use the informal vos.

Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with vos, but it’s similar to  very common in Central and South American countries. Conjugations using vos are a bit different but you can easily learn them!

Of course it’s not always easy switching between formal and informal on the fly, but don’t fret. It’s perfectly safe and acceptable for foreigners to speak using only (or any other form with which you’re comfortable).

3. Tuanis

This phrase means “good,” “cool” or just shows excitement about anything. For example, if you just read a book that you loved, you could say “¡el libro fue tuanis!” If someone says something cool or interesting, you can simply respond with “¡tuanis!”

4. Dolor de jupa

If you’re suffering from this type of dolor (pain), then you have a pounding headache. An example for when to use this would be if you went out for a long night of clubbing and had a throbbing headache. You could say “¡tuve un dolor de jupa enorme anoche!”

5. Mae

This word means “dude” and can be used to refer to a man or woman. As you can most likely guess, this term is reserved for use between close friends. Don’t call someone you just met in Costa Rica “mae.” However, between close friends, the use of “mae” is extremely common.

6. Tico(a)

This is a common word used to refer to Costa Ricans. It’s a term they came up with for Costa Ricans, and it’s the term that they use to refer to themselves, so it’s not offensive in any way, but rather widely used.

7. ¡Qué guava!

This phrase means “what luck!” A good time to use this would be if you’re walking with a friend and she encounters money on the sidewalk.

8. Un blanco

In Costa Rica, un blanco is a cigarette, which is important to know in case anyone ever requests un blanco from you.

9. Agüevado or bostezo

The above words are synonyms and mean bored or boring. For example, if your new teacher causes you to yawn incessantly in class, you could say “mi maestra nueva es muy agüevada.”

10. Estar de goma

This phrase means to have a hangover. If you knocked back a few too many last night, you could say “hoy, yo estoy de goma.”

11. Rulear

This verb is another way to say “to sleep” and can directly replace dormir.

12. Perico

Perico means parrot in Spanish but in Costa Rica, they also use it as a term for cocaine. So, be careful if someone there offers you perico—they might not be offering you a colorful pet bird but something else entirely…

13. Suave

If you say this to another person in an argument, it means “calm down.” If you and a friend get into a heated exchange, you can just say “¡Suave, mae!” which means “Take it easy!”

14. Al chile

This phrase expresses surprise or shock in response to what someone says. It translates to “Really?” or “Are you serious?”

15. Jamar

Jamar can directly replace comer to say “to eat.”

16. Ahí los vidrios

The above phrase is another way to say “see you there.” For example, if someone asks you to meet him or her at the movie theater at five, you could say “Ahí los vidrios” to confirm.

17. Choza or chante

If you’re chatting with a friend and he or she invites you to his or her choza or chante, then he or she is inviting you to his or her house.

18. Se despichó

This phrase is used when misfortune occurs or as a way to express frustration. For example, if someone has an accident. An example for when to say it would be if you fell down skiing or surfing.

19. Harina

Harina directly translates to flour from Spanish to English, but it can also be used as a slang term for money in Costa Rica. So unless your neighbor next door pops over to ask for some to use in her cookies, you can assume that when someone asks for harina, he or she is requesting cash.

20. Lata

Perhaps this is another word you recognize, as it translates to “can” in English. However, if someone says that they take the lata to work, they actually mean the bus—they don’t take a can to work. That would be a little bizarre.

21. Cabra

You learn that cabra means goat in Spanish, but it’s also the oh-so-charming way some men refer to their girlfriends in Costa Rica. Ladies, doesn’t this make you want to go find a Costa Rican boyfriend?

22. Brete

If someone says they have to go to brete instead of spend time with you, it means he or she has to go to work.


Easy, right?

The language in Costa Rica is uniquely colorful, but all you need is a little exposure to master it.

After you’ve made your way through these lively phrases it’s a good idea to have a look at them in context, as often local expressions are applied in specific situations which aren’t immediately obvious when you first learn them.

Check out some Costa Rican content on YouTube, or if you’d rather have a set selection of videos that was curated for language learners, you could try FluentU—it’s an app and website that builds lessons from real Spanish media clips, so you’ll be able to find some examples of Costa Rican Spanish (and other regional Spanish varieties) in action. 

Now you’re completely prepared for your voyage to Costa Rica and know just how to speak Spanish like a native!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe