When you first set foot in Costa Rica, you’re going to have to make the most difficult decisions of your life.
Should you go snorkeling or raft down some rapids instead?
Do you want to watch a sea turtle lay her eggs?
See four different breeds of monkey up close?
Spend a night out in the bustling capital city?
Should you check out the exhibits in one of the museums or art galleries?
Perhaps you’re looking for something more action-packed. How about zip lining though trees in the jungle? Dare to bungee jump from a bridge? You could take a canopy tour and enjoy bird and wildlife watching in one of the top ecotourism destinations in the world. How about a trek through a World Heritage Site? Enjoy a hike to one of several island volcanoes?
You can do all these things and much, much more if you spend time in Costa Rica.
Before you venture out to any Spanish speaking country, whether it’s for immersion study, vacation or any other reason, it’s a good idea to brush up on the local vocabulary. Having a few key phrases and verbs handy, as well as knowing the differences between dialects, can be crucial.
Some words have extremely different and sometimes even offensive meanings depending on where they’re spoken. Here are just a few of the more important colloquialisms to keep in mind when visiting Costa Rica.
Pura Vida! 22 Costa Rican Spanish Phrases for Living the Good Life
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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.
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, tú is rarely used. Instead, Costa Ricans use the informal vos.
Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with vos, but it’s similar to tú 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 tú (or any other form with which you’re comfortable).
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!”
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.
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.”
This verb is another way to say “to sleep” and can directly replace dormir.
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…
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The language in Costa Rica is uniquely colorful, but all you need is a little exposure to master it.
Now you’re completely prepared for your voyage to Costa Rica and sound like a native!
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