Photo: Cris Young/Shutterstock

You Know You're Becoming a Local in Costa Rica When...

Costa Rica Student Work
by Liz Galloway Jun 10, 2015

You weigh an extra 5 pounds due to a mass accumulation of 500 colone coins.

Don’t blame weight gain on beachside sunset drinking — blame it on the large 500 colone brass coins that jingle around the bottom of your bag and in your pockets due to the fact that not many local places here want to accept your credit card.

You know what a ‘Mexican standoff ‘is.

Driver’s education is an unfamiliar concept in Costa Rica, so let’s just say Ticos drive ‘differently’ than many other places in the world. They are also very family oriented, so if you haven’t seen your brother’s, wife’s, sister’s niece for a while and see them passing in the opposite direction, it would be just plain mala vibra (bad vibes) not to stop in the middle of the road to catch up. This seems to happen principally on narrow two-lane roads with miles of rainforest on each side and no escape for the drivers behind. Might as well pull out your whatsapp to chat with some peeps of your own, because until they’re done, no honking or yelling will move them. It’s called a standoff because both refuse to move. That’s pura vida.

You’ve gotten bona fide crocodile warnings.

It’s worth elbowing through a stream of slack-jawed tourists at Tarcoles Bridge to see the behemoth crocodiles sunning in the mud below. But don’t throw meat over the bridge to incite a frenzy, as it’s against Costa Rican law. Snap a stellar photo, just don’t attempt a selfie: #deathbycrocodile. There are 23 species of these meat-eating reptiles in C.R. and if you live on a coast you’ve heard the tragic legends of small dogs and children being plucked from the beach.

You don’t mind an occasional shock from a faulty suicide shower.

While science and our parents have taught us electricity and water don’t mix the best, these electric showerheads still remain the most popular and cost effective way to heat a typical Costa Rican shower. You know to keep your head down, your showers short, and keep the water flow low so it heats to a lukewarm drizzle. You always wear a pair of rubber soled flip-flops (shower shoes), never touch the temperature switches and avoid the exposed electrical wires. If you’ve used a suicide shower and lived to tell about it, you have conquered a local rite of passage.

When there are street riots and business closings, you just assume there is a soccer game.

La guerra del fútbol (football wars) is alive and well in Costa Rica, and when the national team La Sele is playing it’s hard to escape the broadcasters singular
GGGGOOOOAAAAALLLLL and the fist-pumping howls that come after. Fueled by a dangerous blend of national beers and Cacique — a version of 190 proof Grain Alcohol — soccer hooligans have been known to shut down streets, turn over cars, and exercise their love of bonfires. Businesses and schools take a national holiday to participate in the face-off.

You don’t buy bananas and mangos because you can pluck them from trees for free.

You’re in a fruitarian paradise and possibly never have to buy food again, if surviving on potassium, fiber, and Vitamin B6 is your thing. In practically any beach town, you will pass by dozens of mango and banana trees on the side of the road, and probably in your own back yard. Bad news — you most likely are not the only one gawking at the lime green stumps nestled in the leaves waiting for them to ripen. Good news — you score some truly fresh fruit (free of pesticides) if you happen to be the one wandering by once they have ripened. Twist, pull, and experience instant hydration and the tropical fruity feel dancing on your tongue. In peak season it’s practically raining mangoes and bananas, so grab a backpack and load up.

Colectivos’ (collective taxi transportation) are your go-to ride.

It’s a bit like a co-op and the perfect way of carpooling. With the flick of an index finger you can flag down a shared taxi ride to do your shopping. You know they have an open seat by the requisite flash of the headlights. It’s a money saver and a splendid way to get to know the locals. The chances of you already knowing someone en route, including the taxi driver, are pretty high when you live in a small town. Jump on and off where and when you want with a quick ‘aqui mae’ to the driver, toss him a media roja, and you’re off. Say goodbye to $10 taxi rides — you’re a local now.

You don’t lift an eyebrow at seeing taxi drivers navigating windy roads with rum and Coke in hand.

It’s legal to drive while drinking in Costa Rica — as long as you’re not drunk.

Nor do you lift an eyebrow at security toting sizable machetes and AK-47s in public.

Heavy weaponry may seem a little odd to visiting outsiders, but this is commonplace in banks, malls and the occasional fast food stop. Security guards stationed outside these spots carry semi-automatic hardware and scope out a slice of shade to tolerate the thick humid weather in bulletproof uniforms. The chances of you crossing paths with several machete-toting locals is pretty high. More frequent in rural areas, these are used for pretty much everything — rarely a weapon — and are nothing to worry about. Forget the Leatherman, why not pick up your own machete?

You understand the automatic 10% added to your bill.

There’s no deception, it’s just an automated gratuity that guarantees the local employees receive tips and that labor costs are kept down. Don’t think your waiter is making a killing either, they don’t receive the full 10% themselves or the extra you leave on top of that. It goes into the communal bookkeeping and is divided equally among the total number of employees, then added to an individual’s meager monthly salary.

You party with fireworks year-round.

There are colorful fire shows for weddings, soccer games, or just because you crack open a cold beer. Holiday celebrations like El Tope, Festival de la Luz and Fiestas de Zapote highlight over 7,000 fireworks a piece. The love of a good party is contagious, and street parties luring you in may be exciting when you first arrive, but when the stroke of midnight launches skyrockets night after night, it becomes unnerving and gets a little old. Most of these impromptu pyrotechnics are by neighborhood kids, and for the sake of sanity and safety officials are confiscating some 1.5 million annual illegal party explosives.

You feel wild exploring off-the-beaten path spots like Damas Caves.

Lanky black spiders, bats, and other seemingly extraterrestrial bioluminescent critters are just a few of the stunning features in the 400-meter-deep Damas Caves. After a short drive through the palm forest you will arrive at the cave opening on the bank of the Tulin River. Stake out your swimming hole for a quick dip after your biology lesson in the caves, or hike to any of the waterfalls on the reserve. The caves are free and open to the public without a guide — I would recommend taking a few locals and a pair of knee-high rubber boots — and are very man vs. wild. You almost feel like you could survive with a knife made of rock and recycled rainwater from a coco shell. Let’s face it, you can’t. Enjoy your “Bear” Grylls-esque cave adventure, then head back to the comforts of home.

Discover Matador