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Costa Rica Culture

People
Costa Ricans -- known as ticos -- are a warm, friendly people. The largely middle-class population is very family-oriented and there is a strong sense of community in the country. Much of Costa Rica’s culture bears strong Spanish influences; however, there also is a thriving Afro-Caribbean culture, particularly in and around Limon. Spanish is the official language, though a variety of indigenous languages are used by many thousands of Costa Ricans. English is the most commonly spoken foreign language, so the polite and approachable ticos are easy to befriend.

The majority of Costa Ricans -- nearly three-quarters of the population -- identify as Roman Catholic, though a smaller percentage claim to be actively practicing. While Catholicism is the nation’s official religion, Costa Rica’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and many faiths flourish. Tolerance and respect for oneself and others are highly valued.

If one phrase were to sum up Costa Rica, it would be “pura vida.” The popular saying literally means “pure life,” but pura vida represents a lifestyle emphasizing happiness, well-being and satisfaction. The phrase is used as a greeting, farewell and an expression of gratitude. It also has been adopted as a slogan that can be found on a variety of souvenirs.

Arts & Education
Costa Rica has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America. Primary and secondary schools are found in most every community and education is compulsory; higher education also is available at the country’s public and private universities.

In recent years, Costa Rica’s once relatively impoverished arts scene has begun to thrive. Painting was popularized in the early 19th century by foreign artists commissioned to create portraits of wealthy Costa Ricans; the techniques of drawing, painting and sculpture that they brought have continued to influence later generations of local artists.

During the 20th century, Mexican culture had a large impact on Costa Rica. This heritage lingers still in the music popular with older generations. Also popular is an indigenous calypso style, different from the better known Trinidadian sound.

Costa Rica boasts a flourishing theater community, particularly in the capital, San Jose, where a range of theaters -- offering everything from comedy and drama to avant-garde performances and puppet shows -- line the streets. Most productions are in Spanish, but some also are staged in English. Costa Rica’s performing arts community also includes a National Symphony Orchestra and its associated youth orchestra as well as an opera company. Dance is equally popular and is a pastime actively supported by the many clubs and discos in the capital.

Food and Drink
Keeping with Central American tradition, Costa Rican food marries the flavors and styles of Spanish, Caribbean and South American influences. Rice and beans (known as gallo pinto when mixed together) are staples of the Costa Rican diet, and don’t be surprised to find them served at all three daily meals. A typical lunchtime item is casado, consisting of rice and beans served side by side with meat, a salad and fried plantains. Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) is another crowd-pleasing dish that locals serve at large gatherings.

Costa Ricans enjoy snacking on inexpensive small dishes, called bocas, at local bars. Popular choices include gallos (tortillas piled with meat, chicken, cheese or beans), ceviche (a marinated fish and/or shrimp salad), patacones (fried green plantain chips) with black bean dip, chimichurri (tomatoes and onions pickled in lime juice) and tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves). Along the streets, indulge in other tasty treats like arreglados (small meat-filled sandwiches), tortas (served on little rolls with a salad tucked inside), tacos and empanadas (turnovers).

As part of living off the land, Costa Ricans consume a variety of root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, yuca, nampi (a hairy root vegetable) and yams (camote), which are made into soups, picadillo (a stew or puree of vegetables cooked with a bit of meat) or olla de carne (beef broth with chunks of meat, local tubers and corn). Plantains are used in multiple ways, too -- the ripe version (maduro) is served fried, baked in honey or put in soups, while the starchy consistency of green plantains make them good for boiling or frying as patacones. Corn is another staple vegetable that is common as pozol (corn soup) and chorreadas (corn pancakes). Treat yourself to the array of fresh tropical fruits Costa Rica has to offer, from the familiar (mangoes, papayas, pineapples, melons and bananas) to the exotic such as maranon (the fruit of the cashew tree), granadilla or maracuya (passion fruit) and carambola (star fruit).

Satisfy your sweet tooth with local desserts like queque seco (pound cake), tres leches cake (moist cake made with three types of milk), flan (custard), and cajeta (a sugary confection). Sweet offerings also come in beverage form, and you can wake up with the national favorite: agua dulce -- a warm drink made from melted sugar cane and served at breakfast with milk or lemon or straight. Cool off from the humid temperatures with refrescos (frescos for short), a tempting blend of liquefied fruits diluted in either water or milk and sweetened to taste. Sip on other refreshing choices like granizado (a slush drink made of finely shaved ice and flavored syrup) or the juice from fresh, cold green coconuts (pipas) found roadside. Locally distilled liquors and beers also can be sampled throughout the country.

Wildlife
The tiny country of Costa Rica is home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, and in terms of number of species per 10,000 square kilometers, Costa Rica is the world’s leader with 615. A staggering 700 types of birds have been identified in the country, and it’s also a biological habitat for reptiles and amphibians including the spiny-tailed iguana, the world’s fastest-running lizard.

The eco-conscious country consists of roughly 25 percent of protected land, which provides a haven for many endangered species. High on every naturalist’s must-see list is the resplendent quetzal -- you might catch a rare glimpse in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. A visit to this reserve also will bring you in contact with about 2,000 plant varieties (including the most orchid species in a single place), 400-plus types of birds and more than 100 species of mammals.

You’ll have a privileged view of the sleek jaguar, Costa Rica’s most alluring endangered animal, at Corcovado National Park, as well as the sought-after Baird’s tapir and the very rare harpy eagle. In addition, all four Costa Rican monkey species (the white-headed capuchin, the mantled howler, the endangered Geoffroy’s spider monkey and the Central American squirrel monkey) are residents of the park. Spot speckled caimans, American crocodiles and bull sharks in the park’s rivers and lagoons. Other exotic creatures present include ocelots, margays, pumas, northern tamanduas, silky anteaters, poison dart frogs and snakes such as the venomous fer-de-lance and bushmaster.

Sea turtles garner much attention in Costa Rica, and the beaches at Tortuguero National Park are recognized nesting sites for the species, including endangered green turtles, giant leatherbacks, hawksbills and loggerheads. The park also is home to 400 types of trees, 2,200 varieties of other plants and 375 classes of birds like kingfishers, peacocks, toucans, blue herons and parrots.