9 Things Your Program Provider Wishes You Knew Before Studying Abroad in Costa Rica 

by Joe Baur

Chances are you were drawn to study abroad in Costa Rica largely by the destination (we can’t blame you, it really is a special place). Maybe there’s something about the country and the culture that appeals to you. You might even make an assumption that life is inherently better there.

That’s a dangerous assumption to make. Though the grass always seems greener on the other side, it rarely is. With Costa Rica, you might think you’re entering a real-life utopia where the beaches are as pristine as the jungles are wild. There’s much to love about Costa Rica. It’s a phenomenal country and I miss it dearly, but it’s certainly not utopia.

Surfers on Santa Teresa beach

Santa Teresa; surf and sun. Photo credit to Sam Alanko

Instead of getting lost in the excitement of studying abroad in Costa Rica, planning your beach vacations before even landing, your time will be better spent researching the country and mentally preparing for the change in lifestyle; your program provider will love you that much more if you do.

With that in mind, here are my best tips for study abroad in Costa Rica, served up from the perspective of your academic advisors, program provider, and university:

1. They speak Spanish in Costa Rica.

This should go without saying, but remarkably, I need a third hand to count how many people asked me if they speak Spanish or English down there. English is, without question, the second language of Costa Rica, but only in so far as Spanish is for the typical American high school student. While many Costa Ricans are learning English, they are very shy about practicing, or find it as uncool and uninteresting as their North American counterparts do Spanish.

So, if you’re about to start a study abroad program in Costa Rica, the very first thing you should be doing is learning (or boning up on) your Spanish. Once you pass the customs agent, English will all but disappear. Only the most popular tourist destinations employ a high number of English speakers (and we sincerely hope you’re not planning on spending your free time abroad surrounded exclusively by English speakers?!).

Learn some Spanish now, practice often, and plan to use it often. It’ll make for a much more interesting experience, introduce you to new friends, and likely even impress your new Tico neighbors.

2. It’s not an island.

As surprising as it was to be asked if they speak Spanish, it was just as surprising to find out many confuse Costa Rica as an island. You might think, “Oh, silly senior citizens…” but no, these were folks my age saying rather confidently, “That’s an island right? Where is that?”

Costa Rica does have some of the world’s most impressive coastlines, but they have land neighbors to the north (Nicaragua) and the south (Panama). Within the country, there are mountains, rivers, volcanoes, and two large bodies of water at the coasts (which make way for a number of things to do in your free time).

While you’re at it, your program provider would probably appreciate it if you went ahead and learned the geography of all of Central America before studying abroad in Costa Rica. If you’re really gunning to be a star student, you should probably familiarize yourself with the region’s recent history, politics, economic systems, and present societal challenges, too.

"Pura Vida" is the unofficial motto of Costa Rica that translates to "pure life" which can be seen lived out each and every day by the natives.

"Pura Vida" is the unofficial motto of Costa Rica that translates to "pure life" which can be seen lived out each and every day by the natives.

Photo credit to Jordan Zandler

3. Most things are smaller (and we don’t just mean dinner portions).

I wouldn’t call Costa Rica a developing country by any stretch of the imagination; there’s a middle class, there are social safety nets, and wealth that’s fairly evident to any pedestrian in a Tico town.

That said, they have yet to indulge in the same taste for size as the average North American. Houses are for the most part smaller. During my year of studying abroad in Costa Rica, I never visited a Tico home that didn’t use every room built into the house. Think about some of the McMansions back home; how many have rooms they only use for special occasions? Right or wrong, bigger is generally seen as better in our culture. In Costa Rica, you’ll rarely see a detached garage to give their two cars a special home.

There are a number of reasons why Costa Rican homes are smaller, namely geography, but that’s for another discussion. The important thing program providers will want you to know before going to Costa Rica is that things are generally smaller, or as Ticos might see it, more reasonably sized. Manage your expectations accordingly.

4. Speaking of dinner, Costa Rican food is not the same as Mexican.

It’s interesting how many people chalk up certain regions as having identical cuisines. While there are certainly similarities, blanket interpretations of what’s on your plate rob you of the joys of getting to know a culture through your belly.

In contrast to Mexican food, Costa Rican cuisine is quite mild. There is a high reliance on fresh fruits and vegetables, and as the country is in the tropics, most of the produce is exotic and tropical. Mainstays, such as rice and beans, find their way into the daily diet, but be sure to save room for ceviches, casado, and chicharrónes!

5. Electricity is expensive (and laundry day will look different).

Many North Americans might be accustomed to large dryers for zapping their clothes with powerful heat in order to dry their clothes on laundry day. But, that requires a substantial amount of electricity and it’s just too expensive to justify in Costa Rica. Instead, many Tico homes use a centrifuge attached to the washer. In fact, laundry day (as a whole) will be a different experience from back home.

First, you’ll load the washer with water using a hose, pour a little soap in, and drop in your clothes. Run for about fifteen minutes, drain the water, refill with water only, run for another three minutes, and drain again. From there, you’ll move your clothes over to the centrifuge, which spins your clothes in a circle really fast. Usually the only clothes that can be completely dried by the end of that process is athletic apparel, shorts, and tech tees; the rest will need to be hung up to dry.

Unfortunately, you’ll inevitably encounter some folks who “can’t stand” the new process. Most adapt just fine; it’s really no more time consuming than doing laundry back home. But, providers wish students were expectant of changes like these, rather than surprised and a tad snobby. Remember, electricity isn’t cheap, and students need to be conscious of that.

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

Photo credit to Ali Gaffey

6. In yo' face - Tico folks love to get up close and personal.

Don't be offended if they get in your bubble. It's a cultural thing, and generally a sign of comfort and friendliness. While you may be taken aback at first, you will eventually come to love the physical closeness of conversation with the locals.

Instead of making disparaging comments or breaking into a face of confused disgust when locals interact with you, your program provider wants you to be prepared to relinquish your comfort zone (don’t be surprised when you go home and accidentally do it to all of your friends and family there, too).

7. Buses are the way to travel.

Too many North Americans equate their cars with their legs. In reality, it’s only a recent phenomenon in the course of human history that we’ve let machines do most of our moving for us. North America, though, has taken it to obsessive degrees. Think of how many spend their day like this: wake up, get to the car, drive, sit at work, drive back home, sleep, and repeat.

For better or worse, Costa Rica does appear to see the United States as a developmental role model. That’s a fancy way of saying many in the upper-echelon of Costa Rican politics have studied in the United States, know of that country’s historic wealth, and therefore, try to develop in a similar way. So they are, to the dismay of many Ticos, widening highways and are very auto-oriented in many respects (sometimes even more so than the United States).

That being said, it’s still not as wealthy as the United States. Cars are also much more expensive to purchase and own, which explains why you’ll see many older models and cheaper mopeds. This all means that most Ticos still commute and do their day-to-day traveling by bus.

Depending on where you hail from, you might have some negative connotations associated with the bus. Some see it as something exclusively for the underprivileged who can’t yet afford a car. It goes without saying that such a mentality is pretty terrible. So if that’s how you see bus travel, then your program provider will appreciate it if you develop a new mentality before starting your study abroad program in Costa Rica.

8. Spanish class is not enough; you have to practice outside of the classroom.

In a perfect Spanish speaking world, a few hours of formal learning in a classroom would translate with ease to immediate use. In order for you to really capitalize on the opportunity to master Spanish, you must commit to using the language in your everyday life.

Seek out opportunities that allow for organic conversation. Take it a step further by not letting casual or simple exchanges between you and a service provider count (though important, these exchanges rarely offer opportunity for deeper-level conversations). Instead, proactively make friends with Ticos, set up times to chat with your local Spanish professor, avoid only hanging out with other Americans all the time, etc. Then, and only then, will you walk away from the experience with substantial proficiency in Spanish.

People sitting on the edge of the Volcano Irazú

Sitting on the edge of the Volcano Irazú

Photo credit to Jordan Zandler

9. You are going to have the time of your life, but you have to put in the work.

You won't just learn things by way of simply being in Costa Rica. You have to make an effort, take your classes seriously, and seize the opportunities to learn. Look at your entire study abroad program as a series of never ending life lessons (which usually lends itself to curiosity, wonderment, and general enthusiasm for life).

Providers want you to enjoy yourself, but they also want you to get the most of our your experience academically, too. The great news is that most lessons are hidden amidst adventures and casual conversations. The bad news if most lessons can be skimmed over if the student isn’t intentional with their time spent abroad.

You’ll likely come across something I’ve missed after you’ve had your own experience of studying abroad in Costa Rica, but these nine things will at least get you started on the right track. Know the language, geography, some of the difference in everyday life, how to travel, and the rest will fall in place.