Costa Rican society is the least diverse of any Central American nation. As indicated under Population & People, most of the population is white. The majority are of Latin descent and practice Roman Catholicism. Traditionally , Costa Ricans have prided themselves on being a classless society.
Despite the apparent homogeneity, societal differences clearly exist. Historically, a small noble class (hidalgos) led the colony's affairs, and since Costa Rica became independent the descendants of the hidalgo families have provided the country most of its presidents and congressional representatives. Nevertheless, politicians from the president down take pride in mingling with the public and maintaining some semblance of a classless society. The distribution of land and wealth is clearly uneven, but much less so than in other Central American countries.
Until 1949, the small black minority (many of whom are descendants of Jamaican workers hired to build the railway in the 1870s and 1880s) was actively discriminated against. Blacks did not have Costa Rican citizenship and were not allowed to vote or to travel into the highlands away from their Caribbean coastal homes. This was changed by the new (and current) constitution of 1949. Now racism is officially a thing of the past and black travellers are unlikely to encounter problems in the main cities and on the Caribbean coast, although some racist attitudes might still be encountered off the beaten path.
Other minority groups are even smaller in number than the black population. The few remaining indigenous groups are but a tiny fraction of the population when the Europeans arrived. There are far fewer Indians than in any other Central American country, and their lot is a poor one. Although Indians do have reserves designed to enable them to live in a traditional manner, enforcing the boundaries and integrity of the reserves against loggers, plantations, colonists, mineral prospectors, and others has not been entirely successful. Indigenous people, with very few exceptions, remain a marginal element of Costa Rican society, and little is being done to change this.
Other ethnic groups include small but reasonably successful Chinese and Jewish communities. Although Costa Rican claim that these are well integrated into the culture, anti-Semitic statements are occasionally made by ticos. In 1999, a false report that Chinese restaurants served rats led to a surprisingly strong wave of anti Chinese sentiment. This motivated the president to make a publicized visit to a Chinese restaurant in an attempt to improve their unfairly tarnished image.
The San Vito area in southern Costa Rica is known for its Italian community, and the Monteverde area has a Quaker community that dates back to the arrival of a Quaker group from the USA about 60 years ago. A new influx of citizens from the USA has occurred in recent decades - tens of thousands of retirees have decided that the year-round warmth and easy going nature of Costa Rica are preferable to life in the States. Both the capital region and many of the coastal villages in the Nicoya Peninsula have large enclaves of US 'pensionados', as the retirees are called. Also in recent decades, there has been a surge of people from other Central American countries trying to avoid the conflicts there.
Appearances are important to Costa Ricans. As they say, they want to 'quedar bien', which translates more or less into leaving a good impression. They do this by dressing both conservatively and as well as they can (and sometimes can't ) afford, and by acting in an agreeable and friendly manner, a hallmark of tico culture. Despite their conservatism, they certainly loosen up in certain settings. Flirtation and public display of affection, such as kissing, are unremarkable sights in the streets.
Conservative dress is appropriate in the cities, and few Costa Ricans wear shorts in the highlands (except in athletic or exercise settings) - though once you get down to the coast, shorts are fine in the beach resorts and beachwear may be quite skimpy. Nudity or female toplessness id definitely considered inappropriate, however.
Costa Ricans, like most Latin Americans, consider greeting important. In all situations, politeness is a valued habit. A certain degree of formality and floweriness is often used in conversation - friends may say 'Buenos días, cómo amaneció?' (Good morning how did you awake?) an appropriate response is 'Muy bien, por dicha, y usted?' (Very well, fortunately, and you?). Strangers conducting business will, at the minimum, exchange a cordial 'Buenos días, como está?' before launching into whatever they are doing. Male friends and casual acquaintances meeting one another in the streets shake hands at the beginning and the end of an even short conversation or meeting; women kiss one another on the cheek in greeting and farewell. Men often kiss women decorously on the cheek, except in a business setting, where a handshake is more appropriate.
Family is a central part of Costa Rican life, and conversation will often include inquiries about your family. Strangers will ask if you are married and how many children you have, which is a fairly normal conversational gambit that's not meant to seem overly inquisitive. Conversations are frequently laced with local colloquialism. References to a person's appearance are practical endearments and are not meant to give offence, though non-tico recipients may find them tiresome. These include 'chino' (a person with an Asien appearance) 'flaco' (a skinny person), 'gordo' (a plump person), and 'negro' (a black person). They may be made more affectionate by adding a diminutive (eg. la gordita).
The concept of smoking being a hazard to one's health is not very big in Costa Rica compared to the USA. Non-smoking areas are infrequent, and some restaurants allow diners to smoke wherever they please.
Pictures by Jörn Malek. The team of 1-CostaRicaLink and Costa-Rica-Information-Mobile wishes you the best of times in our little paradise called Costa Rica.
Text by Lonely Planet.
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