Pinning down the culture of any nation is always difficult and runs the inherent risk of distilling traits and behaviours down to a single common denominator, taking the ever-elusive 'normal' person as your guide. With an amiable toleration of life, Ticos suffer more than many in this respect and risk being misjudged. And yet, to say that there is no culture in Costa Rica is bordering on the absurd. There are many low-key and highly localized indicators of culture. On the whole, what you find is all-encompassing and such an intrinsic part of life as to go almost unnoticed.

People and language

The 2000 census put the national population at 3.82 million, latest estimate put the population at over 4.47 million - an annual increase of 2.1% - with the overwhelming majority (94%) considered to be white of mixed
descent. The next largest single group is Afro-Caribbeans making up 3%, Amerindian 1%, Chinese 1% and 'others' the remaining 1%. Roughly one third of the population lives in the Greater San José metropolitan area and close to half of all
live in the central highlands.

population is almost entirely concentrated on the Caribbean coast, in particular in Puerto Limón and the towns to the south. Originating in the Caribbean, most arrived from Jamaica to build the railroad and later found work on plantations. Likewise, the
community can trace its Costa Rican roots to the period of railroad construction in the late 19th century.

indigenous population
has been in steady decline ever since the arrival of Europeans. Those that did not succumb to new diseases, being sold to work in other parts of Central America or subjected to forced labour, retreated to the highland areas of the south. Today there are eight recognized indigenous cultures or tribes: Huetar, Bribrí, Cabécar, Guaymí, Chorotega, Boruca, Guatuso and Térraba, with land protected in 22 reserves, covering 1240 sq miles - just over 6% of the national territory.

The indigenous population has five recognized languages. The northern Chorotega culture were greatly influenced by Mesoamerican cultures and spoke the Nahuatl language of the Maya and Aztecs. The Boruca, Bribrí, Cabécar, Guaymí, Huetar and Guatuso spoke a language with its roots further to the south, which became more complex as the Arawak and Caribe cultures moved in to permanent settlements on the Caribbean coast adding their sounds.

The Bribrí and Cabécar are the only cultures that have been able to keep religious myths pure, outside of major influences from social and cultural changes, with the Sibú being the supreme god and creator of their world.

Comisión Nacional de Asuntos Indígenas
(CONAI - National Commission for Indigenous Affairs) is a government institution created in 1973 to uphold indigenous law. Indigenous affairs should have taken a turn for the better in 1977 when the government created the system of Indian reserves, but the government has retained the land titles and consequently the upper hand whenever an issue relating to land use has arisen. Several hydroelectric projects on indigenous land are in a permanent state of reappraisal. In 1992 the government went one step further, signing the International Labour Organization which ratified the constitutional rights of indigenous people. However, disenchantment is widespread. While the government provides education and health to many indigenous communities, the services are generally provided in Spanish by teachers from other cultures which automatically undermines the fabric of community life.

Indigenous communities are realizing that their best hope of retaining a sense of cultural identity is through fighting for their rights politically. Organizations like
, in the Buenos Aires area of the western Talamancas, fight for the rights of indigenous communities on several fronts, although it must be said that progress is limited and painfully slow.

Several indigenous groups contribute to keeping their cultures alive by continuing to produce goods as they have for hundreds of years. In the north it is still possible to buy ceramics in the Chorotega style and Guatuso stonework. In the south you can buy the textiles of the Guaymi, and the
engraved gourds of the Bribrí.


It is said that around 90 of
would consider themselves as
Roman Catholics
, and a small survey of taxi and bus drivers, hotel staff and chance encounters does little to change this perception. Certainly the churches are packed to bursting on Sundays.

A particular feature of the
Catholicism is the annual pilgrimage on 2 August to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles in Cartago to see the revered image of the Virgin Mary. Around 600,000 pilgrims are estimated to make the journey each year.

Moving away from the central highlands, the rise and rise of
of varying denominations is apparent, with small churches often evident in quiet roadside communities.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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