5 Unexpected Cultural Differences Between Costa Rica and the US

Before coming to Costa Rica, I did my fair share of research on the local culture and customs. I arrived in the country already aware of some of the more well-known cultural differences. However, simple things that I took for granted in the U.S. were completely different here and many took me by surprise. Here are the top five cultural differences between Costa Rica and the United States that I wasn’t expecting.  


‘Ulatina Students’ Local students dressed for class

 One of the biggest shocks for me dress-wise was that people in the cities don’t wear shorts. In fact, anything above the knee isn’t common. Even when it’s over 80 degrees outside! For the most part, jeans are the locals’ item of choice. Shorts and sundresses are generally reserved for beachwear, and yoga pants or exercise clothes are only worn during workouts.


Family is a highly important part of Costa Rica culture. Unlike in the U.S., children don’t usually move out until they’re married. Multi-generational homes are quite common, and grandparents will frequently care for their grandchildren while their parent(s) are at work.


I knew before coming to Costa Rica that rice and beans were a popular dish, but I didn’t realize how popular they really were. This staple of Costa Rica cuisine can be served with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ve had them at least once a day since arriving here, sometimes more. 

‘Dinner’ A homemade Costa Rican dinner complete with rice, beans, tortillas, and vegetables!

Lunchtime is the biggest meal here, and it usually happens between 2 and 3 p.m. A typical lunchtime meal consists of rice, beans, meat, picadillo, salad, and sometimes, fried plantains. This dish is called a Casado. This name stems from Costa Rica’s coffee plantations. After a long morning of harvesting coffee, the workers would take a break during the hottest part of the day for lunch. They would always be starving and exhausted, and thus, their big, midday meals became known as a Casado which means ‘tired in Spanish.


‘Ulatina’ Universidad Latina in Heredia, Costa Rica

In the U.S., it’s common for colleges to have on-campus housing, recreation facilities, fast food joints, and more alongside their various teaching facilities. In Costa Rica, however, college campuses are usually just one building. This building will contain classrooms, offices, and any other services the university provides such as a cafeteria. Students live in the surrounding area, not on-campus. Furthermore, because so many local students work during the day, evening classes are extremely popular.


If you asked the average American how many continents there are, they would most likely say seven. In Costa Rica, however, the locals only count six. This is because in Latin American culture, North America and South America are viewed as one continent, the Americas. Although this difference is small, it reflects an interesting contrast in world-views.

Grace Miele is an ISA Featured Blogger and a student at the University of North Carolina. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Heredia, Costa Rica.  

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