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Don’t Move to Costa Rica Without Learning These 15 Phrases

If you’re planning on becoming an expat in Costa Rica, it would probably be a good idea to learn a little bit of Spanish before you go. It isn’t necessary to be fluent in the language, especially if you’re headed to a town that’s home to a lot of expats. But you need to know at least a few basic phrases to help you get around.

A few good ones to know would be “¿Dónde está el baño?” (Where’s the bathroom?); “¿Cuánto cuesta la papaya?” (How much does the papaya cost?); and “Necesito un medico.” (I need a doctor.). Beyond that, you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll start to catch on.

Costa Rica phrases

Daniel Lobo

If you’re someone who considers yourself to have an excellent command of the Spanish language, you’ll have a bit of an advantage when you arrive. However, don’t assume there won’t still be a learning curve as you try to pick up on some of the local lingo.

The Costa Rican dialect is as laid back as the Costa Rican lifestyle. It’s full of slang and idioms that may not mean exactly what their literal translation might suggest. There are even a few words and phrases that are unique to Costa Rica and have no real Spanish translation.

Some are informal and mostly used by the younger generation. Others may be acceptable for formal conversation. Some could get you into a whole heap of trouble if you throw them around in the wrong situation.

Here are 15 words and phrases you need to understand to avoid looking awkward in your first social encounter with your new Tico friends and neighbors:

  • Pura vida – If you’ve spent 5 minutes in Costa Rica, then you’ve definitely heard this phrase. But what does it mean? Literally translated as “pure life,” it’s the unofficial motto of Costa Rica. It’s often used as a greeting or just a general acknowledgement of anything that’s good, particularly in response to “Cómo estás?” (How are you?) ¡Pura vida! (Pure life!)
  • Rojos and tejas – “Rojos” means “reds” and tejas are “tiles.” But they’re also often used to describe the Costa Rican currency, colones. A rojo is a red bill that’s worth 1,000 colones ($2 US), and a teja is 100 colones. On that note, “una teja” can actually mean 100 of anything. So if someone tells you to turn right after una teja, then go 100 meters (about a block).
Costa Rica phrases


  • Harina – Speaking of currency, if someone asks you for harina when making a purchase, they’re not actually asking you to barter with what the word actually means, which is “flour.” Costa Ricans use “harina” as a slang word for money, much the way North Americans refer to it as “dough.”
  • Deme un toque – Get this one wrong, and you could be in some trouble. While it’s literal meaning is “give me a touch,” someone who requests this of you is more likely asking you to “give me a second.”
  • Soda – This is the word for the mom-and-pop style restaurants you’ll see all over Costa Rica. They’re small diners that serve up local cuisine. You can get a huge plate of meat, beans, and rice for not a lot of harina.
  • Pipa – Here’s a word that has multiple meanings, so it’s important to know when you should and shouldn’t use it. It’s okay to request a pipa from the waiter at your local soda. He’ll bring you a coconut drink. Don’t ask the same of a shady vendor in a dark alley. To him it’s a hash pipe.
  • Chunche – When your handyman asks you to hand him one of these and motions towards a hammer, you’ll assume that’s what it means. Not necessarily. He may use the same term again, this time pointing at a wrench. That’s because a chunche is basically just a “thingamajig.”
  • Buena/mala nota – The literal translation of this phrase is “good/bad grade.” It’s most often used to describe someone’s performance or character. For example, you could exclaim “¡Que buena nota!” when the mariachi band finishes up their last set on the restaurant patio.

Costa Rica phrases

  • Detrás del palo – If someone says they’re this, which literally means “behind the tree,” they mean that they’re unfamiliar with the topic or situation or that they don’t know what you’re talking about. Another way of saying this is “Miando fuera del tarro,” which literally translates as “taking a pee out of the can.”
  • Que pega – This one literally translates to “what a stick,” and it’s used to refer to someone or something that’s really annoying.
  • Mae – While this word doesn’t have an exact literal translation, it’s derived from another word that means “dummy.” But in Costa Rica it’s used as a nickname for your pal or buddy, sort of the way North Americans might use the word “dude.”
  • Cabra – If your mae mentions he’s bringing his cabra to dinner, there’s no need to search for restaurants that allow livestock. Though its literal meaning is “goat,” “cabra” is a slang term Ticos use to refer to their girlfriends.
  • Pura paja – Not feeling so pura vida today? There’s another term you might use when things aren’t going quite as well. “Paja” is actually the word for “straw,” but instead of “pure straw” using the term “pura paja” is actually how you say “bull$#!%.”
  • Que torta – This phrase literally translates as “what a patty.” In general it’s used to describe someone who has royally screwed up something. It’s also the phrase used to refer to an unplanned pregnancy.
  • Lava huevos – Someone described as this isn’t actually “washing the eggs,” as the literal translation would indicate. They’re probably “sucking up” to someone.

Now that you’re up-to-date on your Costa Rican lingo, there’s nothing else to keep you from heading on down and starting your expat journey!

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