Costa Rica is the land of pura vida—the pure life. Sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama and the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, this is a place where you will feel welcomed the moment you step off the plane. From the inviting smiles from all of your new neighbors to the breathtaking nature that makes every picture a postcard, Costa Rica has it all!

Learn About Costa Rica

Like most countries in the region, Costa Rica was once a Spanish colony. However, once it gained its independence in 1821, Costa Rica quickly stabilized and has remained one of the most peaceful nations in Central America. In fact, in 1949, Costa Rica abolished its military and became one of the first democracies in Latin America. If you’re a history buff, check out everything you’ll need to know about Costa Rica’s ancient & modern-day history.

Only twice the size of Connecticut, Costa Rica is a power house in Central America. Today, Costa Rica is a world leader in environmentally-conscious policy and practice. The country is known for its rich biodiversity and is an expert in ecotourism and successfully reducing their carbon-footprint. Socially, they have outshined their neighbors by offering universal healthcare and free education.

The discovery of the red coffee bean has contributed greatly to Costa Rica’s economic independence. In fact, Costa Rica has been caffeinating the world since the mid-1800s! Everyone in the country does their part to support this industry: ticos have a daily coffee break during which business stops for 20 minutes around mid-afternoon so that everyone can enjoy a steamy cup of coffee. Many Costa Rican moms say that they’ll start mixing coffee into their babies’ milk as early as six months of age.

Nearly everyone has heard of the pilgrimage to Mecca, but have you ever head of the pilgrimage to The Basilica de los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels)? If not, you’re in for a treat! Every year on August 2, over 2 million Catholics make their way to Cartago by bus, plane, bike, or even on their hands and knees. Traditionally, there is a 22 km walk from outside of San Jose to the beautiful Basilica to pay respect to their patron saint, La Negrita. This is something you don’t want to miss!

Cartago is THE place to be. A vibrant epicenter for history, religion, and culture, all you need to do is stroll down the city streets, and within minutes, you’re at the steps of Costa Rica’s most famed basilica. Surround yourself with ruins from the late 1800s, stunning architecture harking to Cartago’s status as the former capital, and a central market that will make your head spin with exotic fruits and handmade crafts.

In Costa Rica, you’ll find plenty to explore, with rainforests, coastlines for the Atlantic and Pacific Forests, cloud forests, mountains, and valleys. And, the diversity of species is just as stunning. As a volunteer in Costa Rica, you may come across lizards, gophers, and mice, and on the outskirts of Cartago as well as in the jungles and beaches, mosquitos and spiders will become more common.

If you’re traveling to a beach area on the weekends, please be aware of currents and rip tides. Additionally, the beach areas tend to be hot and humid, so ensure you remain hydrated and understand the signs and symptoms of heat stroke. In the mountains, all volunteers should ensure they’re taking appropriate safety precautions and are aware of loose rocks. Finally, it’s helpful to understand the symptoms of Dengue Fever, a dangerous illness existing in tropical areas of the world, which includes sudden fever, fatigue, nausea, a skin rash, and joint or eye pain.

Cultural Do’s and Don’ts

Entering a new culture is an exciting and challenging experience. And just as you bring your own culture to share, it’s important to be open and respectful to the culture of those you’ll meet during your travels. You’ll often find that you have a much more positive experience if you are aware of and take into account cultural norms when meeting new people and getting to know your new community.

  • Learn some basic Spanish phrases
  • Address people with a formal title (Don /Doña)
  • Greet those you meet with a kiss on the cheek
  • End your conversations with ¡Pura Vida!
  • Tip in restaurants – a tip is already included
  • Take a taxi without first negotiating the fare
  • Be too affectionate in public (it’s frowned upon)
  • Shut car doors too loudly

For Fútbol Fanatics! Ticos are also extremely passionate about their fútbol! Here’s what you need to know: Team Saprissa are the Yankees; Team La Liga are the Red Sox. You have to pick a side. The only way to be indifferent is if you choose to dislike both teams, and in that case, support the Cartaginés (Cartago’s hometown team). Whichever team you support, choose wisely!

Culture Shock

Picture this: You’re living in a country far from home. You can’t understand the language, and you’re trying to order food, but everything seems to be moving so slowly! Why can’t it just be like in your home country: fast and efficient?

Sometimes, these and other frustrations can build up, and you may even become angry or annoyed at with this new and unfamiliar place, its cultural norms, and its people. If this happens to you, you might be experiencing culture shock.

Culture shock can be a normal part of traveling to a new country, but it might surprise you that you can also encounter reverse culture shock when you return home. While everyone experiences some degree of culture shock, the impact that it has on your experience depends on how well prepared you are to handle its different phases. Here are some tips and tricks to get you assimilated (and re-assimilated once you’re back home) so you can enjoy every moment of your journey.

"I - I hardly know, Sir, just at the present," Alice replied rather shyly, "at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

  • Have a sense humor.
    Try to see something of value in every new experience you have. While it can be challenging in the moment, try to keep it all in perspective. The ability to laugh and go with the flow are two key tools to coping with initial culture shock.
  • Expect differences.
    In any new culture, there will be some differences. If you’re prepared for there to be challenges and differences before you arrive in-country, it can make a world of difference in how you adjust.
  • ...but look for what’s the same.
    You will likely encounter differences in cultures, but you might not immediately realize the similarities. Take a moment to appreciate those attributes that make us more alike than different.
  • Keep learning.
    Immersing yourself in a new culture is a constant education. So continue making an effort to learn and understand what you’re experiencing.

Language Skills

Living and working within your new community is a great way to learn the local language. Whether you’re an advanced speaker or just learning a few key phrases, you’ll enjoy CCS-organized language lessons during your time in-country to help you through your journey. Here are a few important phrases to learn before you depart for your volunteer program. Even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect (yet), give it a try! Your attempts to connect with new friends in the local language will always be appreciated.

Here are a few key phrases to get you started:
Spanish PhrasesCosta Rican Spanish Phrases
HelloHola / Buenos días¡Pura Vida!Literally “Pure Life”
How are you?¿Cómo está usted?Con permisoPardon me
I’m fineEstoy bienCon mucho gustoYou’re welcome
PleasePor favorPlataMoney or cash (literally means “silver”)
Thank youGraciasPesosCommon term for Colones (currency)
May I…?¿Puedo…?Por dichaLuckily or Thankfully
It’s a pleasureCon mucho gustoLa BusetaLittle Bus (used for the CCS van)
Do you speak Spanish?¿Habla usted español?Abuelito(a)Little grandparent
What time do you have?¿Qué hora tiene?LargoLong, but in Costa Rica, also means “far”
Do you understand me?¿Me entiende?
Where do you live?¿Dónde vive usted?
I live in…Vivo en…
How much does it cost?¿Cuánto cuesta?
Where can I find…?¿Dónde puedo encontrar…?

Intro to Spanish:
Basic Level

As with learning any new language, reading phrases is helpful. But listening is one of the best ways to grasp sounds and vocabulary. Click below to hear Country Director Jose Hernandez begin your first Spanish language lesson.

Ready for the next level? Practice your Spanish with these online sites: » »

Recommended Reading and Films

We believe that travel and firsthand encounters are the BEST education. But there are also plenty of resources to help you learn more about the history, travel opportunities, culture, stories, and language of Costa Rica so you can begin to immerse yourself even before you arrive. Here are just a few of our favorites to get you started:

Travel & Leisure: The New Costa Rica »
CCS Blog: Costa Rica »
YouTube: Discover Costa Rica »

Free Time

Between volunteering, cultural activities, navigating a new language, and immersing yourself in a brand-new culture, you’ll still have plenty of time to explore the local area and even the country during evenings and weekends. Free time is an important part of your experience for independent exploration and self-reflection, and our in-country staff will always have some great, local tips to share.

Start your planning with a few of our favorite suggestions, but also remember that you can plan most of your trips once you arrive in-country (especially if flights aren’t required) with your fellow volunteers.

Explore one of Costa Rica’s 112 active volcanoes, many of which are located within beautiful national parks and wildlife centers, with opportunities for incredible hiking and hot springs.

Costa Rica is a prime spot for adrenaline-pumping adventure. From whitewater rafting and ziplining, to canopy tours and repelling, Costa Rica is an adventurer-lover’s dream.

Travel to one of Costa Rica’s famed beaches and spend a weekend improving your surfing skills, learning about turtle habitats, or simply relaxing on your beach getaway. Between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there’s no shortage of options for beach bums!

Spend some time in Cartago to get to know your community even better. Visit the famed basilica, explore ruins, and check out local coffee plantations. Top your day off with some of Cartago’s delicious helado—ice cream.

Training Sessions

If you’re ready to start learning more, review your online Training Sessions below (these are required – so make sure you allocate enough time to review each of these trainings, each under 30-minutes). About two weeks before your program begins, you’ll join your final pre-departure call with your group. We can’t wait for you to join us, meet your fellow volunteers, and explore all that CCS has to offer.

Training Call 1:
How to be a Successful Volunteer »

Training Call 2:
Savvy Street Smarts »

Training Call 3:
Volunteer Work Assignments »

GO TO: Volunteering in Cartago

User Agent: CCBot/2.0 (