Photo Reportage: A Taste of Costa Rican Culture

In this post, the author shares photographs taken during a trip to Costa Rica in summer 2010.

By David Franco, 16 Dec, 2011

Located between Nicaragüa and Panamá and flanked by the North Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica proclaimed its independence from Spain in 1821 and gained full sovereignty in 1838. Today, Costa Rica is Central America’s most prosperous country and one of the few nations in the world to have voluntarily given up its army. The country is known for its rich natural resources and agricultural products (including coffee, sugar, bananas, and beans), an impressive biodiversity, and a very friendly indigenous population. Its rapid industrial development and specialisation in microprocessors, food processing, medical equipment, textiles and clothing, construction materials, fertilizer, and plastic products make it a very attractive economy for foreign investors. I know it sounds a bit of a cliche, but two words define this fantastic country: Pura Vida.


1. Ticos in San José

Costa Ricans are known as Ticos and are extremely friendly and approachable. Wherever you go they welcome you with a big smile and wish you Pura Vida, an expression that perfectly exemplifies their attitude towards life. Of approximately 4.5 million inhabitants, it is estimated that between half a million and a million have Nicaraguan origin as many left Nicaragua following the 1979 Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza regime and the subsequent economic struggles during the nineties. Usually known as a peaceful and accepting nation, Nicaraguans are nonetheless often the subject of racist comments from local population. However, it is fair to say that generally speaking Ticos and Nicaraguans coexist peacefully as the photograph above illustrates (the gentleman in the right is of Nicaraguan origin).

2. Mercado Central, San José

San José is Costa Rica’s capital and home to the Central Market or Mercado Central. For a first-time visitor, the Mercado Central is a perfect introduction to Costa Rica’s culture and cuisine. Populated with infinite numerous family-owned eateries and small stands covered with piled fruits of all sorts, it is the capital’s little treasure and a must if you find yourself wandering the streets of San José. Walk around, interact with the locals, take a typical Costa Rican meal at one of the numerous sodas, and round it all up with a cup of coffee made from the finest Costa Rican beans.

3. Parque Nacional de Tortuguero

Literally meaning “Turtle Place”, Tortuguero is a small village located in the Northeast, 31,187-hectare costal National Park of Tortuguero and approximately 50 miles north of Puerto Limon. Both town and park owe their name to the hundreds of Green, Leatherback, and Hawksbill Sea Turtles that nest every year alongside the wide shorelines. Witnessing the turtles nest at night under the light of a white, round moon is a brief but enduring experience. Unfortunately, turtles are an endangered species as centuries of hunt have led to a worrying decrease in their numbers. And although Costa Rican legislation has toughened in that respect, many still worry that clandestine hunting is still common practice. Be that as it may, Tortuguero is a realm of peace as the photograph above crystallises: all you need to do is jump on a canoe, paddle your way through the canals and spend the morning fishing. Locals will then help you cook a delicious soup called Rondón.

4. Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo is unique in itself. Located in Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastline, Puerto Viejo is home to a mixture of Jamaican, European, and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Everywhere you go you can listen to locals speaking some sort of Creole English. Surf, fishing, night life, and a rich cuisine can easily turn this place into a trap as many Europeans who came for a few days yet stayed for years will happily testify. I could have chosen a photograph of a local surfing the acclaimed Salsa Brava but I prefer the above picture as it reflects the best of that magical place: when the sun goes down, take a swim and let the warmth of the Caribbean wash away all your burdens. Puerto Viejo really is the place to experience and on top of all that it is very close to Manzanillo and Cahuita.

5. Imperial

Any reportage on Costa Rican culture and society needs to cover the country’s beer Imperial. Not that I like beer myself as I am allergic to barley, but a reference to the preferred beer of the majority of Ticos is necessary as the entire Costa Rican landscape is populated with signs showing the Imperial Eagle. Born in 1924 at the Ortega family-owned brewery, Imperial combined German beer tradition with the taste of Costa Ricans. In 1957 the Ortega brewery was acquired by the Jamaican FIFCO (Florida Ice & Farm Co), owner also since 1912 of the Traube brewery and Costa Rica’s second most popular beer Pilsen, and soon after Imperial became a national emblem. In the words of FIFCO, throughout history Imperial has traditionally reflected the character of ticos: cheerful, kind, sociable, popular, and proud of their country. By the way, today Imperial announced that it has finally set a date in 2012 for its popular annual Music Festival after four years of absence.

6. Cahuita, the sea, and the sloth sanctuary

Cahuita also deserves a mention of its own. Surprisingly small and located on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastline between Limon and Costa Rica’s border post of Sixaola, Cahuita hides a real treasure: a long, desert white-sanded beach flanked by an Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary where some two hundred baby, orphan sloths are looked after and rehabilitated before being returned to the wild. The town is magical but incredibly small, and the transparency of its waters as well as the sloths’ almost invisible presence is definitely worth the effort of travelling to that remote place of the world.

7. Costa Rica: A life full of colour

My last chosen photograph has a clear purpose: in addition to all the green and blue of Costa Rica’s natural parks and sea, the country is full of live colours deriving directly from its home grown agricultural products. Wherever you go, towns are always filled with street markets selling a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Their colour is so powerful that it inevitably cheers you up. Apart from the Mercado Central mentioned above, one cannot miss out on this market located in San Isidro de El General, a rapidly growing town located some 120 km Southeast of San Jose and 30 km North of Dominical in the Puntarenas Province.


As the title of this entry indicates, the above is meant to be a brief taste of Costa Rican culture. Geographically, it provides snapshots of the center and East coast of the country leaving aside the West coast for a very simple reason: the entire country is amazing but my preference lies with the east coast as it is, in my view, less Americanised and more authentic (these are generalisations and of course there is a bit of both everywhere). The reportage also leaves unexplored some other fantastic areas located in the heart of the land either because I was not able to cover these due to shortage of time or because I do not keep photographs of some of the places I went to, such as El Arenal or La Fortuna. The reportage also leaves aside other less attractive aspects of Costa Rica such as poverty, crime, and drug trafficking in Limón, for example. This, too, is the result of a conscious decision as is the focus on culture and not on politics.


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