Tips for Being a Better Gringo Retiree in Costa Rica

Part of this article is from Today Panama via QCostaRica. I made some changes to make it relevant to Costa Rica since the advice is applicable here, too.

There is nothing worse than the “Ugly American Syndrome.” By following the advice below you won’t wear out your welcome in Costa Rica or any other country in latin America.

For better or worse, when you live as a foreigner in Costa Rica, you act as a representative for your entire country. Your actions, both good and bad, help to shape the reputation of your fellow countrymen.


Here are 10 tips that foreigners can embrace to correct bad behavior and be a more positive representative of their country.

1. Quit complaining that not everyone speaks English

I don’t know where expats (particularly Americans) got the idea that when you move to a country where English is not the native language, that everyone should speak English on top of their local language. When you move to a foreign country, you should not expect everyone to adapt around you. Many Costa Ricans do speak English, but expecting everyone to is unreasonable, and should not be used as a reason to disparage a country.

2. Make every effort to speak Spanish

This one is obviously related to number 1, but even for expats who do not expect everyone to speak English, it is still another step to get some of us to speak Spanish. I am not saying everyone has to become fluent. Learning a second language is hard (which is another reason why we shouldn’t expect every Costa Rican to naturally be able to do it), but everyone should make an effort to learn at least basic Spanish to communicate when out at restaurants, in cabs, at the store, etc. Using even basic broken Spanish will leave a better impression than speaking loudly in English and pointing at things when trying to communicate in English to help you get around.

3. In the States we do it this way

Stop trying to import U.S. Customs to Costa Rica. The people won’t adapt to your way of doing things. You have to adapt to their ways.

4. Don’t insult Costa Ricans intelligence

This is another one that seems to go along with lazy, but I’ve seen some expats criticize Costa Ricans as “uneducated”, which is really just code for “stupid.” This is another surefire way to appear condescending. In any country, you are sure to meet people who are not too well educated or are ignorant. This is true in your home country, just as it is in Costa Rica. But I also know many Costa Ricans who can run mental gymnastics around myself and most of the expats I know. So don’t take one bad experience you may have and use it to make generalizations against an entire nation. Particularly if you are making your comments about other’s intelligence in a poorly spelled and punctuated Facebook post.

5. Understand your wealth privilege

If you are an expat in Costa Rica, chances are you have more money than the average Costa Rican. Most likely a lot more money. Because of this, take care when making comments about how “broke” you are, or how expensive things are. If you do so, make sure to do so in such a way that doesn’t make you appear out of touch to someone who is trying to make it by on much less than you are.

Also, if you do have more wealth than the average Costa Rican, then definitely don’t be a cheapskate. I am not saying overpay for things or allow yourself to get ripped off. I think that’s actually detrimental to Costa Ricans in the long run. But you should be on the generous side of normal, particularly when it comes to tipping, and should not be pinching pennies at the expense of others.

6. Don’t lose your mind over the service

Look, I get that Costa Rican service leaves something to be desired. I think most Ticos would agree with you on that. But there is a difference between having a complaint or two about the service at restaurants and acting like it’s the end of the world every time it takes a little longer for somebody to take your order. If the worst thing that happens to you is it takes you a while to get your burger and fries, then your life is pretty blessed, and you should put things in perspective. Nobody likes a serial complainer, so try to be tranquilo about as much as possible.

7. Be respectful of Costa Ricans

I was going to make this one “be respectful of Costa Rican women,” but I decided to expand it and make it more general. To talk about that issue briefly, don’t be the “gross gringo” who comes here and acts in a way that is demeaning to Panamanian women and treats them as objects instead of people. But in general, treat everyone as your equal and never think you are above anyone else. This goes for anyone you interact with, whether they are your maid or the President of the Republic. You’d be amazed that if you treat others with kindness and respect what you will get back.

8. LearnCosta Rican social customs

This is an easy one to do and will go a long way to making people have a good impression of you. It’s easy for an expat to come off as rude because they don’t know the basics of how it is appropriate to interact with people. For example if you get in an elevator with someone, it is customary to greet them by saying “buenas” when you get in the elevator, and “hasta luego” or “ciao” when either they or you exit the elevator. Doing this as opposed to getting in and staring at the wall will improve your neighbors’ opinion of you. In general, things that would be considered good manners anywhere in the world are viewed even more important here. Say please and thank you. Hold the door open for people. If you see an elderly person or pregnant woman, offer them your seat or allow them to go ahead of you in the line. Say “mucho gusto” when you meet someone for the first time. If someone wishes you “buenas noches,” say “igual” back to them.

9. Respect Costa Rican history

Want to know a quick way to piss off a Costa Rican? Say something derogatory about the country or its history. Costa Ricans are proud of their country, and like to celebrate their accomplishments.

If you are not familiar with Costa Rican history, then study it. Because of this, there are certain topic that may be sensitive for some Costa Ricans. Always take extra care to be respectful of this, and never say anything that is derogatory about Costa Rica’s history or its accomplishments.

10. Go easy on the alcohol

I’m not saying don’t drink. I’m not saying don’t go out and have a good time. What I am saying is that if getting wasted is going to make you more likely to violate any of the first 9 rules in this article, then consider moderating. “I was drunk” won’t buy you an excuse if you engage in bad behavior.

So there are my 10 tips for being a better gringo in any country in latin America. I think if we all take a moment for self reflection, we will realize that we can improve on one of more of these points. Nobody is every going to be perfect, but we should all set a high standard for ourselves and strive to reach it. If we do that, not only will we give off a better impression of ourselves and our country but we will have a more enjoyable experience in Costa Rica as well.

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One thought on “Tips for Being a Better Gringo Retiree in Costa Rica”

  1. I agree with all that you stated but, this is for everyone who comes to a country other then the country they are from. The things you stated I have see and not just from the North American’s as your article indicates but, from people from all over the world that either visit or are Expat’s here in Costa Rica and/or other countries that I have visited.

    By the way your article stated “Avoiding the Ugly American” but you show the North American flag and talk about Gringo’s. As you know we have a North, South and Central America. Thank you for the article but in the future please direct your comments to all visitors and/or Expat’s visiting Costa Rica not just North American’s.

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