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Culture Shock in Costa Rica

Culture Shock in Costa Rica

“Culture shock” is one of those big, scary terms that people throw around whenever they talk about going to a foreign country. They make it sound like the second you get off the plane, you will get hit in the face with so many new things you won’t even know how to function. Before the study abroad students left for our various adventures, the Valpo study abroad staff prepped us extensively for dealing with this phenomenon, but no amount of advice could have really prepared me for one of the strangest and most disorienting weeks of my life.

Saying that culture shock includes not being able to function because of all the changes is a bit extreme, but when I arrived in Costa Rica with five other Valpo students,  I definitely felt like I was instantly hit with a completely new way of life (not to mention a new language). Here are some things I’ve learned in my first week in Heredia, Costa Rica:


  1. It’s HOT. This might go without saying, but when you go from a Midwest winter to a Central American summer, it’s a really big shock to your body. Staying hydrated is essential, and it often feels like you have to constantly drink water. After a couple days, though, we all have been enjoying the warm weather and sunshine!


Our whole group enjoying the sunshine on a trip to San Jose (the capital city) with our director, Heidi.  This was taken in front of one of many colorful murals found in the city.

  1. Stay clean. Contrary to what some people from the United States might believe, Costa Rica is actually a fairly rich country, and its people pride themselves on their exceptional healthcare and cleanliness. Since it’s so hot all the time, people are always making sure they stay clean and fresh, sometimes even taking two showers a day. My host mom keeps her house especially spotless. She is very particular about certain things—like me making my bed and opening the curtains in the morning. It’s also important to always wear shoes in the house!  Going barefoot is seen as bad hygiene.
  1. Ticos. Costa Ricans have acquired the nickname “Ticos,” and they often have their own way of speaking. They like to add “-ita” and “-illa” to the ends of their words (my host mom does this all the time!), so even if you’ve studied Spanish before you have to pay close attention! A few other phrases we have learned are “Que chiva!” to say something is cool, “Que maje” to say “hey dude!” and the classic “pura vida” to say that life is good!
  1. Addresses are different. Typically, the streets don’t have names and the houses don’t have numbers, so in order to find out where something is you have to use landmarks. However, Ticos are very friendly and willing to help you get where you need to go; just ask!
  1. All the houses have bars on the front of them. No one really knows why.

Case in point:


(this is a street in my neighborhood, Santa Rosa)

  1. If you look different, people will stare. I was warned about this in advance, but it is still a pretty strange feeling to have nearly everyone turn their heads when I walk by. When I was walking home from school one day, I saw a group of children riding their bikes, and every single face was a gaping stare. For a quite average looking blond-haired, blue-eyed girl from the Midwest, this is a very new thing for me!
  1. It’s beautiful. In every direction, mountains are on the horizon. The houses are brightly colored. The food is delicious, and our host families never fail to offer us copious amounts of it. Coffee every morning is a must. The women buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the local market (La Feria), and then many make fresh fruit drinks with it (my host mom has made me a variety already!). So far, every day has been bright and sunny. Spanish music is nearly always playing in the background at my house. Our host families have taught us how to dance. Miscommunication with our host families is frustrating, but it leads to some hilarious stories. We’ve only been here for a week, but our Spanish has already improved.


The butterfly garden at el Museo Nacional (National Museum)




Our trip to Guayabo National Monument in the mountains


Although I’ve been out of the country before, I have never experienced culture shock to the extent that I have here. Maybe it’s the language. Maybe it’s the time frame. Maybe it’s the country. Whatever it is, I know deep down that I’m learning. I’m learning in a completely different way than I could at a classroom at Valpo. I keep reminding myself to be patient and take things one day at a time. Because here in Costa Rica, every day is a new adventure. Pura vida.


19 January 2016


Lindsey Van Der Aa