Costa Rican Spanish: All you need to know 

Costa Rican Spanish: All you need to know 

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated October 31, 2023

If you’re visiting or moving to Costa Rica, get ready to speak to ticos or ticas (Costa Rican people) with your best Costa Rican Spanish. Spanish is the only official language of Costa Rica. It’s also the most widely spoken, though various indigenous languages are also still spoken throughout the country. 

As in most Spanish-speaking countries, the Costa Rican accent varies by region. From the unique pronunciation of the Spanish “r” to famous slang phrases like pura vida (literally “pure life”), Costa Rican Spanish is great for Spanish-language learners to study.

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Do they speak Spanish in Costa Rica?

Yes, Spanish is the official language of Costa Rica. Several indigenous languages are also still spoken across Costa Rica, including:

  • Bribri
  • Guaymí
  • Cabécar
  • Malecu
  • Buglere

Though Spanish dominates, Costa Rica also has the best English proficiency of any Central American country (excluding Belize, where English is an official language). 

For short-term visitors, English should be enough to get by. But for those staying longer, a deeper dive into Costa Rican Spanish can be richly rewarding.

‘Vos’ in Costa Rican Spanish

One big difference you’ll hear in Costa Rican Spanish is the use of vos. It’s actually more common to use vos (you) and usted (you; formal) than (you). You may not hear used at all.

Vos as a form of “you” is not commonly taught to Spanish learners. But it’s definitely used in both Argentina and Costa Rica.

In Costa Rican Spanish, vos replaces and has its own conjugation:

VerbVos conjugationTú conjugation
vivir (to live)vivísvives
hablar (to speak)habláshablas
ser (to be)soseres
tener (to have)tenéstienes
traer (to bring)traéstraes

What does the Costa Rican accent sound like?

In general, Costa Rican Spanish sounds fairly relaxed and slow — unlike, for example, the rapid-fire Spanish in Spain or Chile. Depending on the region, though, you may notice some different features:

  • Central Valley: In the capital of San Jose and its surrounding areas, the accent is similar to that of Bogota, Colombia. This may be due to the fact that, in the 19th century, the land of Costa Rica bordered the massive state of Gran Colombia. 
  • Pacific side: The accent has similarities to Nicaragua due to long political and cultural ties forged during the colonial period.
  • Caribbean side: The Spanish in this part of the country is also influenced by forms of Creole English. This explains why there is no Spanish translation for the popular Costa Rica dish “rice and beans.” Up and down the Carribean coast, this dish is simply called riceandbeans —pronounced with a Spanish accent, of course.

The Spanish ‘r’ in Costa Rican Spanish 

One unique form of pronunciation in Costa Rica is the r arrastrada (dragged r). 

Many say this “r” is similar in sound to the “hard r” in US English. It’s pronounced more towards the back of the tongue and with no vibration.

The r arrastrada can be heard in the following places:

  • At the beginning of a word, e.g. Costa Rica
  • As a single or double consonant between vowels, e.g. arroz, arriba, perro
  • At the end of a word with -rlo or –rla, e.g. tenerlo, comprarla

Still, many words employ a more standard Spanish “r.” Examples include arbol, trabajo and palabra. 

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The Spanish ‘s’ and ‘d’ in Costa Rican Spanish

As in other South American countries, the “s” in Costa Rican Spanish is often dropped. For example:

  • ¿Cómo estás?” in Costa Rica will sound more like “¿Cómo ehtáh?

In some areas of Costa Rica, the final “d” may be dropped:

  • calidad is pronounced calidá
  • usted is pronounced usté

The final ‘n’ in Costa Rican Spanish

One last difference you will hear when listening to Costa Rican Spanish is the pronunciation of the final “n.” If you listen closely, you may detect a native tico or tica pronounce /ng/ instead of just /n/:

  • /bo-TONG/ for botón (button)
  • /hu-geh-TONG/ for jugetón (playful)

Costa Rican Spanish slang and vocabulary

Of course, Costa Rican Spanish comes with its own lexicon of fun slang. Here are a few of our favorite slang words and turns of phrase:

  • Tico/tica – a person from Costa Rica
  • Mae – dude, man. ¿Qué mae? Todo bien, mae. (What’s up, dude? All good, dude.)
  • Pura vida – hello, thanks or what’s up? 
  • Tuanis – all good. This comes from the English “too nice.” ¿Qué mae? Tuanis. (What’s up, dude? All good.) 
  • Al Chile – for real: Al Chile? Al Chile, mae. (For real? For real, dude.)
  • Vara – thing (object or situation) ¿Qué es esa vara? Ayer me pasó una vara. (What’s this thing? Yesterday, a thing happened to me.)
  • A cachete – all good (literally means “to the cheek,” but it’s used to answer “How’s it going?”)

Costa Rican Spanish, “mae”

Mirroring the country’s stunning biodiversity, Costa Rica is home to diverse ways of speaking. That means using vos instead of tú, pronouncing some consonants differently and dropping the word mae about a hundred times per day. 

If you visit Costa Rica, listen to how the different accents along the coast, in San Jose and in rural areas are different. Luckily for Spanish-language learners, Costa Ricans generally speak slowly and clearly enough for beginners to understand.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

Alison Maciejewski Cortez
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