So you think you can speak Spanish?

J-M and I did our best to pretend we were bilingual while in Costa Rica.  We tried to be somewhat discreet with our Spanish – English Dictionary, but it accompanied us everywhere.  We would memorize the basics, like numbers and greetings, and then look for opportunities to practice them.

I can remember a missionary friend from Guatemala, serving in Toronto, telling me she became bilingual by learning one word a day.  No problem.  In our own language-training course, we were also taught that words are more easily learned by using them to describe what you are doing, as you do it.  For instance, you would recite sentarse as you sit down or levantarse as you stand up.

I know that perro means dog, interchanged with the term estúpido in certain situations.

Here are some of our favourite Costa Rican Spanish words and the experiences that helped download them into our lexicon.

Pura Vida

This phrase is specifically Costa Rican vernacular; you wouldn’t use it in the same way in, say, Brazil or Mexico.  It is directly translated “Pure Life,” but is used in all sorts of ways, such as hello, you’re welcome, no problem, cool, great…  This is the one Spanish phrase we learned, but chose not to practice because we didn’t feel entitled.  This one is Costa Ricans Only.


This is a typical Costa Rican greeting, if not pura vida or hola.  It is short for buenas dias (good day), buenas tardes (good afternoon) and buenas noches (good night)It’s just good.  Makes for a very positive place when everyone says GOOD! to each other.

Tormenta electrica

Our first day in Costa Rica at Playa Juanquillal in the evening, we were given a magnificent display of a lightning storm over the ocean.  The following day, there was a thunderstorm that kept us indoors most of the afternoon and forced us to relax.  By day three, we were getting used to them.  In fact, tormenta electrica came in some form (great or small) every day, except for our last.  We even experienced a thunderstorm in the sun!  I could fully see my shadow through the downpour and I wondered, “Should I or shouldn’t I get out of this pool?”

In case of thunderstorm, keep out of the water.

In rainy season tormenta electrica is part of the fun.  Especially when you put on your best Count von Count accent when you pronounce it, hah hah hah.


Pop is called mineral in Ghana and soda in the USA.

Soda is called pop in Canada and means fast food in Costa Rica.

Therefore, gaseosos is the least confusing word to order my daily dose of Coke Light at the soda.

Fast food restaurant in San Jose where we stopped for dos gaseosos, por favor.

Con mucho gusto

When directly translated it means with much pleasure, but con mucho gusto is the Costa Rican response to thank you, if not pura vida. Whereas, in other Latin American countries it would most likely be de nada.

It got to be ridiculous when we were at Rio Celeste and so very grateful and over-said gracias to the staff there… And then we stopped, so as not to inconvenience the servers to give us the five syllable response.

When we left Rio Celeste and ate at a restaurant on the road, we were surprised and a little relieved when our waiter only said con gusto to our gracias.  That’s fair.


Let me just say that J-M was loving this Costa Rican slang term for a blond male.


I asked J-M at one point if he thought we could live without the GPS alerting us to “DANGER! Bridge ahead.”  All 159 we crossed were clearly marked with a yellow PELIGRO sign.


Hey look at this!  I showed J-M the cheat sheet on the menu that directly translated pastor as shepherd.  Of course J-M knew that already and, also of course, shepherding one’s congregation is the duty of the pastor.  This translation makes so much sense.

But we forgot all about this banter on our last day in Costa Rica, when we were hoping to purchase a piece of art in San Jose. It would be the ultimate souvenir, an original painting of a well-known Costa Rican painter of the mountainous landscape we’d come to love.  And it would be our ANNIVERSARY PRESENT (how we would justify the expense).  The cost was exorbitant, beyond what we could afford, never mind what we were willing to pay. But we were enamored with the painting.  I played the “pastor” card and told Amir, the curator, that we could not afford his price because my husband is a pastor, so if he couldn’t give it to us at our price, we would have to say no.

Amir said, “I am a pastor too!  In my village in the mountains!”  J-M was skeptical for a couple of reasons, including the number of nudes Pastor Amir had in his collection… and what the heck was he doing selling art in the city if he had a congregation to pastor in the village?  But Amir insisted.  “From one pastor to another, you can have the painting at your price!”

It wasn’t till much later – too late to clarify with Amir –  that we realized, He meant shepherd!  He thought you were a shepherd!

And I, a shepherd’s wife.

Estoy Contenta

At our last dinner at a chic little restaurant in an old building with a young crowd, jazz music playing, and us feeling privileged to be there, I told J-M, estoy contenta, which means I am happy/content.  The trip from start to finish was a total success in that we enjoyed everything we experienced, it was a much-needed investment into our marriage, and just the right length of time. We were ready to return home.

The only bummer was that we felt like we just got the hang of the language – to hear it in conversations and be able to respond to some degree – only to have to leave that behind.  Being surrounded by the language and practicing it wherever you go is certainly the fastest education and we were halting that by leaving.

Just then the waiter came by and J-M proficiently put together and pronounced a string of Spanish words, so that there was no confusion and the server did exactly what was asked of him. My, my, my didn’t J-M look suddenly very attractive!  I told J-M that he could practice his Spanish on me anytime…

So now, when J-M says to me, “Cuenta por favor? Acepta tarjeta de crédito?” I don’t mind a bit that he’s asking me for the bill and whether I accept credit cards.

Si, estoy contenta.”

Travelling Titles

Too many people have said to me, You know you’re going to Costa Rica during rainy season, right?  I’ve taken it that they are concerned, not cruel, so I asked J-M what he’s read about the rainy season in all the 11 travel books from which he’s received a complete education.

It would seem that most days it will rain, but not till the afternoon or evening. The amount of rainfall varies depending on the region you’re in.  Since we’ll be all over the map, we can assume that we will, indeed, experience rainfall.  The country isn’t Costa Sol, it’s Costa Rica.  This might be the first tropical trip I’ve taken where I’ll return less tanned than when I left.  Anyway, this trip is meant to be a retreat and an adventure, rain or shine.

I’ve decided to bring lots to read for those rainy days.  I went out and bought 11 books of my own!  Not travel books on Costa Rica, mind you, but still 11!  J-M calculated out loud that that would be more than one book a day during our trip. I can take a hint so I whittled it down to these five titles (that’s 2.2 per day and don’t forget there are a couple of long plane rides in there) which I think will be the perfect travelling companions:

Costa Rican Spanish, by Lonely Planet – (This is actually the sixth book and it doesn’t totally count because it will mostly be used when we venture out when it’s not raining.) I have been going all Dora the Explorer on my family, practicing my limited Spanish phrases (learned on a short-term mission trip to Bolivia in 1991 = inaccurate). I’m happy to confirm that counting to ten, asking, “Where is the bathroom?” and saying “Thank you!” remain the same.  However, a Costa Rican distinctive includes the phrase Pura Vida! (pure life) which is used to ask “Everything fine?” and “How’s it going?” and also say, “Great!”  “Cool!” “Right on!” etc.  Dora has never been so hip!

Rumors of God, by Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson – The tag line is “Experience the kind of faith you’ve only heard about.”  Bought this on sale at Treasure House earlier this year. I’m hoping to be renewed on this holiday by a book like this because I completely believe in those rumours.

She Writes – This is a collection of short stories written by “youngish women.”  That and it’s $2 price sticker drew me in.

The Conde Nast Traveler, Book of Unforgettable Journeys, Great Writers on Great Places – Self-explanatory.

At Home, A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson – Again with the sales! This one, 50% off.   He’s written some travel books.  He’s supposed to be funny.  This I heard in the bookstore when someone else was contemplating buying a Bryson book and his friend had read a bunch and had never been disappointed.  In this book, Bryson takes us on travels of a different kind, around his own house.  This will be my inspiration when I write in detail about the inside of our hotel rooms.

Bad Trips – another collection of stories, another travelling book, but this is of “worst trips possible.”  It will make me feel better if we really are trapped in torrential downpours for the whole 10 days. Perhaps even give me something to write about myself since “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster…” (Martha Gellhorn).

Bring it, rain.  Pura vida!