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15 Spanish Phrases You Must Know to Avoid Looking Stupid in Costa Rica

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15 Spanish Phrases You Must Know to Avoid Looking Stupid in Costa Rica

How long has it been since you brushed up on your Spanish? Think your vocabulary is extensive enough to help you manage to get around in a Spanish-speaking country?

If you’re thinking of planning a trip to Costa Rica, or even becoming an expat and relocating there permanently, you’ve got your work cut out for you when it comes to learning the lingo.

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You may think you’re all set, because you have a working knowledge of Spanish.  But trust me, Costa Ricans, or (and here’s your first lesson) Ticos and Ticas as they’re called locally, have a language of their own. With a dialect as laid back as their lifestyle, Costa Rican speech is full of slang and idioms.

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Some are informal and used mostly by the younger generation. Others are commonly known and can even be used in formal conversation. Some words and phrases are unique to Costa Rica and have no real Spanish translation. Others have a connotation in Tico culture that means something completely different than their literal denotation. There are even a few that could get you in a whole heap of trouble if you use them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Here are 15 Tico words and phrases to know to help you avoid finding yourself in an awkward situation.

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  • Pura vida – Literally translated as “pure life,” this phrase is the unofficial motto of Costa Rica. It can be used as a greeting, an acknowledgement, or just to reference anything that’s good. Example: Como estas? Pura vida! (How are you? Pure life.)
  • Mae – Originating from a word that means “dummy,” mae is a nickname you use for a pal or buddy, sort of like “dude.” Example: Mae vamos. (Dude, let’s go.)
  • Detras del palo – Literally translated, this means “behind the tree.” However, when someone says they’re detras del palo, it just means they’re unfamiliar with the topic or don’t know what you’re talking about. Another phrase with a similar meaning is “Miando fuera del tarro,” which literally translates as “taking a pee out of the can.”
  • Buena/mala nota – This translates to “good (or bad) grade,” and it’s used to indicate a job done well (or poorly) or to describe a person’s character. Example: Que mala nota! (What a terrible person!)
  • Rojos and tejas – “Rojos” literally means reds, and a “teja” is a tile.  But you’ll often hear these words used when describing the Costa Rican currency, colones. In that connotation, a “rojo” is the red bill that represents 1,000 colones ($2 US), and a “teja” refers to 100 colones. Una teja is actually 100 of anything, so if someone tells you to go “una teja” and turn left, that’s 100 meters or one block.
  • Harina – On that note, if someone asks you if you have any “harina” for payment, they’re not asking you to barter with a sack of flour (which is the literal meaning of the word). This is actually a slang word for money, sort of like calling it “dough.”
  • Deme un toque – If someone tells you this, understand that they aren’t asking to be caressed.  Even though it literally translates to “give me a touch,” what it really means is “give me a second.”
  • Cabra – If someone mentions they’re bringing their “cabra” to dinner, they probably don’t mean its literal translation, which is “goat.” Instead, “cabra” is the slang term ticos use for their girlfriends.
  • Pura paja – “Paja” is actually the word for “straw,” but this phrase doesn’t mean “pure straw” in Tico culture. It means “bull$#*!.”
  • Chunche – So you’ve had a blowout on some crappy Costa Rican backroad. Your buddy asks you to hand him that “chunche” and motions for the lug wrench. You hand it over, but then you’re confused when he once again motions and asks for another “chunche.” That’s because it doesn’t mean anything specific. It’s just a “thingamajig.”
  • Sodas – These establishments are all over Costa Rica, and they’re basically your typical small, mom-and-pop type restaurants that serve up local cuisine seriously cheap.
  • Pipa – This is something that’s okay to request from the bartender at your resort pool. He’ll hand you a cold, coconut drink. But it’s not a good thing to ask of the other kind of vendor who lurks in dark alleys. To him it’s a hash pipe.
  • Que pega – Literally translated as “what a stick,” this phrase is used to refer to someone or something that’s very annoying.
  • Lava huevos – Here’s another one that means nothing like it’s literal definition. Technically “wash the eggs,” this phrase refers to the act of sucking up to someone.
  • Que torta – This one means “what a patty” and is used to refer to someone who has royally screwed up or made a big mistake. It’s also often used to refer to an unplanned pregnancy.

So before you head to Costa Rica, make sure you brush up on these and other Costa Rican phrases. Don’t find yourself detras del palo!

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