Home Costa Rica Surprises in San José: Expectation vs. Reality

Surprises in San José: Expectation vs. Reality

by Megan Wall

Last Updated on August 1, 2014 by

It’s been about three weeks since I first arrived in San José, Costa Rica.  You’d think the surprised would have eased up by now… right?

Guess again.

Despite how comfortable I’ve become getting around the city, knowing my neighborhood, and managing excursions and schoolwork, Costa Rica continues to defy my expectations and bring a smile to my face.


Casado con gallina, arroz, platano verde, y ensalada. Delicioso.

Casado with chicken, hash, rice, fried plantains, and salad. Delicioso.

Expectation: Before coming to Costa Rica, I expected that the food would be pretty good.  A tropical climate meant fresh fruit and veggies, so the diet would be healthy.  A friend who had visited Costa Rica previously hinted that rice and beans was to be expected at every meal, fruits and vegetables would be served often, and there would be limitless opportunities to try fresh, new foods. Sounded good to me!

Reality: Costa Rican food is some of the most delicious, fresh, and interesting food I have ever eaten and every day I’m continually in awe of how wonderful it is!  Rice and beans is indeed a staple of the Costa Rican diet, making an appearance on nearly every breakfast, lunch, or dinner plate I’ve seen thus far.  But there are many different flavors and means of preparation, so I’m always up for trying new rice and beans options.

Plantains, another food with numerous variations, are also a staple in Costa Rican cuisine.  I might be partial, but my Tica Mama (Costa Rican host mother) makes the BEST plátano maduro, which, although served as a side dish at dinner, really should be considered a dessert, since it’s essentially warm bananas baked in honey and brown sugar!

Speaking of desserts, Costa Rican fruit is like candy, and that’s coming from a Pennsylvania girl who’s grown up on Hershey chocolate.  Every morning I’m spoiled with a beautiful side plate of fruit like fresh watermelon, banana, kiwi, pineapple, mango, strawberries, and papaya.  Meals are often served with bebidas naturales (fresh juices) like watermelon and starfruit-orange.  I’ve even tried mamónes: spiky, red-skinned fruits that are related to lychee.  I didn’t know what I was missing before trying them!

Mamónes! Much less intimidating in person.

Have I mentioned how incredibly fresh everything is?  Every morning I’m treated with fresh bread and other goodies, like panuelos (a type of sweet bread with caramel filling) and meringue cookies from a bakery located about 30 steps from my home.  Meats are bought at our neighborhood carnicería, which is at the end of our street.  Fish is in abundance of course and it is just as popular, if not more, as chicken, meat or pork.

And don’t get me started on the coffee and baked goods because I’d go on all day.  It’s just a breath of – wait for it – fresh air to see the popularity and abundance of small, local specialty shops as opposed to food production en masse.  Yes, there are stores that sell foods in bulk, as there are everywhere nowadays, but to see the community take pride in neighborhood stores and locally owned, grown, and made products is truly wonderful.

Mango Mecca.
Cafe con Leche.
Fish with almond sauce


Even Costa Rican cows are super affectionate!

Even Costa Rican cows are super affectionate!

Expectation: I had heard that Ticos (endearing colloquialism for Costa Ricans) are much more open in displays of affection than Americans.  I expected that my host family would be very affectionate with me, and I would be with them, as well as with friends I’d make.  As the tactile-needy “hugger” of my friends and family since I was a baby, showing affection has always been a particular strength (and love) of mine.  How different could it be?

Reality: Affection central!  Turns out, showing affection is VERY different than in the US, even for me!  During the Verítas University orientation we learned that Costa Rican couples touch, on average, once every 20 seconds.  And even that statistic might be a little low.  The go-to greeting is a hug and a kiss on the cheek, whether you might be greeting your family, saying goodbye to some friends after class, or even meeting someone for the first time at a party.  During my first few days here, it was an adjustment to remember to add this lovely cultural norm to my habits, but now I can’t imagine my life in Costa Rica without this custom!

Despite being so accustomed to these greetings, sometimes old habits die hard.  When I went to mass this week at our neighborhood church, just before the Sign of Peace (a part of the mass in which Catholics reach out to those around them and wish them well, usually in the form of a handshake), as a creature of habit, I extended my hand to my fellow parishioner in the pew.  The next thing you know, the small, elderly woman next to me embraced me with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a small word of friendship.  Those surrounding me did the same and aisles were crossed as a few parishioners moved from one side of the church to another to do so.  I couldn’t have felt more welcome or loved after this experience.  The love shown to others in Costa Rica is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I love it.

I am in hug heaven.


Expectation: How much studying is really expected when you’re in an entirely new country to explore?  My classes shouldn’t be too much work, especially since they only last five weeks.  – Naïve, pre-study abroad Megan, circa June 2014.

Reality: There’s a reason it’s called study abroad! With an eight page research papers in the works and weekly exams, the five-week classes are intensive.  Fortunately, the two classes I chose, Intermediate Spanish for Medical Professionals and Human Rights in Latin America, are filled to the brim with interesting information that keep me wanting to learn more and more.  The class sizes are also very small (there are nine of us in my Spanish class, and six of us in Human Rights), which allow for individualized attention or help if we need it.

To improve our Spanish skills as much as possible, my Medical Spanish class is taught entirely in Spanish for four hours each day, four days a week.  Learning how to treat snake bites is one thing; learning how to do so when it’s explained in Spanish is another challenge entirely!  Our final exam will be a patient simulation, where volunteers with memorized scripts come and test what we have learned in terms of interview skills and diagnoses.  I’m nervous, but I’m so excited to put my skills to the test and show what I’m made of!

My favorite of the two classes, however, is most definitely my Human Rights in Latin America course.  The small class size allows for truly insightful discussions and conversations about current events, policy, disparities in human rights, and pertinent issues surrounding current events.

Who knew some of my favorite courses would be those I’d take while abroad?

 In short, Costa Rica, you are wonderful.  I look forward to even more surprises you have in store for me!

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