Everyone is Equal
We believe the best way to describe the culture here is to give you a few examples of what life is like. First: a simple statement; Costa Ricans (Ticos) are polite, non-confrontational people who treat even their enemies with respect. In todays rapidly changing world you can find a few people here who have adopted a more direct way of speaking, however the typical way is to talk around a "no" answer.
Example: if you ask someone "can you have this ready by Thursday", the likely answer may be "yes", based on the fact the person doesn't want to disappoint you. When Thursday comes around it may not be ready, so the typical pushy foreigner starts to yell or complain, making harsh statements such as: "then why did you tell me it would be ready.." etc. A more culturally correct approach would have been: "about when do you think it will be ready?" (giving them the option to choose the time frame), then; "do you have a number where I can call you to confirm?" In this way you can call to ensure what you are expecting has been completed before you spend time and energy traveling to the provider.
The nicer and more patient you are in this country, the more you will get from it's wonderful people. Most people come to Costa Rica to relax - so please don't be in a hurry. Maybe you've heard the saying: "the louder you yell, the slower the taxi goes". If you are pushy you won't get very good service. If you are polite, typically you can expect kindness back. Sounds logical doesn't it?
The ex-President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, during his former term in office, went to a McDonalds and, rather than being given a special place in line, waited for service just like anyone else. This is typical in Costa Rica. Each person on the street considers himself just as good as the President or anyone else. Costa Ricans are proud of their democratic traditions and hold their individual freedoms very dear.
Different Value System
One saying we have heard in Costa Rica is: A "Tico" spends the week planning his weekend, a "Gringo" spends the weekend planning his week. Ticos enjoy life and are far less worried about money than the typical North American.
Example: The Manager of a local factory was having trouble finding ways to motivate his 1,400 employees. He had tried bonuses but couldn't find the right way to reach the seat of motivation of his workers. He finally decided to try something new. The department that had the highest production with the fewest rejects would win a new 20 inch color TV to watch the upcoming soccer finals. Production in the entire factory went up 30%. Average Ticos tend to put a higher value on quality of life.
Tipping and Gratuities
Regarding Costa Rica restaurants, only a few places will expect a tip (the touristy places). In Costa Rica, 10% is added on to each restaurant bill as a "service charge" so locals almost never give tips. In small sodas and restaurants it's not expected you give any tip at all. In tourist towns along the beach there are a few places where the locals have been "corrupted" by the money spending Gringos who drop a tip in every hand. In these places you may get a dirty look if you don't tip. A general rule of thumb is: if you are in a place tourists frequent and you think the service was excellent - go ahead and give a 5-10% tip. If you are in a tiny "soda" (the local name for a small neighborhood restaurant), it's not necessary to tip.
Taxis should charge you using the meter (called "la maria"). If they say it is broken, look for another taxi - it's likely they are telling you a story so they can charge you extra for the trip. Either way taxi fees aren't that expensive. You are not expected to tip a taxi driver.
Parking lot attendants are everywhere. They try to help you park your vehicle, help you back out of the parking spot etc. They don't always do a good job with directions but they are usually sincere in their efforts to help. Most parking attendants are unpaid and make money only from what you give them to watch your car. It would be common to pay them about 200 to 400 colones (40 to 80 cents) for watching your vehicle. Pretty cheap for some peace of mind.
Please Don't Generalize
Some international travelers think all of Latin America is the same. Costa Ricans are far different from Panamanians, Nicaraguans, Colombians and other Latin American natives. Some Ticos may be offended if you say:"is your food just like Mexican food?". Costa Ricans have their own distinct cuisine, culture, music, history and customs. Those who are bi-lingual will notice this much quicker than those who only speak English, French or German. Costa Ricans have a higher literacy rate than the United States. They have engineers, scientists and doctors, whose skills rival those of any country in the world. Give yourself time to get to know the Ticos, you'll discover they are a warm and polite people who enjoy helping visitors get to know their country.