What is a “gringo?” Simply stated, a gringo is a non-latin visitor or tourist when in a latin american country. Almost always this term is used when referring to people from the United States. Although “gringo” is not necessarily derogatory, it does mean you’re an outsider. When visiting another country as a tourist, I like to blend in (or try). I’m always tasting local foods and trying new customs. It’s half the fun! Below I’ve listed 5 Ways NOT to be A Gringo when visiting Costa Rica.
5 Ways NOT to be a “Gringo” in Costa Rica
1). Stay at Ecolodges
Ecolodges are small, affordable, family run lodges. Although many ecolodges are rustic (don’t expect hot water or air conditioning), you’ll be staying with locals and they will usually go out of their way to make your vacation memorable. We stayed at Princesa de la Luna Eco Lodge in La Fortuna. The family staff cooked us a traditional dinner and breakfast every day. They even took us for a hike around the beautiful property and gave us tips (and discounts) to the local hot springs. It was an unforgettable experience and way cheaper than any hotel in town.
2). Handle items with care
After a long conversation at an ecolodge, a local man asked to see our professional camera. I handed it over without a thought, and the man acted as if he was handed a delicate heirloom. I was struck by how he carefully admired the camera, and I felt a little guilty that I didn’t treat my own equipment with such respect. He asked a few questions, and then handed it back so slow and gentle you’d think he was passing a priceless porcelain doll.
From then on out, I treated material items in Costa Rica with extreme care. For example, slamming a door will earn you a cringe from locals. Go slowly, everything in Costa Rica is on “Tico time!”
3). Eat at SODAs!
Sodas are small, inexpensive restaurants, usually painted with the word “Soda.” Sodas serve authentic Costa Rican food and usually have limited or outdoor only seating. Order the “casado!” It’s usually the tastiest thing on the menu (also the cheapest).
4). Don’t get your car stuck
Seriously, the roads are bad in Costa Rica. Rent a 4X4 and don’t try to cross rivers if it’s too risky. Only gringos are careless with rental cars in Costa Rica (see #2). Keep in mind, you can’t call AAA. I got out of the car several times to examine bridges and streams before crossing them.
Once we ran into a treacherous river crossing, and after wading through the water and assessing that it was not safe, we were forced to backtrack over an hour to reach our destination. I was annoyed for sure, but I’d rather backtrack than get stuck.
5). Accept it, there are no addresses
At the time of my trip – in 2015 – the government had not assigned street signs or even names to many of the roads in Costa Rica. Directions are dictated by places of interest or landmarks. Asking for directions can be a pain, but it’s the only way. We asked for directions plenty of times. Insider tip: ask “yes” or “no” questions. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination.
General Tips for Americans visiting ANY foreign country:
Use your inside voice. People from the United States are loud – a fact that often earns us a bad reputation. Wait your turn to ask questions and do so in a calm and reserved manner.
Treat wildlife with respect. Stay a respectful distance away from animals, and watch your stuff around monkeys. This should go without saying, but don’t feed the monkeys, please. They may be cute, but they can also be aggressive. Plus, you could hurt them with food they should not be eating. Don’t stomp on vegetation. Don’t kick the coral when snorkeling. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to try not to touch anything alive.
Assume the wait staff won’t come over until you signal them. Other countries have different dining customs than in the USA. In fact, many foreigners find service in the USA to be obtrusive. If you’re eating at a restaurant abroad, don’t be afraid to wave the waiter down. Also, practice patience. In some countries, the definition of excellent customer service might be to leave you alone.
You’re nationality is NOT “American” when traveling aboard. America is not a country, it’s a continent (two actually: North and South). Anyone from North America or South America is an “American.” People from Costa Rica are American the same way the French are European. In the USA we refer to ourselves as “American” to define our nationality, but aboard this can be insulting. We do not own the definition of “American.” So, when traveling aboard (especially in Latin America), refer to your nationality as: “from the United States.”
Don’t take photographs of people without permission. Some cultures are uncomfortable with being photographed.
Always carry a little cash. A few years ago I was backpacking through a small Austrian town in the alps and I had to pee really, really bad. I went inside a few restaurants and hotels, but I couldn’t find a public restroom that didn’t require a coin donation. I had no cash on me and I was desperate. Trust me, if I could have gone in the bushes somewhere, I would have. I ended up begging a woman to use a hotel restroom, and she allowed me to do so with a disgusted grunt. After I was finished she scolded me in front of other patrons. It was very embarrassing and, I think, a little cruel. Of all the beautiful things I saw in Austria, the memory of this shame stuck with me the most. Now I always carry a little cash, especially when traveling through Europe where they sometimes charge for public restrooms.