I’ve now lived abroad as an expat – outside my country of origin, which is the U.S. – full-time for close to nine years. I sometimes think: Wow, where has the time gone? Here I am into my first full year living along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and I previously lived in Panama for eight years. Yes, time flies.
Today’s topic is about some observed cultural differences between Panama and Costa Rica. Now that I live in Costa Rica and write about expat topics in this country, people ask me these questions almost every week: “But, JuliAnne, why did you leave Panama?” or “What brought you to Costa Rica?” and “What are the main differences between those two countries that I should consider as a future expat?”
Great questions, all. And I could probably write another book or two on just that last topic. However, today, I’m going to write a bit about the observations I have about cultural differences between Panama and Costa Rica.
A few things to keep in mind, first:
- What you are about to read are MY observations. I am not God and I have not lived in every part of Panama, nor of Costa Rica. But I have lived here in both countries long enough to have formed some pretty solid opinions based on my experiences in each. But remember these are OPINIONS.
- No one pays me for what I write, so you’re getting an unvarnished viewpoint here. Not so in many other blogs and books.
- I am not loyal to either country. I appreciate them both for what they are, and I am grateful for the time I’ve lived in each. Have some of these considerations impacted my choice to live in Costa Rica? You bet your boots they have!
Okay, so with that housekeeping out of the way :), let’s get to the good stuff.
Part One: Cultural Differences between the people of Panama & Costa Rica
This is Part One in a series of posts I’ll be composing on this issue over the coming weeks. So as I add more, you’ll be able to click through to links to those other posts, so that you have all the information at your fingertips! Hooray!
For this post, I’m going to focus on the cultural differences between the local populations of Panama & Costa Rica: the Panamanians and the Ticos. (The slang for a Costa Rican national is “Tico”.)
So, here are some major differences I’ve observed between Panamanians and Ticos.
Since this first post appears on my Panama Gringo Guide blog, let’s start with the Panamanians.
Personality differences between Panamanians & Costa Rican locals
Panamanians: Loud, gregarious and love to party.
There’s a reason that Panama’s people have been rated in recent years as some of the happiest people on earth: they are!
So when I say gregarious, what do I mean? According to Dictionary.com, here’s the definition of that word: “fond of the company of others; sociable.” And it fits Panamanians to a T!
At the drop of a hat, Panamanians will crack a beer, turn up the music, crowd into the street and start dancing. It’s a festive, fun atmosphere, even if you don’t speak Spanish, and especially if you like to dance.
In Panama City, you can find a number of fun places to go and let loose. And, not just not the weekends either; it’s almost every night.
Similarly, Panamanians like their music. It plays all over the place – in their cars, in their kitchens, in their offices (if allowed) and in every bar in town. And not only do they like their music, they also like it LOUD. Most of the time, you’ll hear a strain called Reggaeton, which is a funky mix of Caribbean and rap with a lot of rappy-tappy bass.
This kind of thing should be taken into consideration before you buy a piece of property anywhere in Panama – who are your neighbors and what kinds of parties they like to throw. Panamanian families are famous for inviting friends, family members and everyone else over for a pig roast or a barbecue on the weekends, including all generations young and old, up to 60 people in a yard the size of postage stamp. And, yes, the music will be pumping!
And, the loudness of the locals in Panama – as a personality trait – extends beyond the party scene. They are simply people who are used to talking loud, yelling across the room (even when it may be considered a bit strange to do so by those of another cultural background) and when they get tickled about something, they laugh long and LOUD.
You’ll often find that their ‘loudness’ often extends to table manners, as well. As a general rule, most Panamanians – especially when they’re having fun – are not known to have tidy table etiquette. There’s no Miss Marple’s School of Etiquette in this country – even with all the sophisticated skyscrapers and amazing architecture in Panama City. What I hear complaints about all the time is that there’s a lot of open mouth chewing, talking with food in the mouth and loud, boisterous laughter.
If you put a table of Panamanians having lunch together in a room of 50 other countries, trust me: I could pick ’em out blindfolded just from the noise! And, bottom line, this crowd will also be having the best time of any table there!
It’s true Panamanians are indeed a fun people, but at times they pay very little regard to the impact of their felicidad on those around them. That can be a major adjustment for most expats new to Panama.
Costa Rica “Ticos”: Reserved, polite, quiet and respectful.
On the flip side, Costa Rican nationals are much more reserved. So much so, that the first time I came to Costa Rica for business 18 months ago, I got off the plane and walked through the airport and was shocked at how understated everyone was. That, and the politeness I experienced everywhere I went. Having boarded the plane in Panama and deplaned in Costa Rica, believe you me, the cultural differences are so vast and visible, they almost slap you in the face.
Ticos – as a rule – are not loud. They speak in lower tones, at a slower pace and with much clearer enunciation than the locals in Panama do. Most expats and visitors to Costa Rica tell me they can understand Spanish more easily in Costa Rica than in Panama. That makes sense: Panamanian Spanish uses a lot more slang, smashes words together, cuts the last vowels of many common words with their accent, and another example of what I said above – they speak fast.
Ticos are also very respectful. They speak at a lower volume, they listen to what you say, and they seem to be much more detail oriented. Perhaps it’s the fact that tourism drives much of Costa Rica’s culture. Perhaps it’s the fact that their public education system is much stronger than Panama’s. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it’s a marked difference for visitors and expats between the two Central American countries.
As for finding a loud, boisterous party in Costa Rica? Not that common. I live along the Pacific coast, where one would think that you’d find parties galore every day of the week. I mean, we’re right on the beach, Mae! And, aren’t Ticos known for their love of Pura Vida?
Well, yes, we are on the beach. And yes, Ticos do live in a way that’s very relaxed and laid back. But it’s not a huge party scene, to be honest.
Now, to be clear, I am not including Jaco, Costa Rica – which is the most active beach town in the country on the Pacific coast. I refer to Jaco as “Costa Rica’s Sin City”. While the tourism board may not appreciate that too much, I say that because Jaco reminds me of a dirty town in Mexico 25 years ago: cheap, dusty, and an abundance of drugs and hookers. That scene resonates with a lot of tourists and some expats in Costa Rica. It simply doesn’t for me, nor does it for a lot of Ticos.
So, back to the rest of the country. So other than Jaco (and maybe Tamarindo during the high season), the Costa Rican culture is not big on loud, boisterous, rock-all-night, party-’til-you-drop festivities. And, at this point in my life, I like that.
Now, when I want a urban, party weekend, I’ll book a flight to Panama. But, for my lifestyle at this point in my life, in my late 40’s, I’ll take the road less traveled — here in Costa Rica.
Part Two Coming Soon!
So that’s it for today, folks — your snapshot of the cultural differences between the people of Panama and Costa Rica. I hope that this has given you another angle to consider as you’re planning your next vacation to Panama, traveling to one of these countries for work or considering a move to Panama.
In my next post, I’ll be sharing my perspective on Cost of Living Differences between Costa Rica and Panama, as it relates to your monthly food budget.
Please Like my Official Author page on Facebook, if you’d like to follow my writing about both Costa Rica and Panama, or topics on living as an expat. You can also sign up for my email list on my website to be notified of announcements about my next book about Panama, which I’m finishing as we speak.
Until next time, Pura Vida, Mae!