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Costa Rica Language Guide: Do You Need to Speak Spanish?

Planning a trip and wondering about the language in Costa Rica? The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. Having a basic understanding of the local language can greatly enhance your experience, but usually, you can get by with English.

We live in San Jose, Costa Rica, and have definitely had our share of language communication issues. I learned Spanish for several years in school and can get by alright. However, I still often feel unprepared in certain situations like communicating what I want when getting a haircut or at a doctor’s office. The struggle is real!

In this guide, you’ll learn essential Spanish phrases, when to use them, and other helpful tips for navigating conversations. Read on to become a more confident and comfortable traveler in Costa Rica!

Costa Rica Language at a Glance

  • The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish
  • Most people in the tourism industry speak at least some English
  • Download Spanish on the Google Translate app so you can access translations even when offline
  • It is helpful to know at least a few basic Spanish phrases to make your travel experience easier.

Do I Need to Speak Spanish if I Visit Costa Rica?

Most people can get by when traveling in Costa Rica on very limited Spanish, but part of that depends on the type of vacation you are planning to have.

  • If you are staying only in resorts or high-end accommodations with day tours included, you will not need to speak Spanish. All hotel staff will likely speak English and tours will be in English.
  • If you are traveling in tourist areas (Manuel Antonio, Nosara, Tamarindo, Las Catalinas, Playa Flamingo, Papagayo) you will likely be fine with not speaking much, or any, Spanish.
  • If you are renting a car it is helpful to know a bit of Spanish for things like going to a gas station (read further on for basic gas station phrases).
  • If you are traveling to off-the-beaten-path towns or destinations, Spanish is helpful.
  • If you really want to immerse yourself in the culture, you will need to speak the main language, Spanish.
  • Costa Ricans are some of the most welcoming people you will ever meet. Even if your Spanish isn’t perfect I find that they are usually very patient and just thankful for your efforts.

Basic Spanish Words / Phrases

costa rica spanish

Here are some of the words and phrases you are most likely to use in Spanish.

  • Yes – Si
  • No – No
  • Maybe – Tal vez
  • Of course – Claro
  • Fine – Bien 
  • I need… – Necesito…
  • Pura Vida!Pura Vida is a saying that is used in almost every interaction in Costa Rica. It is the motto for life here and a big part of Costa Rican culture. Directly translated it means “pure life” but it is used in Costa Rica to basically say “everything is great.” It is used as a greeting or a goodbye.

Formalities in Spanish

  • Please – Por favor
  • Thank you – Gracias
  • Thank you very much – Muchas gracias 
  • You’re welcome – De nada / Mucho gusto
  • Excuse me – Con permiso (used if you need to get by somebody)
  • Excuse meDiscúlpe (when you need to get somebody’s attention)
  • Pardon me – You can say “disculpe” or “perdón!” (use if you bang into somebody)
  • I’m sorry – Lo siento

Language Phrases

  • Do you speak English? – Habla inglés?
  • I don’t speak Spanish – No hablo español
  • I speak a little Spanish – Yo hablo un poco de español 
  • How do you say … in Spanish? – (Como se dice … en español? 
  • What does … mean in English? – Que significa … en ingles
  • Do you understand? – ¿Entiende? 
  • I don’t understand – No entiendo
  • Speak slower please – Por favor, habla más despacio
  • Can you repeat please – Podrías repetir por favor

Greetings and Goodbyes in Spanish

pura vida
  • Hello – Hola
  • Hi – Buenas  (The direct translation is “good” but in Costa Rica “buenas” is a more relaxed way of saying hello. It is normal to say “Buenas” to people working at a shop, restaurant etc. )
  • Good morning – Buenos días
  • Good afternoon – Buenas tardes 
  • Good evening/ night – Buenas noches 
  • How are you? – Cómo estás? 
  • What is your name? – Cómo se llama? 
  • My name is… – Mi nombre es… 
  • Nice to meet you – Mucho gusto 
  • Where are you from? – De dónde eres? 
  • I am from … – Yo soy de … 
  • See you later – Hasta luego 
  • Bye – Adiós 
  • Bye – ¡Pura Vida!
  • Bye – Ciao

Question Phrases

  • Can I…? – ¿Puedo…?
  • Can you…? – ¿Puede…?
  • Do you have…?¿Tiene…?
  • What? – ¿Que?
  • What time is it? – Qué hora es? 
  • When? – ¿Cuándo?
  • How? – ¿Cómo?
  • Why? – ¿Por qué?
  • Where? – ¿Dónde?
  • Where is…? – ¿Dónde está…?

Emergency Phrases

safety costa rica

In case of an emergency, the number for the police is 9-1-1. Usually, it is no problem to find someone who can help you in English.

Also, keep in mind that there are no addresses in Costa Rica. You will either have to explain to the police where you are located or tell them the name of the hotel/ place you are at.

  • Help! – Auxilio!
  • I need help – Necesito ayuda 
  • I had an accident – Tuve un accidente 
  • Send the police, please- Envíe a la policía, por favor.
  • I’ve been robbed – Me han robado (a)
  • My passport was stolen – Me robaron el pasaporte
  • I lost my passport – Perdí mi pasaporte 
  • I am sick – Estoy enfermo (a)
  • I don’t feel well – No me siento bien
  • I need a doctor – Necesito un médico
  • heatstroke – insolación
  • heart attack – ataque al corazón 

Restaurant Phrases for Costa Rica

restaurant costa rica

In most restaurants, you will be able to get an English menu. If they give you a menu in Spanish it is always worth at least asking if they have one in English as well.

When you finish your meal you will need to ask for the bill. They will not just come over and give it to you.

Also, on your bill, you will see a sales tax and a service tax. Service tax is usually 10%. It is always nice to give a bit of a tip on top of this, but it is not absolutely necessary.

  • I have a reservation – Tengo una reservación
  • A table – Una mesa
  • A table for two, three, four – Una mesa para dos, tres, cuatro
  • The menu please? – ¿El menú, por favor?
  • Do you have an English menu? – ¿Tiene un menu en ingles?
  • I would like…. – Para mi (menu item name), por favor. Or you can say…. Yo quisiera (menu item name)
  • I am allergic to … – Soy alérgico a … (I suggest carrying a card with any allergies written in Spanish so you can confirm that the waiter understands)
  • An appetizer – Una entrada
  • What would you like to drink? – ¿Para tomar?
  • A drink – Una bebida
  • Cheers! – ¡Salud! –
  • Dessert – Un postre
  • I am vegetarian – Soy vegetariano/a
  • Very tasty – Que rico!
  • To go – Para llevar
  • The bill, please – La cuenta, por favor.
  • Service – Servicio (This is the 10% added to the bill for tip)
  • Sales tax (13%) – Impuestos ventas

Transportation Phrases for Costa Rica

car costa rica

There are some phrases that will be very helpful while getting around the country with ease.

Gas Station Spanish

gas station

All gas stations in Costa Rica are full-service. That means you just stay in your car while a gas station attendant takes care of everything for you.

If you need your windshield washed or tire pressure checked they can do that as well. However, it is always nice to give them a small tip (we usually give about 300 colones) if they provide these extra services for us.

  • Fill it with regular (gas) please – Lleno con regular, por favor
  • Could you please check the air pressure? – ¿Podría por favor verificar la presión de aire en las llantas??
  • Could you clean the windshield? – ¿Podría limpiar el parabrisas?
  • May I have the bathroom key? – Me podría dar las llaves del baño, por favor?

Taking the Bus

bus - transportation in costa rica

Often you will buy bus tickets ahead of time at a bus station ticketing office. However, if you are boarding a bus at a bus stop you will need to purchase your ticket on board.

Most bus drivers do not speak English so it is good to know a few basic phrases for your bus ride.

  • Bus station – Estación de buses
  • Bus stop – Parada de bus
  • Where are you going? – ¿A dónde va?
  • Do I need a ticket? – ¿Necesito un tiquete?
  • One ticket to…. – Un tiquete a
  • Stop here – Pare aquí

Direction Phrases

Puerto Jiminez road

Because people from Costa Rica are generally nice people-pleasers it can be difficult to get directions from them. It is not unusual for Ticos to try and give you directions even if they have no idea where you need to go.

So, the moral of the story is that you will need to assess the situation and decide if you really trust somebody’s directions.

If you would like some tips on driving directions we have a complete guide to getting directions in Costa Rica.

  • Can you help me? – ¿Puede ayudarme?
  • How do I get to …? – ¿Como llego a…?
  • Where is the nearest gas station? – ¿Dónde está la gasolinera más cercana
  • I am lost – Estoy perdido 
  • I am going to… – Voy a…
  • Is this the road to…? – ¿Esta es la calle a…?
  • To the right – A la derecha
  • To the left – A la izquierda
  • Straight ahead – Derecho
  • At the corner – En la esquina
  • In one block – A una cuadra

Shopping Phrases for Costa Rica

costa rica souvenirs

At souvenir stands it is OK to haggle a bit for the price. However, keep in mind that Costa Ricans do not like confrontation. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable by trying to get a much lower price for something. This is not the culture for that.

In any shop, in Costa Rica I would never try to haggle on the prices.

  • Open – Abierto (as in relation to store hours)
  • Closed – Cerrada (as in relation to store hours)
  • I’m just looking – Solo estoy mirando
  • I’m looking for … – Estoy buscando … 
  • What sizes do you have? – ¿Que tallas tienes?
  • Small – Pequeño (a)
  • Medium – mediano (a)
  • Large – Grande
  • Can I try it on? – ¿Me lo puedo probar?
  • Do you have other colors? – ¿Tienes otro colores?
  • Do you sell Kolbi cards? – ¿Vendes tarjetas Kölbi prepago?
  • I would like a card for (amount) – Me vendes una tarjeta por (amount) colones

(Note: Kolbi is one of the prepaid phone companies here. Check out our guide to using your cell phone in Costa Rica for more info on how that works)

Phrases for Paying

Costa Rica Language Guide: Do You Need to Speak Spanish?
  • I would like to buy this – Lo voy a comprar
  • How much does it cost? – ¿Cuánto cuesta? 
  • Do you accept dollars? – ¿Aceptan dólares?
  • Do you accept credit cards? – ¿Acepta tarjetas de crédito?

Hotel Phrases for Costa Rica

san jose hotel lobby

In most hotels, the front desk person will speak some English. If you run into a situation in which there is not an English speaking employee these are the phrases you need to know.

  • I have a reservation – Tengo una reservación
  • What is the nightly rate? – ¿Cuánto es la tarifa por noche?
  • Do you have any rooms available? – ¿Tiene habitaciones disponibles? 
  • I’d like a double room – Quisiera una habitación doble 
  • I’d like to stay for … nights – Me gustaría quedarme por … noches
  • Is breakfast included? – ¿El desayuno está incluido?
  • What time is check out? – ¿A qué hora es la salida?
  • What is the WIFI password? – ¿Cuál es la clave para el WIFI?

Our Costa Rica Language Tips

  • People from Costa Rica are generally some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Don’t be shy about trying to speak Spanish here.
  • Almost everybody you meet will be so appreciative that you at least are making the effort. Also, they will likely recognize right away that you are not from here and will speak slowly to you or they may even switch to English.
  • The Google Translate app is always great to have on your phone. It is super-advanced now and even has a feature in which you can speak into the app in English and it will translate it by voice into Spanish. This is perfect for when you need a lot of help with something and have no clue how to say what you need.
  • We created this in PDF format that you can download for free. We know you won’t always have our website open. This will make it so you can easily access this list whenever you need. 🙂 Just click here to grab your copy.
  • Keep in mind that Costa Rican Spanish is somewhat different than Spain Spanish. Certain sayings are different and the dialect is different as well. I have no problem understanding Spain Spanish (because that is what I learned as kid) but I still struggle with Costa Rican Spanish.
  • Spanish is part of the cultural heritage of Costa Rican. This is important to keep in mind as a tourist. Try to be respectful and make attempts to speak the language when you can.

How to Learn Spanish

Are you interested in learning Spanish or brushing up on your Spanish skills? I think it is such a great language to learn because it is used so prevalently throughout the world.

There are several different ways you can further your language learning.

  • Download Duolingo: Duolingo has both a free and paid plan. I highly recommend this app if you are looking for the basics of the language or need a quick brush-up. This is best for beginners.
  • Watch Movies in Spanish: There are a lot of movies and TV shows on streaming platforms in Spanish. If you are not completely confident in your skills you can watch them in their original language with subtitles to start. It at least gets you used to hearing the language.
  • Take a Spanish Class: Since Spanish is very prevalently spoken it is often easy to find Spanish classes in most larger towns to cities.
  • Take a Spanish Class in Costa Rica: You can also opt to take a Spanish class or retreat once in the country at one of the many private language schools. These classes are often available all throughout the country.

The History of Languages in Costa Rica

The Spanish language was brought to the country during the Spanish colonization of the country in the 16th century. Over the centuries, Spanish became deeply embedded in the country’s identity. It shaped Costa Rican literature, music, and daily interactions.

However, long before Spanish arrived, Costa Rica was home to various indigenous tribes, each with its own language. Today, several indigenous tribes keep their languages alive including Bribri, Cabécar, and Maleku. These languages offer a glimpse into the country’s ancient heritage and are preserved by indigenous communities primarily in rural areas.

In today’s society, it is normal for children in the Costa Rican population to learn the English language as a second language in school.


Hopefully, this guide to Costa Rica language has helped you get a better grasp on some basic Spanish for your vacation.

Let us know if you have any questions about speaking Spanish in the comment section below. While we are not Spanish experts we are happy to try and help you out.

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Costa Rica Travel Details: What You Need to Know

🚗 Should I rent a car in Costa Rica?

Having a rental car will give you the most flexibility when traveling in Costa Rica. This will also allow you to take fun day trips on your own.

🏄🏽 How can I book things to do?

We find that Viator tends to have the most comprehensive selection of activities with secure booking and good cancellation policies.

🍍 I’m overwhelmed with planning. Can you help?

Of course! I suggest joining our Facebook group for specific questions and head to our Start Here Page to get started planning.

✈️ What is the best way to book a flight?

Usually, we have the best luck finding great prices with Skyscanner. Check for flights to both San Jose Airport (SJO) and Liberia Airport (LIR).

🛏️ What is the best way to book my Costa Rica hotels?

We highly suggest Booking.com for hotel bookings and typically use VRBO for Costa Rica vacation rentals.

🗣️What is the main language in Costa Rica?

The main language in Costa Rica is Spanish. Most people working in tourism speak at least some English.

💰 What is the currency in Costa Rica?

The currency used in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican colón (CRC). However, the US dollar is widely accepted in most tourist areas

📞 What is the best way to stay connected?

An eSIM from Airalo is the easiest way to get 4G data while traveling in Costa Rica.

🌴 Is Costa Rica safe?

Generally, Costa Rica is considered safe for tourists. However, like any travel destination, it’s best to use caution and be aware of your surroundings.

🛂 Do you need a passport to go to Costa Rica?

Yes, Costa Rica is its own country. You will need a passport to visit.

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One Comment

  1. Great post, this will be very helpful for travelers.
    Two slang terms I hear a lot are “tuanis” which is like cool and “mae” which is like bro.