How to Make New Friends and Engage in Costa Rican Communities

How to Make New Friends and Engage in Costa Rican Communities

Costa Rica offers everything most people could ask for in a place to live, including beautiful scenery, wonderful weather, great food, interesting culture and activities, fascinating history, reasonable cost of living, and excellent technology.

However, for most people, social connections, friendships, and community engagement are vitally important for a happy and fulfilled life wherever one lives.

After living in Costa Rica for more than two decades, I will share ideas for engaging with the local Costa Rican community as well as the expat community, and I will also give some tips for making friends in Costa Rica.

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How to Engage with Local Communities

One of the most common reasons people give for moving to another country is to enjoy the culture and the people. 

To do this, you must engage with local citizens. 

For many expats and retirees, this is the richest experience of living as a foreigner in another country. 

Here are some ways to get to know locals and to engage oneself with the local community.

Volunteering/Serving in the Community

This has many benefits both to the expat and to the community. 

There are many needs in local communities, and expats can often help meet those needs.

Environmental Causes

Costa Rica is one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world. There are numerous opportunities to volunteer with organizations and groups that focus on preserving, enhancing, or protecting elements of the environment. 

One way to find opportunities is to ask around the community where you live. Most communities have groups that are doing something to protect, nurture, or sustain the environment in several ways. Simply ask around.

sloth in Costa Rica
There are many communities in Costa Rica and focuses on conserving wildlife and nature.

Another way to look for volunteer opportunities is to access the following website from Volunteer World

This organization lists and describes numerous opportunities for volunteering in environmental causes throughout the country. Animal rescue and shelters, reforestation, wildlife monitoring, sea turtle conservation, ocean clean-up and conservation, and volunteering in a national park are just some of the opportunities listed. 

The site also gives details on what the volunteer work entails in each listing, so you know what you can expect to do if you join the effort. It’s an excellent resource.

Social Causes

Like most places, there are many social challenges in Costa Rican communities. 

Ask around your community regarding people or organizations that are helping others. For instance, our English church in Jaco runs a prenatal center for mothers and babies; it also runs a food bank which provides food to families in need every week, as well as a feeding program for the homeless in the city park. 

These types of activities need volunteers, and these types of service opportunities are available in various forms in many communities. 

In some cases, expats themselves begin programs to meet needs in their communities.

Some expats volunteer in local schools, helping children with English. Others volunteer in day care centers (with proper clearance) or preschools. 

Others offer free training in computer use or technology; some lend their business expertise to local training programs such as restaurant management or food preparation. 

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Some work with local organizations that build houses for the poor or those displaced by natural disasters. Some with a medical background volunteer with the Red Cross (Cruz Roja) or with local clinics.

Getting to know your community and the people in it will aid you in scouting out volunteer opportunities focusing on social needs. 

Again, ask other expats and locals about the needs in your community.

Religious Causes

According to the World Fact Book, in 2021, 73% of the population considers themselves active participants in a religion. 

This includes Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian, Jehovah’s Witness, other Protestant Christian denominations, and other religions. 

Thus, there are ample opportunities for supporting religious causes throughout the country. 

Finding your own religious community and volunteering are great ways to not only meet locals but also engage in the community of expats.

local church in Costa Rica
You can connect to your local church and be a part that help the community.

Connecting with local priests, pastors, and religious leaders in your community will help you understand how you might be of service in promoting and/or supporting your chosen religious beliefs. Obviously, each religious group will have its own goals and volunteer needs.

In those communities where there are no English-speaking religious groups or churches, Spanish will obviously be necessary for active volunteering, although assisting through donations is always an option.

There are English Christian and/or Catholic churches in the following Costa Rican towns: 

  • San Jose
  • Guachipelin
  • Grecia
  • Escazu
  • Jaco
  • Tamarindo
  • Playas del Coco
  • Brasilito

I also personally know of an English-speaking congregation in Quepos as well as one in Esterillos (Central Pacific Coast). 

In addition, you can research each on the internet and contact the leaders for more information.

There are small communities of Jewish adherents as well as Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Hindus in Costa Rica. A quick search on the internet about these communities will provide information that will be helpful in navigating volunteering opportunities or social connections.

Participating in Local Events, Festivals, Celebrations, etc. 

One way to engage in the community and meet new people is to participate in local events, including celebrations, parades, concerts, festivals, historical commemorations, sports events, etc. 

Most communities in Costa Rica have some sort of community event or festival each year, sometimes more than one. 

I know here in Jaco, we enjoy a Christmas season parade, a community parade and event in the park on the eve of Independence Day (September 15), concerts in the park throughout the year, and 5K and 10K runs through town, including on the beach. 

Join a sports club or team such as soccer, boxing, self-defense, pickleball, etc., or take local dance classes. 

These are all great ways to get to know local people, learn about the community, and feel a part of your new environment.

Online Expat Communities

It is very helpful to get to know other expats as you live in Costa Rica, especially when those expats speak your language. Expats learn and thrive when they have others with whom they can relate, interact, and ask questions. 

There are many expat groups in Costa Rica, some focused on the entire country, some on specific communities, some on specific activities, and some on specific opportunities. 

Here’s a list of groups you can join:

  1. Costa Rica Living
  2. North Americans Living In Costa Rica
  3. Expatriates in Costa Rica
  4. Gringo Expats in Costa Rica—No Advertising
  5. Expats Living in Costa Rica

Note: In every country, there are expats who use Facebook groups to complain and gripe. If you find this happening in any group, just exit and move on to a more amiable group.

Teaching/Tutoring English

One way to become part of your local community and to contribute to your community’s life is to teach English or tutor Costa Ricans in English. 

Many Ticos (common name for Costa Ricans) want to learn English, especially those who have goals for a career, business, or further education. 

teach English in Costa Rica
You can join a local school and teach English to students voluntarily.

Offering your services either personally or by working with an English language school or a local school in the area will be appreciated. 

Not only will you be helping Ticos meet a personal goal, but you will be seen as someone who is giving to the community.

Take a Local Language Class

Taking a local language class in your community will often introduce you to other expats. Learning the local language instantly becomes a common interest. 

Many of the ideas mentioned above for connecting with local Costa Ricans also provide opportunities for meeting expats.

Additional ideas for engaging can be found in the following section on making friends.

Talk to People on the Street

Also, talk to people you see on the street. I have had numerous people stop me on the beach or on my daily walks saying something like, “Hello. Do you live here? Do you know where I can . . . ?” 

Expats are usually eager to be very helpful and answer questions from newcomers.

Quick Tips and Ideas on Making Friends in Costa Rica

  • Smile at people, be friendly, and be approachable. This always helps foster positive interactions that can lead to friendships.
  • Learn Spanish.
  • As mentioned above, volunteer in the community. You never know who you might meet.
  • Introduce yourself to your neighbors. Take them something homemade from your country or something you like to bake. This will often surprise them and open the doors to friendly conversation, even if there is a language barrier. Who knows? They may reciprocate and bring you mangoes, gallo pinto, or something they like to make.
  • Check local newspapers for local events. The Tico Times is a great English online newspaper that provides news and information of interest to expats in Costa Rica. (https://www.ticotimes.net/)
  • Attend church, synagogue, or religious meetings. You will probably find like-minded folks.
  • Suggest activities to people you meet. Don’t wait for them to invite you. Host a potluck or suggest a beach gathering.
  • Most communities with expats have a WhatsApp group for sharing events, activities, and items for sale. They also generally let each other know about sales, happenings, or new things affecting expats. There should be numerous people there to get to know and connect with.
  • Initiate conversations with native speakers, even if you must use a translation app. Ask them about themselves, their families, their communities, etc. Have in mind some things to ask and have your translation app handy. The more Spanish you learn, the less you will have to rely on the app, and you will have made some friends in the meantime.
  • Pursue your hobbies and interests. Ask other expats if there are groups of people who have the same interests.
  • Walk the community. Stop and chat with people when possible. Be visible as a member of the community. This helps to begin the building of trust.
  • Do not criticize Costa Rica or make comments about how the country should run or how things should be done. Express appreciation for the culture, the people, and the food. If you want friends and good relationships, avoid expressing your dislike for aspects of Costa Rica.
  • Be genuine. Being yourself is what will draw the right people to you as friends.
  • Explore the events and groups on Meetup Costa Rica.
  • Don’t forget to check out the earlier link showing Facebook groups in Costa Rica.

Having meaningful activities, interactions in the community, and good friends help significantly in making your expat experience in Costa Rica rich and enjoyable. 

You may never want to leave.

Final Advice: Learn Spanish

This is the most important entry point for knowing people and your community. 

It is very difficult to meet and enjoy Costa Ricans without being able to communicate with them. In some expat communities, there are locals who speak English; however, these are the exception rather than the rule, and they shouldn’t be expected to speak English.

Communication in banks, stores, pharmacies, government offices, etc., will be in Spanish. So, not only will you get to know people more easily and more quickly by learning the language, but you will also learn more about the culture and how to live enjoyably among the people.

Costa Ricans are very appreciative of foreigners who attempt to learn Spanish. They will be helpful and supportive. 

In 20 years in Costa Rica, I have never had a Tico criticize or ridicule my efforts to learn Spanish. They are impressed that I continually learn and speak with them in their own language. 

In every community of any size, there are people who give Spanish lessons or who are willing to tutor individuals in Spanish. If you live in one of the more touristic towns, there most likely will be language schools also. 

Taking the time to immerse yourself in a language learning program early on will have many benefits, and you will feel a part of the community much more quickly. It will also make living much easier as you take care of the personal business of living in Costa Rica.

One extra word of advice:  don’t hesitate to speak, even if you are a beginner or aren’t fluent. Costa Ricans will meet you where you are and will do everything possible to communicate with you graciously. If you initiate any conversation in Spanish, even if it’s very basic, they will appreciate it and be helpful.

Unfortunately, some expats have the attitude that everyone in the world should speak English. It’s important to remember that expats are visitors to the country, and if we want everything to be like our home country, we should stay there. We are guests in the new country, and as such, we must respect how life is lived there, including the language.

If you are in the planning stages of moving to Costa Rica, I encourage you to begin your Spanish language learning before you move. 

The more you know upon arrival, the easier it will be to settle in and establish your life here.

Paul Maxfield
As an educator and nonprofit leader, Dr. Paul Maxfield has traveled to 58 countries and lived in four: The United States, The Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, and Honduras. He and his wife, Brenda, live in Costa Rica and have two children and six grandchildren. He is the author of When Far Away Is Home and Straddling Two Worlds.

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