In a recent trip to Nicaragua – a long weekend getaway and part of my Living La Pure Vida beyond the borders of my Costa Rica home, I was struck by a number of things that reminded me of my former expat life in Panama. This sparked this post: Costa Rica – Panama – Nicaragua: 5 Differences…and this is just the beginning. Read on. Perhaps this will whet your whistle for traveling between these three countries – so close – but with cultures a world away from one to the next.
Variety is the Spice of Life…isn’t it?
A resounding YES, and thus, I thought it might be fun for my fellow expats who travel the Central American region like I do, and anyone else who may be sojourning through same, or even considering a move to Panama, Costa Rica or Nicaragua to take a look at my recent observations.
Difference #1: “You’re Welcome”
In all three countries, you’ll use “Gracias” to say thanks. But how the locals respond….well, therein lies the subtle differences which reflect the nuances of the three cultures.
Panama: “De Nada” which literally means “You are welcome” (English Pronunciation: Day NAH-Dah). Panamanians also respond with “Claro”, which simply means “Sure”.
Costa Rica: “Con Gusto” which translates to “With Pleasure” (English Pronunciation: Cone GOOSE-toe). In Spanish, this is considered a more polished or sophisticated response than Panama’s more straightforward ones. (And in Costa Rica, you’ll also probably get a smile….not so often in Panama.)
Nicaragua: “A La Orden” which translates to “At Your Service” (English pronunciation: A Law ORD-N). Again, the Nicaraguan response is more polite generally than Panama’s, but equal with the Tico one.
Difference #2: The Nationals’ Nickname
The formal name for Costa Rican natives is Costariccenses, but few people use that word unless you’re in a more formal setting. The nickname for those native-born in Costa Rica is Ticos (pronounced TEA-kos).
You’ll notice that the words Panameños and Ticos ends in O, which is correct in the Spanish language for a group of people that includes both genders.
Herein lies the difference: Nicaragua. Using that same rule in Spanish, one would think that the nickname for national citizens would be “Nicos”. But it’s not. It’s “Nicas” ending in A, which would normally indicate that the described group is female or that the word (like citizens) is feminine. But citizen in Spanish is “ciudadano”, clearly masculine. And quite obviously, the entire Nicaraguan population is NOT feminine either. (In fact, Nicaragua is one of the most machismo cultures in Central America!)
I turned to my Tico husband for an explanation to this query; his answer was a shrug. Sometimes you just gotta love Spanish…
Difference #3: Money
Panamanians have the Balboa, which only includes their coinage. Otherwise, Panama uses the U.S. Dollar. (A major convenience for U.S. expats that choose to move to Panama.) Short answer: no exchange rate and no need to fool around with different bills when you visit.
In Costa Rica, the U.S. bills are accepted pretty much everywhere; U.S. coins, however, are not. But the Costa Rican national currency is called the Colon, and in multiples, Colones. Current exchange rate (as of August 2017): 570 Colones to one U.S. Dollar.
Nicaragua’s currency is the Cordoba; current exchange is 30 to one U.S. Dollar. Have no fear in carrying and using U.S. Dollars (not including coinage, once again) all over the country though, but expect to get Cordobas back as change.
Difference #4: Religious Leanings
Having lived in Panama for eight years, I personally witnessed how devout the local population is – to a grand extent – to the Catholic faith. I would deem to say that the average in the country is around 70% Catholic. Yes, other churches exist, but Catholicism is the main one, which Christianity far behind. Drive by a big Cathedral or church on Sunday morning in Panama – no matter where you are in the country – and you’ll find it packed with people. Religious holidays are strictly observed by ordinary citizens and a driving reason for extended families to congregate on a regular basis.
Costa Rica is at the other end of the spectrum, which surprised me, because their conquistadors hailed from Spain, just as some of Panama’s did. Perhaps it has something to do with Costa Rica’s commitment to education (which they started investing in mightily since 1949 when they disbanded their military). It’s historically relevant that as the level of education increases, the commitment to planned religious systems normally decreases. (I’m sure someone will argue with that, but that’s how I see it). Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, only boasts one large, central Catholic Cathedral, versus Panama’s multiple ones. And, church attendance in Costa Rica – even in the country along the coast in more rural areas – has dropped to an estimated 30% of what it was twenty years ago.
Nicaragua falls somewhere in between; again, another surprise, at least to me, given that Nica’s level of poverty is much higher than either of the forenamed countries. Nica’s people are devout – yes – but in some areas of Nicaragua, it’s not the “expected” Catholicism; instead the church goers attend some sect of the Evangelical Church. But, again, even so, the churches we observed this past weekend on a Sunday morning drive were only about half full. So, more devout than Costa Rica, but far from Panama levels. Interesting.
Difference #5: Cleanliness
This is a favorite topic of mine, and one I wrote about significantly when I lived in Panama. Cleanliness – in my family of origin – was akin to Godliness. It’s something I notice, no matter where I go.
Panama gets a bad rap for cleanliness across the nation, but it’s justified, because the country as a whole cares little for picking up after themselves. The never-ending trash on the streets and the lack of care even in the bathrooms at the airports are one of the things most expats in Panama dislike the most. Unfortunately, it’s part of Panama’s culture. (Yes, the past two governments and some community influencers have begun campaigns to turn this unsavory trend around, but those things usually take quite some time to take hold.)
Costa Rica, on the other hand, educates their children – and has for years – about the need for recycling and putting trash in the right places. Is it a perfect system? No. But the country’s attention to detail when it comes to pollution is admirable on all fronts.
Nicaragua, surprisingly, parallels Costa Rica when it comes to trash on the streets. The prior First Lady evidently pushed a campaign for National Clean Up across the country, and it worked: today, even in rural areas where the poorest of natives reside, the streetscapes are remarkably clean. At a mall in Managua on a recent trip, the tile floors actually sparkled when I crossed them. Needless to say, for such a poor country, I’m impressed!
Three Neighboring Countries But the Similarities Stop There
Hope you enjoyed this little sojourn into my travels as a Central American expat. It’s fun to peek into other countries’ cultures and observe what makes them tick (from an outside perspective, of course). Variety truly is the spice that makes travel so much fun!
For more on expat life in Costa Rica, click elsewhere within this website. (If you’re interested in buying real estate in South Pacific Costa Rica where we live, I can help you with that too.)
For more on expat living in Panama, visit the Panama Gringo Guide website here.
And, if you’re interested in my writing – and my new book Dream Job – scheduled to hit the shelves (and the NY Times Bestseller list!) in 2018, take a look here.
Until next time, Pura Vida!