“To be called a town, a place has to have four things,” said our Costa Rican guide, Victor. “An elementary school, a church, a park with a futbol field, and a bar.”
All kidding aside, after our laughter died down, he elaborated on that list and the reasons for it. Big or small, sometimes the size of a crossroads, a local town has certain required features. Is it a wonder that Ticos (what Costa Ricans call themselves) are among the happiest people on the planet?
When Costa Rica abolished its military after World War II, it had a big surplus in its budget, and from this came the determination to pay for education for all. Elementary school is mandatory for all children up to the sixth grade, and if a town has a single child, they will have a teacher and a school. School is year-round with a big break in January (dating back to when kids helped their parents with crop harvests) and smaller holidays scattered around the calendar.
Seventh to twelfth grade is voluntary, and most children take advantage of those free school years, learning English, expanding their technical and scientific knowledge, and exploring future professions. Often these schools are situated to take in students from multiple towns, and sometimes those who live far away board with local families.
As a result of all this free education, Costa Ricans have the highest literacy rate in the world, 97.6% in a recent study. (Compare that to the U.S., where the figure hovers at two-thirds of the population, with functional literacy even less.) Their advanced degrees in college create a workforce that’s more technically savvy than some of the high-tech zones stateside and around the world, which in turn brings in plenty of international corporations taking advantage of the knowledge base.
Catholicism is the state religion of Costa Rica, and its constitution guarantees religious freedom for all no matter what their beliefs. Over 76% of the country self-declares as Catholic (ergo, the multitude of churches), with almost 14% Evangelical Christians as the next largest group. The remaining 10% is spread over many other religions in single digits or less, and representation for all is a given.
“Soccer isn’t a game here,” Victor said, “it’s a religion.” From the time they are young, children play formal or informal futbol games, and it isn’t unusual to see the day end with adults on the local community pitch (called a cancha), kicking and passing with high degrees of success. Private land often has its own dedicated football field, ready for friends or coworkers to pick up a quick game (known as a mejenga).
Many Costa Rican players graduate from the extensive network of professional teams in the country to Central and South American confederation, MLS and FIFA teams around the world. Since fully 25% of Ticos claim a label as a soccer player, the numbers are stacked. By comparison, less than 1% of the U.S. population plays the sport.
Ticos are friendly people, and the bars you find in many towns are more like social centers or clubs than a pub where you suck down a beer in solitude. (That friendliness extends to everyone, Ticos and non-Ticos alike.) Dancing is a popular way to relax, so expect to find music (live or not) and people swaying their hips to the beat. Watching sports (futbol, si!) and singing karaoke are also happy ways to blow off steam and unwind. Expect to talk at high volume and laugh a lot, since that’s the cultural norm.
Wouldn’t you love to live in a town with all this going for it? Put your finger on any dot of the Costa Rican map – you’ll find it all there!
What other countries have society or cultural norms for what a town must have, as Costa Rica does? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!