Hand Gestures, Costa Rican Style

Title photoToday, on our return from marketing, I saw a man on a bicycle greet a friend. As they passed, one gave the other the standard non-verbal Costa Rican howdy-do, a raised arm, in a sort of reverse chopping motion, a flick of the wrist, and the index finger snapped forward. It’s fluid and concise. If you have lived in Costa Rica long enough, you will recognize it as, “Hi, I’m headed this way to do some things.” If he had held his index finger up and rotated it in a small circle he would have meant, “I’m not going far and I’ll be right back.”

I thought about all the hand gestures we have learned since living here, and it occurred to me that many of them probably resulted from distant communications, opposite ends of a pasture, for example, or perhaps from fishing boat to fishing boat.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few. They are good to know and can keep you from using your own culture’s signals, which can get you into trouble in certain situations, and I’ll speak to that a little later.

I looked online for drawings and photos which will aid you in the challenge. Thanks to The Guardian and Acclaim Images.

Spanish-gestures-part-1-S-001This one is ubiquitous. I used it just last week when I tried to do some banking. The place was so jammed with leftover Christmas vacationers that I turned and left without completing my transaction. As I headed out the door, a woman was approaching the bank. I gathered all the fingers on my right hand, raised them, made a pinching motion, and shook my hand a bit. She groaned but went in anyway. But she knew, because I forewarned her, the place was full of people.

Only once, we saw this signal used with the man’s hand stretched out in front. The driver of the car looked directly at us and insistently opened and closed the fingers in a kind of snapping motion. We had no idea what the hell he was trying to tell us, and besides we were concentrating on turning left, cross traffic, to pull into a restaurant parking lot. The same lot he had just pulled out of. When we finally parked, we discovered the restaurant was dark and padlocked. Ah, he was telling us, “It’s closed.”

This one, as you can image, is used to describe how skinny a person is, or perhaps how virile a man is. No further description needed.TD-blog-Spanish-Gestures_4


Here are a few more:

The fist is closed with thumb and index finger held up to form a small space like a “C” and means “ahorita,” surely one of the most loosely translated terms in history of languages. Theoretically, ahorita means “right now,” or, more accurately, “in a minute.” But ahorita can stretch into hours, and the time frame is entirely in the mind of the person using it. Here is a nice explanation of the conflicting meanings of the word.

AhoritaThis same hand gesture means “give me a little chance” and is sometimes seen on an arm extended out a driver’s window, the driver hoping you will fall back in the crush of traffic so he can wedge his car in front of yours.


That’s the polite version.

The more insistent signal, a favorite among taxistas, is the same arm extended out the window, but the arm hangs down by the side of the door. The driver then stiffens the arm and shows you his entire palm, fingers tightly together, and Stopbegins gesturing as though pushing you back. This says, “Beware, because I am coming over into your lane, like it or not.”


Here is where your own culture can get you in trouble. Americans use the one finger “come here” gesture, like the one pictured, but in Costa Rica this means, “I think you are sexy, and I want to get to know you in a carnal way.”


Bad come hereTo ask someone to come over and speak to you, the signal is almost the reverse. Rotate the hand so fingers point down and then use four fingers together in a brushing motion toward yourself. It’s very subtle and much more self-effacing.

But one of my favorites, and sadly I could not find a suitable photo or drawing– it would need YouTube– is used when no further assistance will be offered you, because… really, it is beyond the control of the person to help. In fact, it may be assumed the powers of the universe have conspired to block your path. Nothing to be done. Sorry.

It is our version of the shoulder shrug, but Costa Ricans, being who they are, have made it so much more expressive, and it shows the receiver just how futile it all is.

So, pull both hands up to your chest, the standard stick’um up position, palms facing outward.

Now, the next steps have to happen simultaneously and with practice you can really put some drama into it. Rotate the palms up and outward (It can’t be helped). Shrug your shoulders (Really, it’s not my fault). Now frown slightly (I’ve tried my best, but the universe says it can’t be done).

I see this gesture far more than I’d like.

When all else fails, the middle finger is far and away the most international sign. My husband has given it to some of those taxistas who bully their way around in city traffic. It’s not advised, though.

So you can practice those and next time I will tell you a bit about my current problem. Gusanos

Published by SC Morgan

I grew up in Oregon and learned not everything is black and white. Now I live in the jungles of Costa Rica where the shades of gray cover the full spectrum. I shoot my mouth off on my blog, social media sites, and sometimes I get published. You can find my blog here: https://scmorgancom.wordpress.com/

6 thoughts on “Hand Gestures, Costa Rican Style

  1. I shall memorize this for my visit to CR, hopefully next year. In Greece, we had quite a time learning the hand signals.
    To say good=bye, you use a signal that looks like Come Here in English.
    To say yes, they sort of shake the head sideways and mutter Neh, which looks and sounds a LOT more like NO.
    To say No, they nod their head like a Yes gesture and say, O-Hee, which looks and sounds like OK. Very confusing.


  2. Hi, Peggy, and thanks for stopping by. I definitely remember those contradictory affirmatives and negatives from my travels in Greece. Once you get the hang of it, though, returning to the USA version becomes equally confusing. You end up with a kind head rolling, hoping the person will figure out what you mean. 😉
    I hope you do make it here, and I have fingers crossed for good news in that regard.


  3. The only hand gesture I remember in Spain is using the closed fist with only the pinky standing and doing a slight twist of the wrist. It basically accompanies a story about recochineo.

    But then again I was always told that to use hand gestures was not a sign of good breeding and that if I was planning to punctuate my conversation with gestures they should be subtle and graceful. Such was the charm school in the Schiller household.


    1. People here talk with their hands, making driving and talking on a cell impossible. The upper class have fewer and more subtle gestures, for sure, but they are still there. Your mother taught you well, Rebeca.


    1. Wow, Helen, I was unaware of the middle finger as the victory sign. I always thought it was the index and middle finger–like the hippie peace sign. Interesting. I find hand gestures fascinating. In the research for this post I ran across all kinds of websites with gestures from around the world, but surprisingly few for Costa Rica, which has so many.


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