Describing Rain in Costa Rica

As I write this, it has been pouring down the rain for several hours. Since it’s the end of September and we are in the middle of the heaviest rainfall period of the winter, this is a normal afternoon. Costa Rica has two seasons which have nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with precipitation: summer (verano) is the dry season that typically begins in December and usually comes to an end in April.

The rest of the year is winter (invierno), or rainy season—now quaintly called the “green season” because it sounds nicer. Know that September and October have the highest rainfall averages in most parts of the country. 

The pattern of sunny mornings and rainy afternoons for months on end can take some getting used to, but if you’re going to live here, you must adjust. It requires a change of mindset and the willingness to schedule your outside activities in the mornings for the duration of the winter. If your day involves walking to work or through a parking lot, you might start keeping a spare pair of dry shoes at work and/or in the car. I can’t tell you how many times I was glad I did this.

FYI: when locals say, “ahorita viene el agua,” they mean the rain is coming soon, although literally they called it water. Ahorita is a vague term than can mean now, minutes, or weeks from now. Ya viene el agua means run, or get an umbrella! Ya does imply now or already.

Our afternoon rains may involve only precipitation, or they might include plenty of wind (viento), thunder (truenos), and lightning (relámpagos), in which case we can use the word for storm, tormenta. We’ve had more severe electrical storms in recent months than is common, and I suspect this is directly related to the amount of dust and mineral particles in the air courtesy of our erupting volcanoes. 

As for hail (granizo), I have seen it fall in the Central Valley, but it’s an extremely rare phenomenon.

The dreaded weather pattern known as a temporal doesn’t happen more than once or twice each year, fortunately, because this event describes seemingly endless days of 24/7 rain. With no hot sun to counter the effects of constant high humidity, mold begins to grow on everything, nothing stays dry, and mud becomes a fact of life. A temporal can drive the most stoic of ticos to distraction, and send newbies scrambling for any place sunnier. The first morning of sunshine is a happy day of jubilation for everybody!

My most memorable temporal was decades ago when I had a baby in cloth diapers and no clothes dryer. It went on for two solid weeks. You’d be surprised how quickly you become okay with a clothesline strung across the windows in your living room. (Neither dryers nor disposable diapers were widely available or affordable in CR back then!)

Lluvia means rain. Simple enough. But why call it lluvia, when there are so many more precise ways to describe the precipitation that falls from the clouds?!

It’s raining—kind of …

More common in the highlands, dew isn’t really considered rain but I wanted to include it because it can be heavy enough to drip from old tile roofs. The translation is rocio, which sounds and is spelled exactly like the woman’s name, Rocio.

Pelo de gato (hair of the cat) is the result of neblina (fog) becoming too heavy to remain suspended in the air.Perhaps the name comes from how softly it falls. This fine lightweight mist will eventually moisten or wet anything it falls on. While easy to ignore, it will leave you damp, frizzy haired, and miserable if you’re out in it very long. 

Then we have llovizna, which is a fine drizzle, and garúa, a slightly heavier drizzle. Deciding if it’s lloviznando or garuando is a purely subjective affair. Like the pelo de gato, these light rains will lead you to open an umbrella only if you have more than a few steps to go, or prefer to stay as dry as possible.  I’ve learned to stay dry more often than not because afterwards if it’s cool, you’ll feel chilled, and if it’s hot, you’ll stew in your own juices. Dry is more comfortable most of the time.

If it’s goteando, which literally means dripping, it’s starting to sprinkle—small drops here and there. I occasionally hear the word chispita to describe a drop of rain, although in CR, a chispa or chispita usually means a spark. This meaning from other Spanish speaking countries is a relatively new import. An eye to the sky may or may not help you decide whether to ignore the drops or start running for shelter. Just so you know, a partially sunny sky doesn’t guarantee you won’t get rained on here. The image above (bottom right) shows pouring rain through the sunshine!

Heavy rains: aguaceros, chaparrones, and baldazos

If it’s raining heavily, we normally say it’s an aguacero; a downpour. An aguacero that doesn’t let up quickly is an aguacero tieso, or a stiff downpour. An aguacero can happen suddenly, or it can be a heavy rain that can be seen or heard from miles away. Where I live, I often hear it coming several minutes before it arrives.

Thankfully, these don’t usually last very long. If the rain is accompanied by driving wind, you will learn that an umbrella is no match for a virtually horizontal aguacero. Waiting it out wherever you are is the best thing you can do, whether you’re on foot or behind the wheel.

Depending on where you are, flash flooding is entirely possible, and low bridges can become impassable in minutes. If you are in the boonies of the country, this is a particularly significant concern. Washouts are common and the dry river bed you crossed going up the mountain could now be a raging river. A typical aguacero produces a tremendous amount of water in a short period of time, and being higher up is a plus.

You might also be caught in a sudden, particularly heavy aguacero that could be described as a chaparrón or a baldazo (balde = bucket) as though a bucket of water was poured over you. Se vino un baldazo—it started raining buckets. I have encountered these brief heavy rains that were occurring in a single spot on the highway, and it was exactly as though someone dumped a huge bucket of water on me as I passed by. (FYI: chaparrón means a sudden, short, heavy rain).

When a chaparrón or baldazo involves strong gusts of wind, it’s often called a chubasco.

A lluvia torrencial is the torrential rain that occurs for minutes or hours at a time in the tropics. Se vino un diluvio means “there came a deluge.” A diluvio can go on for a short or long period of time, but this commonly refers to a longer, heavier event.

A cántaros is a traditional way of describing this kind of heavy rain, as well. A cántaro literally means a jug, but a cántaros (to jugs) might best be translated as “raining cats and dogs,” a colorful American English expression that is quite amusing to ticos.

Needless to say, some of these terms are often interchangeable in common usage, since they depend on the speaker’s opinion. Rain is simply part of daily life for anyone living in Costa Rica, and varying how it’s described is part and parcel of dealing with it.

On a final note, if you’re in Costa Rica in the month of March, you’ll likely hear about the yigüirro, the national bird who is said to “call the rains.” It just so happens that the beginning of rainy season coincides with the nesting season, so male birds are really just singing to establish their territory, but don’t ruin the charm of this traditional saying by pointing that out. Just make sure you have an umbrella at hand when he begins his long-winded warbling!


For information on rainfall by the area and by the month: