I was in the hardware store recently when a small item, well away from anybody in the store, fell off the shelf. The young man waiting on me immediately called out “chamuco” to his colleagues and they all laughed.

Photo by Jack Donnelly

Chamuco is an interesting word with many meanings, depending on the context.

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Some of the literal translations include devil, demon, evil spirit, evil person, mischievous person, fallen angel, etc. I think devil (diablo), evil spirit (espíritu maligno), and demon (demonio) are the most common in Costa Rica.

El chamuco is usually visually depicted by a devil or a devilish figure.
The word comes from the verb chamuscar—to scorch or singe or sear. You may encounter this word in the culinary sense as in carne chamuscada (seared or scorched meat). The idea is that the devil welcomes newly arrived residents of hell by scorching their souls.

In the case of the falling object in the hardware store, it is used jokingly to mean a mischievous spirit that may do something like knock things off of shelves, just to be a bother. In this instance, it’s not unlike a poltergeist except that it doesn’t really take up residence in a particular location.

Ascribing unexplained occurrences like this to a spirit is done jokingly and is more common in rural traditional areas of the country.

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Chamuco can also be used in a variety of more serious ways. It can refer to seriously antisocial or illegal behavior—drug use, crime, etc. It can refer to true evil, either in human or demonic form.

Another use of el chamuco in Costa Rica is to frighten children in good behavior—like the bogeyman. Clean your room or the chamuco will get you!

This function is also commonly fulfilled by another supernatural entity, the duende—a goblin, elf, or spirit.

Chamuco also refers to a dog.

The Mexican Pitbull or Chamuco is not a recognized breed outside of Mexico, but they are very well known there. The name, Devil, might give you some hint as to the breed’s disposition.

The name is also commonly used by rock bands, publications, and other commercial groups looking to put forth a devilish or picaresque image.
So the next time you are with Tico friends and something unexplained occurs you can blame it on el chamuco.

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It’s also a good comeback when somebody claims not to have done something they obviously did. Oh, you didn’t eat all the peanut butter?

It must have been the chamuco.

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Jack Donnelly
Jack Donnelly
Jack Donnelly is a writer, photographer, and speaker living in San Pablo de Heredia. His topics of interest include Costa Rican folk culture, national traditions, traditional cuisine, ecotourism, and wildlife. Donnelly is the author of COSTA RICA: Folk Culture, Traditions, and Cuisine which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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