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Nov 30 2012

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Costa Rica Isn’t for Everyone?

(Updated October 27, 2015)

Jackie, one of our readers wrote, “I have read in your newsletter that Costa Rica is not for everyone. (Others) say the same thing… My question is, just what is it about Costa Rica that is not for everyone? In your opinion, other than the language difference, what are the three most challenging things about living in Costa Rica?” We had to step back and think about our answer, so we decided to answer her question here.

1. First of all, it’s a different culture, though you may not notice it at first. Ticos look like us, and in many ways are like us, but there are some basic differences in how they approach life.

They are not driven, like many people are in the U.S. They have a much more tranquilo lifestyle. This translates into a variety of attitudes and behaviors, like “If it doesn’t get done today, it might get done tomorrow. If not, well, it will be done eventually.” Or, “Who cares if it isn’t done perfectly…it’s functional; that’s good enough.” It also contributes to the bureaucracy.  Whether it’s all the licenses and approvals needed to build a home, or dealing with the police and justice department if you’ve been a victim of crime, many things aren’t done quickly, or efficiently, here.

A recent first-time visitor to Costa Rica made the comment to me, “Toto, this isn’t Kansas anymore,” when referring to the less-than-perfect building standards he observed here. Houses aren’t built to U.S. standards, sidewalks are broken and can be dangerous to walk on, and there are bars on the windows. My response to him was, “Bienvenido a Costa Rica! And you’re right, this is not Kansas! But in many ways, that’s a good thing. I have to confess, my first reaction was similar to yours. I wasn’t used to seeing all the bars on the windows and concertina wire on the walls. But it’s amazing what you can get used to, and look past, over time. And you definitely would need to let go of the concept of “perfection” if you choose to live here — or maybe even to enjoy visiting Costa Rica.” And while the houses aren’t built to U.S. standards, there are strict building codes here, which is why Costa Rica had such low damages and loss of life from the recent 7.6 earthquake.

Oftentimes, people can’t adapt to the culture and the language, and this affects every area of their lives. They may be unwilling — or convinced they are unable — to learn Spanish. And they are convinced that everything is done better back home. Ethnocentrism is judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture. While this may be natural, it can also be a prescription for unhappiness in Costa Rica. That leads me to reason #2.

2. Many people come to Costa Rica believing that they can pick up their lives back in the U.S., Canada, or elsewhere and just transplant it here in Costa Rica. They buy a piece of land, build an “American style” house, ship all of their belongings, and try to live their lives basically the same way they lived “back home.” We know one couple who bought a house and spent $20,000 to ship everything they owned, only to decide two months later that Costa Rica wasn’t for them. They couldn’t adapt and it was an expensive mistake to make.

It may be less expensive to live in Costa Rica when it comes to health care, housing, and many food items, but if you keep buying a lot of imported products that you used or ate back home, or you run a dishwasher or dryer on a regular basis, it can be more expensive. And initially, many folks come here for the less expensive medical care, but ultimately don’t trust the medical system (or their ability to communicate their medical issues). When they are old enough for Medicare, many of these folks decide to move back to the U.S.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with these choices – after all, people want different things – we think that these folks won’t be as happy here long-term, because it IS different. And Costa Rica is less different than some other countries such as Mexico and Ecuador. I think that the people who are happiest here are those that choose to come because of the differences instead of in spite of them. They tend to focus on the positives – all the things that Costa Rica is doing right.  It’s no accident that Ticos are repeatedly rated one of the happiest peoples on earth.

3. Another big reason that Costa Rica isn’t for everyone is the pull of family ties. People don’t realize how much they will miss their family – whether it’s parents who are getting older or children who are giving birth to your grandchildren. Modern technology, like Skype, makes it easier. Family and friends may come to visit. But even so, it may not be enough. Our friends, the Brinks, decided to leave Costa Rica after five years to move to Utah so they can watch their first grandchild grow up. All it took was holding that new baby in their arms to make their decision clear. It’s always been interesting to me that many of the expats we’ve met in Costa Rica are couples like us who’ve never had children. There is just less of that pull than couples with children experience.

It is estimated that more than 70% of expats return home within the first 5 years.”

So, is Costa Rica right for you? You should do your “due diligence” before you move here, but you won’t really know if Costa Rica is for you until you spend some extended time here, as living here is different from visiting here. Maybe you will find, as many do, that Costa Rica is right for you for a time. As Paul often says, “it’s not a contest. It’s okay to try it out.”

It’s funny, I realized as I was writing this that it’s not so much the things that are wrong with Costa Rica that make it “not for everyone.” Rather, it’s the expectations of the people who come here that, I think, is the main issue, and the choices they make once here. Our friend, George Lundquist, who runs the successful Retire in Costa Rica on Social Security tour, often says “don’t ask ‘is Costa Rica right for me?’ Ask ‘am I right for Costa Rica?’” I couldn’t agree more. I’m sure that some of you will disagree with my thoughts on the matter. Please feel free to post your comments if you would like to share your thoughts. And Jackie, I hope this answers your question!

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