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Aug 28 2014

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The Truth about Living in Costa Rica: The Good, the Bad, and the Muddy, by Josh Linnes

by Josh Linnes

(Originally published by Viva Tropical on August 8, 2014. Used with permission.)

Also includes annotations by Paul and Gloria in green (updated 10/26/15). Photos by retireforlessincostarica.com.

It’s easy to find tons of articles and information out there highlighting all the great benefits of living in Costa Rica. PuraVidaBeachBut it’s also easy to read those blogs and marketing pieces and think, “Yeah, it sounds great and all, but can it really be as perfect as all that yoga and ‘pura vida’ and dazzling sunsets I keep hearing about.” Yeah, it can. But that doesn’t mean that living in Costa Rica is without its share of annoyances and headaches. It is after all a developing country, albeit a breathtakingly gorgeous one with a relaxed vibe and some of the most welcoming people you’ll ever meet. To help you decide if it’s really the right place for you to work and live and play, we’ve unpacked the whole truth about living in Costa Rica. Our intent is not to discourage you from making the country your expat home. Costa Rica is one of the most popular expat destinations in the world for a reason. It’s because the amazing benefits easily outweigh the bad, in the minds of most expats. What we do want to do is to give you a clear picture of what you could expect in your day-to-day life living in Costa Rica.

For some, pura vida can be an acquired taste.

Meaning “pure life,” pura vida is the unofficial slogan of Costa Rica, or at least the country’s collective philosophy. This laid-back attitude is one of the main characteristics that draws many expats to the country in the first place. Yet it’s also one of the ones that frustrates North Americans the most, after the honeymoon phase wears off.

This concept of slowing down to enjoy life, letting things just roll off your back, and relaxing your expectations is a great outlook to adopt. It’s likely one of the reasons Costa Ricans are among the healthiest and happiest cultures in the world.

Side effects of a pura vida overdose

Living and doing business in a pura vida culture can involve things like not receiving your mail for unexplained reasons, waiting days for your power to be restored after a minor outage, or even having a string of multiple repairmen fail to show up to fix your roof. One big contributor to the pura vida frustration is the phrase “mañana,” which you probably thought meant “tomorrow.” It doesn’t. At least, not usually. It could mean Friday, next Tuesday, the beginning of October, or even never. However, the one thing it does always mean is “not today.” The same relaxed approach to getting things done applies to most services and government operations as well. Most infrastructure is poorly maintained. The roads are in poor condition. Street signs and building numbers rarely exist. And buses are somewhat unreliable since they change their routes depending on road conditions, especially during the rainy season.

The steps you were told you needed to take last month to get your visa or a building permit may be completely different than the response you get when you go back to the same office with that first set of paperwork completed. It’s even worse than your worst experience at the DMV. Processes that should take weeks can take years, and that can be incredibly frustrating to someone who’s accustomed to much more consistent and systematic ways of doing things. Your best bet? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you go into the process knowing what to expect, you can be better prepared to roll with the punches, remain patient and calm, and just keep moving the ball forward at every opportunity.

Losing your temper and blowing up at the underpaid, overworked immigration employee or customer service representative will get you nowhere. A deep breath, a polite “gracias,” and a smile can work wonders.

When living in Costa Rica, you can’t escape the country’s untamed natural surroundings.

beach_monkeysCosta Rica’s economy is heavily dependent on ecotourism. And if you’ve even seen so much as a single photo slideshow highlighting the country’s natural beauty, then you can easily see why. This Central American country literally has it all, with terrains and eco-climates ranging from long stretches of undeveloped coastline to towering volcanoes to dense jungles and rainforests to lush valleys to waters teeming with all sorts of exotic marine life to inland lakes, streams, and rivers with cascading waterfalls. We could go on and on. These wild and rugged settings form a backdrop for all manner of tropical species. And you don’t have to go to a nature preserve to see them, because they’ll come to you!

Sounds awesome, right? Well, not always.

This could mean everything from spotting monkeys and toucans in your garden to finding scorpions in your house or even bats in your toilet. Normal mosquito in Costa Rica Among the most prevalent unexpected guests are insects. There are crawling critters in Costa Rica of which you’ve never seen the likes in North America. And, unfortunately, they’re unavoidable. The humid beach towns, particularly along the Caribbean coast, are often plagued with mosquitoes, which can carry dengue fever. Ants are a problem everywhere, and they bite. So clean kitchens and secure food storage are essential to ward them off. Termites can also invade and cause considerable property damage. And you might see cockroaches as big as your hand.

What can be done about these unwelcome intruders? Not much. However, they do seem to be more prevalent (and grow quite larger) in the coastal areas. So, the less humid mountainous regions might be a better fit for you if you’re someone who loses his cool over the tiniest spider sighting. Outside of trying to find a spot less populated with critters, just do your best to be on the lookout for them. Check your shoes before you stick your foot in. Shake out blankets and sleeping bags before you curl up in them. Things like that.

The weather is great most of the time, but when it rains it pours.

In North America, the way you choose your desired temperature is by adjusting your thermostat. In Costa Rica you can tweak your weather by carefully selecting your location and, more specifically, your elevation.

Are you looking for a year-round consistent climate with temps in the low 70s and the anticipated daily shower each afternoon? Try the Central Valley, near San Jose, which thousands of expats already call home. Are you OK with enduring a little more heat and humidity in exchange for the laid-back lifestyle of one of the country’s amazing beach towns? Then try a quaint little village on the coast.

A word of caution, though. The country’s rainy season runs from May to November. And, depending on where you live, “rainy” could mean anything from the aforementioned afternoon shower to torrential downpours that go on for days on end. The Caribbean coast gets more rainfall than the Pacific, particularly the eastern slopes of the Central Cordillera mountains.

How bad can a little bit of rain be?

Here’s how that plays out in real life. As we mentioned, Costa Rica isn’t known for the quality of its roads. Add 10 or more inches of rain in a month’s time, and that situation doesn’t exactly improve. The roads, as well as your own property, will at times be a muddy mess.

The rest of the country’s infrastructure can also fail, with power and water outages being quite common. And the utility companies’ attitudes towards affecting a speedy restoration of service can be enough to send an impatient North American right over the edge. The persistent rainfall, plus the lack of sunshine to dry things out, can result in a lot of your belongings (think outdoor furniture and patio cushions) becoming moldy. Oh, and all that nature we talked about? The rain and flooding often send select members of it (think bugs and snakes) right inside your home looking for refuge.

How can you combat these issues as a newcomer? For starters, use care when selecting your destination city and make sure to experience what it’s like in the wet season before you buy property. Outside of that, there’s not much you can do. Except rest in the knowledge that once the balmy summer weather arrives (December to April), the downpours and flooding will all just seem like a bad dream. Until next year.

You’ll love the many opportunities for adventure, but you won’t be the only one.

ArenalVolcanoPACosta Rica’s [mostly] great weather and amazing natural beauty have made it extremely popular as an expat and tourist destination. As a result, there are tons of ways to experience the outdoors and get your adrenaline going. You can go deep sea fishing and reel in a record-breaking catch, soar through the canopy and see the rainforest via zipline, go whitewater rafting on a raging river, hike to the top of a volcano, learn to surf on some of the world’s best waves, or even just enjoy the exotic flora and fauna that’s all around you. It would be wrong to keep all this a secret. With so many great opportunities to enjoy nature, there are understandably a lot of visitors to Costa Rica. So much so that some expats complain that it’s a bit too touristy. It really depends on your preference whether or not that presents a problem for you. Some expats welcome the constant influx of individuals from all walks of life. Some would rather feel more like pioneers who were the first and only ones to discover such a hidden gem of an expat destination. The general consensus? Most people who’ve settled in Costa Rica for the long haul agree that the varied and diverse culture is part of what makes the country so great. The welcoming, anything goes approach affords a lot of chances to meet new people and learn about other cultures. The country’s popularity as a tourist destination can also be quite profitable for entrepreneurs living in Costa Rica. All those visitors need food, lodging, tour guides, and other niche services that savvy expat investors are more than willing to provide. It’s a great investment opportunity.

Costa Rica is incredibly safe, as long as you use good sense.

Compared to many of its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is extremely safe. Its homicide rate is 10.3 people per 100,000, second in the region only to Nicaragua at 8.7. Violence like rape and hate crimes are almost unheard of, even though–when they do occur to visiting North Americans–you’re very likely to hear about it on the news. Due to the country’s peace-loving nature and stable government, there are also no riots or other political uprisings. In fact, it’s often referred to as the Switzerland of the Americas.

No country is immune to the increasing global crime rates.

That being said, Costa Rica still has its share of petty crimes. The good news is that much more of them are property-related. Homes, particularly those that are only used seasonally, are frequently broken into. Tourists are often pick-pocketed. And leaving items unattended in an unlocked vehicle or lying around outside your home is a good way to ensure they won’t be there when you come back.

Prevention is key for those visiting or living in Costa Rica. If you’re a tourist, try not to look or act like one. Don’t wear loads of flashy jewelry, accessories, sunglasses, etc. Limit any excessive carrying of electronics like camera, smartphones, iPods, and other devices. And, whatever you do, don’t go waving around wads of cash, particularly large bills. As long as you use common sense and stick to the more traveled and well-lit thoroughfares, especially at night, you should be just fine. If you’re a resident, don’t leave expensive items outside your home. Lock up any outbuildings. And install a security system on your home, especially if you don’t live there year-round.

The cost of living is good, but not the best in the region.

dolares-colonesA major perk of becoming an expat in Central America is the low cost of living, compared to the price of the same goods and services in North America. Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as some great health food options, are widely available. They’re also extremely affordable. Some great properties can be had at a fraction of what a comparable sized home (in the same incredible setting) would run you in the U.S. Utilities are cheap, as in many areas you don’t even need to heat or cool your home. Indulgences like a hour-long massage might cost as little as $10. Taxes are also low, with property taxes rarely exceeding a few hundred dollars. There are also significant tax savings for foreigners. Two of the biggest savings for those living in Costa Rica are domestic help and health care. The services of a maid, gardener, or other domestic worker can be as low as a few dollars per day, a luxury most people could hardly afford in a first-world setting. Health care, while arguably first-world caliber, is also a great deal. Costa Rica has a state-run health system whose quality has been ranked higher than that of the U.S. The hospitals are clean and modern. Most doctors are U.S.-trained and English-speaking. These are some of the reasons Costa Rica has become a popular destination for medical tourism.

How could there be a downside to this?

Well, there isn’t really. Except for the fact that there are definitely cheaper places to live in Central America. So, while Costa Rica is not the cost leader, it makes up for any higher prices with its exceptional quality. If cost is a driving factor in your decision-making process, then you might want to look at some other destinations in Latin America. However, just remember that the old adage about getting what you pay for is true more often than not.

There are a lot of North American expats living in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has long been a hotspot for North American expats, and it shows. The North American influence is everywhere. There are large, well-connected expat communities in most of the more popular towns. They have gardening clubs, gringo poker night, food and wine tastings, and other social gatherings. There are even programs specifically geared towards helping newcomers acclimate to their expat home. You could literally find something to do every night of the week if you wanted to.

Why is this a problem?

This type of North American-influenced lifestyle is precisely the reason that many expats left in the first place. As a result, it may be a turnoff to some. Again, it really depends on your preference. Decide now what level of expat community you’re after. The good news is that it’s easy to gauge your tolerance for a high density of other expats. Just visit the place and see what you think. If you want more opportunities to immerse yourself in the authentic culture, without having English constantly spoken to you or receiving flyers about the latest production at the expat theater, then choose a less-developed spot with fewer North Americans.

If you think being around other folks who’ve walked a mile in your shoes might help you and your family better transition to your new life, then it’s as simple as looking for posters announcing the next meeting of the expat group or finding a forum where you can get connected before you even make the move. Also take into consideration your other family members, like your children, and their needs. Having English-speaking friends can make a world of difference in those all-important first weeks and months in a new place. While many of these and other factors about living in Costa Rica may seem like a lot to sort through, most all of them can be easily weighed by just scheduling a trip to bring your family down and decide for yourself.

Worst case scenario? You’ll have one of the best vacations of your lives. Best case? You could find the home you’ve always dreamed of.

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1 comment

  1. redbeard

    This is a pretty good article on the pros and cons of living in CR, but there are some items that I feel are misleading to “newbies”.

    “A major perk of becoming an expat in Central America is the low cost of living, compared to the price of the same goods and services in North America.” That is true of many locally produced goods (e.g., fruits and veggies), but many of the “same goods” cost much more, i.e. electronics, cars, imported foods, wines, etc. Often times appliances are lower quality than the “same” appliances in the USA, even if the same brand name. And the low cost “services” are often not equivalent quality services.

    “Utilities are cheap…”. The unit cost of electricity is much higher in CR than in the USA. If you use A/C in CR, it may cost you more than heating your home in the USA.

    “Health care, while arguably first-world caliber, is also a great deal. Costa Rica has a state-run health system whose quality has been ranked higher than that of the U.S. The hospitals are clean and modern.” Private health care may be cheaper and perhaps first-world caliber, but the state-run health system is not “first-world caliber”. I’ve read accounts of people waiting for many months to see a specialist and 1-2 years to have medical treatments. Some have died while waiting. I’ve heard horror stories of the quality of care in public hospitals outside of San Jose. I recently tried to make an appointment for an routine x-ray requested by my EBAIS doctor – the hospital (in Guanacaste) said the next appointment time would be in 5 months. Private health care is much better than the public health care, but then one must either pay for both the public and private health care premiums or must pay out-of-pocket.

    We moved to CR over a year ago and are very happy with our decision. But in the spirit of the title of this article, these items should be clarified for the readers. Pura Vida!

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