So you want to move to Costa Rica…
Are you looking for the good life? That Pura Vida thing you keep hearing about?
Do you yearn for a simpler life? An ecofriendly paradise where you can live naturally, live like a millionaire, do yoga, and leave a small carbon footprint upon the Earth? Are you seeking peace, tranquility, beauty, and adventure?
Costa Rica has it all–picture perfect sunsets, endless beaches, beautiful mountains, blue rivers, picturesque valleys, smoking volcanoes, lush rainforests, and more plant and wildlife biodiversity than you can shake your binoculars at. If you come for a visit, you will find yourself imaging how amazing it would be to live a dream life and immerse yourself in perpetual Pura Vida vibes.
I promise I’ll get back to that, but first, before you sell your house, quit your job, uproot your family, or make any other bridge-burning decisions, allow me to shatter your illusions with some of the less idyllic realities.
Let me first emphasize that once you leave the greater metropolitan area, you will encounter very different pro’s and con’s. Pacific beach life is vastly different from life in San Jose, for example, so I’ll speak of the things you’ll have to deal with no matter where you plant yourself.
Costa Rica functions as a complex multilevel bureaucracy that can complicate the simplest process. You’ll need a lawyer for many transactions (including buying a car) and may visit 3-5 buildings to obtain a single document. There is a laid back mañana (tomorrow) mentality for delivering on services, and mañana is often little more than a vague possible time in the future.
Petty crime is a problem and you’ll need to use street smarts to avoid it, especially in touristy zones. There are plenty of areas you shouldn’t wander around in after dark and you’ll learn where and where not to park your car, day or night. Leaving your house unattended for long periods of time is an invitation for theft, and trust me, everybody on your street will know when you’re gone.
Streets are dirty and most rivers are polluted. Costa Rica uses more dangerous pesticides per crop acre than any other country in the world—not by a little, but by leaps and bounds. Litter and trash are ongoing problems. In spite of its “green” reputation, Costa Rica is not a particularly neat and clean country. Progress is being made, but they aren’t there yet.
Poor roadway infrastructure in the Central Valley requires learning about every back road and alternate route on any given day to avoid hours of nightmare traffic, which is even more painful at $5 /gallon for gas. Costa Rica is #3 in the world for bad driving conditions, and sweet natured Ticos become aggressive lunatics behind the wheel. Few street names and poor signage makes driving quite an adventure if you don’t know your way around. (The WAZE app will be your best friend.)
Then there’s the noise. Costa Rica is a noisy place. Car alarms go off at all hours, cherry bombs are launched into the sky at dawn and midnight to celebrate any occasion, and people seem to think if you aren’t talking, laughing, or blaring your music really loudly, you must not be having any fun. (Amusing when you are the merry-maker; not so fun when you have to get up at 5 a.m. to get to your job at 8.)
Whether you’re buying a vehicle, a toaster oven, or a new pair of Nike’s, you will pay 2-4 times what they cost in the U.S. There’s no place like Target to pick up the toiletries, supplements, or small items you’re used to, and you’ll find yourself searching in vain for a “cheap” ice chest, lamp, or rug.
And despite what you’ve heard, neither Walmart nor Pequeño Mundo carry everything you need. You can find virtually everything in CR of course; dozens of high end stores carry quality goods, but “cheap” and “well made” are mutually exclusive. I just can’t bring myself to pay $30 for the $4 Styrofoam ice chest, or $75 for a $25 hair dryer.
You get the idea. It can be very expensive to live here, and I don’t mean just household goods. Costa Rica has one of the highest costs of living in Latin America. Yes, you can bring your own stuff over; just know it’s not terribly simple or economical.
Housing costs vary tremendously depending on where, how large, and how modern. If you want to drive a newer vehicle, get ready for major sticker shock. Food is costly too, and if you prefer to eat organically as I do, plan on spending more or growing your own.
If you move here, expect to spend 1 to 2 years obtaining a permanent resident visa of some sort, during which time it will be difficult to work here. Opening a bank account, paying for large purchases, keeping your current driver’s license valid, and other similar tasks will be exercises in patience, creativity, and tongue-biting. Act entitled or angry here and you will discover a wall of non-cooperation swiftly rising to make your life even more frustrating.
Different government offices offer different services on different days, and the specific window you need to make a line at might close for the day before noon. Online information may be inaccurate or incomplete. You might require an actual paper stamp for your document that isn’t available in the office that requires it. Or you might pay at a bank and complete your transaction somewhere else entirely. Your day can be made or ruined by whoever is on the other side of the window.
On the plus side, you will learn to smile and say “gracias” when you really want to reach through the glass partition and shake the daylights out of the person on the other side. You will also learn to control your desire to throw yourself down on the ground like a 4 year old and beat on the dirt while shouting, “what was I thinking?!”
Bottom line is this: If you are a hopeless perfectionist who is obsessive about order, efficiency, and time, may I gently suggest that you seriously consider moving somewhere else. You are unlikely to find your Pura Vida vibe here.
Now you might be wondering why I would say so many negative things about a country I choose to live in. I’m here because Costa Rica is in my blood. It’s stunningly beautiful and its people are special. Being here satisfies my soul.
I love it here, and I would love for you to love it too, but I also want you to understand that moving here is not for everyone.
My decision to return after decades away was made over the course of almost 3 years and at least 6 visits. Going from a peaceful out in the country house to an edge of the city apartment was not a decision to be taken lightly. My last visit was a 1 month trial run of living as closely as possible to how I expected to live here. I stayed in my current condo complex to see if noise would be an issue. I located nearby grocery stores, organic food sources, restaurants, and so forth. I checked out prices of everything from olive oil to toaster-ovens. I walked all over my neighborhood to see what was within walking distance and to make sure I would feel safe and comfortable here. I asked my friends all kinds of questions related to utility bills and such. I met some of my neighbors-to-be. I drove around at various times on different days to see how the traffic might impact me.
In other words, I did my homework.
I decided to request citizenship, so that I would only have to deal with the legal status headaches once. Having the advantage of meeting the familial requirements for naturalization made it easier, but it still took me close to a year to complete the process. Most of that time was spent waiting for one document in order to request the next.
I did it because all those challenging things I started off with were offset by the positive aspects about living here. I lived all over the Central Valley between 1974 and 1996, and I resided near my current community for 10 years.
My life is simpler here, but my personal situation, my choices, and my familiarity with Costa Rica made that possible. I don’t commute to work and I don’t have children in school. As a renter, I am free of home maintenance responsibilities. Your ability to live simply in Costa Rica will depend on your own situation and how you decide to live.
Life here tends to run on the famously laid back “Tico Time,” not hurried, stressful “Gringo Time.” Clock time is relative to the situation. Asking, “tico or gringo time?” is actually done and can help you adapt in social situations.
You learn to deal with the traffic and strategically plan your outings. When caught in the inevitable jam, I turn up the radio and sing and remember this won’t matter tomorrow. (However, I do leave for the airport really early!)
Costa Rica isn’t a world-recognized “happy country” for nothing. The President walks down the street like an average Joe. Ticos are friendly and happy despite facing the same challenges of other people on the planet. That aforementioned mañana mentality serves them well when things are tough. It’s almost a Costa Rican version of “don’t worry-be happy.” They have faith that everything will be better tomorrow, and go about their lives grateful for what they have today.
Ticos are genuinely good people, and will help you if they possibly can. I’ve had numerous experiences of random strangers coming to my aid when I most needed help and least expected it. Ticos are super friendly, but you won’t easily get into their inner circles. They are very family oriented and most spare time is spent with family. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that family comes first, second, and third. The longer and more genuine the friendship, the more like family you will be; just don’t expect it to happen overnight. FYI: Being rude or condescending here will get you nowhere fast.
Health care services are excellent and you won’t go bankrupt if you need to pay out of pocket, even at a private clinic. Once you’re legal, you can pay into the very affordable socialized medicine insurance system. By the way, did you know that moving to Costa Rica automatically improves your health? It’s one of those remarkable side effects of life in Pura Vida land.
If you have school age children, know that public schools are a mixed bag of fair to great, and private schools are found all over the country (most are excellent). Academic calendars and fees vary, and acceptance is not guaranteed, so do your homework. Your monolingual children will be bilingual within weeks or months, so don’t worry about language barriers. I strongly suggest you find the school first, then look for housing conveniently nearby.
There are hundreds of microclimates here, and the temperature, wind, and rain will vary significantly across very short distances. I love the beach, but I don’t care to live there. My electric bill runs around $20 a month because I don’t need an air conditioner. I can get to a beach in a couple of hours whenever I need a beach fix.
A movie at a modern theatre in the mall is $5, and the popcorn won’t cost more than the ticket. Food is generally good, municipal water is usually safe, seafood is fresh, and you can buy almost any fruit imaginable practically anywhere.
You bring what you must have in suitcases and containers, and you’ll gradually discover you don’t really need as much stuff to be happy.
The expat communities are a mix of nationalities, and you’ll likely realize that foreigners who love living here are very different from your friends back home. They are more open, more accepting, and less stressed out about life in general because they’ve found their Pura Vida spirit.
The Pura Vida vibe is real, and living in paradise is possible, but each person has to find their own version. And once you do, your life will never be the same. Costa Rica will be in your blood too, and I assure you, no matter how far you roam, the thought of being back here will always bring a smile to your face and a longing in your heart. You’ll see!