One Year And Counting...

by Steve Friedman


As we draw close to our one year anniversary since we landed in Costa Rica to find a new life in our retirement, I've collected a few lessons that we've learned from our own experiences that I can pass on to those who might consider such a venture.

For starters... there is no one true source of information. Everyone's expectations and experiences are different.  This article is based on our personal experiences.

#1:  Nothing is permanent or forever...

Don't come with the expectation that this will be your final destination till you die. Look at it as a way station. If you find it suits you stay longer, if not choose another home. This takes a lot of the burden off the idea that I'm coming to a foreign country  to live till I die. You always have an escape clause.

#2  Leave a back door if you can...

While we looked at our move here with no expectations of returning back anytime in the foreseeable future, we did leave a back door. We purchased a foreclosure home in Florida and furnished it with what we had left over from our downsize move to act primarily as a rental, but also to act as our "Plan B" should the whole experience blow up in our faces. We were not in a position to keep our old home and old household, so this was the next best thing.

#3:  Downsizing will free you...

As hard as it was, the process of downsizing freed us from the burden of being a slave to our "stuff". We have kept enough to be comfortable, but shed enough so that we won't always feel we are carrying a boat anchor. We're beginning to learn how to live without.

#4:  Choosing between the familiar and unfamiliar...

When you consider living here, it really becomes a choice between living comfortably in a world you know, understand and can easily function in without much thought and one where most everything is new and different. Even moving to another state, you don't face the challenges of new language, customs and even holidays.  A supermarket and shopping center are pretty homogenous across the country today. 

In the USA, you know how you can find things, be it car repair, health food, or healthcare. Even the most exotic things can be sent "overnight" to your place of residence, if you are willing to pay for it. That is just not the case here in Costa Rica. Most things will seem very unfamiliar - from the food at the supermarket to the medicines at the farmacia.  It will take some time before you feel comfortable searching for sources.  Your patience will become taxed to the point where things can become very frustrating. 

Living here has its rewards but it also has some real challenges. It you can't deal with the unfamiliar, you are going to have a difficult time living here.

#5: Leave the Politics at Home...

One of the nice things about living in another country and especially in an International expat community is that you have the luxury of leaving your political opinions at home. Whether you think that the USA is going to HELL or is the Kingdom of GOD, people here just don't care.  The biggest way to make yourself a bore is to drag out your political opinions at every gathering. Tranquila y cállate! - Be quiet and shut up!

#6:  A Little Help From My Friends...

The one overriding factor that tipped the balance toward moving to Playa Hermosa, was the feeling that we had a ready made  community of friends here, and that we would never be left hanging on a branch over the cliff on our own. Without this close community, we would not have made it here. Your expat and Tico friends that become your new community will guide you through the rough spots and help you to enjoy the smooth ones. They are in my opinion  essential to your survival here.


#7:  Thank God for the Internet...

Two decades ago when we lived in Scotland, the Internet was in its infancy. Compuserve was the main vehicle for email, and not many of our friends even had that. Internet speed was measure in Baud Speed - 14K was considered fast, and everything was by dialup modem. Today, the Internet is everywhere and Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Netflix and and Magic Jack phones will enable you feel quite connected back to your friends and family in the USA. You can watch the same TV shows with just a little time adjustment here via the Internet. Bills can be paid, documents can be sent - all via the internet.

#8:  What do you mean you don't have an Address?

The hardest thing to explain to people, is that there are no real addresses here in Costa Rica. This is a source of incredible frustration for me in an era when I can plug any address in the USA into my GPS and it will find it.

My current address reds like a pirate treasure map - "Go 150 feet past the big tree at the fork of the road, turn Left and climb the steps and go down three doors" Arrrh Jim Harkins, there be where ye find us and the treasure. Seriously, that is very similar to our actual "address".  But to my utter amazement, letters actually do get delivered to us, although I am totally amazed at how.

It does present obstacles though when people want to find you or you want to find a place or shop. Often the address will by so many meters North and West past ….. Streets may or may not even have names, and signage is pretty scarce, even if you have a GPS. Also you can't always believe your GPS.

#9:  Money May Not Grow on Trees here, but it Does Come Out of Walls...

You do not need to bring Wads of Cash here. It is both a bad idea from a Security Stand point, and a practical one of "where to keep it". Until you get you residency, you cannot open a bank account here in Costa Rica. Not a real problem. In most every town there are ATM's can dispense money from your US bank account to you here in either US dollars or Colones. For larger transactions, you can wire money or even use Credit Cards. Some banks will even waive their transaction fees, and you will often get a better exchange rate.

#10: Do NOT get seduced by CR Eye Candy...

It is very easy to become seduced by "Eye Candy" here. You look on the Internet and see a picture of a home or rental that looks like it was plucked from "Life-Styles of The Rich and Famous" complete with infinity pools, jaw dropping views and miles of secluded jungle teaming with exotic birds and wild life.  Now think about this from a more practical standpoint.

  • Just how much isolation do you want? Living in an isolated location might not be "paradise" when you consider things like: drive time to do essential errands, driving on rutted dirt roads that turn into mud pits in the rainy season, internet service that cuts out every time the wind blows or the fact that the nearest hospital may be more than 2 hours away.

  • How hard is it to get into and out from. Will you need a car, 4X4? Is it perched on the side of a hill with a 45 degree slope into it? Despite the gorgeous view of the Ocean, is it way too far and steep to easily walk (or even drive to) regularly? What is it like in the rainy season. Are you sleeping in a rain cloud (literally!)

  • Is it too big, too small, or just right.

    • What looks great in a picture on the Internet may not be quite as attractive in real life. You might be living next to a farmer with their perro bravos (guard dogs) raising free range chickens and cows.

    • Is the water source reliable? Pumps are notorious here for breaking down and finding someone to repair it may take some doing.

    • Is there trash pick-up or do you have to haul it yourself?

    • What are the true costs of using the air conditioning? Ticos usually get by with just fans.

    • The only real way to find a home to rent is to come down for a month or so and find one in person when you are here.


#11:  Know what you can handle and what you can't...

As I stated before, every day can be a journey into the unfamiliar, but you can minimize it.

  • If you are accustomed to US style décor and appliances, find a rental that has those and not go with the expectation that you'll just adapt.  Truth be told, few expats adapt.

  • If you are uncomfortable going to a carnaceria or Tico market to buy fresh meat, then shop at the Auto Mercado or SuperCompro.  Just note, you will pay much more and not necessarily receive better quality.

  • If you can't stand the weather... look to another area.

  • If you are not adept at driving on windy steep dirt roads, or crazy city traffic, pick a place that won't put you into those situations.

  • If your Spanish language skills are not up to par, don't consider living in a tiny town where no one speaks English.

Make your choices based on what you can handle, and where it is possible to mitigate the foreignness of living here. Even the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead took time to adjust to "going native".

#12:  Don't believe all the reports about how cheaply you can live here

If your sole reason for moving to Costa Rica is to live cheaper than you do in the USA, you might be in for a disappointment.  Everything depends on where you live and how you live.

Yes there are some people who profess to show you an itemized spreadsheet to prove that they live fine on less than $1400 per month, but they might make very different choices than you.

In the Central Valley food, rent and utilities cost less than they do at the beach.  Also depending on where you live, you might be able to get by without a car. Where I live (northwest coast on the beach), food, rents, and utilities tend to be pricier and public transportation not as reliable.

Overall in Costa Rica, cars and gasoline are twice as expensive as the USA.  Since people seem to hang onto cars forever, even a very old model used car will cost at least double what it might sell for in the USA. However, the good news is auto repair service tends to be cheaper except when it comes to buying new parts!

#13:  Healthcare is more affordable and reliable in Costa Rica

To begin with you have to distinguish between what type of healthcare and where it is delivered. In San Jose, one will find both modern hospitals that closely rival US hospitals in everyway (except for the price of care) as well as a plethora of public hospitals, those which are run by the government.

Outside of San Jose the picture can be a bit murkier.  Depending on where you live, your nearest hospital, public or private, maybe a 1-3 hour drive (or more).

All legal residents of Costa Rica must contribute to the CAJA (national healthcare), whether you use it or not.  It is a condition of one's residency.  Another option you have is to obtain health insurance through an International Health Plan.  But note, this can be every bit as expensive as those in the USA and most likely will exclude pre-existing conditions.   

The other option is to go bare, in other  words self-fund your healthcare.  In the USA this would be tantamount to economic suicide, but in Costa Rica, you really can afford to pay as you go for a good portion of your healthcare needs. Case in point...

  • I received cataract surgery for both eyes here for $3200 as opposed to more than $7000 in the USA. 

  • Prescription meds tend to be about the same here as you might pay in the USA, but be careful, some medicines may not even be available here.

  • Routine doctor visits and minor emergencies cost less than what you would pay at a local Urgent care center and the care is equally as good ($40-50).  Specialists run on average $70-80 per visit.

  • Laboratory and X-rays are very reasonable.  CAT scans and mammograms cost around $200 compared to the US where they can cost 5x as much back in the States.  Also, take into consideration that you are NOT paying a hefty monthly insurance premium.  In the end you come out ahead.

  • The biggest downside (depending on where you live) can be what happens in the event of a really serious medical emergency. Even though you may not be a resident and not belong to the CAJA, you will still be treated in a CAJA hospital at no cost.  All tourists (non residents) in Costa Rica are not required to pay for emergency healthcare at CAJA hospitals.   However, you also have the option of being taken to one of Costa Rica's  private hospitals.  Just note, your standard US insurance may not cover you.  Check first before traveling.   A third option would be to purchase a "travelers" policy that covers emergency medical care for "extended vacations" outside your home country. Some of these policies will cover you for up to a  year and you can add on riders for extreme sports and air evacuation. These policies will not cover routine medical costs but can save you from a huge financial hit if you should ever really need it.  The cost of an airlift from Liberia or Tamarindo to San Jose alone could cost you more than $7000. You still may pay more than $2500 a year, but compared to monthly premiums nearly that with Full Expat health plans, it may be your best bet.

#14:  Costa Rican Food: better quality and cheaper - THINK AGAIN!

I am not sure who started that myth that "everything grown here is NOT organically produced and pesticide free!"

This country uses every bit as many pesticides as in other developing countries, many of which have been banned from use in the US for 40 years or more.  Anything you purchase here which has been certified as being "organic," will cost you more than what you'd pay at Whole Foods Markets in the USA.

Costa Rican beef tends to be leaner by the fact that cows are all grass fed. Chickens too are much leaner, and more free range than comparable US ones but also cost a lot more than in the US. Local cheeses are about equal or more expensive than even imported ones from the USA, and ones from the US cost double. The main exceptions are locally produced fruits and vegetables, rice and beans, and locally caught fish. Some meat too can be cheaper than comparable cuts in the USA.  All imported food and alcohol items will cost you (on average) twice what it costs in the USA. 

All in all, depending on what you buy and where you shop, the cost of food is about what you'd pay if you shopped at Whole Foods or one of the other premium markets.

#15:  It really helps to be proficient in Spanish

While you will never have to utter a word of Spanish at any of the resorts or tourist destinations, outside, in the real Costa Rica, you will not fare as well. Luckily, Ticos are very understanding and with enough patience and gesturing, you'll be able to make yourself understood. All the same, it can be daunting to try to communicate with a housekeeper, supermarket employee, auto service person, yard worker, or even some medical personnel without an interpreter or intermediate level of Spanish.

So what it boils down to, knowing even a little bit of Spanish will get you farther and make your life in country that much more rewarding.

#16:  If you Are here - You Are Family

There is a natural affinity within the expat community - far more than anything I've found in the USA. It is quite true that unless you show yourself to be a total asshole, the expats in the community will embrace you with open arms and will always be there for you in the event of emergency.

That does come with some responsibility and understanding of how things work here.  News travels at the speed of Facebook, and very little is kept secret for long. Like any small community gossip can strain friendships and do harm to your reputation. It is not very different than when you were in High School. Cliques will form and sometimes you are not included.

By their very nature, the expats here are an international mix of people who are willing to go out on a limb more than your average person. That's what makes living here more interesting.  Just remember here that "Loose Lips Sink Ships". Also you need to make an effort to reach out. If you want to keep to yourself and not try to integrate into the expat or Tico community you will miss out on one of the best reasons for coming here.

#17:  The Mule Train Express

 Many things that you have come to enjoy in life are simply not available in Costa Rica or are prohibitively expensive.  That's why we have come to rely on having items "muled in."  This is when you rely on your visiting friends or friends of friends to bring things from the USA in their luggage.   This is pretty much the accepted practice in a country where import duties are exorbitantly high, and package delivery is not always an easy or reliable option.

Don't be shocked or surprised at these requests when you are visiting the States.  Still you have to draw some lines. Obviously bringing back controlled substances is not a great idea. Also consider that some food or agricultural items might be confiscated although it can be hit or miss depending on what kind of day the Customs inspector has and how soon his break is. Also consider how easy it is going to be for the person to bring it back - Is it going to require another suitcase or extra baggage fee. It is pretty much the expectation that if you want others to bring stuff in for you, you need to do the same, but you are entitled to make your own rules and draw your own lines.

#18:  It's Always Paradise Here- Sometimes

There is an old joke that goes something  like this.

"A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter greets him at the gates with a harp and sends him on thru. At first he's completely overwhelmed by the beauty he sees everywhere and how stress- free it is there. After about three months, though he comes back to St. Peter and says to him "Wow! Heaven is everything I ever imagined it to be! I have just one question - Aside from strolling around strumming on their harps, just what do people do here?"  St. Peter replies "They go the HELL for vacations - there's more to do there and the food's better!"

Living in Costa Rica is a lot like that. In many ways it is a true Paradise, but even Paradise can get a little monotonous.  I found that even here I can get bored and restless for something different to do, or even long for a radical change in weather or season or scenery.

I am gradually adjusting to a very different tempo of life, especially since we are both now retired, and have lots of free time on our hands. At first there was the overwhelming desire to do everything on the "Things to Do in Costa Rica List" all at once. Soon we found this tiring and expensive, and realized that those things could be done next week or next month, and we didn't have to do something adventurous every day. Finding Pura Vida means scaling back your life a little and taking it slower.

Enjoy the little things.


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