To mark the release of the fifth edition of my guide, Living Abroad in Costa Rica, I put together an updated list of some of the things to consider if you’re contemplating such a move. I’ll start with the good.
1. It’s stable, peaceful, green and not as “macho” as you might think.
Costa Rica has long been an island of stability in the turbulent sea of Central American politics. They abolished their army in 1949; when Lyndon Johnson visited in 1968, the Costa Ricans had to borrow a cannon from Panama so that they could give him the customary 21-gun salute. A world model for green development, it protects 25 percent of its territory in parks and aims for total carbon neutrality by 2021.
In 2010, the country elected its first female president. That same year, 36.8 percent of the seats in the Costa Rican National Assembly, equivalent to the U.S. Congress, went to women, while in the US, only 16.8 percent of legislators in the U.S. Congress were women. These days the number in the US is up to about 20%, but we still lag far behind Costa Rica.
Shortly after Laura Chinchilla was elected, she asked, “Who gets to decide if a country is developing or developed?” Who indeed? For Costa Rica is more “developed”—in ecological efforts, pacifism, medical care for all, and gender equity in politics—than many supposedly more developed countries.
2. It’s gorgeous, and the monkeys and sloths are freakishly cute.
(Illustration is from my bilingual kid’s book, The Manatee’s Big Day.)
Google photos of Costa Rica and you’ll see there’s no doubt: the place is stunning. We’re talking sun-drenched beaches, world-class surf, thundering waterfalls, active volcanoes, and rain forests alive with electric-green frogs and rainbow-colored birds. The biodiversity here is mind-boggling, and many visitors come for a glimpse of creatures they’re unlikely to see back home: toucans, macaws, Resplendent Quetzals, jungle cats, four kinds of monkeys, manatees, sloths, and sea turtles the size of compact cars.
3. And it won’t be repealed: Affordable medical care
With the threat that the new US president will gleefully dismantle “Obamacare,” which extended affordable medical care to millions, it’s refreshing to contemplate a place where 98 percent of the population has access to health care. As recently as the 1960s in Costa Rica, the figure was 15 percent. Costa Rica spends a lot of money to keep its people healthy, and statistics reflect this commitment. Life expectancy is high, at over 78, and infant mortality is low at about 8 per 1,000 births—figures that put most other Latin American countries to shame.
If you move down and get residency (see #5), you’ll be part of this system, called the Caja. You’ll pay between 7% and 11% of your monthly income, with a dependent spouse covered under that payment. The Caja offers good medical care, and just about everything is covered. If you’re in the country more casually, the well-respected private hospitals in the capitol are very good indeed, and even if you have to pay out of pocket (as I have), the fees are a fraction of what you’d pay in the US.
4. Pura Vida is a real thing.
In Costa Rica, you’ll hear the phrase “pura vida” as greeting, farewell, exclamation, or in answer to “How are you?” The literal translation is “pure life,” but in practice it can mean anything from “Fine, thanks,” to “Isn’t life just hella-amazing?!” It’s not a new phrase, and it’s not limited to surfers, yoga teachers or people in the tourist trade. You hear it all across Costa Rica, and it reflects a very real set of priorities: that enjoyment is more important than work, that family and friends are dear, and that life is essentially wonderful.
Not a bad phrase to live by.
5. Visas & Residency: Vagabond It or Make It Legal
North Americans don’t have to apply for visas to enter the country; a valid passport is all you’ll need. Upon arrival you’ll get a stamp on your passport authorizing a 90-day stay. Many people stay for years by renewing that 90-day visa again and again. You leave the country (cross the border, say, to Nicaragua up north or Panama to the south), stay at least 72 hours, then upon re-entry, get another 90 days on your visa.
But if you know you want to be in Costa Rica for a while, you’ll want to look into getting legal residency. Getting residency is primarily about proving a monthly income or a certain level of investment in Costa Rica. For the pensionado (pensioner or retiree) category, the monthly amount is US$1000; for the rentista category (loosely translated as “small investor” but often referred to simply as “non-retired”), it’s $US2500 a month, and for the inversionista category (investor), you need to prove a US$200,000 invested in any Costa Rica-based business. For an individual that gets residency through the fist two categories, a spouse can get residency along with you, with no extra income having to be proved.
6. Real Estate: Try Before You Buy
The good news is that regardless of your nationality or immigration status, you have basically the same property rights as native Costa Ricans. The one exception is most property right on the coast; for beachside property, many expats have a Costa Rican partner who, on paper at least, owns 51%.
Prices have gone up significantly in the past decade or two, but there are still deals to be had, especially if you’re not looking in the hot suburbs or beach towns, where prices can rival those in the US.
But don’t be too quick to buy. My advice is to rent, rent, and then rent again. If you have the luxury of being able to chose where you live, rent a house on the beach to see if you can stand beach living for more than a few months. Rent a house in a suburb of the capital city of San Jose to see if all that traffic is counterbalanced by job opportunities, movie theaters, bookstores and good restaurants. Rent a place in a small town to see how it feels to be the only gringo in town. Then, and only then, think about buying.
7. Spoiler alert: They speak Spanish here.
Dave Barry wrote, “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”
Of course you’re not like those first-timers that Barry lampoons. But even people who are serious about moving here have been known to minimize the language difference.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Costa Rica is a Spanish-speaking country, and if you’re going to make this your home, you need to speak the language—if only to greet people politely and thank them for their help. Learning a new language is not easy, but Ticos applaud all genuine efforts. And language is more than just words; it carries with it an entire civilization. Deny yourself the language and you’ll never get more than ankle-deep in the culture.
8. Bring money.
Costa Rica isn’t so cheap anymore. In fact, it’s probably the most expensive place to live in Central America. People who move here consider they’re paying a premium for political and economic stability, and for policies that align with their values.
You can live in Costa Rica for a lot less than what you’d be spending in the United States or Canada, but not without conscious effort. If you want to own less, work less, spend less, and enjoy life’s simple pleasures, you’re on the right track. For more on cost of living, check out this post: “Can I live in Costa Rica on $20,000 a year?”
Another thing to know is that however much or little money you have, most Costa Ricans will assume you have more than they do (in many cases, this will be true). Some expats complain that locals don’t see them; they see dollar signs in their eyes. And if you marry a Costa Rican, in this family-oriented place, you’re marrying his or her whole family. Don’t be surprised if distant cousins tap you for a “loan.”
What’s cheaper in Costa Rica: labor (to build your house, care for your kids, or build your widgets). Land and houses, unless you look in the hottest markets, like well-known beach towns and upscale suburbs. Food if you buy fresh at farmers markets. Everything else is about the same, with some things, like cars, being more expensive (because of high import tariffs).
9. Get ready, get set, wait!
Costa Rica is a developing country, with maddeningly complicated bureaucracies that move at a snail’s pace. It’s also part of the culture to allow for lots of time to…do anything at all. Cultivate patience or risk a first-world ulcer.
10. If you want it to be just like home, just stay home.
Many people who flee their countries of origin, looking for something different, end up wishing the new place was, well, a little bit more like the old place. They just can’t get their heads around the fact that people here have an entirely different way of thinking and doing things. Don’t fall into that trap. Know that a new place will challenge you in all sorts of ways, some that you can’t begin to anticipate. Be ready to learn, to laugh it off and to let it go. Again and again and again.
Pura vida, amigos!
For updates on moving to or visiting Costa Rica, email me, putting “Costa Rica Tips” in the subject line. I promise not to sell, share, spam or otherwise abuse your email address.