Answering Costa Rica’s Call
How to Make Your Move to the Friendly Green Republic
© Erin Van Rheenen, from Living Abroad in Costa Rica, 1st edition.
Used by permission of the author and Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved. For more info please visit the author’s website, LivingAbroadinCostaRica.com.
Picture a place so green you’ll need new words to describe all of the different shades. A place with a thousand kinds of butterflies and half again as many types of orchids. A land where staying healthy is less a matter of doctors’ visits and medication than of living simply in healthful surroundings.
Beyond economic factors, and even beyond the longing for a better quality of life, there are more mysterious reasons why people come to Costa Rica. There’s a phrase in Spanish that speaks of fate and destiny: está escrito, or it is written. Ticos—on average more passive and superstitious (more accepting and spiritual?) than North Americans—use the phrase often. What’s surprising is how often that same sentiment comes from foreign residents as they try to explain what brought them to Costa Rica.
I’ve spoken with an unexpected number of expats who talk of being “called” here. It comes in different language depending on the slant of the speaker, but I’ve heard “I came here in trust,” “I followed my heart/gut/dreams,” and “God/Spirit/the Turtles told me to come.” We’re not just talking evangelists or eco-activists or folks who tune into alien radio with their fillings. These are average North Americans, which is to say logical, restless, and driven. It’s just that they’ve chosen to pay attention to the signals we all get but usually ignore—the messages to slow down, to open up, and to get yourself to a place where life slows down enough to let you jump on board.
So while all sorts of people end up in Costa Rica, there’s a definite contingent of individuals who feel that in coming here they’ve answered a call. Some come here to save the world, others just to save themselves—from a lifetime of all work and no play if nothing else. Whatever their project, the people who come to Costa Rica often have a lot of heart and not a little nerve. Many hope to live in harmony with nature and to learn from the slower, less driven culture. These efforts meet with varying degrees of success, but at least most people have good intentions, which makes for a positive expat environment.
The bottom line is, if a voice is telling you to come to Costa Rica, why not listen? However crazily you come to it, it may be the sanest choice you ever make.
Political and Economic Stability
Costa Rica boasts one of the most stable democratic governments in all of Latin America, and an economy that has long attracted foreign investors. Multinational corporations with branches in Costa Rica include Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive, Monsanto, and Pfizer. All the baseballs used in the Major Leagues are sewn by hand in one small Costa Rican town called Turrialba, and even Wonderbras are assembled here. The U.S. is Costa Rica’s most important trade partner, and the government here offers generous incentives to foreign businesses. Big and small companies come to Costa Rica because of the solid telecommunications network, a very educated workforce, and a high standard of living.
It’s easy for a foreigner to start a business here—you can do it even if you only have a tourist visa. Many expats work successfully in the burgeoning tourist sector, starting restaurants, hotels, and tour companies. Many say that although there are of course regulations to learn about and follow, in general there exists fewer constraints on business here than in their home countries.
It’s long been agreed that Costa Ricans are exceptionally friendly, but in 2003 science confirmed that impression. A study published in American Scientist revealed that, of 23 cities worldwide, San José ranked number two in Latin America in terms of friendliness (Rio de Janeiro came in first). The six-year study measured “simple acts of kindness,” ranging from whether passersby returned a dropped pen to whether a blind man got help crossing a street. The Costa Rican capital received consistently high marks in every category.
And if San José qualifies as one of the friendliest cities in the world, then outside of the urban area, where life is slower, people are even friendlier. In small towns, everyone greets everyone else on the street, and citizens pitch in when their neighbors need help. Need to get to a bigger town? Start walking and you’ll almost certainly get offered a ride. Need someone to look after your kids? Small-town folks routinely and casually trade child-care duties. If your car gets stuck in the mud, you’ll have half a dozen people there to help you push it out.
Standard of Living
Newcomers to Costa Rica are often surprised that the country doesn’t have that third-world, shanty-town look that they were
expecting of a Central American “banana republic.” Indeed, Costa Rica is a relatively well-off nation that takes care of its own much better than many more developed countries. Everyone has access to decent health care and education, which makes for infant mortality rates up there with Canada and the U.S., and literacy rates that rival those of Europe.
Life here is not dirt cheap, but it’s a lot less expensive than living in the U.S. or Canada—from 30 to 50 percent cheaper, depending on your lifestyle. A couple can live frugally but not without a few frills for $2,000 a month. Travel within this small but wondrously varied country could be one of those frills, since buses are a bargain, and there are plenty of reasonably priced beachfront or mountaintop hotels.
Real estate is affordable, much more so if you stay away from the hottest markets, like well-known beach towns or upscale suburbs of San José. Many of the local financial institutions that were paying out astronomical interest rates to expats have recently gone belly up, bad news for investors but good news for those looking for a reasonably priced house or lot. The dollar is strong here and continues to grow stronger; just holding money in dollars is a form of investing here.
The best way to know if you want to live in a place is to live there, but without investing in property. North Americans are conditioned to want to own, own, own, but renting has a lot going for it. Most leases are from six months to a year, with some landlords willing to rent month to month. Renting month to month, you could live for a few months in the expat-heavy Central Valley suburb of Escazú, then live for a while in the shadow of a highland volcano, then retreat for a season to a beachside haven on either the Caribbean or Pacific coast. (Try to strike a rental deal on the coast outside of the December–April high season; September and October are excellent times to negotiate.) After living in a few places, you’ll know what sort of weather and ambience suits you.
Renting can be very economical or can strain your budget beyond the breaking point, depending on where and how you want to live. Rates in a recent issue of the English-language Tico Times ranged from $203 per month for a three-bedroom apartment in San José to a whopping $3,800 for a hilltop home in Escazú. In a recent issue of the Spanish-language La Nación, prices were as low as $130 a month for a two-bedroom apartment and as high as $1,100 for a larger, more luxurious home. The above-mentioned newspapers will be invaluable as you search for an apartment, especially if you want to live in the Central Valley. The Tico Times puts most of its classifieds online (TicoTimes.net), so you can apartment-shop even before you arrive.
Besides renting, there are other options for short-term stays. The San José area has dozens of aparthotels, some of them quite luxurious. They often cost as much (if not more) than a regular hotel, but come equipped with a kitchen and other amenities you wouldn’t get in a hotel room.
But a comfortable hotel room might suit you as well as an apartment-style room. Before I found my apartment, I was thinking of staying several weeks in a midrange hotel while I looked for a longer-term place. I arrived in October, which is the low season, so many hotels were empty and quite willing to negotiate. For example, a pleasant hotel advertised at $35 a night, close to the center of town and offering free breakfast, came down quickly to $20 a night when I offered to pay by the week and in advance.
Another option is a homestay with a Costa Rican family. Though utilized most often by students in one of the many Spanish language study programs (and often arranged through the school), you can also arrange such a stay separate from language study (and living with a Spanish-speaking family is its own sort of language study).
You’ve rented an apartment or two for a while, have explored the country, and are convinced that this is the place for you. What’s next? You start looking, taking it slow, secure in the knowledge that with patience and perseverance you’ll be able to find (or build) the house of your dreams.
Most real estate transactions in Costa Rica are between individuals (with the help of a lawyer)—real estate agents are a relatively new phenomenon in this country, and there is no board regulating their training or conduct. Real estate agents affiliated with local branches of multinational agencies (like Remax and Century 21) may be slightly more accountable than unaffiliated real estate agents. A good agent can help you decide where to live, but chances are he or she will show you only the more expensive offerings. All in all I would advise that unless you have a real estate agent who comes highly recommended from a trusted source (and they do exist), going it alone will probably be your best option.
Look everywhere. In the Classifieds sections of local newspapers, on fences and trees for “For Sale” signs. Ask the waiter at your favorite seafood restaurant, talk with hotel owners, surfers, the woman selling fresh-squeezed orange juice on the street. As has happened in other countries, the Internet has revolutionized the real estate market in Costa Rica, allowing you to check out beachfront property as you shiver in Minneapolis. The Web is a valuable tool, but remember that mainly higher-end properties are represented there. The best deals may not even be advertised; you’ll find them on the ground, talking to the owner of the pulpería or to other expats. One more tip: Try looking in La Gaceta, the government newspaper, for notice of public land auctions, especially in more remote areas. Good deals are still out there