First Impressions on Living in Costa Rica

Today marks our two-week anniversary of living in Costa Rica. We truly love it here so far—the people, the relaxed approach to life, not to mention the spectacular natural beauty. Everything that brought us here to begin with is still just as magical as when we first discovered it. Sometimes when we see a sloth hanging from a tree in our backyard or a brilliant sunset from our porch, we joke that we should pinch ourselves because living here still doesn’t seem real.

 

House in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica
Our casa nueva

But everything hasn’t been all sunshine and butterflies. It’s going to take some time to adjust to our new lives. Although we had been to Costa Rica many times before and had a general idea of what to expect, vacation did not entirely prep us for living here. Unlike on vacation, we of course need to work and can’t live the vacation lifestyle of going out to eat and on excursions all of the time. That means that we need to figure out the basics like food, housing, transportation, and language (learning Spanish!), all on top of getting into a work routine. Here are some of the biggest changes we’ve faced since becoming ex-pats:

New Jobs

I’m not going to say that leaving the nine-to-five isn’t great, of course it is. Getting used to our new jobs as writers though is going to take some time. In the United States, I was an attorney and Matt was the operations manager of a landscape company. Our jobs were often busy and hectic, but they were stable. We were comfortable in those jobs, comfortable in our roles and in the steady paycheck. Now with the move, we have transitioned from writing on the side to writing full-time. Our office is also our home, which is a challenge. Drawing the line between routine house chores, things we want to do, and productive work is still blurry to us. We are also contending with an inspiring yet distracting view. It’s hard not to get sidetracked with flocks of parakeets, troops of monkeys, and ocean waves calling for attention. We do have one book under our belt but it is still scary solely to rely on ourselves for income.

 

Working in paradise Picture

Rain & Moisture

We knew we were arriving during the rainy season but weren’t quite sure what to expect. Our research told us to expect sunny mornings and rainy afternoons. For the most part, this has been true. There have been a few days, though, where has rained all day. And a lot of the time when it’s raining, it’s pouring so hard that you don’t think it could possibly rain any harder. Manuel Antonio, the town where we’re currently staying, gets an average of nineteen inches of rain in August, and even more in September and October.

All of this moisture and humidity means that it takes a long time for things to dry, causing fabrics, like bed sheets, to feel wet. On the upside, the rain keeps the plant life green and lush. And because the temperature stays a consistent 75°F to 85°F year round, it’s always a warm rain. After living in New England for the last thirty-plus years, we’ll take a rainstorm over a snowstorm any day!

Critters

Open-air living in the tropics means that lizards, cockroaches, beetles, and all sorts of flying insects find their way into your home. Even if you’re sure you’ve checked the screens for holes, they still manage to come in through the cracks. Ants will ransack your kitchen too if you don’t clean up immediately after meals, so there’s no more waiting to do the dishes until tomorrow. Every time we come to Costa Rica I am initially put off by the idea of living among creepy crawlies. But for the most part, if you leave them alone, they’ll you leave alone. They’re a natural part of the ecosystem in the jungle, something that you just have to accept living here. But at least some of them have benefits. We’d like to think that the many lizards sharing our casa are helping to control the mosquito population, leaving us with fewer bites.

No Car

Life without a car has been interesting. We only had one car in Boston but it was really nice for trips to the grocery store and traveling longer distances. We don’t mind walking and using the local buses to get around but need to figure out the routes so that we can go on more day trips and explore beyond our immediate area. Ever since we arrived, we’ve been hunting for a small, fuel-efficient SUV. We’re hoping to buy one sometime this month so that we have it for when we move farther south in September, when a car is more of a necessity. So far we haven’t had much luck. Cars are extremely expensive because of import taxes. Right now Matt is sifting through a fine selection of beat up fifteen-year-old SUVs, all priced anywhere between $7,000 and $10,000.

Grocery Store/Food

If you walk into the local supermercado (supermarket), you would assume that the Ticos eat basically three things: canned tuna, rice and beans, and meat. There’s also a large assortment of locally made chips and other salty snacks like chicharones and lots of cookies. Although most grocery stores do have just about everything that’s available in the United States, many items are two or three times the price. Foods imported from the United States are especially expensive. For example, a jar of Skippy peanut butter is about $6, a box of Cheerios $7, and a bag of shredded cheddar $8. The good news is that produce is very inexpensive, especially at the weekly feria (farmer’s market). We recently made a trip to the feria in the nearby town of Quepos and paid $10 for fruits, veggies, and fresh herbs that lasted almost one week. We’re having to adapt our eating habits somewhat. There certainly won’t be as much lasagna for dinner or cereal for breakfast, but we’re figuring it out slowly but surely.

 

Quepos feria/farmer's market
Quepos feria

Language

We knew that with our limited Spanish knowledge, the language barrier would be a problem. We’re fortunate that the area where we’re staying has a lot English speakers. Our landlady, for instance, is a local Tica who has picked up English over the years and is now nearly fluent. This likely all will change when we move next month to any area that is less touristy. For this reason, we’ve been trying to fit in Spanish lessons whenever we have free time, testing our skills on bus drivers or supermarket clerks. I am using books while Matt has been studying online. That’s all well and good until it’s time to turn off the Spanish for the day and all of the T.V. stations are broadcasting in, you guessed it, Spanish. It makes for an exhausting evening trying to read subtitles or decipher what’s happening to Charlie on the latest episode of Two and a Half Men.

*     *     *

Even with having to adjust to all of these changes, we are still having fun and trying to take every new challenge in stride, like the locals do. We’ve had a blast exploring Quepos and Manuel Antonio, finding hidden beaches and the best spots for happy hour. And we’ve loved the time we have spent on our porch, just watching birds and wildlife go on with their day in our backyard. We wouldn’t trade in this opportunity for anything.

 

Manuel Antonio Beach

 

So What Happened Next . . . ?

In July 2013, we boarded a plane for a new life in Costa Rica. Want to follow our story as it happened? Check out the posts below to see how our dream became a reality and what it has been like so far.

 

Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde

 

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30 Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading your post. We messaged before on FB and now you are actually here!!! Good for you! Don’t get bogged down by the initial disappointments but just change your lifestyle! I eat mostly Tico diet of rice and beans with chicken, some delicious fish, etc. each day. Eggs are reasonable so go with some egg-white omelets but dump the cereal and American foods!
    Eat more veggies; cheap and healthy and good. You can eat all non-processed foods here – a big change from the states.
    You know already that you can not eat like when you lived in Boston here! You will go broke! There are new foods to try and enjoy.
    The rain is a problem and one of the things that I wonder why more people don’t mention as a negative side of moving here! I wonder where these people live that they say the weather is “perfect year round.” It is not unless you love being swept away by the rain currents for 7 months of the year. But, as much as I hate rain, I have grown to love here as it is always warm rain and the storms are amazing to watch. I usually make sure I do my shopping et al in the morning and then am home for the rain. I usually use the time to write, nap or read on my Kindle! You are a young couple – surely you can find something interesting to do together during the rain! 😉
    There are many little annoying things that you will have to do in the weeks ahead and I guess I would be hard on you to say that if you do not enjoy doing them – auto license, bank accounts, traveling to San Jose for important stuff, joining the Caja and applying for residency – then you probably made a bad decision. But if you can find humor in the inefficiency and bureaucracy, and the cultural differences here, then you will enjoy this wonderful new lifestyle. Just take it easy and enjoy this — you put a lot of effort into getting here so as the Brits say, “Stay Calm and Enjoy!”
    Anything I can do to help just yell and I will answer you if I can hear you through the noise of the driving rain on the roof!!!
    Peace, Joe
    PS And of course, LEARN SPANISH! Just keep trying; I still do every day.

    1. Thanks for all the great advice once again, Joseph. “Stay calm and enjoy” is good motto for us right now. I think we’re actually starting to adopt it too- we keep finding ourselves laughing at a situation when it doesn’t go as expected (which happens a lot ;). Like when we waited for the bus the other night from Quepos to Manuel Antonio for over an hour before realizing that the bus had stopped running…at 7pm. We know from coming here many times in the past that it used to run a lot later than that but maybe they reduced service because it’s the low season?? Little annoyances like that are no big deal though- all of the big stuff is going good and that’s what matters. We’re not going to let a late bus or a little rain ruin our day, or our experience here for that matter.
      For food, we actually love produce so that is working out nicely. The initial shock was just in what to pair with it that will fill us up. We love rice and beans too–just not for every meal. I looked up some authentic CR recipes and found some good stuff with chicken and seafood. I’ve already made black bean soup and it turned out great!
      Thanks for reading! We’ll be sure to let you know if we need any help. You live in Guanacaste right? We’re thinking of heading up for a few days sometime this month to check out the area. Any tips on where to go?

      1. Actually, I live in the city of Heredia which is near San Jose, to the north and west of it. I have been to Guanacaste several times and you will find lots of great beaches there and laid back towns. Too many Gringo for my liking but great to visit there once and a while. I have stayed in Samara, Tamarindo and Playa Naranjo. I’m sure wherever you go there you will find a good time. Just watch for petty theft and never carry your wallet in your back pocket. Again, I have never had a problem in Costa Rica but I try to be aware of my surroundings and don’t (or try not to do) stupid things!
        Glad you are getting into the swing with CR recipes. Lots of simple but good and tasty things. I have Tico friends and tonight we are having simple shrimp and rice with some fresh broccoli, and beer, of course!
        Pura Vida! Joe

  2. Matt and Jenn, awesome blog. I will be following intently. I admire the courage it took to up and leave what’s comfortable to fulfill a dream. I look forward to seeing how you adjust. Are you guys going to be doing more than just writing in the future? What job opportunities are there? I see Matt running a landscaping company again…or getting into something like that down there. Maybe join the Costa Rican Air Force??? 🙂 Look forward to your next post.

    1. Hi Tinker. Things are a lot different here as far as landscaping and construction go so I might be a little out of my comfort zone there. The Air Force would be cool but since Costa Rica has no military, I’d just be joining the many flocks of Pelicans monitoring the coastline. We’ll just have to stick to writing for now and see where it takes us. Come down for a visit sometime!
      -Matt & Jenn

  3. I love reading about your adventures! My husband and I would like to retire to Costa Rica eventually, and we were just in MA the end of July, then up to the Poas region, and just came back this past Saturday after 10 days.
    Last year when we traveled to Costa Rica, we stayed up near Tamarindo and, while it was a month earlier (end of June), that area didn’t seem to have as much rain. We were surprised at MA at the crazy lightning and thunder storms every night!
    I’ll continue to read along with your adventures – very jealous that you’ve been able to relocate in your early years and that we have to wait until we are older! LOL
    Pura Vida!
    Nicole

    1. Hi Nicole, thanks for reading. Manuel Antonio does get some crazy storms. Just the other day at the beach a rogue lightning bolt came out of nowhere, crashing into the ocean. The sky was blue except for a few clouds. There were swimmers and surfers in the water, and everyone was freaking out- even the locals! Then whatever cell that was passed by and it was calm again. The weather is definitely volatile this time of year.
      So exciting that you are planning to retire here. We never thought we could move down here either at this point in our lives. If you asked us five years ago, we would have laughed. But after a lot of hard work, planning, and creativity, we figured out a plan to make it happen. We’ll see where it goes from here.
      Pura vida!
      Jenn & Matt

  4. I’m also from the Boston area, and leaving for Costa Rica in about a month! I’ll be following your blog for some advice 🙂
    good luck!

    1. Hi Annette,
      Wow, one month, so exciting! If you’re anything like us, your life is probably crazy right now with getting ready for the move. That was such a hectic, but exciting, time. Just remember that all of the hard work you’re putting in now will be worth it. We have no regrets. Definitely let us know if we can help. Safe travels.
      Jenn & Matt

  5. Hi Jenn (great name!) & Matt – We’ve been here just 6 weeks, so I’m experiencing lots of the same things you are. Just read your blog and loved it! My hubby has your “2 weeks” book on his kindle that I’m going to read shortly. Welcome to Costa Rica (to LIVE here this time!).
    Jen 🙂

    1. Hi Jen,
      Mucho gusto! Funny, I just commented on your husband’s new blog and noted how we are going through the very same things. Hope you enjoy our book! We’ll definitely be following your blog as well. I loved the tip from yours about saying “otro dia” instead of “no gracias” for solicitations. So useful and much more pleasant than just a plain old “no.” Let’s keep in touch!
      Jenn (& Matt)

  6. Happy two week anniversary! Sounds like you are adjusting to a new life in Costa Rica. As you mentioned a lot of things change. As anybody who moves down discovers, you live your whole life one way and overnight you have to adopt new habits and customs and ways of doing things. Just keep at it and keep a positive attitude as you’ve been doing. As far as sticking to a work routine in such a beautiful location: try waking up super early and knocking out a few hours of writing before you do anything else – except maybe have coffee. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Life in Costa Rica! Yeah, lots of things are different here, but we are making adjustments everyday and getting into our own routine. Coffee is usually first on the list 😉

  7. I also lived in Costa Rica for two weeks but i had to go to work, so it wasn´t as fun as you could imagine, i would love living in a little house at the shore of the Tamarindo´s beach, i had to live in the hotel of San Jose that my company chose, but it was fun too, the city of San Jose is awesome and the people so nice and warm i want to go back!

    1. Hi Rick, thanks for reading. Two weeks is definitely not enough time in Costa Rica, especially if you’re working! You’ll have to come back for that stay on the beach in Tamarindo. Tamarindo is a wonderful place. Pura vida!

  8. Just finished reading your book on my Kindle last night. Now you’ve moved there! How exciting.
    Our 2nd trip to Costa Rica is in March and can’t wait. We have plans to retire in 7 1/2 years that marks the date I qualify for medical benefits with the company I work for. But if for some reason, either myself or my husband become unemployed between now and then, selling everything and moving to Costa Rica is Plan B. We all too well feel the pain on the fact that there is never enough vacation time!
    Looking forward to hearing more about your adventures.

    1. Hi Karen,
      Thanks so much for reading our book, we really appreciate it! Yes, we made the big move here, both scary and fun. Costa Rica was calling us and we don’t regret our decision. Sounds like you have a good plan yourself. Hopefully in the next year or two we will have a book out about our move that will give you some idea of what to expect. Until then, we hope you enjoy following the blog. Pura Vida!
      Jenn & Matt

  9. Wow. Talk about de ja vu. Just over a year ago, in July, my husband and I packed up eight suitcases and made the big move to CR, in fact to the Manuel Antonio area. We were there, living closer to Quepos, for over 8 months. Family issues has returned us to the states for awhile but our hearts yearn for our beautiful, simple life and the magnificence of Costa Rica every day.,we wish you well and if you have time, check out my blog at the above site. Tagline is Observations of the Illusion. There are many about CR. When you got to Brba Roja ask for Chico. We rented our house from him and he is a great man. Have fun and we wish you well! Oh yeas, and Mike from La Posada hotel is a friend. He knows everything about the area. Pura Vida! Cheryl

    1. Hi Cheryl, so funny…8 suitcases and everything, huh? What a coincidence. Thanks for the tips. I’m sure we’ll be at Barba Roja sometime soon for half-price burger night so we’ll be sure to ask for Chico. We love that place! Your blog looks great. Loved the owl post, must have been amazing to see them in person. Thanks for reading. Pura vida! – Jenn & Matt

  10. Great read thank you! My family and I have recently got news of an opportunity to buy a well established spa and hair salon in Santa Teresa…we were there this past Feb….we live in Ontario Canada….I have had a very overwhelming day of emotions, as we would have to sell our farm here, and we have horses etc and have been here for ten years…my kids are 9 and 11…and they were excited but sad at the family meeting we had over dinner about this amazing possibility…I have to say I feel the same! A lot would have to happen…but two people have already inquired about our farm today!! I posted on facebook not even 8 hours ago….not that our farm was for sale, but about the opportunity….and things seem to be rolling…ah!
    One main concern I have is schooling…I know there is a school that speaks English in Cobano, but I don’t know much else…
    Anyways….off to bed I go…thanks for listening!
    Trista

    1. Trista, wow, that sounds like quite an opportunity. Costa Rica is definitely a lot different than Canada or the US but we love it and don’t doubt our decision to move one bit. We have bad days of course, just like anywhere else, but all in all it is a wonderful place to live. We don’t know much about schools near Santa Teresa for your kids but you might find some info on one of the Costa Rica expat forums like http://forums.arcr.net/. Keep researching and good luck!

      1. My daughter moved to costa rico 9 years ago…gave up her life as an attorney in nyc and dc and has been living happily ever after in Manuel Antonio with her tico husband and 2 beautiful daughters…they own and operate aqua azules parasailing and water sports…now at age 65 i am seriosly considering making the move myself!

        1. Do it, Sue! If you already have family here, the transition will be that much easier. Your daughter’s story sounds amazing- we’d love to connect with her at some point. Best of luck with your plans!

  11. Jenn & Matt,
    We are heading to CR from Toronto in early March. What do you hear about the Zika virus, especially if we visit Tortuguera? We will spend much of our 3-4 weeks in Manuel Antonio. We would like to meet and talk to some expats about spending 4 weeks annually in CR. Can you direct us to one or two expats who can advise us?
    Thanks,
    Leslie & Brenda,
    PS Before retiring, Brenda was a maternity nurse & I was teaching effective communication to business, non-profits and individuals who want to get along better with spouses and children. We will be pleased to volunteer our time when we arrive in March.

    1. Hi Leslie and Brenda, The Zika virus is present in Costa Rica but has not been very widespread so far. You should take a look at our post Costa Rica and Mosquitoes: Tips to Prevent Zika, Dengue and More. Also read the comments too. There, we talk about the current status in Costa Rica and link to current information from the CR government. Things could change a lot between now and March so we would recommend checking back on CR Ministry of Heath bulletins that we link to later on. Keep in mind also that mosquitoes are more of a problem during the rainy season and will be much better in March when it is drier.

      As for connecting with other expats, there are different groups on Facebook for expatriates in Costa Rica. Maybe join some of those groups and try to connect with people on there. We link to two of the most popular ones at the end of our post on FAQs About Moving to Costa Rica. There are also some local Facebook groups for the different towns where a lot of expat live. You can find them if you do some searching. Best of luck with your plans!

  12. OMG..this blog is a God send.. Just found it and cannot get enough of it.. We’re planning on moving to CRica too!!

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