Fun Facts From Our First Six Months in Costa Rica

Today marks our six-month anniversary of living in Costa Rica. There is a lot we could say about our time here so far but we’re going to lighten things up a bit and focus in this blog on the fun or interesting things we’ve learned.

We started researching our big move to Costa Rica a couple of years in advance. We read all of the books, guidebooks, moving books, retirement books, basically anything we could get our hands on about Costa Rica. We joined some online expat forums like ARCR and Expat Exchange and started following expat blogs to get a feel for what was in store. After all of this research, we had a very good idea of what to expect in terms of culture, climate, environment, cost of living, infrastructure, etc. But, of course, we’ve had many surprises along the way.

1. Critters are everywhere

Sure you’ve seen a cockroach or spider in your hotel room but once you live here for a bit, you’ll really get to know the locals. Soon it becomes second nature to either kill or rescue whatever has crept into the house. We prefer the rescue method, except for cockroaches and some spiders. Most recently we had a tree frog in the toilet, a boa constrictor in the yard, a gigantic spider in the shower, and a dozen or so millipedes cruising around the living room—and that’s just in one week’s time. The message is: if you’re going to live in the rainforest, be ready for visitors.

 

Costa Rica Tree Frog

2. Cost of Living: It isn’t that much cheaper to live here

Groceries: Many of the things you’re probably used to buying are imported in Costa Rica. Cereal, specialty grains like arborio rice and couscous, cheese, etc. cost twice as much here because they are imported. Unless you have a very big budget, you’ll have to adapt to eating new things. Rice and beans, the Tico diet, is key, and fresh produce is a must. Produce is one thing that is actually cheaper—a lot cheaper—here. Don’t worry too much though. You can still make your favorite recipes; you just have to get creative when an ingredient isn’t available.

Utilities: Utilities are about the same as in the States, with the exception of cell phone service. Our electricity bill is about the same as it was in Boston, Internet is slightly less (but also less reliable), and cell phone service is a lot less, both for minutes and a data plan. Housing can be less expensive, it just depends. Like anywhere else in the world, the cost depends on where and how you want to live. Apartments in the mountains go for as low as $200 a month and houses in beach towns go for as high as $2,000 a month.

3. The carrots are delicious

Maybe it’s the perfect climate or maybe it’s the care with which they’re grown, but the carrots taste way better here than in the States. And so do the papayas and pineapples and even broccoli. Plus all produce, even the more exotic stuff, is significantly cheaper, notably so if you go to the local feria (farmer’s market). For those of you spending $30 a week on mediocre produce at Whole Foods, you’ll be in heaven in Costa Rica, especially when you buy three pineapples for two dollars.

4. It’s hard not to become a birder

We both liked birds before we moved to Costa Rica but we are slowly becoming obsessed. We now have a species list that is growing by the day and folders and folders of photos saved on the computer. We’ve even started a new tradition on our Facebook page called #FeatheredFriendFriday.

 

Parrot in Costa Rica
5. The Internet: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t

One of the most common questions we get is about Internet reliability. Unfortunately, there is no real answer since it can vary greatly depending on where you live. We’ve had outstanding cable Internet, very good wireless 3G, and slow-as-molasses 3G. If you’re living in a remote area, you’ll probably use a 3G data stick to connect, and depending on the placement of towers, it could be good or bad. New towers are going up fast though and 4G service is already in place for some areas.

Another problem is power outages. If you live in Costa Rica for a while, you’ll get used to them. Most of the time they are short, an hour or less, but sometimes they can be longer, sometimes days. On a recent trip to the grocery store, the power went out. All of the tourists were looking around like, “What now?” but the locals and expats just kept shopping. Five minutes later, it was back on like nothing happened. You just learn to deal with it.

6. Cars really are expensive

We had heard about the high cost of cars in Costa Rica but until you experience the sticker shock for yourself, you don’t quite fathom it. If you live in a rural area in Costa Rica, you’ll probably want a car but know that it is going to cost you two to three times more than it should because of high import taxes. As a reality check, think about this: In the States we had a 2007 Civic Hybrid which we sold before we left for significantly less than we paid for our now 14-year old 2000 Chevy Tracker in Costa Rica.

7. Tico Time isn’t as slow as people say

This one might be about expectations but we had read a lot about “Tico time” and how getting one simple task done can take forever because the locals do everything a little bit slower. Sure we’ve had some experiences with Tico time, it took more than a week to get a small part for our car, but on the whole, things move at a decent pace. In general, the Costa Ricans work very hard and we’ve been surprised to find that some things happen faster here than in the States. The pharmacy, for example, can give vaccinations and perform basic medical treatments, and the gas station stocks basic car parts like headlights and often times will even change the part for you.

8. Almost everything comes in a carton or bag and portions make sense

We’ve become accustomed to drinking wine, juice, and milk out of a tiny square carton. Cleaning products like dish soap, bathroom cleaner, and laundry detergent all come in simple plastic pouches. It all makes perfect sense; why do you need a new dish soap bottle anyway? Food packaging is also different. They only give you what you need, no extra. A box of spaghetti (which comes in a bag, of course) is actually half the size of what we had back in the States. After all, how many open pasta boxes do you have in your cabinet right now?

 

Carton of Wine Costa Rica
The many Tetra Paks of Costa Rica

9. Moisture can be a big problem

This is something that really wasn’t well covered in anything we had read. In the tropics obviously it rains a lot and unless you have excellent air flow, you’re going to get mold and mildew; it is inevitable. Anything made of leather, unless you use it a lot, is guaranteed to start growing the green (or white) stuff. A couple of our things that have fallen to the mold are Jenn’s Coach handbag, which is constantly getting vinegar treatments, and Matt’s leather belt, which permanently lives in a plastic baggy. We’ve found that the best thing to do is to make sure your home gets plenty of sunlight and to air things out as much as possible. For things you have packed away, your best bet is to contain them in airtight plastic bags with humidity absorbers.

10. The People are amazing

One of the big reasons we decided to make the move was because we had fallen in love with the Tico culture. People here are generally happier and it’s contagious. Maybe it’s the sun and palm trees or maybe it’s the way they are raised, we’re not sure. Of course, like everywhere else there are some bad seeds, but overall everyone we have met has been warm and kind. We’ve been fortunate enough to make some pretty great friends too. We’ve been invited to dinners, soccer games, car races, and the beach by Ticos. We’ve been taught local traditions but also learned that we are not all that different. Friends and family spend time together in similar ways and talk about similar things, just in a different tongue.

*     *     *

Overall we feel that we prepared ourselves well for life in Costa Rica. Our first six months has been a great success and we’re looking forward to our next milestone. We knew that we’d be giving up some common conveniences but replacing them with things that are just as, or more, important. We’re living healthier lives, with less processed foods, plenty of exercise, and less mental stress. We’re still working hard, but on things that we enjoy. Thanks to our family, friends, and all of our new online friends for your support. Cheers to another six months!

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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20 Comments

  1. Perfect list, couldn’t agree more with your observations. The other reason groceries and other products are more expensive is the universal 13% sales tax.
    To deal with the humidity, a lot of expats (including us) make a “dry room”. Ours is a walk-in closet with a 40W dehumidifier running 24/7. The humidity is also a bit less up in the mountains where we are.
    To help with the electric outages, we have APSs on every computer and the DSL modem. Lights go out, but we still have Internet! Some stores carry a big multi-LED light with internal battery that will come on if power fails. Beats hunting around in the dark for a flashlight or matches. 🙂
    Pura vida!

    1. Great tips Casey! We’d love an entire “Dry Room” but since we move around so much we just made a “Dry Box” for our camera and important papers by using a big plastic box and some moisture absorbent. Thanks for your other insights too, Pura Vida!
      -Matt & Jenn

    1. Thanks Garey, good luck with your plans. You shouldn’t have any problem finding bugs to keep you in business here 🙂

  2. I’m so happy I found your site. My family and I are moving to CR in a few weeks. My husband is being transferred there for work and we’re moving with our two small kids under 3 years. I’m on my way to the bookstore to pick up your book. Thank you so much for the great information. It’s making our move a lot less nerve-wrecking. All the best and thank you.

    1. Your welcome Nam, glad that our blog is making you feel better about the move. Good luck with everything and thanks for checking out our book!
      -Matt & Jenn

  3. With the exception of the ones involving cars, bars, and Internet service (my host family didn’t have Internet in their house) all of the others really resonated with me! Almost a decade later and I still think back fondly on the amazing Ticos and the incredible fruit that sells for pennies in comparison to how expensive it is here in the US!
    A negative though for me though was how bad my skin was affected. I’m very pale and I guess being that much closer to the equator, well my skin went through the gauntlet and then some 🙂 It was the same when I lived in Mexico…sigh.
    Cheers to your next six months!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Julie. The cost of fruit still amazes us. The other day we bought a whole watermelon for $1. The sun is definitely strong here. I (Jenn) am pale too so have been lathering on the sunscreen. Can’t complain though…after living in New England in the cold and snow, we are loving the warm, sunny weather.

    1. Hi Cindy, when we first came to CR, we stayed in Manuel Antonio because that is the area of the country we’re most comfortable with. We had traveled there many times before so it was easy to find a rental. After a month, we decided to start traveling around. We’ve lived in five different places since then, all over CR (separate post coming soon!), and still haven’t settled on a home base so I guess the answer is we haven’t decided yet. I think sometime soon we’ll put down roots though.
      A lot of expats choose to live near San Jose to be closer to hospitals/amenities. There are a lot in Atenas, Grecia, Escazu, Heredia, etc. For beach towns, Manuel Antonio and Uvita/Dominical have decent sized expat communities, and we’re just getting a sense of the community near Tamarindo now that we’re here (first impressions are that it is pretty big). Hope that helps!

      1. Cool- can’t wait to hear about your impressions of the Guanacaste area. So now that you have a car, do you sort of caravan around with all your stuff or do you have a storage locker somewhere?

    2. Hey Cindy, responding to you latest comment…it’s not letting us reply.
      LOL we do sort of caravan around. All our stuff fits in 7 suitcases and we can barely squeeze it into our car. We move about every month or 2 so it works quite well for us!

  4. I was in Costa Rica in1987, spent 3 days in Manuel Antonio. It was quaint back then and beautiful. My wife and I are looking into traveling down there in the next couple of months. I thought about spending time in Uvita/Dominical, how did you like living there as compared to tamarindo and Manuel Antonio? I would like to hear more about your first year there and the places you lived

    1. Hi Mike, Manuel Antonio will have changed a lot since you went in ’87 but it’s still a great place to visit. There’s tons of restaurants and things to do in the area and the beaches are beautiful. It’s a little too busy for us for living there full-time- we prefer the Uvita/Dominical area, which isn’t as developed. Tamarindo is a lot different than the Central Pacific Coast. It’s really developed too but there are lots of smaller communities nearby that are more chill. In the dry season, it gets really parched in that area of the country. We prefer the wetter climate of MA/Uvita because it stays green longer, but it all depends what you’re looking for.
      Funny that you should mention a post about the places we’ve lived. We’ve been planning to do one around the 1-year mark in July so stay tuned.

  5. I love your blog, and am learning so much to prepare for our move there in August. We will be living in Alajuela, which isn’t quite as tropical as where you all are. Would we still have the same humidity concerns there? How do books fare? I’ve heard that the humidity can be pretty rough on them.

    1. Hi Monique, Alajuela and the Central Valley are less humid than the beach but still somewhat humid. You might find that dry rooms aren’t necessary, though, as long as the house you’re in has good airflow and fans. Books do okay. We actually house sat for someone who loved books and brought their whole collection. They had to spend some time dusting them to keep the mold off but they fared pretty well. She would lay out some laundry dryer sheets on top of them and thought that that helped.

  6. I enjoyed reading about your journey. I’ll b in Costa Rica June 1 st & staying a month. I’ll be going towards Punta Banco. I’ll make my way to the yoga farm to volunteer. I heard it’s difficult to get approval to live in Costa Rica. I’d love to move but, I’ll settle on going back n forth for now. Are the buses really confusing?

    1. Hi Tammy, It’s not hard to get residency in Costa Rica but you have to fit into one of the eligibility categories. Our post FAQs About Moving to Costa Rica has some general information about that.

      Buses are a great way to get around. They take a little longer but go just about everywhere. This website has some information on the different schedules. Bus stations always have the local schedules posted as well.

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