Expat Life in Costa Rica: Simpler but not Easy

In Search of a Simpler Life? Come to Costa Rica

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Ahh…wouldn’t you love to have this expat lifestyle every single day in Costa Rica?

It’s common when you think about moving to Costa Rica, that your life is somehow going to be easier. After all, in that perfect dream (born when you fell in love with this tropical paradise), you might find yourself surfing those killer waves or sipping your morning coffee as you watch the tide roll in from your ocean view Costa Rica house.

Am I right? So many of us discover the Pura Vida essence of Costa Rica while visiting on vacation, and we carry that relaxed vision with us as we consider retiring to Costa Rica or moving here.

Expat Life in Costa Rica: Simpler but not Easy

So, what do I mean by that – expat life in Costa Rica: simpler but not easy, at least most of the time?

Well, it’s simple….kind of.

Expat living in Costa Rica is…very much so….simpler than life back “home”, assuming you’ve hailed from a country that’s more developed than Ticolandia (Costa Rican nationals are referred to as “Ticos”).

Your choices for toothpaste here are quite limited – at least here along the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The same goes for most of your food items in the grocery store and at the farmer’s market: you have limited choices which does make your selections simpler. Fewer options, no need to think much.

Finding Office Furniture in Costa Rica

My husband and I recently opened our own real estate firm. But since we live on the Pacific coast – almost four hours from Costa Rica’s capital, where all the major shopping is located, we chose to order our office furniture online and have it

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Finding office furniture in our new office in South Pacific Costa Rica proved quite a challenge…

shipped to us. (Shipping stuff to Costa Rica is an entirely different topic, which I’ll cover on another day.) Suffice it to say, the click click click of ordering online is simple, but the subsequent hiring of a trusted shipper, managing the shipment paperwork, paying for the shipment, picking it up and then installing it…none of that fell into the “Easy” category.

We did some previewing of office furniture at the limited selection stores in San Jose before we ordered, and quickly realized that the prices on identical merchandise were at least 30% higher than the U.S. and in some cases more than double. Plus, the selection is very, very limited.

Back in the U.S. in my former life, I’d have ordered my office furniture from one or two websites or visited my nearest Office Depot, pointed and purchased, and two days later, the shipment would have shown up at my door….including the install. Easy.

Sigh.

There are moments like these when I miss the ease of my former life in the U.S.

The reality is that it took three months to get all our office furniture ordered, shipped, picked up and then installed. THREE MONTHS. (Frankly, it makes me tired just to think about it. But at least now, I’m on this side of it.)

It’s part and parcel of living along the Costa Rican South Pacific coast.

Another example: coffee. Here in Costa Rica, coffee is grown like crazy. It’s delicious. You’d think there would be coffee shops on every corner. But in my little coastal town, there’s only one coffee shop and it’s not open every day. So, if I want coffee on a day when this little shop is closed (and I did not have the inclination to make my own at home), then my second option is to drive 15 minutes down the road to the next town.

Limited options make my choice simpler, yes. But, this is hardly the ease with which I used to walk to Starbucks, which sat – easily – across the street from my office in Denver and pick up a Chai without thinking twice.

There’s no Starbucks in the Costa Rican Jungle

I know, I know. None of us move to Costa Rica jungle in search of Starbucks. (Though there is one now in the international airport in San Jose, just so you know.) It’s just an example.

Car Repairs in Costa Rica

Ha ha! Here I have to laugh a bit, because this is so often a topic that NO ONE considers until they’ve actually bought their piece of Costa Rica real estate. But it should be considered, because the wear and tear and maintenance on your car in Costa Rica will cost you a lot more than it did back home. And the bigger question – for we coastal dwellers – is WHERE you will find that reputable, trusted repair shop.

Visit any online Costa Rica expat community group and you’ll see that one of the most frequently discussed subjects is where to get your car fixed. One person recommends XYZ shop; another complains that they got ripped off there. Someone else pipes up with another name; yet another expat will scream that their car sat there for three months and exited with the problem still in tact. It’s a never ending story.

Simpler versus Easy regarding Car Repair in Costa Rica

The choices are very simple: (1) you can buy a brand new car – expensive, yes, but it also comes with a three to five year maintenance package, hooray! or (2) you can buy a previously owned car and take your chances.

We’ve bought three used cars in recent years and have had pretty good luck with that route. However, we also choose to make our lives simpler by taking them back to the dealer (think, Ford or Toyota) to get their annual check-ups and for all the regular maintenance and repairs. (Believe me, when you bounce up and down 4 x 4 roads 365 days a year, your vehicle needs more regular maintenance than it did back home, especially when it comes to suspension. Now maybe if you came from the Australian Down Under, that won’t be the case, but for the bulk of new expats to Costa Rica, this is a very true statement.)

Is taking our cars to the dealer simpler? Yes. It is more expensive? Yes. But are the parts warrantied, as well as the work? Yes. Is this route easier? No. Because our dealers are between 1.5 hours drive (Toyota) and four hours drive (Ford) from where we live. When we take the Ford into San Jose, we need to schedule for pet care, house sitting, hotel rooms and eating out. All of that adds up. But, long term, does it mean our car will have less problems on all of our local roads during the rest of the year? Yes. So, long term simpler? Yes.

The alternative option would be to locate a local mechanic and take our

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Choosing the right mechanic in Costa Rica: just another example of the simpler expat life….or is it easy? Hmm…

cars to them for service. Easier, yes. Simpler, long term? No. With all three cars, we’ve tried this route – with three different mechanics – and though my hubby is a “Tico” (meaning a Costa Rican native), we’ve had less than stellar luck. Problems on each and every encounter. 🙁

After multiple attempts on the “easier” route, we gave up and abandoned the local mechanic option and have since gotten really good at planning those needed maintenance trips.

Now, the truth is, as many new Costa Rica expats as I may share this story with….at least half of them will still attempt the local mechanic route – over and over and over again – and then, the next five times I see them, it’s all they will talk about. (Part of that has to do with the 1% Rule of Meeting Other Expats Abroad – another recent post I did here.)

Which Do You Prefer for your Future Costa Rica Expat Lifestyle: Simpler or Easy?

You always have a choice. If you said, simpler, than life here on the South Pacific Costa Rica coast will appeal to you in a huge, huge way. Welcome. And if easy is your answer, that’s great….but once you make sure that Costa Rica is where you want to live, I’d suggest you choose a more populated area like San Jose or Escazu or any other area closer to the city. And even then….you’re still in Pura Vida land….where life moves at its own pace. 🙂

Want More on Expat Life in Costa Rica?

I’ve been living abroad in Costa Rica (and Panama, before) for almost ten years. I write about expat living in hopes that my experiences will be of help to others who are considering this lifestyle. On the right hand column, you should be able to see some other recent topics I’ve written about.

You’re also welcome to subscribe to my newsletter list here.

Interesting in buying your own piece of Pura Vida Costa Rica real estate paradise?

I can help you with that too. We opened our new boutique real estate firm in South Pacific Costa Rica in April 2017. We’re one of the only local brokerages who’s

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Yours Truly, here, living and working the Costa Rica expat lifestyle along the South Pacific coast. 🙂

owned by a Tico and a North American (local connections, international expertise), and who are legal, licensed and committed to working in an ethical manner. Check us out here.

Costa Rica – Panama – Nicaragua: 5 Differences

In a recent trip to Nicaragua – a long weekend getaway and part of my Living La Pure Vida beyond the borders of my Costa Rica home, I was struck by a number of things that reminded me of my former expat life in Panama. This sparked this post: Costa Rica – Panama – Nicaragua: 5 Differences…and this is just the beginning. Read on. Perhaps this will whet your whistle for traveling between these three countries – so close – but with cultures a world away from one to the next.

Variety is the Spice of Life…isn’t it?

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When you celebrate differences between cultures, travel (and expat living) becomes much more interesting…and much more fun!

A resounding YES, and thus, I thought it might be fun for my fellow expats who travel the Central American region like I do, and anyone else who may be sojourning through same, or even considering a move to Panama, Costa Rica or Nicaragua to take a look at my recent observations.

Difference #1: “You’re Welcome”

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Say “Thank You” in Spanish in any of these countries the same, but the response will be quite different in each one…

In all three countries, you’ll use “Gracias” to say thanks. But how the locals respond….well, therein lies the subtle differences which reflect the nuances of the three cultures.

Panama: “De Nada” which literally means “You are welcome” (English Pronunciation: Day NAH-Dah). Panamanians also respond with “Claro”, which simply means “Sure”.

Costa Rica: “Con Gusto” which translates to “With Pleasure” (English Pronunciation: Cone GOOSE-toe). In Spanish, this is considered a more polished or sophisticated response than Panama’s more straightforward ones. (And in Costa Rica, you’ll also probably get a smile….not so often in Panama.)

Nicaragua: “A La Orden” which translates to “At Your Service” (English pronunciation: A Law ORD-N). Again, the Nicaraguan response is more polite generally than Panama’s, but equal with the Tico one.

Difference #2: The Nationals’ Nickname

Natives from Panama are called Panameños (in Spanish). (English pronunciation: Pan-a-MAIN-yos)

The formal name for Costa Rican natives is Costariccenses, but few people use that word unless you’re in a more formal setting. The nickname for those native-born in Costa Rica is Ticos (pronounced TEA-kos).

You’ll notice that the words Panameños and Ticos ends in O, which is correct in the Spanish language for a group of people that includes both genders.

Herein lies the difference: Nicaragua. Using that same rule in Spanish, one would think that the nickname for national citizens would be “Nicos”. But it’s not. It’s “Nicas” ending in A, which would normally indicate that the described group is female or that the word (like citizens) is feminine. But citizen in Spanish is “ciudadano”, clearly masculine. And quite obviously, the entire Nicaraguan population is NOT feminine either. (In fact, Nicaragua is one of the most machismo cultures in Central America!)

I turned to my Tico husband for an explanation to this query; his answer was a shrug. Sometimes you just gotta love Spanish…

Difference #3: Money

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Nicaraguan currency is referred to as Cordobas, pictured here.

Panamanians have the Balboa, which only includes their coinage. Otherwise, Panama uses the U.S. Dollar. (A major convenience for U.S. expats that choose to move to Panama.) Short answer: no exchange rate and no need to fool around with different bills when you visit.

In Costa Rica, the U.S. bills are accepted pretty much everywhere; U.S. coins, however, are not. But the Costa Rican national currency is called the Colon, and in multiples, Colones. Current exchange rate (as of August 2017): 570 Colones to one U.S. Dollar.

Nicaragua’s currency is the Cordoba; current exchange is 30 to one U.S. Dollar. Have no fear in carrying and using U.S. Dollars (not including coinage, once again) all over the country though, but expect to get Cordobas back as change.

Difference #4: Religious Leanings

Having lived in Panama for eight years, I personally witnessed how devout the local population is – to a grand extent – to the Catholic faith. I would deem to say that the average in the country is around 70% Catholic. Yes, other churches exist, but Catholicism is the main one, which Christianity far behind. Drive by a big Cathedral or church on Sunday morning in Panama – no matter where you are in the country – and you’ll find it packed with people. Religious holidays are strictly observed by ordinary citizens and a driving reason for extended families to congregate on a regular basis.

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The Catholic Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica is the most photographed in the country.

Costa Rica is at the other end of the spectrum, which surprised me, because their conquistadors hailed from Spain, just as some of Panama’s did. Perhaps it has something to do with Costa Rica’s commitment to education (which they started investing in mightily since 1949 when they disbanded their military). It’s historically relevant that as the level of education increases, the commitment to planned religious systems normally decreases. (I’m sure someone will argue with that, but that’s how I see it). Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, only boasts one large, central Catholic Cathedral, versus Panama’s multiple ones. And, church attendance in Costa Rica – even in the country along the coast in more rural areas – has dropped to an estimated 30% of what it was twenty years ago.

Nicaragua falls somewhere in between; again, another surprise, at least to me, given that Nica’s level of poverty is much higher than either of the forenamed countries. Nica’s people are devout – yes – but in some areas of Nicaragua, it’s not the “expected” Catholicism; instead the church goers attend some sect of the Evangelical Church. But, again, even so, the churches we observed this past weekend on a Sunday morning drive were only about half full. So, more devout than Costa Rica, but far from Panama levels. Interesting.

Difference #5: Cleanliness

This is a favorite topic of mine, and one I wrote about significantly when I lived in Panama. Cleanliness – in my family of origin – was akin to Godliness. It’s something I notice, no matter where I go.

Costa rica - panama - nicaragua: 5 differences; la pura vida costa rica; julianne murphy; bestselling author julianne murphy; julianne murphy new book dream job; costa rica expats; expats in costa rica
Trash along the shores of the Panama Canal in Panama.

Panama gets a bad rap for cleanliness across the nation, but it’s justified, because the country as a whole cares little for picking up after themselves. The never-ending trash on the streets and the lack of care even in the bathrooms at the airports are one of the things most expats in Panama dislike the most. Unfortunately, it’s part of Panama’s culture. (Yes, the past two governments and some community influencers have begun campaigns to turn this unsavory trend around, but those things usually take quite some time to take hold.)

Costa Rica, on the other hand, educates their children – and has for years – about the need for recycling and putting trash in the right places. Is it a perfect system? No. But the country’s attention to detail when it comes to pollution is admirable on all fronts.

Nicaragua, surprisingly, parallels Costa Rica when it comes to trash on the streets. The prior First Lady evidently pushed a campaign for National Clean Up across the country, and it worked: today, even in rural  areas where the poorest of natives reside, the streetscapes are remarkably clean. At a mall in Managua on a recent trip, the tile floors actually sparkled when I crossed them. Needless to say, for such a poor country, I’m impressed!

Three Neighboring Countries But the Similarities Stop There

Hope you enjoyed this little sojourn into my travels as a Central American expat. It’s fun to peek into other countries’ cultures and observe what makes them tick (from an outside perspective, of course). Variety truly is the spice that makes travel so much fun!

For more on expat life in Costa Rica, click elsewhere within this website. (If you’re interested in buying real estate in South Pacific Costa Rica where we live, I can help you with that too.)

For more on expat living in Panama, visit the Panama Gringo Guide website here.

And, if you’re interested in my writing – and my new book Dream Job – scheduled to hit the shelves (and the NY Times Bestseller list!) in 2018, take a look here.

Until next time, Pura Vida!

Time Differences in Costa Rica

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This is how coffee is prepared table side in coastal Costa Rica. Believe me, you want it to take its time!

Time Differences in Costa Rica & how they will affect you as an expat

I’m having a war path day – anyone who’s ever been married know what that looks like when the woman of the house is on the war path, right? 🙂 But what does this have to do with the time differences in Costa Rica that I’m going to post about today?

First, when you move to Costa Rica – and sometimes even when you visit Costa Rica as a tourist – you may find yourself surprised about some of the things that you ‘thought’ would be different, that are not. On the flip side, you may find yourself equally surprised when the things you thought would be the same, are definitely NOT.

I am having one of those days. The ones where everything seems to piss me off about living on the coast of Costa Rica. And, yes, I live close to the beach and in the rainforest, and  as such, have NO reason to do a whole lot of griping. But as today is – what I used to term a “bad Panama day” when I lived in Panama – …well, I’m gonna turn my bitching into a post instead and let you see the inside scoop of how time differences in Costa Rica can both benefit you and plague you, when you live here. Read on, if you please.

Cultural Difference #1 in Costa Rica: Time

Costa RIca sunset, La Pura Vida Costa Rica, JuliAnne Murphy, Costa Ballena Costa Rica, Ballena Coast sunset
In Costa RIca, the Pura Vida life does allow you to catch plenty of sunsets.

Yes, you’ve heard about it. After all, this is Ticolandia, the land of “Pura Vida“, and complete relaxation. That’s right. There’s a definite Yin and Yang related to the concept of time (and especially time management) here in the tropics, and along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

When The Concept of Time in Costa Rica is to your benefit

One example, on the Yang side, we had an appointment with the mechanic this morning and were asked to drop off the truck for some work between 9 and 10 a.m.

Side note: Few places here on the coast do anything before 9 a.m. unless they serve breakfast or sell products for farmers who are up at the crack of dawn. Another aspect of Pura Vida!

Back to the truck repair – the guy asked us to drop it off between 9 and 10 a.m. So, we scuttled out of bed early and left the house at around 8:30 a.m. (it’s an hour and a half drive) only to get on the road and realize, “Hmm. We’re hungry.”

“No worries,” said my Tico partner. “Let’s stop for breakfast.” So, we did. Meanwhile, while we munched, he texted the shop to tell them we were enroute with an anticipated later arrival. An hour later (still enroute, behind a huge truck on a two-lane road through the mountains), we realized his phone had been on Airplane mode and the text had not gone through. Ugh.

The good news: when we arrived (only 20 minutes past the original scheduled appointment slot at 10:20 a.m.), the mechanic not only had not received the text, he was non-plussed,  happy to see us and promised, “It will be done within an hour.”

(In Costa Rica, please take note – when someone says “it will be ready in an hour”, you auto-assume it means 2-3 hours.)

So, that’s the Yang side – you can stop to have breakfast on the way to the mechanic and it won’t screw up your entire time table for getting your fixed car back…on the same day. 🙂

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At a recent kids event, the kids lined up almost an hour early, they were so excited! A cute example of time differences in Costa Rica.

When the Concept of Time in Costa Rica bites you…

On the Yin side (and I may have Yang and Yin mixed up here, feel free to correct me), we left the mechanic and took a taxi 10 minutes down the road to our next appointment. This one was a “loose” appointment, and we had called from the road earlier to say, “Hey! We won’t be there at 10, as planned, but probably will be by 10:30.”

“No worries,” said the guy. “I’ll be there in ten minutes myself.” (As the call originated at 10:07 a.m., that should have meant he’d be there by 10:17 a.m., more or less.)

Good news, we arrived at 10:37 a.m. (Not bad, since we had been more delayed than we had planned because of our own Pura Vida breakfast.)

Bad news, the guy left us waiting…until 11:17 a.m. And, here we are, more than an hour later, and the appointment still hasn’t started. It’s 11:52 a.m. I have to be honest. Now, I’m pissed.

Time Considerations the Pura Vida Costa Rica way

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Another example of marked time differences in Costa Rica: when the pool guys show up a day (or two) late.

This is the definite downside of Pura Vida; when the concept of time management (or time consideration) has been either forgotten or pushed back because of the other person’s own Pura Vida relaxed journey, and well, you are simply S.O.L. or at their mercy.

Sometimes, dealing with people related to the concept of time in Costa Rica simply sucks, let’s be honest. Today, for us, has been a mixed bag.

Time Considerations between Panama & Costa Rica – do they differ?

Great question! I’m so glad you asked. 🙂 Yes, they do.

Living as an expat in Costa Rica now for almost two years, and having lived in Panama for eight years prior to that, I’d say that time considerations in Panama are actually worse. (I’m ducking now because my Panamanian friends may be throwing rotten apples at me for saying that.) But, it’s true.

Because Panama has a concentrated dose of Caribbean integrated into the mezcla of culture in the country, you can expect that time considerations in Panama are indeed more pronounced. I covered that topic – with many other examples – in my books about Panama, if you’re interested.

In fact, I did a recent expat interview with an executive in Panama, who commented on her struggles related to time considerations there. Here’s a link to that part of that recent conversation.

In Costa Rica, time is less important in the coastal areas. People are watching the tides for when to go surf or paddle board, after all. In San Jose, the capitol of Costa Rica, people are much more attuned to schedules, perhaps because of the education levels are higher.

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One last thing…things are so relaxed here in Costa RIca, that you have a lot more time for naps. One thing I really like!

So, that’s it for today, kids! I hope you’ve enjoyed this post about time considerations in Costa Rica. It’s now 12:07 and my husband has just been called in…only an hour and a half late…so, I’ll be here for a while longer.

Pura Vida!

Three Hard Lessons Learned for Costa Rica Vacationers

While traveling to Panama earlier this month, I witnessed a 60-something Gringo couple stumble out of a taxi in front of the international airport in San Jose pinned on a map of Costa RicaCosta Rica, yelling “Help!”

The couple had arrived an hour earlier and taken a cab off the street (we call them ‘red’ or public taxis) from the airport to their hotel nearby. When they reached the hotel, they realized they did not have lower-denomination bills to pay the cab driver. They both walked inside to the hotel counter but when they returned to the cab, the cab driver and all their belongings were gone.

They had returned to the airport in hopes that the airport cameras would have captured something about the taxi they had hailed.

How unfortunate and sad!

But three hard lessons learned for you, Costa Rica vacationers:

1. When you leave the international airport, take an orange cab (who have an alliance with the airport and are lined up to your left when you walk out of Customs).

San Jose Costa Rica - May 20 : Pick up area outside of the International Airport with Taxis and families waiting for passengers. May 20 2016 San Jose Costa Rica.
San Jose, Costa Rica : Orange Taxis at the Pick-Up area outside of the International Airport

Their official name is Taxis Unidos. Otherwise, take Uber.

2. Never, EVER leave your belongings with someone you do not know, out of your sight. It amazes me that anyone still does this.

3. It’s smart to break down the larger bills that come out of the ATM into smaller bills or coins to have before you leave the airport. Maybe buy a pack of gum or a bottle of water or something. This is something that is smart whether you are here in Costa Rica or any country. Often, taxi drivers who intend to scam you will pull this kind of a trick and tell you they don’t have change.

A sobering lesson for all those who #travel but remember it’s your responsibility to take your own safety precautions.

This is paradise, but it isn’t perfect!

JuliAnne Murphy Pura Vida Costa Rica paradise beach

Mistakes people make when they move to Costa Rica

We’ve all done it. You come to Costa Rica and you’re in your perfect world – ne’er a worry vacation mode – and you fall in love. I did.

Most Costa Rica expats will attest to the things I’m going to share with you here. Most new expats moving to Costa Rica make a number of mistakes and/or assumptions about this country and/or their future life here that can be quite detrimental to their future happiness and success.

What mistakes do people make when they move to Costa Rica?

Mistake #1: People assume Costa Rica is cheap.

Twenty years ago, Costa Rica was cheap. Maybe even ten years ago. But Costa Rica today – in 2016 – is no longer cheap, people! Is it more affordable than where you came from? Well, that really all depends. If you’re used to living in Manhattan or Chicago, then yes, it may be cheaper for you. But if you’re from Idaho or Arkansas, it probably will not be cheaper from your perspective.

Recommendation: Check out all the other blogs by Costa Rica expats that provide REAL cost of living calculators and comparisons. Do your homework. Consider each one of their perspectives – where did they move from? What kind of lifestyle do they have? At the moment, you can pretty much find an array of soup to nuts on the cost of living topic related to this country.

Bottom line for my monthly expenses for living in Costa Rica versus my former life as a Panama expat? It’s about equal. But here’s the kicker – in Panama, I lived in a brand new condo in a brand new neighborhood. Here in Costa Rica, I choose to live four hours outside the capitol city on the Pacific coast – in the smack middle of nowhere.

Traditional Costa Rican home with ox and cart
Traditional Costa Rican home with ox and cart

Which brings me to another point – Panama is not cheap either. That ship sailed right out of the Panama Canal about 5-6 years ago, when I lived there. Yes, there are things between the two countries that vary, but hear me when I say this, people:

Neither Costa Rica or Panama is cheap!

(For more specifics on a supermarket comparison between Panama and Costa Rica I did a few weeks ago, click here.)

Mistake #2: People assume finding work in Costa Rica will be easy.

I see this trend here in Costa Rica significantly more often than I did in Panama, and I suppose it’s because Costa Rica has a long-standing reputation of being a tropical paradise. Many people come, fall in love, think “I want that! I’m going to leave it all behind and move here” and then, they leave their brains at the border. But as my partner says (almost daily), “This is paradise, but it ain’t perfect.”

First of all, future Costa Rica expats, this country is NOT a country with a lot of industry, unless you count government workers, high technology (in the city, not here on the coast), agriculture and tourism. And, I can tell you right now, you’re not going to get hired in government as a foreigner unless you are specifically relocated here by your own Embassy. You may find something in high tech but those jobs, when available, pay Costa Rica wages – not what you’re accustomed to back home.

As for agri and tourism, same thing. Most of the time, even when a high-rolling foreign investor comes to Costa Rica and buys a hotel, they’re more interested in keeping the Tico employees because they cost less.

Best-selling author JuliAnne Murphy Expat Costa Rica unemployed man

Every single week I hear of another expat who has returned ‘back home’ after they realized they had no way to support themselves. The moral to the story is – yes, there’s room for you in Costa Rica, but don’t plan on finding a job here. They are few and far between. And if you do find a job, it will pay 50-250% less than your job back home. My recommendation, unless you choose to wait tables: bring your own ideas and money to start your own business, or work online. But, somehow HAVE A PLAN that is sustainable to support yourself beyond 3-6 months.

Mistake #3: People assume their savings will go further than it does.

Bottom line: refer to #1 above. So many people move here – and travel here, as well – assuming that Costa Rica is like Mexico 30 years ago.

Those are the people who read too many International Living articles. I, for one, get sick of hearing expats bitch about how expensive it is to live here. YOU are the one who chose to move here, and if YOU did not have a plan or do your homework, whose fault is that? Oh, right! Yours.

A Recap: Three Real-World Facts about Living in Costa Rica

I’ll make this simple. 🙂

  1. Costa Rica is not cheap. And in some cases, it’s the most expensive country in Central America in which to live. So before you plan to move here, do some homework and figure out what YOUR cost of living will really be. Then, add 20% (on an annual basis). Just to be safe. 🙂
  2. Your long-term success for living in Costa Rica is directly tied to your ability to support yourself. And, the options to generate income based on the current landscape of available jobs in Costa Rica (especially along the coast) are very limited. So, have a plan that’s sustainable before you quit your job and buy your plane ticket.
  3. In my opinion, if you choose to move to Costa Rica (or retire in Costa Rica), you should have a minimum of six months living expenses in the bank before you come. And, if you plan to build a house in Costa Rica, take whatever quote you get for the house, and add at least 20%. Trust me. True for Expats, too!

Coming straight from the jungle, that’s it for today’s Costa Rica recap!

Moving to Costa Rica? Need real advice from a full-time Costa Rica expat who’s been there, done that?

I’m in the process of making myself available for one-on-one Skype conversations with future expats by appointment only. If you’d like to be notified of that opportunity in the next few weeks, click here and fill out the Contact form.

Pura Vida!

Food Cost Comparison – Costa Rica versus Panama

Having lived abroad in Central America as an expat for close to nine years now, I get asked a lot of cost of day-to-day living questions. So, today, as Part Two of my Cultural Differences between Costa Rica and Panama series, I’m going to share some about the food cost comparison between Costa Rica and Panama that you’ll find in shopping at the grocery store or supermarket between the two countries.

By the way, if you’re interested in the first post of this series about the marked differences between Panama & Costa Rica’s people as a whole, you can find that here.

Cultural Differences Part II – Food Cost Comparison: Costa Rica versus Panama

Today, I’m going to cover the topic of food specific to shopping for groceries. I’ll provide a brief overview of both supermarkets and farmer’s markets for each country and at the end, tell you which country is more expensive or affordable.

The Cost of Food: Costa Rica versus Panama

Shopping for groceries in Costa Rica: Supermarkets & Farmer’s Markets JuliAnne Murphy best-selling author and expat pura vida costa rica and panama

Costa Rica has three large supermarket chains: BM, MaxiPali and AutoMercado. Typically, most people frequent BM, which has stores all over Costa Rica. MaxiPali is a discount type supermarket and products other than food (i.e. a lower-end Wal-Mart). AutoMercado is a large format specialty supermarket with all kinds of tempting delights from all over the world. AutoMercado also has an in-house bakery with chocolate croissants, mmm.

You can guess which one is my favorite. 🙂

Yes, for those of us living along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica – four hours from San Jose – those must-have cookies from Omaha or that almond butter I love so much can only be found at AutoMercado. We do have an AutoMercado two hours from us near the super-fancy Los Suenos resort, but the only time we’re heading that direction is to go to San Jose, so shopping there rarely makes sense.

If you want to get the best deal at the supermarket, go to MaxiPali or to PriceSmart (the equivalent to Sam’s in the U.S.). Going to PriceSmart for those of us living on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, however, means we have to go to San Jose, which is a four-hour drive, and if you do that, it means you have to go on the same day you’re returning home and you’d better bring a big cooler. One downside of living in the tropics, to be honest – all this planning.

Your average consumer does the bulk of their day-to-day grocery shopping at BM.

Every BM is different. Nicer neighborhood stores have a wider variety of brands. Stores in the communities which house a lot of expats like Escazu, Santa Ana, Belen or even Puerto Jimenez (on the Pacific coast) carry more U.S.-sourced packaged foods.

Then, there’s your local farmer’s market. Within a 40-mile radius of where I live on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, there are five farmer’s markets I could visit each and every week. They’re not huge – most of them vary between ten and twenty tables, and variety is limited depending on the season. Many of them offer organic products as well as fresh eggs, same-day butchered chicken and fish caught that morning.

Here in Costa Rica, farming and agriculture continue to be a main driver of the local economy. Fresh food exports like coffee, bananas and papaya, among other things, are big business in Costa Rica. So, of course, it makes sense for the small farmers to sell local when they can: it costs them less and they pass on that savings to you.

JuliAnne Murphy best-selling author and expat pura vida costa rica and panama
Mountain of Peach Palm also know in Costa Rica as pejiballe

Supermarkets in Panama

Panama also boasts three supermarket chains. The high-end one is Riba Smith. The two others are pretty equal in their offerings: El Rey and Super 99. In my opinion, you can find a lot more Americanized products at the lower-end stores, El Rey and Super 99, than you can find at AutoMercado in Costa Rica.

Generally, the range of packaged products we’re familiar with in U.S. supermarkets are more available in the city of Panama. At least, that is, when the stores have those items in stock. In Panama, one of the idiosyncrasies of the culture is the norm that “when they have it, they have it and when they don’t, they don’t” which means the people working in that store can’t tell you when the product will be coming in next. Or they may tell you something just to get you out of their hair, but don’t count on that information being accurate.

PriceSmart is also an option in Panama. And at the moment, there are more PriceSmarts in Panama than there are in Costa Rica.

When I lived in Panama, I shopped at Riba Smith every week, and I found pretty much everything I needed. Like AutoMercado in Costa Rica, it’s more expensive then El Rey or Super 99, but I liked the higher-grades of meats and vegetables that I found there. The last two years of my time in Panama, however, I did find an Argentinian butcher whose meat was to die for, which decreased my meat purchases at Riba Smith.

JuliAnne Murphy best-selling author and expat pura vida costa rica and panama
Transporting fresh produce in Panama

For fish lovers, Panama City has a very large fish market. The local fishermen bring their boats in there day and night. So, fish – all kinds of fish – are available every single day of the year. And the prices are good. Not cheap, necessarily, but fair. (And better than going down the street to a supermarket who will charge you for packaging, transport and cold storage.)

Many people in Panama frequent the fish market once or twice a week, or have one of their household employees do so on their behalf.

Local Produce (i.e. Farmer’s Markets) in Panama

Because there are not a lot of farms immediately adjacent to Panama City (as they sold their valuable real estate to developers years ago), there’s not an established farmer’s market set-up in the city. Well, I take that back – there was one – a very dirty one that I went to when I first moved to Panama, until the sewage in the area backed up and flooded the streets of it for several months at a time. And since then, no one I know has gone back. Does it still exist? Probably. And if so, and the government has cleaned it up, please let me know so I can post that information here for my readers.
This would be a great project for Panama’s government to get behind as Panama City needs a place in the city for the local farmers to showcase their goods and sell direct to the public!

Otherwise, the one-off farmer will bring his beat-up pick-up truck in and park it on the street corner and sell his wares there, here and yon in the city of Panama. In Coronado, one of Panama’s well-known expat communities an hour from the city, local farmers do the same – line the main thoroughfare with their trucks early in the morning, every single morning. And, there’s a lovely farmer’s market in El Valle on the Pacific coast, but that’s also a good two hours out from the city. Other forlorn little shacks that house daily produce can be found on the PanAmerican highway as you head to the Pacific coast beaches but there’s little consistency for most of them too as to hours and/or what they have.

Which country is more affordable for your food shopping: Costa Rica or Panama?

Hands down, the answer is simple: Panama. By about 25-50%. I based this on my own weekly purchases. Our diet for two people is mostly organic chicken (2-3 whole chickens per week), fresh fish twice a week, a few bottles of iced tea, some canned cat food, dried beans, rice, and the rest is fresh fruits and vegetables. Pretty simple. We don’t do a lot of canned or bottled items, other than vinegar, oil, olives and jalapeños.

What I spent in Panama for two of us totaled about $125-150 per week. What we spend in Costa Rica for two of us totals about $200 per week. (Neither of those totals include alcohol, which is something I’ll report on in a later post because there are marked differences between those kinds of purchases between the two countries, as well.)

So, bottom line, Panama is cheaper when it comes to your food purchases. But, that said, $150 a week is not cheap. (Many people say that Panama is still cheap; I disagree, especially when it comes to food costs.) The caveat to that is if you consume a lot of prepackaged goods that are not local to either country. If you do that, then your costs for food in either country will skyrocket.

Please note that I did not include restaurants or the cost of dining out in the above cost comparison. That is yet another subject!

Until next time, I’m off to make a fresh green salad with lots of gorgeous veggies. Here’s to your health and your dining pleasure – at home – as you consider the kind of future expat life you will live in Panama or in Costa Rica. The good news is that in either place, you have lots of food choices.

Pura Vida!

For more on my previous expat life in Panama, please visit the Panama Gringo Guide.

 

How to Protect Yourself from Costa Rica’s Creepy Crawly Wildlife

How to Protect Yourself from Costa Rica’s Creepy Crawly Wildlife

We’re gonna shake, rattle and roll! I can hear the famous song by Elvis when I say those words, but in the case of your new life in Costa Rica, we’re talking more about your protection from Costa Rica’s creepy crawly wildlife than about having a good time.

Though, the types of precautions I’ll outline for you here will ensure your time here continues on without a hitch, whether you live in Costa Rica or are simply on vacation. It’s July – the rainy season here – and as such, while this is low tourist season, it’s definitely high season for Costa Rica’s creepy crawly wildlife. Let’s face it – when the rain comes, the plants and the wildlife get happy and reproduce at a crazy rate.

Welcome to the jungle. â˜ș

Costa Rica Spider by JuliAnne Murphy La Pura Vida Costa Rica Costa Rica Spider by JuliAnne Murphy Spider in Costa Rica by JuliAnne Murphy

So, let’s jump right in. How do you protect yourself from intersecting in a negative way with the wildlife in Costa Rica? Today, we’ll cover scorpions, spiders and snakes. These tips are some I’ve figured out on my own since I’ve lived here in the tropics – both in Panama (for eight years) and Costa Rica. Since the climate in these two countries is similar – hot and hotter – many of the bug species are the same.

Tip One: Shake, shake, shake!

This is a good one for spiders, scorpions and probably even snakes. But it’s something I do each and every night before I go to bed and I recommend you do it too: lift each layer of your sheets and blankets and shake them out before you get in them. Not the bottom one, no. Just the top sheet and whatever comforter or blanket(s) you have atop.

Did you know that the majority of scorpion stings happen when you are sleeping? That’s because scorpions adore cool, dry places – like your sheets. So, believe me when I say this, a quick shake, shake, shake and fluff of your sheets and pillows vale la pena (is worth it). Having tangled with a scorpion some years ago, I can tell you it’s definitely not something you want to experience.

This shaking method is best accompanied by a thorough visual inspection, as well. While scorpions will usually take off, sometimes spiders like to crawl deeper into your covers. Eek! So be sure you’re lifting every edge of that sheet, pillow or blanket and giving it a good shake or two in addition to eyeballing it.

And, don’t forget to turn the lights on! Or at the minimum, use a strong flashlight.

Tip Two: Rattle

This is a two-part tip.

Rattle, part one: for anytime you’ve left anything on the floor – even if it’s in an airtight air-conditioned hotel room – rattle it with your foot – or slide it across the floor a bit, if need be. This will encourage any creepy crawlies to get a move on.

The bottom of duffel bags, boxes, bags, pet beds, cushions, pillows, etc. is an ideal hiding place for Costa Rica’s critters. Even when they’ve only been there overnight. â˜ș

Yes, there is a higher probability that if the item has been sitting for a longer period of time, that it’s more likely to have a new resident clinging to the bottom or sides of your belongings.

Scorpion on lampshade by JuliAnne Murphy
Scorpion on a lampshade in Costa Rica. Photo by JuliAnne Murphy

Did I mention that the scorpion’s favorite hiding place is the bottom of anything – again, cool and dry?

Rattle, part two: When you are out hiking, walking or enjoying Costa Rica’s spectacular scenery, or even in your garden, do a bit of stomping along the way. Snakes sense movement versus hearing you, and when they do, their first instinct is to get out of your way.

So, a little stomping your feet here and there is always a good safeguard against snakes.

An Arboreal snake
An Arboreal snake
Green vine Snake / Flatbread snake in Monteverde, Costa Rica.
Green Vine Snake in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If for some reason, you stop along your walk and encounter a fallen tree or a log in your path, it’s a great idea to hit it with your shoes a couple of times before you scramble over. Snakes often hide in the cool, damp shade of such obstacles. A visual inspection here – before you jump over – is always a good idea, as well.

Tip three: Roll

For this tip, I’m talking about your toilet paper roll. Many homes and hotel rooms in Costa Rica have free standing toilet paper rolls next to the toilet. I can’t tell you why. But they do. And, guess what? The inside of that toilet paper roll – the vacant hole where the roll usually hangs onto something? A great hideaway for spiders.

Spider in Costa Rica by JuliAnne Murphy

Yes, it has happened to me. And, there’s nothing more disconcerting than sitting down in the middle of the night, reaching for the toilet paper and having something crawl onto your hand. Much less, bite you.

And, of course, it happens at night because spiders love the quiet and the dark. Can you blame them?

Spider in Costa Rica by JuliAnne Murphy

So, in this case, the best precaution is to a) get a nightlight, and b) take a quick peek in the hole before you take a seat.

Yes, it sounds pedestrian to even write this, but trust me, someday you will thank me.

So, whether you live in Costa Rica, are considering a move to Costa Rica, or are planning a vacation in Costa Rica, these little tips can help you plan accordingly.

Next time: Natural Remedies for when you DO get bit and/or stung in the jungle.

Sign up here to get notified of my upcoming posts about expat living in Costa Rica. And, if you have other questions in between, shoot me a line here or catch me on Facebook. I’m also pretty active on Twitter when I’m not nose down in my computer working on the final chapters of my third book!

See you soon.

3 Things I love about my expat life in Costa Rica

3 Things I love about my expat life in Costa Rica

Yes, that’s what this post is about in counter balance to the 3 Luxuries You’ll Miss that I did a few days ago….I do have more than 3 things I love about my expat life in Costa Rica! But, well, I only have so much time to write blog posts and you only have so much time to read them.

Before I go further, let me set aside your preconceived notions that I will be talking about the same stuff in this post that everyone else does on their Costa Rica blogs: the sun, the sand, the beaches, the tropical weather, how nice the locals are, the slower pace, etc.

Um, no.

Yes, of COURSE, all of that is here and it’s a big part of the reason you want to move to Costa Rica, yes? But, everyone else talks about that, so you have plenty of other places to do your homework on those fine aspects of life in Costa Rica.

This blog is about REAL expat life in Costa Rica, so I’ll be going down a rabbit trail here and there. Past the fancy hotel rooms and the days laying in the sand without a care in the world. That part is called vacation.

So, since I’ve already done my Three Things today – which included a TRX class at my local gym (yes! even on the South Pacific coast, we have a gym!), a trip to the local farmer’s market, and a stop at the hardware story – I still have time to write. Plus, it’s raining and I don’t need internet to write. (See more on consistent internet service in the 3 Luxuries You’ll Miss here.)

Entonces… (which is my favorite Spanish word, which means: Then…)


3 Things I Love about My Expat Life in Costa Rica:

Car refueling on a petrol station closeup
Full-service gas stations still in Costa Rica

     1. We still enjoy full-service at the gas station!

If you have not had full service at the gas station in a while, let me tell you!
For me, it was like a blast to the past. Before I moved to Panama
in early 2008, it had been a good 12 years since I had seen full service
at the pumps, and that was way back when I lived in Arkansas! And,
these days, it’s pretty rare to find it there. So, essentially, this is a
throw-back to at least 20 years ago from my past life in the U.S.

And, I LOVE it.


2. I no longer wake up to an alarm clock, because I no longer need one!

Now, let me clear. It’s not that I don’t have an alarm clock – these days, who doesn’t just use their phone for that anyway? – it’s that I don’t need one. Why? Because I wake up with daybreak now, which is usually just before or after 5 a.m. (Sunrise is a little later, like 5:15-5:20 a.m.)

Morning Mist Over Osa Peninsula Rainforest Drake Bay Costa Rica - Pura Vida expat life Costa Rica
Morning mist in Costa Rica

No one told me this would happen to me when I moved here. But I heard tales of it from other expats in Costa Rica soon after. Here’s the thing: I’ve always been an early bird, but living on the South Pacific coast where I do, my body has adapted to the natural rhythms of the earth. Meaning, usually by 8-ish in the evening, I’m starting to feel ready to wrap up the day. And, because there’s very little to do (other than eat out, occasionally) here along the coast, you’ll find you make your way to slumber much earlier than you’d ever expect to, in your prior life.

“Go to bed at 8 p.m.?” I scoffed, when I had been here just a few days. “Really?”

Yes, really. Except for me, it’s more like 9 or 10, on most nights. Still early for many of us North Americans who are used to watching the Late Show, huh?

And, as for the morning, well, the reason you start going to bed so early is because you wake up so early! Even if you don’t want to, the birds, the monkeys and the sun will do it for you. So, eventually, you just stop fighting it and you go with the flow.

Mornings here are beautiful, by the way. There’s nothing like watching a Costa Rica coastal sunrise.

Psychology Tidbit: Research shows that people with mood disorders fare best in a tropical environment, like Costa Rica, where sunrise and sunset are relatively consistent year-round.

Don’t ask me where I heard that, but I find it very interesting. And, it’s very true that the natural rhythm of nature has a soothing impact on your daily life around here in Costa Rica – your schedule and your lifestyle. At least, it has for me.

     3. I love how much space I have in my life here.

By space, I mean breathability. Life here in Costa Rica – at least here on the coast – is so very relaxed. Even if you have an online career. Even if you get up and go to work every day. People here are relaxed. Part of expat life here is getting used
woman skypingto that – at first, it can really drive you crazy. But, with time, the space around your schedule, and those little extra moments where you can do things like take a nap
in the middle of the day, or Skype with your sister,
 
those things are precious.

I saw a video on YouTube earlier today that someone put together by Robin Williams, posthumously. It essentially says, life is precious. Enjoy it. Breathe it in.

And, here in Costa Rica, I am doing just that. And, it is making me a much nicer person, overall. I have to say, I like who I am now – much more than even a year ago. And a lot of that has to do with this new-found space in my life, which I’ve discovered to large extent in Costa Rica.

Yay!

So, that’s it, folks!

Yep. I could write about 20 more posts about Things I Love About my Expat Life in Costa Rica. But, I will probably need to title them other things.

Pura Vida, y’all. From one very happy chick originally from Arkansas, who has transplanted herself here and loves it.