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?

JuliAnne Murphy; bestselling author JuliAnne Murphy; La Pure Vida Costa Rica blog; new book Dream Job NY Times 2018 bestseller list
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”

Costa Rica - Panama - Nicaragua: 5 Differences; La Pura Vida Costa Rica; JuliAnne Murphy; Dream Job Book 2018 launch
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.

Costa Rica - Panama - Nicaragua: 5 Differences; JuliAnne Murphy; bestselling author JuliAnne Murphy; JuliAnne Murphy new book Dream Job; La Pura Vida Costa Rica; expats in Costa Rica
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!

The 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad

Meeting Other Expats Abroad – What’s the Reality?

When it comes to meeting other expats, many people think that they will make friends easily when they move abroad. I mean, we’re all expats, right? That’s a big thing to have in common! But when meeting other expats abroad, the reality is that the 1% rule governs.

What is the 1% Rule?

The 1% rule is a law of averages I’ve come up with to make sense of what my personal experience of living abroad in Costa Rica and in Panama for the past ten years. My experiences – and those of other expats who I’ve interviewed and known as friends and co-workers – leads me to believe this rule applies to expats as people…not to expats living in a particular location.

The 1% Rule is numbers driven. (Accountants and Mathemeticians,rejoice!) Let’s use the United States as our backdrop for this post, since it’s my home country.

Why the Rule is Called “1%”

The U.S. has 350 million citizens. Of those, 46% hold passports for international travel. In 2016, just 19% of U.S. citizens traveled abroad. But how many of those travelers venture out further and make the decision to actually move abroad?

While the diagram below gives a fun breakdown by Internations published in 2016 of what the average U.S. expat looks like, there are no firm numbers of how many U.S. citizens actually live outside the U.S., only estimates.

Expat Statistics on US Americans Abroad — infographic


Estimates of how many U.S. expats live abroad range from two to seven million. Hmm…that’s a pretty big range!

So back to our 1% Rule for Meeting Other Expats Abroad equation.

Let’s assume – since there are no firm numbers – that five million U.S. citizens live abroad. Five million of 350 million equates to 1.4% of the total U.S. population.

This 1.4% is why I named this Meeting Other Expats rule, “The 1% Rule”. I assume that this number is more or less going to be the case for most other countries (not taking into account those that are war-torn).

Let’s Keep Breaking It Down

Keeping the 1.4% in mind, consider Costa Rica and Panama – where I’ve resided full-time for the past ten years. Estimates in Panama for U.S. citizens in 2012 were around 20,000. In Costa Rica, according to the U.S. State Department in 2013, U.S. citizens in Costa Rica totaled 50,000, though only 12,000 held legal residency visas. (I have yet to see more recent statistics reported online to date.)

(Side note: I’ll do another post soon on legal residency in Costa Rica.)

Back to our numbers – let’s estimate 70,000 U.S. expats live between Costa Rica and Panama. When you split that number across all the little retirement towns along the Pacific coast and between the two capital cities in the two countries, 70,000 expats is really not that many. Yes, you’ll run into more expats from the U.S. and Canada than those from other countries, most likely, but even so, 70,000 is the size of the town I grew up in. It’s not that big.

Applying the 1% Rule when Meeting Other Expats Abroad

meeting other expats abroad in costa rica; meeting other expats abroad la pura vida costa rica; costa rica real estate for sale
It’s exciting to meet other expats abroad, but it’s wise to take your time in getting to know them.

Now remember, when you live abroad, you’re not just living with other expats from your country of origin. Our tiny coastal community of Costa Ballena in South Pacific Costa Rica is comprised of expats from around the world – Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Spain….you get the picture. It’s colorful and it’s fun to have this much diversity, much less the local Costa Rican nationals!

So, assume that 1% of all the countries in the world are those that you will meet abroad.

Now, consider your city or state back home, wherever that might be, and think of it like this: when you live in your country of origin (the U.S., in our example), you have the entire diverse population of your citizenry around you. And from that pool of different personalities and backgrounds and sub-cultures within your own country, you select your friends from within your community. But even within your own community, you don’t get along with every one, do you? Nope. There are lots of people in your own home town or state or province that you would never choose to fraternize with.

Can’t We All Just Get Along? Well, Maybe…

Keeping that in mind….here’s the bottom line. You cannot expect that just because you meet other expats in your new country that you’re going to like them or that you’re going to have anything in common with them.

In fact, often, it’s just the opposite. Remember that guy at your old job back home that bugged the living sh#t out of you with his stupid jokes? Or the gal in your church who was always skating the line between legal and illegal with her business? Or the Peeping Tom in your community with a window washing company who got caught?

Yep. You’ll find those same kinds of characters here – whether Panama, Costa Rica, New Zealand or Timbuktu. You’ll encounter top of the line and bottom of the barrel folks and the truth is you’re just not gonna gel with everyone.

Why Can’t We Be Friends, Fellow Expats?

Let’s break down the final equation.

Every time I now meet an expat – no matter where they hail from, whether U.S. or not – I keep the 1% Rule in mind. I know that they too come from the 1% of “those who moved abroad” from their home country.

meeting other expats abroad in costa rica; meeting other expats abroad in panama; meeting other expats abroad; costa rica real estate
What fun it is to connect with other expats until you realize that something about their story doesn’t feel right…

I then expect that 50% of all the people I meet will be people I have zero interest in socializing with.

Because these people will be living abroad for a reason that doesn’t jive with my values – maybe they’re running from the law, maybe they’re evading taxes, maybe they’re just living abroad illegally, who knows. It doesn’t really matter. The law of averages bears out such that I know that one out of two expats I meet is someone that I’ll say, “Hmm. Okay. Nope. Next.” (And by the way, this is not conjecture…this is not real….I’ve met these people – over and over and over again.)

Of the remaining 50% (of that original 1%), half of those people will be the characters I referenced above – the ones I would never have anything to do with if I met them in my home town. So why would I want to socialize with them here? Bottom line, I probably won’t, though I might on occasion if we’re in a larger social setting. (Except the Peeping Tom guy….assuming I figured that one out…ewww.)

The reality of living abroad is that the expat circle from which you select your friends – whether they turn into close ones or have-a-drink-with ones – is much smaller than the pool you had to choose from when you lived back home.

But don’t forget the remaining 25% (of the 1%)! Now, THESE are my people! Yahoo! They are fun, adventurous, open minded, interesting, educated and savvy. And this is where my social circle forms. And it’s probably where yours will too.

If you think about it, 25% of 1% is one of four, right? Those numbers are pretty good, aren’t they?

Expat Life in Costa Rica: It’s Paradise, but It Ain’t Perfect

Now you can be sure, as soon as I put this post up, I’ll hear it: Hey, JuliAnne, you’re being way too negative.

But this stuff is truth, my dear readers.

Keep in mind, I’ve lived abroad – as a corporate executive and now as an entrepreneur – for ten years.

So, this is not about slamming anyone or making stuff up.

This is REAL EXPAT LIFE, people. And I choose to share it – the good, the bad and the ugly – so that other future expats like you have a bit of a leg up on knowing what it’s really like.

With these morsels of shared experiences, perhaps you can avoid some of the heartache I and many others like me had along the way because of unrealistic expectations.

Because at the end of the day, it’s your expectations which will make you sink or swim as an expat living aboard, no matter where you are.

So, pack your bags, get out there, shake some hands, throw back some cocktails (or a freshly-squeezed Costa Rica fruit juice) – it’s so much fun once you find your 25%! And, believe you me, they’re waiting for you too!

Want more insider input on Expat Life in Costa Rica?

Some other recent articles.

Expat Interview with a Recent Retiree to Costa Rica

The 101 on Buying Real Estate in Costa Rica

If you’re interested in Costa Rica real estate for sale in Costa Ballena including Dominical, Uvita, Ojochal and Tres Rios along the South Pacific coast, my husband and I own South Pacific Costa Rica Real Estate.

We recently published an article on Five Things You Need to Ask Before You Buy in Costa Rica. If that’s of interest, sign up and you can download that report for free (on the link in the line above)! It’s relevant no matter where you buy in Costa Rica.

Until next time, Pura Vida, and good luck to you as you start your new life as an expat abroad!

Buying Real Estate in Costa Rica 101

As owner and the Managing Partner of a boutique real estate firm in South Pacific Costa Rica, you will see that many of my future topics here relate to buying real estate in Costa Rica. (So many people asked me about real estate that I finally listened, and got back in the biz!)

Buying Real Estate in Costa Rica

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Does your dream of buying real estate in Costa Rica include endless views of the rainforest and the Pacific Ocean?

Well, first of all, who doesn’t have the dream of buying real estate in Costa Rica? Doesn’t everyone? 🙂 And if not, maybe you should. But how does buying real estate in Costa Rica really work and how is it different from other countries?

Bingo! You’re in the right place….let’s get to it.

Location, Location, Location

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Here’s a map of my hood in South Pacific Costa Rica.

As in almost anywhere in the world, the first thing you want to do is narrow down your choice of locations. For example, in our tiny coastal area – where we live – called Costa Ballena (pictured above & ‘ballena’ means ‘whale’ in Spanish) – there are three ‘main’ small towns: Uvita, Dominical, and Ojochal. (There are others but these are the main three.) What many people don’t fully get when they come on vacation, fall in love with the area, and then return to buy Costa Rican real estate – is that these three small towns have very unique personalities.

This is a common mistake, and can often lead to an investor buying in a place that does not fit them.

Determine where you want to live in Costa Rica BEFORE you buy

If you’re not absolutely sure where you want to LIVE (not just vacation!) in Costa Rica, then I have two suggestions: (1) come and stay for a month and do a TON of poking around to get to know the local flavors of several areas, or (2) come and go for about a year – including at least 10 days in each area you might consider living in – and rent an AirBNB or a VRBO and really get to know each place.

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This photo is of the main supermarket in Uvita de Osa, South Pacific Costa Rica. It’s called ‘BM’ which often triggers another word for many of us in English…

Shop at the supermarket. Go to a local ball game. Go to the farmer’s market. Talk to people, both Ticos (locals) and expats. Go visit the local vet (if you think you’ll be bringing or adopting pets when you move to Costa Rica). Do things you would do when you live here, versus hanging out at the beach all day working on your tan. (Because of course, we do that too, but living in Costa Rica is NOT like being on vacation in Costa Rica.)

The point is to get to know the town / area you’re considering BEFORE you put down a deposit.

When buying real estate in Costa Rica, do you need a broker or not?

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When buying real estate in Costa Rica, is it in your best interest to hire a real estate broker?

The short answer to this is that as an outsider / non-local, a legitimate, legal real estate broker can help you avoid a lot of pitfalls that you might otherwise not expect when buying real estate in Costa Rica. This is especially true when you don’t speak Spanish.

I do recommend having a broker when you buy in Costa Rica, no matter where you purchase. And that’s not based on me now having my own real estate firm – that’s based on living in Central America for almost ten years now. I’ve seen too many people burned because they thought they “knew better” and struck out on their own.

Does this mean that you CAN’T find a great deal on an amazing property for sale in Costa Rica without a broker? No. But the odds of doing so and doing so successfully and with little to no risk are way lower than most other markets.

As friendly as everyone in Costa Rica may appear, there are still plenty of questionable characters out there who are happy to take your money, “sell” you something they don’t even own, and get you into a load of trouble.

So, my opinion, get a broker. Please. And, to do any type of real estate transaction in Costa Rica, you also must find a good attorney. For this,

How do you make sure the broker you have chosen is legal to sell real estate in Costa Rica and is also licensed with the Costa Rica Real Estate Broker’s Association? Great question. Read this page to find out more of the questions to ask.

Finding your dream property in Costa Rica

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First, it’s important to know that Costa Rica does not yet have a “multiple listing service” for real estate. This is unfortunate. The Association of Brokers is working on implementing one and making it a legal requirement, but that’s already gone years in the making and has yet to actually happen.

As a result, properties for sale in Costa Rica are listed the old-fashioned way: online (by one brokerage or a multitude of them – often with different pricing), using For Sale signs and via word of mouth.

It seems crazy, doesn’t it? In the United States and Canada these days (and many other countries), you have Zillow, Trulia and a host of other apps and search engine tools to help you find your property or home. But not here in Costa Rica. Step back about 15-2o years and that’s about what the process of house hunting here in Costa Rica feels like.

Yes. It can be frustrating. It can be confusing. So, what’s the solution?

Consider hiring a Buyer’s Agent to represent you in buying Costa Rica real estate

Most of us from the U.S. or other more developed countries have heard of “Buyer’s Agency” services. A buyer’s agent is one that represents you – and ONLY you as the buyer – and therefore, goes out and searches high and low for your dream property, even if that means they have to find it with another broker.

Buyer’s agency services aren’t common in Costa Rica.

Let me give you a common example of why this type of service might be of interest to you.

Let’s say you hire Broker A to help you in buying real estate in Costa Rica. Broker A has 25 homes listed on his website for sale. You decide you like house #4 and you want to make an offer on that house. However, Broker A has a sales contract with the Seller of house #4. So, when you start negotiating with Broker A and he then goes to negotiate with the Seller – whose interest is he really representing: yours as the Buyer or the other guy that is the Seller?

Hmm…see how it can get convoluted and complicated?

Many people moving to Costa Rica or retiring to Costa Rica feel uncomfortable with having one broker as the middle man between Buyer and Seller. And, if that’s the case for you, then ask your broker to consider being your Buyer’s Agent. That means, it’s her job to go find your property – whether she has it listed among her 25 homes OR if she has to go find it at another brokerage.

If your broker offers this type of service, they will likely ask you to sign a Buyer’s Agency Representation agreement. (That’s what we do.) This protects them and the time they are spending in conducting the search for your piece of paradise, without worrying that you’re going to run off and find another broker (and then they would not get paid).

Make sense? It’s not a perfect world here in Costa Rica real estate terms, but for some clients, having a broker as their Buyer’s Agent makes them feel more comfortable and better represented.

Did you learn something about buying real estate in Costa Rica here?

Great. That was the point. I’m all about education, and helping people find their way – in a smart, protected fashion – in Costa Rica whether they are moving here, retiring here or just coming here to live for a while.

Find your tropical oasis in South Pacific Costa Rica

You can reach me at our offices here in South Pacific Costa Rica via our US/Canada phone line at 1-929-229-2022. Or visit us on the web at CostaRicaPacificRealEstate.com. If you’re a Facebook person, you can check out our page there as well to see what’s new and get the latest listings.

Want to sign up for our South Pacific Costa Rica Real Estate newsletter? You can do that here.

Best of luck as you start your process of buying real estate in Costa Rica!