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!

Three Things about Expat Life in Costa Rica

Three Things about Expat Life in Costa Rica

And when I say…there are three things about expat life in Costa Rica…you need to know, what I’m talking about here is the reality of getting things done on a day to day to basis.

Expat Life in Costa Rica

Ahhhh. Doesn’t that sound nice? The waves on the sand as heard from the balcony of your hotel room. You’re sitting there, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica, a tall cold one in hand, sighing, and thinking. “I wonder what it’d be like to live here…. Could I make it work? Could I leave my crazy 9 to 5 life behind and move here to paradise? What’s expat life in Costa Rica really like?

(For those new to the term ‘expat‘, you can take a look at that definition here.)

Well, to answer the question at the end of your tourist reverie, the truth is that expat life in Costa Rica is pretty amazing, really. I’ve been an expat now in Costa Rica for a year – as of this week – and an expat living abroad in Central America for going-on nine years. (You can see more on my writing about living as an expat in Panama here.)

Yeah, okay but what’s it really like, this expat life in Costa Rica?

Glad you asked. Because the truth is, yes, it’s amazing. In fact, this tropical little country of 6 million plus people is, in fact, paradise. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Nope. Far from it.

And, life as an expat in Costa Rica on certain days can be very fun. Those would be the days when you find yourself getting your exercise alone on a deserted beach with your dog, as the sun is coming up (or down). When you walk outside to a tree in your yard and pick your own limes for a batch of homemade margaritas – and you squeeze in a little fresh mango juice (from a mango!). Or the days when you walk drive down to a soda (a local restaurant) and order up the fresh Mahi Mahi for lunch or dinner and pay less than $12 for your meal.

On other days, however, life in Costa Rica can make you want to pull your hair out. Especially when you live on the coast.

I personally am lucky enough to live right on the Southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, in the Osa region. So, yes, I enjoy all those things I just described on a regular basis. And I, like others new to the country and this area, have also come to grips with a number of other regularities in this region – a high tolerance for inefficiency, higher prices (especially when you don’t speak Spanish), a good amount of boredom (there’s not something going on every single night of the week), and internet that goes out con frequencia.

From a global perspective, yes, my life here is pretty much a dream come true. I’m an entrepreneur. I can live anywhere in the world I want. I have no boss. And I choose to live in paradise here in Costa Rica. How, you might ask, does life get any better than that?

Costa Rica sunset view to the Pacific Ocean from my balcony
Costa Rica sunset view to the Pacific Ocean from my balcony

Well, in my book, it doesn’t. And I feel darn lucky, as such. But today, I feel it’s important to share some important perspectives about Costa Rica and life here as an expat which not many people truly know until they physically get here and start living real life.

It’s called the Three Things.

Three Things About Real Day-to-Day Life in Costa Rica as an Expat

My significant other is Tico, which is another word for a Costa Rican native. And even he – who was born and raised in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica but who has lived and worked in hospitality for more than 20 years on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica – agrees with what I’m about to tell you.

And that is this: when you live in Costa Rica, the reality is that you can only get about three things done per day.

Screech.

Yep, that would be the tires of your mind coming to a rapid halt.

Uh-huh. That’s right. I did say three things.

Now, let’s be frank. For those of us hailing from places up North (Canada and the U.S.), we’re used to getting about six to eight things done per day. Even on a Saturday when there’s a ton of traffic because everyone is off work and running around and doing their errands. Even on those days. And for those of us that are hyper efficient, probably more than eight things.

In my former life nine years ago before I moved to Panama, my husband and I could leave our house in Denver at 8-8:30, hit Starbucks for breakfast, take the dog to the dog park, stop by Target, do our weekly grocery shopping at the supermarket, visit the Farmer’s Market downtown, stop in at the bank to make a deposit, drop off the dry cleaning and take the dog to get groomed. And we’d be back home no later than 1 p.m.

If you count the things on that list, that’s eight things. And that’s pretty average for what happens in North America.

Tropical flora abounds in the jungles of Costa Rica
Tropical flora abounds in the jungles of Costa Rica

But when you move to Costa Rica, all that ‘get ‘er done’ efficiency comes to a grinding halt. 🙂 Because that’s just  how it is…the Pura Vida…this life where you get to enjoy every single moment of what’s happening around you.

Instead, what happens is that you’re lucky to get three things done – maybe at times, four – in a single day. This applies to living in the city (San Jose, for example) and it applies to living on the coast of Costa Rica, like where I do. I’ve lived both places, and it was no different from one to the other.

An example of the Three Things in a Day in Costa Rica

Today, for example. We were up around 8. Breakfast, email and showers from 8-10:15. Left the house to 4 x 4 it down the mountain to the highway and get to our downtown in Uvita, Costa Rica by 10:30-ish. I say “ish” because we ran into our neighbors who we needed to talk to at the base of the mountain so we stopped to talk.

Plus, everything time-wise here in Costa Rica is pretty much “ish”. And that’s a good habit to adopt if you want to keep your sanity once you move to Costa Rica. Always add in a healthy dose of knowing that when someone tells you 8 AM, that probably means an arrival time of somewhere between 10-10:30, if you’re lucky. We call it ‘Tico time’.

But, back to the three things….

At the coffee shop for our first meeting at 10:30. Arrived, had our meeting, departed around 11:45 AM.

Drove across the street to find shade and pick up a few things at the market. (Hey, when you live up on the mountain, there’s no running down for just a few things. Nor is there such a thing as a convenience store down the street. Nope. Everything takes planning.)

At the market for 20 minutes.

Back in car, heading to our second meeting at 12:15-ish.

Got there, had the meeting, departed around 1:00 p.m.

Now it’s full-on heat of the day, and my hair and my make-up and any attempts to appear professional have completely melted in the 88 degrees Fahrenheit and the 90% humidity. My temper is not far behind…

From the second meeting, drove to a local restaurant – 15 minutes away – and had lunch. They are busier than usual, so we ended up waiting a bit for both our drinks and our food. An hour 15 minutes and we were then back on the road. It’s now 2:30 p.m. but it’s so frickin’ hot that neither of us can form words that make a lot of sense.

So, back to the house for a quick shower and to change clothes from the ones we had on this morning that are now completely smelly and sweaty. Even with deodorant. Yep, here it’s pretty common to take on average three showers a day. Even when you have a pool!

Now, on this particular day, our third and fourth things on the list have to be done online. But when we get home and get fresh again, we discover that the internet is down in our area. 🙁

And it doesn’t come up again for two and a half hours.

Which by that time, we’ve given up on checking it every 10 minutes, taken a nap and I’ve written this column, which took just over an hour.

Now it’s 5 p.m.

Do you see what I mean about three things?

The Moral to the Story

Short story, there isn’t one. Except to give you a glimpse into real life on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

And, if this were San Jose instead of the coast, if the internet had not gone down, then you would have been stuck in traffic for at least two of those hours going back and forth to the two meetings. Which is exhausting and not nearly as orderly as up North.

Overall, expat life in Costa Rica? It’s great. It’s amazing. It’s gorgeous. It’s freedom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But sometimes it’s also just darn slow….

Want to read more about my former expat life in Panama? Check out my blog at Panama Gringo Guide dot com. I’ve also written two bestsellers on Amazon about expat life in Panama, titled the Gringo Guides to Panama. You can find those here and here.

Pura Vida!