First Year in Costa Rica Lessons – Part 2
Today’s post is Part 2, and the final installment of Steve Friedman’s guest posts on lessons he and his wife Martha learned during their first year living in Costa Rica.
You can read Part 1 HERE.
Steve and Martha Friedman moved to Costa Rica from Denver Colorado last year after retiring. They are currently living in Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste. Steve blogs at his satirical site here.
Know what you can handle and what you can’t.
As I stated before every day can be a journey into the unfamiliar. You can minimize it though. If you are accustomed to US style décor and appliances, find a rental that has those and not go with the expectation that you’ll adapt. If you are uncomfortable going into an open carnaceria or Tico market to buy food, shop at the Auto Mercado or Super Compro. If you can’t stand high humidity, live in a locale where you are not always in a rain cloud, or can at least turn on the AC and not sweat it. If you are not adept at driving on windy steep dirt roads, or crazy city traffic, pick a place that won’t put you into those situations. If your Spanish language skills are not up to par, don’t consider living in a tiny town where no one speaks English. Make your choices based on what you can handle, and where it is possible to mitigate the foreignness of living here. Even the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead Took time to adjust to “going native”.
Don’t believe all the reports about how cheaply you can live here.
Two truisms – It used to be a lot cheaper to live here than it is now, and while some things are cheaper, others are a lot more. If your sole reason for moving here is to live cheaper than you can in the USA, you might find that your savings are not as great as you thought. Everything depends on where you live and how you live. Yes there are people who can show you an itemized spreadsheet to prove that they live fine on $1500 per month, but they might make very different choices than you. In the Central Valley food, rent and utilities are less. Also depending on where you live, you might be able to get by without a car. On the Western side in the beach communities, food, rents, and utilities tend to me pricier, and public transportation not as reliable. Cars and gas are very expensive here, and since people hang onto cars forever, even a very old model used car will be at least double what it might sell for in the USA. Good news – Auto service tends to be cheaper although new parts (if and when you can get them are very expensive).
Healthcare is more affordable and reliable in Costa Rica.
To begin with you have to distinguish between what type of healthcare, and where it is delivered. In San Jose there are state of the art hospitals that rival US hospitals in everyway (except the price of care). Outside of San Jose the picture is a bit murkier. Depending on where you live, your nearest hospital maybe more than 3 hours away by ambulance. Secondly there are private hospitals and clinics and public or CAJA hospitals and clinics. You must first have your residency before you can obtain CAJA, and then you MUST sign up for it regardless of whether or not you intend to use it. Until you can get CAJA, you have a choice of going to one of the International Health Plans which can be every bit as expensive as those in the USA, and regardless of OBAMAcare in the USA still will exclude pre-existing conditions. The other option is to go bare. That means you accept the fact that you will pay out of pocket for your health care on an ongoing basis. In the USA this would be tantamount to economic suicide, but in Costa Rica, you really can afford to pay as you go for most healthcare. Case in point I received cataract surgery for both eyes here for $3200 as opposed to more than $7000 in the USA. RX’s tend to be about the same here as you might pay in the USA, but some medicines are not available here. Routine doctor visits and minor emergencies cost about what you would pay at a local Urgent care center, and the care is equally as good. Bloodwork and Xrays, Cat scans and mammograms might cost around $200 but considering that you are not paying monthly premiums, you come out ahead. The biggest downside is in the event of a really serious medical emergency. First of all – even without CAJA, you can be treated in a CAJA hospital and pay a reasonable rate for your care. Alternatively you could be taken to one of the private hospitals, and the cost would be less than in the USA. A third option would be to purchase a “travelers” policy that covers emergency medical care for “extended vacations” outside your home country. Some of these will cover for a year or more, and you can add on riders for extreme sports and air evacuation. They will not cover routine medical costs but can save you from a huge financial hit if you should ever really need it. The cost of an airlift from Liberia or Tamarindo to San Jose alone could cost you more than $7000. You still may pay more than $2500 a year, but compared to monthly premiums nearly that with Full Expat health plans, it may be your best bet.
Food is so much better quality and cheaper in Costa Rica – NOT!
I am not sure who started that myth, but for the most part it is not the case. To begin with everything here is not grown organically and pesticide free. This country uses every bit as many pesticides as in other countries. Anything certifiably “organic” is going to cost you more than you’d pay at Whole Foods Markets in the USA. Meats tend to be leaner by the fact that they are all grass fed. Chickens too are much leaner, and more free range than comparable US ones but also cost a lot more than in the US. Local cheeses are about equal or more expensive than even imported ones from the USA, and ones from the US cost double. The main exceptions are locally produced fruits and vegetables, rice and beans, and locally caught fish. Some meat too can be cheaper than comparable cuts in the USA. Other items like anything frozen (other than fish) are very expensive, and beer and wines are about equal or more than the in the USA. All in all depending on what you buy and where you shop, the cost of food is about what you’d pay if you shopped at Whole Foods or one of the other premium markets.
It really helps to be proficient in Spanish .
While you will never have to utter a word of Spanish at any of the resorts or tourist destinations, outside in the real Costa Rica you will not fare as well. Luckily on the whole Ticos are very understanding and with enough patience and gesturing, you’ll be able to make yourself understood. All the same it can be daunting to try to communicate with a housekeeper, supermarket employee, auto service person, yard worker, or even some medical personnel without an interpreter or intermediate level of Spanish.
If you’re Here – You’re Family.
There is a natural affinity within the expat community – far more than anything I’ve found in the USA. It is quite true that unless you show yourself to be a total asshole, the expats in the community will embrace you with open arms and always be there for you in the event of emergency. That does come with some responsibility and understanding of how things work here. News here travels at the speed of Facebook, and very little is kept secret for long. Like any small community gossip can strain friendships and do harm to your reputation here. It is not very different than when you were in High School. Cliques will form and sometimes you are not included. By their very nature, the expats here are an international mix of people who are willing to go out on a limb more than your average person. That’s what makes living here more interesting. Just remember here that “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. Also you need to make an effort to reach out. If you want to keep to yourself and not try to integrate into the expat or tico community you will miss out on one of the best reasons for coming here.
The Mule Train Express.
You will hear the expression here “to have something muled in“. Since some things here are so expensive here or just plain unavailable, you will be pressing on your friends here or friends of theirs to bring items with them when the come from the USA. This is pretty much the accepted practice in a country where duties are high, and package delivery is not always an easy or reliable option. Don’t be shocked or surprised for these requests when you are going to be going back to the USA and returning. Still you have to draw some lines. Obviously bringing back controlled substances is not a great idea. Also consider that some food or agricultural items might be confiscated although it can be hit or miss depending on what kind of day the custom inspector has and how soon his break is. Also consider how easy it is going to be for the person to bring it back – Is it going to require another suitcase or extra baggage fee. It is pretty much the expectation that if you want others to bring stuff in for you, you need to do the same, but you are entitled to make your own rules and draw your own lines.
It’s Always Paradise Here- Sometimes .
There is an old joke that goes something like this. ”A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter greets him at the gates with a harp and sends him on thru. He’s completely overwhelmed by the beauty he sees everywhere and how stress free it is there. After about three months he comes back to St. Peter and says to him “Wow! Heaven is everything I ever imagined it to be! I have just one question – Aside from strolling around strumming on their harps, just what do people do here?” St. Peter replies “They go the HELL for vacations – there’s more to do there and the food’s better!” Living in Costa Rica is a lot like that. In many ways it is a true Paradise, but even Paradise can get a little monotonous. I found that even here I can get bored and restless for something different to do, or even long for a radical change in weather or season or scenery. I am gradually adjusting to a very different tempo of life, especially since we are both now retired, and have lots of free time on our hands. At first there was the overwhelming desire to do everything on the “Things to Do in Costa Rica List ” all at once. Soon we found this tiring and expensive, and realized that those things could be done next week or next month, and we didn’t have to do something adventurous every day. Finding Pura Vida means scaling back your life a little and taking it slower. Enjoy the little things.
Entropy Works Twice as Hard Here.
Everything in Costa Rica seems more prone to breakdown, and is often a lot harder to fix, and stay fixed. New parts are hard to come by so the Ticos do their best to repair the old ones. Not a problem with some things but pool pumps, water pumps, auto parts, machine parts – all can be big problemas if they break.
Residency or Not.
Because the residency process can take up to a year, many people are tempted to start it the day they set foot here. We chose to wait until after we had been here at least 6 mos. I am glad we did. To start with the process is expensive – adding up attorney fees and mandatory fees can run into several thousands of dollars. By waiting a bit we had a chance to talk with a lot of people about who they would recommend and not recommend. Its not a good idea to just hop on the Internet and pick someone. There is a lot of misinformation out there and you need to get your documentation exactly right or it can cost you money and time. Some people choose not to seek residency at all and just make a trip out of the country every 90 days. Even after we applied, we still need to do this until we actually receive our cedula. But now we have a better idea on how committed we are to staying long term and have found a very good attorney through friends.
Healthcare Again- Do you know the way to San Jose?
Costa Rica has some of the finest healthcare as anywhere in the first world. That said, a lot depends on where you get it. All the best hospitals and clinics and doctors are in San Jose. Unfortunately, there are big holes in care outside of there. For routine stuff, it hardly presents a problem, and some specialists will make calls once a month to Liberia, or have specialists on call. The real problem comes when the “Shan hits the Fit” and you are faced with a life threatening emergency. At least out in the Western regions and even Liberia, the hospitals and clinics are just not equipped for this. They may or may not have the right equipment, and often not the top specialists on call for these types of emergency. In most cases they best they can do is stabilize you and get you on a life flight to San Jose, or if you are stable enough, a 4 to 6 hour ambulance ride to San Jose. Anyway you look at it, you are going to San Jose. Recently a friend of ours had to take a life-flight there and it cost $7000 – up front! Better hope your credit card limit isn’t exceeded.
Thanks for reading and thank you Steve for writing.
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In addition to writing on this blog, Greg has written for other online publications and has written two popular books about living in Costa Rica:
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