I currently live in Costa Rica. This is not a permanent situation for me, but there are plenty of expats--about 50,000, the last I heard--that have decided to settle here. You would think that they would be happy with their new home, considering as how they chose to live here, enduring all the upheaval and effort that comes with moving to another country. But many of them are not, if my observations from dealing with expats and reading their opinions on various email groups is any indication. I know it's the loud, grumpy ones that are most prone to spleen venting, but I hear the same stuff from other expats that I personally know. And I sometimes hear it when I'm the only one in the room.
I'm not vitriolic about it, though. I realize that this is not my country. I am an outsider here and always will be, even if I fluently learned the language, married into it, or lived here for the rest of my life. What I find particularly galling are the expats that launch into a tirade that basically says "If they only did it like we do back in the good, ol' USA…” Some of these people wouldn't be happy if they died and went to heaven, so they are best ignored. Others do have some good points to make, in a reasoned way because, after all, every place has its problems. So, for all of you thinking of moving to Costa Rica, I am offering up my own admittedly biased point of view on the major issues discussed by disgruntled expats down here.
There is a lot of crime in Costa Rica. I just read the results of one study that showed it to have the highest per capita rate of robbery in the western hemisphere. Somehow, the chant "We're Number One!" doesn't seem to be the appropriate response here, especially when you consider that CR beat out such worthy contenders as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras--which currently has the worst homicide rate in the world.
I really do not doubt this statistic one bit. I know a few people that have been robbed and have heard of much more. The vast majority of these are just petty thefts, but some of them have been at the point of a knife or gun, and that makes it very serious. Some of these happen in broad daylight, or on crowded streets at rush hour, or in sight of the many security guards. Most of the crimes that I personally know about have occurred in San José, which is no one's shining example of urbane living, but there are frequent occurrences in the tourist towns along the coasts as well.
Personally, I have never had anything remotely threatening happen to me, and I've been plenty foolish (and lucky) at times, but I am uneasy when walking out alone after dark even in a good neighborhood. The fact is that you have to be very careful in some areas. Do not take more with you than you need. Do not flash around jewelry or your iPhone. Watch your surroundings. Look like you know what you are doing and where you are going. Mostly you just have to use common sense and remember that you are in a place with poverty issues and crime issues. Despite all of this, have a good time.
Cost of Living
It is not cheap to live here. Anything that is imported will cost you even more than it would in the US or Canada. Cars are more expensive because of all the tariffs and charges that are levied against them. Rents can be cheaper here, depending on where you live. Certainly it will cost less for an apartment here than a comparable one in San Francisco, New York, Austin or other hip location, but everyone has the same reaction of bewilderment about how it can cost so much here when the minimum wage is about three bucks an hour. The best explanation I've heard is that there are two economies here, one for the blue collar, working folks and another for the professionals. That doesn't make perfect sense to me because I've heard that engineers just out of college make a salary of around $1,000.00 per month, but I have not heard a better answer.
For a third world country, there seems to be plenty of wealth. Many of the cars I see are premium quality; Range Rovers, BMW's, Toyota 4Runners, and the like are quite common. I just don't know how they afford them at those premium rates. The point is this…do not come here expecting to greatly lower your cost of living. You'll have to go to Panama or Nicaragua to find that. One thing that is cheaper here is fresh food if you are prepared to go to the markets and prepare it yourself. Papayas, mangos, bananas and other fruits and vegetables are very inexpensive and very fresh. That is one major advantage of living here.
This is a remarkably open culture in my opinion. It is in a conservative region of the world, but it is more secular here than in neighboring countries. For instance, the gay population here seems to be out in the open; the gay people I know are certainly not living closeted lifestyles. In rural areas, it is probably different, just as it is in any country regarding openness of mind.
I have found the Costa Rican people, or Ticos, to be remarkably friendly. I make it a point to speak to people as I meet them, and they invariably respond in kind. Like most countries here, there is a certain level of formality at first, so using formal types of greetings in Spanish goes a long way towards developing good relations. Also, I have never been refused help when I needed it. I've had to ask for directions plenty of times and have found that many will go out of their way to assist you. A policeman once walked with me and a companion for several blocks to show us a restaurant we were looking for; when he saw it was closed, he walked us to another one. That is probably not going to happen too often in the US. Finally, Ticos are a fun-loving group of people, and if you get here at a fiesta time such as Christmas, you are sure to have a ball.
This is one of the toughest ones for expats from the USA to get around. They simply have a different standard for customer service here, and it is not one that makes you feel more important. More often than not, you are treated like a nuisance or annoyance, just something to do in between phone calls and catching up on gossip. To a certain extent, I found this refreshing in its honesty, but over time it has started to grate on me. I am not a picky customer, but I've been in sales most of my adult life, and the training I received is that the customer is king. It is certainly more honest to act like you don't care if you really don't, but it is not a good business practice.
I find this attitude somewhat puzzling considering that this is such a big tourist destination, so they have to cater to a lot of demanding foreigners. The fancy hotels, restaurants and tour companies have outstanding service for the most part, but that has not filtered down into the general business community. There are really good individual cases of places that have very high standards, and when you find those you tend to keep going back because they are rarities. Still, things get done eventually and the less you worry about it, the better off you will be.
This is a beautiful country, and extraordinary in many respects. They have no military, so they have more to spend on health care and education, and this makes this the most affluent country in Central America. There is a lot to like and enjoy, but life can be more challenging and everything takes longer than you think. Just don't come here expecting to maintain your modern, convenient, pampered lifestyle and you might find that you love it here. If you can't make that adjustment, then you will be better off looking elsewhere.