A Candid Take on the Realities of Leaving Home
Are you thinking of leaving home? Picking up roots and moving to Costa Rica? Whether you're a retiree or a recent grad or anywhere in between there are many appealing opportunities in Costa Rica. Personally, I left the States 4 years ago (after 2 1/2 years of going back and forth, 3 months here, 3 months in the U.S.) and I love it. I'm so happy to be here and I enjoy life here a great deal. BUT (because there always is one) there are some unique challenges to living away from your native country and culture. Most of these challenges can't really be described, you have to live them to imagine them but there are some elements of life here in Costa Rica that are worth mentioning and may help you make a more informed decision. Keep in mind, that I live at the beach, and that accentuates and amplifies many of these challenges, the Central Valley is quite a bit more urbanized and, in general, runs a little faster and a little smoother (but not always).
Challenge #1- Time. This is the biggest adjustment that someone from North America is likely to need to make. Because everyone talks about "Tico Time" to the point that it becomes a running joke, you may be inclined to think that it is just that. IT'S NOT. Tico Time doesn't just include the fact that most Tico's are selectively punctual, it refers to the fact that everything takes longer. Not just a little longer, a lot longer. For example, many banks have chairs set up in the form of the line and people just move down one. Immigration, mail, meals, road trips, everything takes longer. If you can't adjust to this, don't move here. I've adjusted to it to the point that going places at home with people stressing out in lines causes me stress. Which brings us to #2.
Challenge #2- Whatever bothers you almost certainly doesn't bother most people (including those most likely to be able to fix it). Be it because of bureaucracy or simply not placing a priority on things that don't directly impact them, people here (not just Tico's, but most foreigners too) have learned to adjust their thinking to account for the fact that things are slower here. Stressing out over trivial things is not widespread, because most people save their energy for the major obstacles life throws their way.
Challenge #3- It's expensive here. Really, inflation and extremely high import taxes have caused most foreign goods to be prohibitively expensive for many locals, and even for many foreigners who are living here on a fixed income. Due to the import taxes, which vary by model and year but start at 52% and go up as the car gets older, cars are expensive and people tend to drive them until they die (one of my best friends drives a 1980 Toyota Corolla, purchased in 2001 for $8000 and when it dies, she can't afford to replace it). Any electronics you want, you should probably find a way to bring them with you, or have a friend pack an extra suitcase for you when coming to visit. If you are going to be on a fixed income think about Nicaragua which is much cheaper or Panama which actually offers incentives to foreigners looking to relocate.
Challenge #4- Petty crime happens. Do you know the saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? Here, there really is no cure once your house has been broken into or your iPod disappears from your car, so be safe. Go for a pound of prevention so you don't need a cure. Don't tell new people where you live. Put bars on the window (I know they're ugly, but get over it or be prepared for things to disappear). Don't leave your stuff hanging around unattended. Common sense goes a long way too.
Those are the major challenges to living in Costa Rica as an ex-pat. There are dozens of others I know, but those are the ones worth mentioning at first. As I mentioned, I do live on the beach, which magnifies some of the issues but they do still apply in the city. That said, living here has been, and continues to be, a wonderful experience. Every time I think it may be time to go back to the States I just look around and realize that this is where I belong.