8 ways to succeed in Costa Rica

When we started renting Casa Mango and Casa Papaya in 2006, at least 50% of potential renters asked “Do you know a good realtor?”  We do.  We know several great people here in Samara.

carrillo bay costa rica

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERABack then, interest in relocating to Costa Rica, mostly from the US and Canada, was high.  So were prices.  Everyone talked about “flipping” like it was as easy as putting Salsa Lizano on eggs.  You couldn’t possibly do wrong by buying property in Costa Rica.  A lot of people found great homes here and are happily retired, living the Pura Vida.

punta islita churchThen in 2008, people stopped asking us about real estate.  You remember what it was like.  Americans reexamined their retirement plans and hunkered down, trying to find joy in their work for a little longer.  Interest in moving to Costa Rica flagged – working people just came for a few weeks of vacation.  While prices dropped and buyers vaporized, realtors in town improved their Spanish by watching latin soap operas.  Across the globe, everyone just hung on.  Now, five belt-tightening years later, los Norteños are back.  Americans and Canadians are again dreaming of a home in the tropics, at least for part of the year.  Whether the economy has really regained it’s strength or whether people are just tired of waiting, they’re again looking for an easier lifestyle, lower cost of living, and a cultural adventure.

coffe tasting in costa ricaFor most of us expats in Costa Rica, the climate is the best part: “No shirt, No shoes – No problem.”  Each morning we slip on a pair of shorts and sandals and we’re good to go.  We wake to the soundtrack of parrots and monkeys, usually pre-dawn.  Our white noise is surf crashing on the reef.  We’re healthier because we walk more and eat better, fresher, and unprocessed foods.  Here at the beach, we swim, surf, snorkel, and dive.  There’s a new tennis facility in town and a dive shop that can fill your tanks.  We have a nice community of expats who share a native language and frequent get-togethers.  We have no commute.

parrot snake in costa ricaBut Costa Rica is not for everyone and life here is nothing like the life you know up north.  Every day presents a new challenge and a new joy.  I joke that in the morning I pinch myself at my good fortune and at night I knock myself upside the head, astonished at the day’s confrontations.  During our seven years here, we’ve seen a lot of Pinkscome and go.  It looks to us like the first year is telling and that’s when most expats “fail”.  It must feel like failure if you’d sold everything that you’d built through a lifetime of hard work in exchange for an attempt at a tropical adventure and after a year found out you couldn’t muster a satisfying and prosperous life here.  There are probably a million reasons why it doesn’t work for some: pressures from family back home, health crisis or insurance access, inability to form relationships, not enough money.  One woman cried “I miss my grandchildren”.  Another lamented “I miss shopping.”  Whatever the reason, it must be sad to sell everything and go home.

at the tope in costa ricaCan an unhappy and expensive “failure” be avoided through research?  George Lundquist thinks so and offers a 3-day tour of the Atenas area to help folks decide if they’re right for Costa Rica.  The more independent minded do their own research, like the couple who recently stayed in Casa Mango.  They were here in Samara for two weeks before they explored further down the coast.  They’d already spent a month in the mountains around Arenal before they came to us.  They were getting a feel for the culture, the different climates, and the lack of distractions and amenities.  Over cocktails they interviewed us about what it’s like to live in Costa Rica.  So far, they seemed pleased with the beauty of the environment and the rhythm of tropical life.

expats in costa ricaWe rode a very different track to get here: We simply fell in love with the place and bought a lot while on vacation.  We had spent little more than a week exploring much of the country before we landed in Samara but, after only a few days, we knew we were “home”.  Yet, our expatriation was slow.   We went back to work for six years with a plan to retire.  We spent short vacations in Samara several times a year, even before we built our house.  We lunched on fresh empanadas under our Almendro trees and enjoyed the view while imagining how our dream house would fit the site.  My family confirmed all our choices with a New Year’s reunion in our finished home.  Each time we visited, we explored a little more of the region and made a few friends.  And I cried each time we had to leave our tropical dream.  Yet even so, when we finally closed our businesses and prepared to move, we held onto a northern escape plan.  Rather than selling our house up north we rented it out for two years, until we were sure we weren’t going to have to go “home”.  We finally sold it when we were sure that we were already there.

There are lots of on-line resources to read if you want to understand if you’re right for Costa Rica.  Here’s our short list of requirements.

homemade goodies in costa Rica1.  Develop a hobby or interest.  Days are long, alcohol is ever-present, and you have to entertain yourself.  Yes, there’s cable TV.  And internet access is our god.  We have some nice restaurants in town.  If you enjoy outdoor activities, you’ll love CR.  But if you need theater, movies on the big screen, or art museums, you might be bored pretty quickly.  Alternatively, your hobby might become a business like Cat-Rica’s American Style Goodies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2.  Get an e-reader and a library card.  For the first year or two you’ll read anything you can get your hands on, basking in the free time you’ve never had before.  Then one day, all those suspense/mysteries start to read alike and you’re halfway through when you realize you’ve read this particular one before.  Your northern library card will allow you to choose what to read.  Place a hold on a best-seller, wait for your email surprise, and download joy.  My new Kindle Fire HD lets me read my favorite magazine probably before it shows up in your mailbox.

volunteer in samara costa rica3. Embrace the culture.  Attend festivals and soccer partidos.  Volunteer – CREAR is an after school program for local kids.  Go to church.  Learn Spanish.  Even though language acquisition is more difficult for a wizened brain and many Costa Ricans in business and tourism speak English, you’ll have more fun and feel more secure if you can communicate with people around you..

first friday samara costa rica4. Connect with friends.  Samara has several quasi-public functions which provide great opportunities for meeting a bunch of people and making a particular connection with someone like-minded.  Cafe con Leche meets the second and fourth Fridays of the month, 8am – 10am at Samara Organics Cafe.  First Friday meets at 2pm with a rotating venue – I can ask Bill to put you on the mailing list.  Lo Que Hay hosts poker Tuesday afternoons and Mexican Train Dominoes on Wed. at 1pm – dominoes is ladies only please. (Can we even say that in the new millenium?)  Bridge Club is pretty serious and by invitation only.

tree roots in costa rica5. Learn to let go.  Things don’t work here the way they should you might expect them to.  Learn all you can about laws and systems.  Try to prepare for contingencies.  And when that doesn’t work, relax.  There’s no percentage in trying to figure out “Why?”.  When in doubt, go to the beach.  That always makes me feel better.

farm fresh eggs playa samara costa rica6. Bring enough money.  This little essay is targeted towards retirees.  I’m not even talking to anyone who wants to come here to make a living, which I believe is next to impossible.  Yes, the overall cost of living for expats in Costa Rica is less than up north, but not because everything is cheaper.  Taxes are less.  Health insurance and medical costs are less.  Construction cost, although rising with global materials prices, is still about 30% what it costs to build in Seattle.  But most imported items – and that’s just about everything else – are at least twice what you’d expect to pay in the US.  Car prices are outrageous – a small house is cheaper than an SUV.  Food costs can be high, depending on your tastes and desires.  They can also be very low if you eat fresh and local.  The thing that makes the biggest difference in keeping our budget on track is that there is nowhere to buy anything you don’t need, which brings me to #7.

ccargo for expats in costa rica7. Shopping is not a recreational past-time.  You can’t run down to the mall for an afternoon of window shopping and a Cinnabun.  The acquisition of stuff is a serious endeavor to be respected and researched.  Reliable sources are shared like Bible passages among believers.  The fair exchange value of a guest bed is pinned at one piece of checked luggage.  Your niece can get by for a week with whatever she can fit in her carry-on.  But you need her checked bag allotment. Cargo space is precious.

8. Aadopt a dog in costa ricadopt a dog.  Everybody knows what fine pals they are.  A good watch dog – is there another kind? – will protect your property and yourself.  Mine requires a beach walk every morning, which helps maintain my weight and my soul.  Animales de Samara or the local vet can introduce you to a pup with love to share.  I suppose a cat could be nice, too.

*Pinks – short for Rufous Breasted Big-Bottomed Northern Pinks, of which I am certainly one.

  1. Joseph said:

    Aw, man! It hurts to hear that it’s almost impossible to earn a living there in CR. My wife and I are not of retirement age, but we’re very interested to visit and relocate there.

  2. Albert said:

    I am serious in my consideration of transplanting to CR and your blog posts have really enlightened me and and informed me like no other. How can I contact you to ask a few questions?
    Thank you!

  3. Doc said:

    I have lived in Costa Rica for a little over a year now and have read a LOT of blogs and CR advice…yours is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen. The history of this country around the 2006 to 2008 era was especially informative and though provoking.
    Tough Love advice is really needed here for the good life in the Tropics. When I find myself complaining about how things run or don’t run here , I try to think of the number of people that would donate body parts to live this life.

    Your number 1 tip about getting a hobby is a bullseye ! Perpetual vacation can get mighty boring…they should train Space Station or Long Duration astronauts here.
    Gracias Sandy for the excellent reading and advice

    • lavaeha said:

      “Space Station or long duration astronauts” training. I love that! thanks for your comments.

      • Doc said:

        Gracias lavaeha, good to hear that you enjoyed my comments. I have now lived in 4 different locations around Costa Rica and I have found there is no substitute for being close to other Gringos. No matter how beautiful your surroundings may be or how sweet the pool is on a hot day, there are a LOT of hours to fill and having friends close by to talk to and travel with is the best way to enjoy life here in CR.

  4. Great post! I’ve been here since 2008 and agree with what you’ve said. Thanks!

  5. David Lane said:

    Not every place is right for everyone. Places may be right for you at one point in your life and not at other points. Life changes and circumstances change. For us visits of a few weeks in central and south America work fine. At our stage of the game we are not going to make a total relocation. Your views are important because so many articles lead everyone to believe that they should make the relocation period and that it is easy. Everyone’s circumstances are different.

  6. This is my favorite of all your posts. A very interesting read!

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