Costa Rica is not an island

dsc00061“San Jose is a pretty noisy city, so we’re looking forward to seeing the rest of the island” is actually a quote I overheard a tourist say when they first got to Costa Rica.

Of course, Costa Rica is not an island, nor is it pronounced “Costa Rico”. The confusion probably comes from another island that we all know called “Puerto Rico”.

“I’d love to spend my winters in the tropics like you, but isn’t Costa Rica dangerous? Aren’t there poisonous snakes?” is another question I often got asked.

I live in Central America during the winters because I love warm weather, beautiful tropicalal beaches and waterfalls, sunshine, inexpensive ripe fruits and vegetables and the outdoors.

But Costa Rica (or Panama) is not Miami! Here are some reasons that might discourage you from choosing this beautiful country as a place to live, spend the winter or retire:

1) There are bugs at the beach. Ants are everywhere and if you leave the smallest scrap of food, they will get it. Snakes are in the jungle and some are poisonous. Mind you, there hasn’t been any death from snake bite in over 13 years in Costa Rica, and drownings are far more commons, but everybody freaks about snakes. Yes, there are snakes in the jungle. I once discovered that a 3-foot boa lived in our attic, and one hotel I know got his parrot eaten by a snake. They’re not after you, but they’re out there.

2) There are no street numbers and often no street names in Costa Rica or Panama, and no to-your-door mail delivery. Street addresses, even for business are something like “100 meters North of the Santa Lucia Church”. It’s up to you to figure out where Santa Lucia church is…

3) Don’t move here if you insist on things getting done… yesterday! Latinos don’t like to offend and will often say that things will be done much sooner than they actually will, just to save face. If you like everything to be done in an orderly, perfect way, and get mad at every employee or clerk that makes you wait, you will not be happy here.

4) Don’t move here if you’re the “control freak” type of personality. When a neighbor throws in a party and cranks the music, it would be extremely impolite to knock on the door and ask them to please keep it down. Here people are expected to be able to live their lives. The good thing is that probably nobody will knock on your door to complain about anything! If they do, it’ll probably be a fellow gringo than a local. If someone doesn’t like your dog, keep it in leash. Your neighbors will be much more likely to poison it with rat poison rather than call the police or complain about it. I am not kidding.

5) Again, latinos don’t like confrontation. It’s a culture of “harmony” under a smiling pretence. Latinos don’t like our version of “honesty” when we confront someone with the truth of their incompetence. Nothing will win you an enemy faster than doing this here. If you ask a taxi driver, “Do you know how to get there?”, he might respond, “Si, señor, no problem.” That may translate that yes, he knows how to get there. Or that may translate to mean “Yes, I might know how to get there, once I ask a few people and fellow taxi drivers”. Or that might in fact mean, “No, I have no idea how to get there, and in fact I’m not even a real taxi driver, I just pretend to be one!”

6) Don’t move to Costa Rica or Panama if you’re easily frustrated by red tape. Something as simple as getting a phone line, opening a bank account or even getting a cell phone can be extremely complicated in Costa Rica if you’re trying to do it on your own. I suggest working with an expert in relocation such as the ones I recommended in “How to Move to a Tropical Paradise”. The positive side of this is that rules are not always “fixed in stone” and you can often talk your way out of something (that may sometimes giving a bribe to a city official).

7) Don’t come and live here if you can’t learn to relax. About once a week, the power goes out where I live. You never know when it’s going to happen, and what caused it. It usually lasts a few minutes, but can last up to an hour. It has never lasted any longer in all the time I’ve lived here, but I’ve also never been able to figure out what caused it. The locals just smile, tell you to relax, “it will be back!”

8 ) People in Costa Rica and Panama speak Spanish, and not many outside of the tourist industry can speak fluent English. If you just come here and talk to everyone in English and expect them to understand, you will be frustrated.

9) There are no hurricanes here, but earthquake and volcanos are the local natural health hazard. You won’t be more at risk living here than living in San Francisco, but you have to be aware than the next “big one” could be tomorrow.

10) Hot water is a luxury. In most budget places, the water in the shower is “warmed” by a little electric device. These showers are known to gringos as “suicide showers” although I’ve never actually heard of anyone electrocuting themselves with them. By the way, I do have running hot water where I lived, but I didn’t the first three years I lived here.

I also want to demystify some misconceptions about living in Costa Rica or Panama:

  • You don’t need any vaccinations to come here. There are no malaria outbreaks and very minimal risk of tropical diseases.
  • There is crime, but not more than in most major cities of North America.
  • The tab water is actually drinkable.
  • Both countries are very clean. People are better groomed than the average American, and the average restaurant is very well maintained and cleaner than the average restaurant in the States.
  • You can get high-speed Internet access in most major cities, and even by the beach. There’s an Internet café almost every street block (costing often less than $1 per hour).
  • Your cell phone will work here.
  • There is no army, no civil war, no guerilla groups, and a very peaceful political climate.

Don’t let this put you off! Living here has so many things to bring. The dream of the tropical paradise is true! Warm weather, friendly people, beautiful waterfall, low cost of living… just don’t try to go it alone. If you’re serious about relocating abroad full-time or part-time, check out my course “How to Move to a Tropical Paradise”.

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