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I’m typing this from the 19th floor of an apartment in Waikiki in Honolulu. I will be visiting three Hawaiian islands for 12 days each.

Before that, I spent almost six months in Costa Rica — and I have myself spent most of my winters there for the past 4 years.

I’ve also visited Hawaii on a couple of occasions before, but more importantly Hawaii has been on the radar more than a few times as I was looking for a place to get away from the harsh Canadian winters.

If you’ve thought about moving to a tropical paradise — either part-time or full-time, there’s no doubt that you’ve also considered Costa Rica or Hawaii — or both — for obvious reasons.

Costa Rica is a famous destination for US and Canadian retirees, and Hawaii  is the only true “tropical paradise” in the United States.

The two places are worlds apart — but each has something unique to offer for the right person.

Let’s start with Costa Rica.

Costa Rica: Who Is It For?

The kind of person who will go to Costa Rica and be happy living there will be someone who’s a true nature lover.

You don’t go to Costa Rica to enjoy first-world services, amazing cultural events or even a low-cost of living.

You go there because you enjoy spending time in nature, seeing animals, visiting beaches and tropical waterfalls, catching sight of birds, and spend a lot of time outside.

If you’re not currently spending most of your free time hiking and out in nature, then Costa Rica is probably not the right place for you.

Here are the main pro’s on Costa Rica:

1) Nature. Wild nature is unparalleled. A big chunk of the country is protected by national parks, and there’s a lot to explore in such a small country. Finding your own deserted beach or waterfall is relatively easy.

2) Diversity. There’s over 12 distinct micro-climates, and you can go from balmy tropical weather to cooler, spring-like climate just by changing your elevation.

3) People. Costa Rica’s people are affectionately called the Ticos and are very welcoming and friendly. Even if you don’t speak much Spanish, you’ll easily feel at home.

4) Tourism. Costa Rica is not new to tourism, so there’s a relatively big infrastructure for anything tourism-related. Some might see this as a negative, but if you want some fun things to do, you’ll at least have many options. The farmers markets have also grown to support tourism as well so you can be thankful for the abundance of tropicalfruits being sold everywhere.

5) Climate. I do NOT recommend that you move to Costa Rica to any of the coastal areas because the weather there can be very hot and humid and not at all comfortable for the long term. If you plan on living in Costa Rica for an extended period of time, consider living in the central valley where  the climate is a constant spring-like temperature year round.

6) Cost of Living. Costa Rica can be cheap but can also be expensive depending on how you live. Some things are definitely cheaper, such as fruits and vegetables, taxis and labor. Other things such as cars, imported items, electronics and gas are definitely more expensive.

7) Political stability. Costa Rica enjoys a certain political stability with its famous “no-army” policy. One thing is for sure, you don’t have to fear a revolution or political unrest in this country.

The cons of Costa Rica:

1) Roads. 10 years ago, the roads in Costa Rica used to be REALLY bad. Since then huge progress has been made and the roads are much better, but don’t expect big American highways.

2) Infrastructure. The rest of the country’s infrastructure is several years behind the rest of the developed world. Cell phone coverage works but forget about reliable internet and 3G coverage. You can get high-speed internet, but it might not always work. Power outages are frequent, but they rarely last more than a few minutes to an hour.

3) Mad Drivers. Costa Rica has one of the highest automobile accident rate in the world. A lot of the deaths are from pedestrians getting hit by cars. The roads are not lit, extremely pedestrian UN-friendly, and the vast majority of drivers are extremely careless and seem like they got their licence in a cereal box! This is the kind of country where to feel safe on the road you get the biggest car you can and drive defensively. Don’t plan on cycling in Costa Rica as it is too dangerous, and only walk in safe areas — not along main roads.

4) Bugs. This is more a problem if you live by the beach. Ants and all types of critters are everywhere and it’s a constant battle to try to keep your food from being eaten away by them. If you live in a cooler climate in Costa Rica, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem.

5) Crime. This has never personally affected me, but you read about it in the newspaper all the time and it seems serious enough to pay attention. There’s a big problem in the country to keep criminals in jail or out of the country. Home invasions are a daily occurrence in the central valley, and the police are not prepared enough to stop it. Most Costa Ricans will tell you that the one problem they wish their government would take care of the most is crime.

6) Inefficiency. This a wide-spread cultural issue I would loosely call ”inefficiency” although it would take pages upon pages to fully describe and explain in details.

The main thing to understand is that in Costa Rican culture, harmony is valued more than honesty. Here’s one example to describe this. You hire someone to fix your internet. You are told it will be done within a day. However, for some reason there is a delay of some kind (it doesn’t matter what it is). Instead of telling you the truth (honesty), the internet guy will either avoid the situation completely by not calling you OR make up some sort of story to preserve the ”harmony” of the situation and not upset you with the details of the delay.

Of course, none of that is truly understood on the conscious level by Costa Ricans because it’s on the cultural level.

Because of that and other reasons getting anything done can be terribly inefficient and trying to find out the truth of what’s ACTUALLY going on, very frustrating.

7) Language. For some people it’s a problem, for others not. Most Costa Ricans don’t speak English but about 10% of the population can speak decent English.


A great way to describe Hawaii would be first-world comfort in a tropical paradise environment. But this comes at a price.

Here are main pro’s of Hawai’i

1- Beautiful & magical scenery — In spite of the Americanization, Hawaii remains a beautiful place that is truly special.

2- Genuinely nice people — Hawaii’s people are very kind and seem to smile easily. They are also relaxed drivers with some good manners on top of that.

3- Infrastructure — It’s the United States, so the infrastructure is 1000% better than a Costa Rica or even Panama. You can get pretty much anything you need and expect it to work. Because the island of Oahu is small and there’s only a few roads into the big city, traffic can get pretty bad.

4- The ocean — If you like any type of water sport, Hawaii is for you. I’m talking about snorkeling, wind-surfing, Kayaking, swimming, etc. Because the ocean is everywhere, there are so many more options than Costa Rica when it comes to enjoying the ocean.

5- The weather — I find Hawaii’s climate perfect. The temperature hovers between 20 and 29 degrees Celsius year round (Between 68 and 85 Fahrenheit), and if you hate rain you can find a spot of the island that will be pretty much rain-free year round.

6- Safety — I find Hawaii very safe compared to Costa Rica. The crime rate is much less and if you leave your stuff on the beach you don’t have to be paranoid about it getting stolen. I think the fact that it’s an island also makes a different. It’s hard to get there, and if you become undesirable, it’s also difficult to hide anywhere.

7- Shopping Possibilities — Because you’re in the United States, you can pretty much find anything you need (if you’re on the island of Oahu). This makes it very easy to run an Internet business from a tropical paradise.


1) Cost of Living. Nobody moves to Hawaii to save money. The fact that you’re on an island AND in the US makes things more expensive. However, in my experience it’s NOT as expensive as you’d expect.

Certain islands are more expensive. Maui is notoriously known as the most expensive island, but Kauai and the Big Island are cheaper. Oahu (where the big city Honolulu is located) also has some great housing deals.

Now you have big chains like Costco that have made Hawaii more affordable.

A lot of things are priced similarly as they are in the US, such as restaurants and electronics, but groceries are more expensive.

The islands’ shops are also not full of affordable tropical fruits unless you shop at  farmer’s markets, and even there the prices will be similar or more than what you’d pay on the mainland.

Honolulu is not the world’s most expensive city. Several cities such as Los Angeles and Toronto are significantly more expensive than Honolulu, but it’s not as cheap as somewhere like the Midwest.

2) You’re on an Island. Some people can get island fever when they realize they are on a big rock and the road ends where the beach ends. But if you’re tired of the scenery, you can hop on a plane for another island for just $60, or fly back to the mainland for around $250+.

3) You’re in the US — That’s either a positive or a negative depending on who you are.

Maybe you’re American or Canadian or accustomed to American stores and conveniences, in which case you will find yourself right at home with places like Jamba Juice, Costco, Walmart, Whole Foods etc.

Or you’re not American and the idea of mass consumption on a tiny island makes you want to wretch… in that case you may want to check out the outer islands like Kauai and the Big Island if you’d like to keep to yourself and visit small local towns.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to be on the outer islands for a long stay because of all the conveniences available on Oahu.

5) The Homeless — Hawaii seems to have a big problem with homeless people living on the beach and in parks.

This is not technically legal, but the city does not do anything about it.  You will often see homeless people sleeping in parks, by the beach or tenting by the side of the road.

The good thing is they don’t often pan handle or cause any trouble, there’s just no avoiding them if you’re heading to Oahu no matter where you are on the island.

6) SPAM — In case you don’t know, Hawaii has a major spam addiction problem (and I’m not talking about the unwanted email kind).

Spam is a horrible-for-you canned pork product, filled with sodium and nitrates. Spam was introduced to the islands during the military occupation of World War II when fresh meat was difficult to get, but for some reason they kept eating it after the war even when they could afford much better options.

In every grocery store in Hawaii, you will find spam in all its forms. You’ll even see spam sandwiches, eggs and spam for breakfast, and my favorite: sushi with spam! (It actually is quite revolting looking)

The word “spam” nowadays means “unsolicited email” and comes from a Monty Python sketch, “in which the customer becomes more and more exasperated by the appearances of “spam” in every menu item”.

There’s no doubt that the health of Hawaiian people would instantly improve ten-fold if spam were to disappear off the face of the earth.

7) The lack of inexpensive coconuts -- Try this: you’re on a tropical island. There are palm trees everywhere. Yet, it’s almost impossible to find a reasonably priced fresh coconut to drink! Some juice bars sell them for an impossible price ($5.95 or higher!), but most restaurants will be happy to just get you canned coconut “juice” from Thailand (filled with sugar). On the other hand, fresh coconuts in Costa Rica are very common and only cost about 50 cents each.

You can buy young coconuts from the health food store, but they are the yellow older variety and will run about $4.95 each in Oahu and $2.95 each in Kauai. At farmers markets I’ve seen them from $4 to $6 each.

You will also see a lot of older brown coconuts being sold, some people even sell them as drinking coconuts in food courts… which is odd since there is little water in them and the meat is hard.

Another option is if you’re lucky to have a friend who can climb a coconut tree… well then that might work for you better.  Who doesn’t love a free coconut?


I live in Canada, but for the past 5 years I’ve been spending most of my winters in the south.

Costa Rica has been a great choice for most of those winters, and I’m very happy to have had the experience of spending so many months there.

At this point in my life, Hawaii seems to meet my needs a lot better and I also really enjoy being so close to the ocean all the time while having access to more conveniences.

I will be traveling the world for another year and then relocating possibly to Vancouver. But when the winter gets cold and rainy on the Northwest, I might just head to Hawaii for a few months instead of Costa Rica.

What about you, considering your values, which place would you choose?

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Category : Tropical Paradises

11 Responses to “Hawaii vs. Costa Rica: the Cost of Paradise”

Maja May 31, 2010

I don’t agree with the crime details – IMO Hawaii – specifically Oahu – has rampant crime, and a high rate of violent crime. A woman was stabbed by a stranger in the parking lot of a Target in midday last year – for no apparent reason or relation to the stabber. Costa Rica, except for the capital San Jose, has a lower crime rate than the US. On any of the HI islands, guide books will tell you to never leave belongings on the beach, and to leave your (rental) car doors unlocked and the windows down – or else it will be smashed into by thieves. The infamous “tent row” section of northern Oahu is particularly sketchy.

2nd – literacy is a bigger problem in HI, or, I should say illiteracy. Hawaii locals speak pidgin and have statistically very low scores in literacy, education, and competence in comparison with the rest of the US. Costa Rica has higher literacy than all of the US.

Last – health care. Costa Rica has better medical care, since they abandoned the idea of military in favor of investing in hospitals and schools. People look healthy, eat fresh local foods, and the infant mortality rate is lower in CR than in the US. People in HI do not look healthy, except for the fantastically rich, just-retired-and-bought-another-condo-here white people. HI culture embraces spam, mayo, and macaroni salad as staples in every meal. No locals eat the fresh pommelo or papaya growing in their yards, they shop at walmart for spam instead. And the housing on Oahu – the majority looks condemnable, to put it mildly.

I say go for Costa Rica, or Panama. The coastal areas get warm, but nothing like the heat waves of Arizona or the humidity of Florida.

kate May 31, 2010

Still trying to decide where I want to go. Thanks for the article – great information!

Tom May 31, 2010

Aloha Fred:
The photo of you happily holding cans of Spam is quite funny. I have not had Spam here in Hawaii but when I was in my 20′s I ate my share. Kind of like a meat salt lick. On that note there is a new vegan cafe in Honolulu that now makes Musubis without Spam. Nori wrap, brown rice and Tempeh. Not raw, but delicious.

Glad you are enjoying Oahu. After your Costa Rica reports and other research I chose to moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Hawaii and I am staying ! I am used to big city prices and so I am used to living slim. I do love the tropical fruit, more greens than know about and in the China town markets there are OK coconuts for $2-3. You are right, it is hit & miss. But that also makes room for the charm of a non-industrialized culture. Mo betta living, man

When you and your wife are finally settling in for a winter here, I would love to finally met you after all these years of learning from you. I will bring the picnic to the beach.

Mahalo, looking forward to your world wide posts. great adventure to you.

Frederic May 31, 2010

I would disagree about crime. Every US city has crime but it won’t be anywhere close to what’s been happening in Costa Rica. The problem is that you can’t trust crime statistics in Costa Rica because most crime is never reported. I know personal friends who have been victims of a home invasion, where the invaders locked them up in a closet for hours while they raided all condos. Everyone you know that has been in Costa Rica for long enough in the central valley has been victim of such a crime or knows someone who has.

We have friends that live on Oahu and they have never had a problem with crime. I agree I have read in the guidebooks to never lock your rental car or the windows will be smashed in, but neither I or my wife’s family (who’ve been coming here for years) have ever had a problem. I actually lost a bag of paid items by leaving it in a store at the Ala Moana Mall and went back to retrieve it almost an hour later and it was still there, no one had took it and the counter staff gladly returned it. To say crime is rampant here is doing Oahu a disservice. There is much more protection and police enforcement here than in Costa Rica.

As for literacy it’s a similar problem in Costa Rica. Costa Rica falsely advertises a 95% literacy rate when in fact the vast majority of people can barely spell and don’t have the skills to read a news paper.

I agree about health care. The local Hawaiians are extremely unhealthy. However Costa Rica has a pretty bad diet too but not nearly as bad as Hawaii. Costa Rica is also a great place to get medical treatment at an affordable rate too.

Diana Marchand May 31, 2010

Great to hear the comparison. I moved to Vancouver Island from Edmonton, AB and love it here. Vancouver is great!!! More money but the city is nice and the healthy food is everywhere!! Great food shopping there. When you want the great outdoors just hop on the ferry and come over to Vancouver Island – it is incredible here and so much to see do, hike, bike, surf, etc. You will love it!
Victoria, on Vancouver Island, is one of THE most beautiful cities and you may love to settle there after checking it out.
Looking forward to posts from your travels

Karmyn May 31, 2010

Hawaii or Costa Rica? Oh that’s an easy decision–I would choose Panama! ;)

Jenny June 1, 2010

I have lived in Maui for two years. There are many pros and cons, but I must say that I love Hawaii and can’t imagine another place that I would enjoy more. My husband and I love the ocean and ocean sports. The weather is wonderful. Having grown up in Florida, I really appreciate the tradewinds and the lack of oppressive humidity on most days Outside of the very touristy places you will find some strong predjudices against non-natives. We have managed to fit in and it has been minimal. If you are willing to put in a little effort you can find wonderful fruits for sale for very little. If you got Whole Foods, you will find that produce can be ridiculously expensive. We have had the good fortune to visit Kauai and must say, that although our time there was limited, it is by far our favorite island. Have a wonderful honeymoon, stay away from the Spam and let us know of your adventures. Aloha!

mad bliss June 1, 2010

You need to connect to the local climbers and you won’t pay more than a dollar…You can’t really get the true vibe of the Island when you have not been saturated in the Aloha spirit and connected to the local people who have been there a while. The crime is still an issue in Maui, but not as much- ever since half the police force got laid off from getting busted selling and smoking crack…It is still america and that is a big issue for me…I am off in Bali now!

shelli June 2, 2010

Aloha Frederic,

Thanks so much for your comparisons between Costa Rica and Hawaii.

I have never been to Costa Rica. I traveled to Hawaii for many years and finally decided to relocate there, so I wanted to touch on a few points about living in Hawaii that you did not touch upon.

If cultural events like theater, music and the arts are important to people, they will enjoy Hawaii. The live theater here is great and affordable. There are always many free events to attend, often outdoors and in the parks or at the beach, each and every weekend.

The local merchants care about their reputations (after all it’s a small place and all you have is your reputation) so customer service is very good. I have been very pleased with service people like auto mechanics, repair men, and shop keepers in general.

When you live here there are many discounts given to Hawaii residents. These range from restaurant discounts to reduced fees on golf courses and all kinds of other goods and services as well. This helps keep things you enjoy doing affordable.

Health care here is fine. There are many clinics for people who can’t afford health care. One of my friends is a doctor in one of these clinics. If he’s any indication of the kind of physician found at these clinics, then you’d be in excellent hands!

In my 30 year experience with Hawaii I have never had any problem with crime or violence here. While it exists, as it unfortunately does everywhere, you’d be hard pressed to find people who live in Hawaii sitting around discussing crime rates. We’d much more likely be discussing the day’s local beach report! The experience you had at Ala Moana mall where you found your lost package untouched and waiting for you at the store where you left it, is much more common than crime.

I think the people who do best living over here are the ones who come expecting to experience ALOHA and who partake of the culture and lifestyle and give back to the community in whatever ways they can. then it’s a WIN WIN.

Aloha my friend!

Dizzy June 2, 2010

Aloha, and thank you for the well laid out comparison between Hawaii and Costa Rica.

I’ve been to Hawaii and can vouch for the general accuracy of your report. I haven’t travelled to Costa Rica, however others have said similar to what you have.

Could you not have widened the scope of your research to include Thailand? And other places including Panama as mentioned above. What about Equador? I think it over simplistic to narrow paradise down to only two locations. I look foward to your comprehensive summary utilizing the parameters used for Hawaii/Costa Rica.


Frederic June 2, 2010

Hi Dizzy

We did spend a week or so in Panama around Panama city but not the rest of the province, so we did not get an idea for how we would live there yet. We will visit again later on. Also later this year we are heading to south east Asia including Thailand and will do similar reports as well. This is the first one since I have a tropical paradise report based on Costa Rica and want to compare it for people that have not been to Costa Rica or Hawaii yet.