Hawaii vs. Costa Rica: the Cost of Paradise

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.

Hawaii

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.

Negatives

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?

Conclusion

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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