Getting real about what it’s like to live in Costa Rica as an expat…

As we’ve been living in Costa Rica, we’ve met some pretty incredible people. Many are like us – came from “elsewhere” to live a life in Paradise.

Some people had pretty realistic expectations of how their life was PROBABLY going to look here. They did their homework – read all the latest books, talked with those living here, made multiple trips to visit this amazing land to find the right spot for them, and most came armed with a healthy and full bank account, a solid and profitable business plan with capital to get it up and running, and/or a source of income from their home country.

Some came wearing rose-coloured glasses. Sure, they too read the books that talk about leaving North America for the zero-hour work week … books that make Costa Rica seem like Paradise on Earth. Why wouldn’t anyone move here? They may or may not have even travelled to Costa Rica ahead of time, before the Big Move. But armed with just enough knowledge about weather patterns, schools, hospitals, transportation, and the country’s best beaches, they took the plunge. Some made the journey here, expecting to stay forever, and are still here – and some have hightailed it back to wherever they came.

Some ventured here because an expat friend or colleague promised them a job, even for a month or so. Some stayed, and may have had many job roles since that first one…some fulfilled their original job responsibilities and returned “home.”

Some came on vacation, bringing with them their Lonely Planet guide books and swimsuits – and never left.

Yet so many came…then left, never to return – except as maybe a tourist for a week or two. We have heard stories of some of those people – and the stories are mostly not-so-good.

As we’ve been watching and learning about expat life in Costa Rica, we’ve had our own expectations refined, and some of them have even dissolved, fallen to the wayside.

We thought we had done enough homework about Costa Rica prior to actually living here. We thought we had enough fortitude and a living, breathing attitude of and aptitude for adventure. We thought we could live with flexibility – being able to adapt to pretty much anything. We thought we’d be snapped up for employment of some kind, getting around the residency status somehow. We thought that we could volunteer our time for worthy causes.

Maybe we fulfill all that…but maybe we only fulfill part…or maybe none at all.

Let us tell some stories of expats we’ve met…

One woman came to Costa Rica nine years ago, and began working in the diving industry. Five years ago, she was hired by a local dive company – her wage? $600 a month…for fulltime hours. And that wage has not increased in those five years. She also has a young son to support. When asked how she makes ends meet, she replied that she lives in a Tico house – and this Tico house is so basic that it doesn’t even have glass on its windows – and they eat a lot of rice and beans. She’s able to drive, but doesn’t have a vehicle, instead relies on the goodness of her friends for transportation, walks, or takes the bus.

{The pic above is one of a clapboard Tico house (although not hers). Some are made of concrete, some of wood. Some have glass in the window openings, some have screens, and some have bars to protect against human intruders. And like this home, some don’t have anything, but maybe wooden shutters to close at night for safety. It seems that the windows and building materials – wood or concrete – of a home reveal the status of the occupants.}

Another friend left her role in business/marketing in the USA about five years ago, and came to CR on the request of a friend to work in a local restaurant. Sometimes working for/with friends isn’t a great idea – she no longer works there. She still works in the food service industry, but struggles. Even though she’s young, her body is fighting against standing for hours on the concrete floors without a break, and is having major back trouble.

When asked what would help, she replied that cushion mats on the floor behind the bar/counters would greatly alleviate some of the strain – but when she asked her boss, he flatly denied her request. She – her time and energy and subsequent health – isn’t worth it to him. Another or additional option would be to have proper footwear, but to do so would require a half-day drive to San Jose to shop. And even then, the quality of footwear here doesn’t even compare to the quality back in Canada/USA. So even if she could make it to San Jose, and even if there were proper shoes, she’d still have to save $$ for a long time to afford them. She makes about $2 an hour. Plus pennies in tips. The CR government enacted a country-wide 10% service charge to replace customers’ tips. So we, as customers, are not obligated to tip, as it’s already included in our bill. However, this 10% is shared amongst ALL staff. With tipping GONE, her income was significantly reduced.

Another friend works in real estate. He worked for his company while still in the USA, and came down to work in their satellite office in Costa Rica. While he mostly deals in $$$-expensive properties, he eagerly, yet patiently, waits for clients to make up their minds – and often puts in much time and $ to have clients, buyers AND sellers alike, back out or change the conditions for a sale, or whatever. If it wasn’t for another small monthly income from the USA and an initial start-up/relocation loan, he would have a very difficult time making ends meet here.

Another young friend is a world-class “body” stylist – hair, makeup, massage, etc. She’s worked all over the world with big-name people. She’s a MASTER at what she does, and her passion for beauty – NATURAL beauty – is infectious. She works in a local salon/spa, and is able to set her own schedule, which is now at about 30 hours a week. When asked about living here in regards to income and expenses, she stated that she makes about $1000 a month and spends $1000 a month. What goes in, goes out. No room for savings, and no room for a non-budgeted expenditure.

We could go on and on with more stories of real people trying to live here in CR.

Life here is simpler than in North America…but it’s DEFINITELY not easier.

All the stories are very similar – with the common thread of financial trials and struggles…

Yet they could easily say: “To heck with the struggling, I’m DONE, I’m going back HOME”…

But they haven’t. They CHOOSE to stay.


Because going back is almost unbearable thinking. They would rather struggle here in Costa Rica than struggle “back home.”

While we have seen that common thread of financial struggle again and again, we’ve also seen many positive threads in the quest to live the Pura Vida: Perseverance. Flexibility. Adaptably. Stamina. Hard working. Resilience – figuratively getting back on their feet when knocked on the ground. Seeing goodness in others. Trusting others – sometimes with their lives. They are kind and caring, not only to other people, but to the creatures and nature here – and they are kind to THEMSELVES. And while they don’t advertise their struggles, they don’t sugar coat anything, sharing candidly when asked. They have learned to live within the budgetary constraints, and not only survive, but THRIVE.

Would we have what it takes to live here, even half time?

While we haven’t found income opportunities, we haven’t looked too hard, knowing that we’re only here for three months – this time around anyway. However, we’ve seen it time and time again – not only in our past, but our present as well – that once a decision is made, things seem to fall into place…although often not without hard work, some time, and much energy.

We have learned so much while in Costa Rica, and while we don’t have plans for Fall 2015 as of yet, we are both figuring out and refining some of our passions and dreams – what makes us tick, as a couple and as individuals. And we know that living here in CR has afforded us the time and mental/emotional refreshment to really work on this stuff, without the distractions we faced while living in Canada.

For those of you who think we’ve relocated to Paradise, you may want to define the meaning of Paradise. Living here isn’t the “Garden of Eden” … yes, it’s sunny and warm and green (what’s been watered, anyway – it is the dry season in Guanacaste, after all, so much of the landscape is dry, brown, and dusty)…and yes, we eat food that’s much closer to the source from where it came…

And while we’re not struggling, we still wouldn’t call living here “easy”. Living here is DIFFERENT than living in Canada…and yes, it is a simpler way of living, but it’s definitely not easy. Not even maybe.

Yet we’re intrigued enough to learn more…


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