Thinking of moving to Costa Rica? A few things you should really know!
Back in 2016, we made the decision to embark on a major adventure that would take us out of our comfort zone in every way possible.
We decided to leave behind our exceedingly average suburban life in Northern New Jersey and move our family to Costa Rica.
People often ask me what made us decide to do this, but the answer is not a simple one.
It was partly because of the insane political circus we saw the US turning into with the election of #45. It’s kind of funny to me now how many times I saw people commenting how unhappy they were with how the election had turned out, and the upheaval in the political and social climate in the States, with some MAGA supporter inevitably (virtually) shouting “well if you don’t like it, then leave!”
Well, we did just that.
It was also fueled by a desire for a different kind of life.
One that didn’t involve congested highways and cities, and daily travel routines that often left me with knots in my stomach.
One that would offer my two boys a very different life experience than the one they had had so far in NJ, with plenty of opportunities to step outside of their comfort zones and learn new things like Spanish and surfing.
One that was warm and sunny virtually year-round, rather than cold and harsh for many months of the year. (more on this below)
One that far simpler in virtually every way, with less “rate race” and a whole lot more “pura vida.”
I will admit, that although this decision was made with a ton of virtual research – I spent weeks poring over other people’s accounts of their experiences living here, and searching resources for advice on making it happen – it was made with pretty much zero practical research.
Crazy though it may seem, we packed up our entire lives and moved here without ever having set foot in the country previously!
Do I regret it?
Absolutely not! Although if you ask my husband, you might get a different answer. (More on that in a bit.)
Living here has offered us some of the greatest challenges, but also some of the greatest joy one can imagine.
So, in the spirit of full disclosure about the good, the bad, and the ugly.. the ups and the downs…the triumphs, and tribulations of our experience here over the last 20 months, here are just a few things you should know if you are considering moving to this amazing country.
It’s magically, insanely beautiful here.
Are there areas that are not quite so nice? Of course, and they exist no matter what country you might decide to move to, but the beautiful ones far, far outweigh them here in Costa Rica.
There are stunning waterfalls, pristine beaches with swaying palms and turquoise waters. There are volcanoes and rainforests, and vibrant towns and cities.
The sunsets we get to see every single night if we choose to in Tamarindo (and all along the Pacific coast for that matter), are breathtaking. Like leave-me-speechless-with-tears-in-my-eyes breathtaking.
Costa Rica is home to around 4% of the earth’s species of flora and fauna, and in just the short time that I’ve lived here, I have had the privilege of seeing a small, but spectacular fraction of it, without even trying.
On several occasions, we’ve seen an adorable armadillo hanging out in our front yard, snuffling in the bushes for bugs, casually ignoring our dog and three cats as they watched him with curiosity. We call him Armand and he’s family now.
Howler monkeys are a regular sight here, and often can be heard and seen in the trees just behind our house. They are delightful to watch, and I’m just blown away by them every single time I see them. There are those who will confirm that they’re not quite so delightful when they start to howl at 4am to greet the dawn, however!
We’ve seen flocks of small, green birds congregating and chattering raucously for an hour or more in another tree just behind our house. Seeing parakeets, toucans, hummingbirds, and other brightly plumed exotic birds is a regular occurrence in Guanacaste.
We had an anteater (AN ANTEATER!!) come strolling out of the grass at the side of the road as we were heading out of town quite late one night a few weeks back and cross the road right in front of us.
Thank goodness I spotted him early and we were already driving quite slowly even before I saw him, so that we were able to watch him casually stroll across right in front of our car, ostensibly in search of his next ant-y feast on the other side.
We have huge iguanas and smaller monitor lizards sunning themselves in our yard most days. We even had to fish a huge one out of our pool a while back after he accidentally fell in!
The lizards are majestic and surprisingly chilled if you’re calm , and if our dog doesn’t decide to start playing tag with them.
One rather engaging and handsome monitor lizard, whom I dubbed “Eddie Lizzard”, used to come by looking for handouts of lettuce leaves and tomato chunks, which we always made sure to have on hand for him.
We’ve also had visits to our house from opossums, geckoes, spiders, scorpions, snakes, stray dogs, stray cats, huge butterflies, rhinoceros beetles, mice, rats, stray horses, and stray cows at various times.
In short, it’s all Wild Kingdom up in this place!
Some of these beasties may not be for the faint of heart, but as far as I’m concerned, I enjoy their visits immensely. (Except the scorpions…they can piss right off!)
It’s not cheap, (but it’s not as expensive as you might think)
Let’s be honest here. “Cheap” and “expensive” are relative terms. For someone moving here from NYC, or LA, Sydney, London, or even Toronto, Costa Rica can be pretty darn cheap overall.
Recommended: How Much Do Things Really Cost in Costa Rica?
If you’re moving here from the American Midwest on the other hand, you may not think so.
We live just outside of Tamarindo, which is a very touristy area with a lot of expats, which of course comes with prices that are relatively higher when compared with areas that have fewer tourists and expats.
Just as one example, let’s look at current (as of April 2019) rental prices in the Tamarindo area.
Like many locations where one might consider moving to as an expat, there is a wide range of price points for accommodation.
We live a few miles outside of the tourist epicenter of Tamarindo.
We have a fairly simple, newer 3-bedroom furnished house, that’s around 1400 square feet, with a small pool and decent sized yard for $1500/month, which includes water and pool maintenance/gardener in the price.
For something of a similar size in New Jersey, we would be paying far more.
You can find a two-bedroom house in this area for $1000 or less.
If you don’t mind living very simply in a smaller concrete house with no pool (the concrete helps it stay cool so you need the A/C on less) as many locals do, it’s not difficult at all to find a one-bedroom house for under $500.
There are also nicer, bigger houses in the area with 4 bedrooms, a bigger pool, and a fenced in yard for around $2400/month.
In Tamarindo and Langosta, the average price for a two-bedroom furnished condo is $1200-$2000/month depending on location and amenities. More expensive, but not as much traveling necessary of course.
Our utilities are cheaper than what were paying in NJ. As a comparison, our electricity bill in Bloomfield was an average of $500/month. Here it’s between $300-$350 most months, and we use the A/C all the time, since Guanacaste is hot and humid year- round.
For anyone looking to get an idea of places that are for rent in this area, I suggest the Tamarindo Rentals and Real Estate FB page, or there are several agencies that specialize in rentals such as Rosie’s Investments and Coastal Commercial Group (ask for Melissa!)
Guanacaste is hot, but there are other options too!
I’m half Filipino, and ever since I can remember, the Southeast Asian DNA in me has been strategically angling to get me back to somewhere tropical.
In addition to that, virtually every one of my favorite memories are from my time traveling through countries like Thailand, Bali, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
I’m happiest with the heady fragrance of flowers and salt water in the air, the ocean breeze on my face, a book in one hand, and a pipa (fresh cold coconut) in the other.
So, do I mind the heat? Not so much.
Not when I can walk out into my yard, listen to howler monkeys and other fauna in the trees, enjoy the beautiful tropical flowers in my yard, sit by the pool, close my eyes, and feel like I’m on a mini-vacation pretty much whenever I want.
This place truly feels magical to me. Especially in the early mornings on the beach, and in the late evenings out on our patio, when the air smells like every one of my best summer memories.
My husband doesn’t do quite so well with the heat, to be honest. He misses the cold weather, the chance to wear a sweater or hoodie, the snow, the seasons…
So far, I don’t miss it one bit. Maybe that will change with time. We’ve agreed to try and make trips to colder places more often to keep him happy (and occasionally sweater-clad).
Of course, if hot and humid is not your jam, there are other options here in CR.
Costa Rica actually has 12 “Climate zones” which have a variety of temperatures and micro-climates, ranging from hot and humid to cool and brisk, depending on elevation and other geographical factors.
San Jose and its suburbs are considerably cooler year round, as are towns like Grecia, Atenas, and Santa Ana which are also all in the West Central Valley region, so if living close to the beach is not a pre-requisite, there are plenty of options!
With my eldest having fallen in love with surfing, it would seem we’re not moving anywhere too far from the ocean just yet.
A little Spanish goes a long way
We live near the town known semi-affectionately as “Tamagringo” which gives you an idea of the demographic of the area. Locals, yes, but lots of expats and tourists.
So, right in Tama, almost everyone speaks at least some English, but even just outside of town, like Villareal where we are, many people don’t speak any English, or just a little, so learning conversational Spanish is most definitely a good if you’re considering moving here.
I’ve been pretty diligent in learning Spanish, and it is coming along nicely, but I always seem to find myself in some situation where it’s not quite enough, or I’m unsure of how to properly conjugate a verb to make sense!
Fortunately, Ticos are patient and helpful for the most part, and truly appreciate your efforts, so a smile and whipping out Google translate on my phone for a little support usually allows me to communicate what I need to.
Your attitude is everything
Moving to any new country is not for those who are set in their ways and inflexible. I feel this is especially relevant for moving to Costa Rica.
This country can be challenging, frustrating, even infuriating at times. Lots of bureaucracy and red tape to get simple things done, water or power outages at inconvenient times, crazy motorcycle riders that think a flashlight is sufficient as a headlight at night…these are just a few things that have left us shaking our heads in disbelief. There are plenty more, trust me.
But we’ve also found incredible beauty and adventure, met amazing people from all walks of life, and have learned so much about ourselves during this process.
I’ve come to realize a good sense of humor and an even bigger sense of gratitude will make all the difference to your experience living here.
From “traffic jams” due to meandering escaped herds of cows clogging up the road, to the local caballeros tying their horses outside of the local watering hole as they enjoy a beer, to surfers riding on scooters to the beach with their boards sideways across their lap so that they take up the same width of road as a semi truck, there’s no shortage of absurd and hilarious sights we come across almost daily that make me laugh out loud.
And I am so grateful for so many things here. Too many to mention, really.
My life is not perfect here by any means, but I’m finding plenty of reasons to smile, and laugh through even the craziest moments every single day.
Tamra Elizabeth CaterMay 1, 2019 at 6:30 pm
This is an interesting post. You did a great job explaining what it’s like to be living there. I’ve had an interest in one day moving to some place like Costa Rica! Thanks for sharing!
K MellonMay 6, 2019 at 4:27 am
Thanks, Tamra! I’ll be writing quite a few more posts about living in this area, and tips for those who are thinking of visiting! Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as well!
GayleNovember 12, 2020 at 1:18 am
#45 wasn’t that bad… but Costa Rica sounds like a dream! Now that #46 has been selected I feel the need to escape. Do you work? What is the process of becoming “legal” ? I have read that you must leave every 6 months. Also, what about health care?
K MellonNovember 13, 2020 at 7:59 pm
Hi Gayle! Since it’s not possible to legally work here in Costa Rica until you have permanent residency, I work totally online. I am an ecommerce entrepreneur and run several sites including a Shopify dropshipping store and several Etsy shops for print on demand designs. I suggest checking out Outlier Legal here in CR for the whole scoop on options for becoming legal. While a tourist, you must leave every 90 days, but that’s been halted due to COVID until March of 2021. Usually we just go to the Nicaragua border, walk out through immigration on both sides and then walk back in to get another stamp. We pay for any health care ourselves, but it’s cheap to go to walk in clinics. We also use a medical discount program called MediSmart which gets us doctor’s visits for about 80% off. You can also get expat health insurance here for about $200-300 per family which is really comprehensive in its coverage.