Here’s a funny story.
I originally wrote this post several months ago after having moved back to the USA after living in Costa Rica for over 5 years. Fast forward to the present moment and I’m now sitting here 2 days fresh off our move and re-entry back to Costa Rica after a short 7 months in the USA.
The original title was appropriately named “An ex-expat view of living in Costa Rica.” It’s quite ironic now that I’m posting this sitting here back in Costa Rica.
So if I think about it for a second, that’s makes me an ex-ex-expat?
Strange how life works isn’t it?
Today I’m going to share my top 5 highlights to living in Costa Rica. As you’ll see, each highlight has an accompanying “trade-off” because that’s the reality of life. There is no perfect place to live. I found most articles about living in Costa Rica overly positive, describing only the benefits to living in paradise.
Today I’ll give it a fair shake from my perspective. It’s overwhelmingly positive, but it’s not without tradeoffs.
Here we go.
Top 5 Benefits of Living Abroad in Costa Rica
1) Less People, Less Crowded = More Space
If you are coming from any developed city in the world, this sense of space can be one of the most powerful benefits of living in Costa Rica. Costa Rica’s population is just under 5 million with the majority living in and around the capital of San Jose. Once you get out towards the beaches, population numbers dwindle rapidly. Costa Rican beaches are much much less crowded then anywhere in the developed world.
Early morning walks on the beach without seeing a soul is commonplace, and sometimes if you’re willing to explore a little bit, you can even be out in the water all alone. As a surfer, this is the ultimate dream. The roads will also have drastically less people on them as well. The only traffic you’ll see is when the local cowboy decides to herd his cattle on the main road.
By definition, living in a small beach town in Costa Rica exposes you to a very small number of people. This means you know just about everyone who lives in your little town – the good, the bad and the ugly. Inevitably, you’ll be exposed to people who have less than stellar morals. There’s a saying down here “it’s a sunny place for shady people” which is to say there are some crazies that you have to watch out for.
As long as you put on your common sense hat, and choose friends wisely, rarely does this get to be a problem. The reality is that there are plenty of quality, awesome people who chose living abroad as a conscious choice and are doing wonderful things down here.
2) Tropical Climate
With year-round air temperatures averaging in the high 80’s and ocean temps hovering around 80, it’s no surprise Costa Rica offers such a vibrant beach culture. As someone who loves the ocean, this warm water is glorious. Early morning surf sessions with nothing but board shorts, sunset runs on the beach, volleyball games all day long, futbol matches steps from the water – the options are endless with such amazing tropical weather.
Tropical heat is not something you want to mess around with. The sun blazes down for most of the day and trying to do any outdoor activities not in the ocean between the hours of 10-4 becomes challenging. And if you’re someone who sweats, get ready for the perma-sweat which is an all-day stickiness that’s comes from hot air temperatures and high humidity. Let’s also not forget about the potential damaging effects of the sun. Chronic overexposure to the sun can definitely increase your chances of sun cancer. So, while the tropical climate makes for a great beach activity set-up, you have to be mindful of the sun, especially at mid-day.
3) Pura Vida Mentality
Pura vida is a Costa Rican saying that literally translates into “pure life.” Its practical usage is very broad, including everything from “hello”, “goodbye”, “good luck” to many other common greetings. The concept of pura vida goes much deeper though, it stands for this idea that nothing really matters that much, stop worrying so much, chill out and enjoy the moment.
Some have compared it to “island mentality” or the Hawaiian equivalent to “aloha” – it’s a laid back attitude that says, “hey man, don’t worry about it, it’s all good, pura vida.”
Now as a westerner on vacation, pura vida is like a sweet nectar.
It’s intoxicating. Part of what makes it feel so good is its novelty; it’s so foreign to many of us buried with email, work, traffic, and busyness.
Pura vida is the antithesis of busy.
It’s OK not to have 38 things on your to-do list. It’s coming to grips with the reality that nothing is really that important, and therefore chill the hell out and enjoy the moment. If you step back and think about for a second, it’s a powerful concept. There’s a reason Costa Ricans have some of the best longevity in the world. Costa Rica is home to one of only a handful of Blue Zones, areas in the world with large populations of people living to be over 100 years old. They have a higher life expectancy of the US and spend 15% of what the US spends on health care. It’s safe to say there’s very little stress-related disease here in Costa Rica.
The real beauty of pura vida lies in its simplicity. There’s no overthinking with pura vida. It’s about being present, enjoying your company, and not worrying too much.
When everything is going well, the “pura vida” is a wonderful thing. Taking your dog on the beach without a leash, pura vida. Hook up your TRX straps and conduct a boot camp class steps away from the ocean, pura vida. You can park your car wherever your heart desires, no need to worry about that one, pura vida. Feel like walking down the street with a cocktail, go for it, pura vida.
So, it’s all good when it’s all good. Pura vida is a beautiful thing.
As mentioned above, when all is good, this aspect of Costa Rica living feels great. You have lots of autonomy, nobody gets involved in your business, and life is good – “pura vida.”
But there is a flip side of pura vida, or as I like to call it — the dark side of pura vida. As my friend Brandon says “pura fucking vida”. When you live in Costa Rica long enough, it’s hard not to utter “pura fucking vida” grudgingly a few times a week.
Trying to get something done at the bank? It’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything quickly. Trying to run a business and relying on people to show up on time? Good luck. Pura fucking vida.
Looking to purchase anything that requires government approval? You should expect months. Pura fucking vida.
If you try to impose your own cultural beliefs around how things operate, you’re in for a rude awakening. The moment you try and fight the pura vida, that’s when its vice-like grip tightens even harder.
The only solution is to embrace it – let go, relax and be patient. Pura vida.
Remember we all have cultural beliefs that are powerfully engrained in us from a young age. You have to realize Costa Ricans have their own unique culture that shapes the way they operate through life. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. And especially when you live in that country, you have to respect that difference and be open to looking at it from a different perspective. This is one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from traveling – experiencing different views and different belief systems are a great way to challenge your own beliefs and values and make you really think about why you think the things you do.
4) Natural Beauty
Wonderful wildlife, breathtaking volcanic views, lush rain forests, exotic untouched majestical beaches – Costa Rica has it all! There’s a certain raw beauty that’s becoming more and more difficult to experience in our industrialized 21st century.
I got nothing on this one!! I mean, c’mon, look at those above pictures!
While Costa Rica is certainly the most expensive of all the Central American countries, it is still a very affordable option when compared to most developed countries. Food costs are lower. Housing is cheaper. Overall, the cost of living in Costa Rica is a fraction of what it costs in the US.
Yes, things cost less in Costa Rica. But you also get what you pay for. Yes, you can get a plate of food for $3, but the quality of the ingredients will not be great.
Yes, housing is much cheaper, but again, you get what you pay for. Buildings age much quicker in Costa Rica because the quality of construction isn’t as high as the developed world and the natural environment wreaks havoc on poorly constructed buildings. Air conditioning units wear down quickly from the constant usage, bugs and other pests can make their way into less than ideal building finishes.
So while cheaper, living in Costa Rica is not without its trade-offs.
Clearly my action of moving back to Costa Rica after 7 months in the USA is a clear vote in favor for living in such a wonderful place. But just like everything in life, there are trade-offs, and hopefully this piece helped give you a clearer insight into what those might be.
I leave you with one final Pura Vida!
Have you ever been abroad? How has that experience shaped your thinking? I want to know in the comments below.