costa rica - anonymous' reflections after years there in their 30s

posted by anonymous on 11/25/13.


How much time have you spent in Costa Rica?

Around 2 years.

How old were you when you came to Costa Rica? Where were you before?

30. I grew up in Ohio, then moved to Chicago for most of my adult life.

What brought you to Costa Rica? What made you choose Costa Rica over any other place you could've gone?

Our three criteria were 1) Warm 2) Cheap enough to live off of freelancing and 3) Reliable enough electricity and internet to do our jobs. That narrows it down more than you'd think. I had visited Costa Rica years ago and enjoyed it, and its size and diversity made it really attractive to explore. Nearly everywhere we've lived in Costa Rica has been a serendipitous decision, but usually it's been a matter of riding that line between feeling isolated and being close enough to the big-city services we need.

Describe the city you live in in Costa Rica and your impressions of it.

We started out in San Antonio de Escazu, southeast of San Jose. The Northern part of the Escazu canton is really developed, popular with expats, and not really my cup of tea, but the farther you go up into the mountains, the more beautiful and rural it gets. We lived on the town square, and it was a really nice "small town" experience that you can't really get in the US anymore - we walked to the butcher, the baker, and the bar, but were still just a 20 minute bus ride from downtown San Jose. I had never lived in the mountains before, and it was really cool - we were at the perfect altitude where the temperatures were almost always in the 70s. From there we moved to Esterillos Oeste, a small town on the Central Pacific coast. A bit more isolated, we were a few blocks from the beach, but our backyard was the jungle - full of monkeys, macaws, and iguanas. It's not very developed, more of a surfer spot than a vacation destination, but still very dependent on tourism, which took a bit of getting used to. It can feel like a completely different place in the off-season - a near-empty jungle beach for miles in each direction.

How does the city you live in compare to other cities in Costa Rica? What drew you to the city you live in over other cities in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is full of wonderful small towns and one so-so big city, San Jose. It's just big enough to be dangerous and dirty in spots, but not old enough to be interesting. I like city life a lot, but Costa Rica is not the place for it - it's best to hunt down cool small towns.

What are the people of Costa Rica like? In what ways are they different than people in other places you've lived?

Very polite and family-oriented - friendly but kind of wary of Americans after decades of tourism. A tico friend said Americans all seemed "stuck up", which probably says as much about their personality as ours. In a US context, I'd say they reminded me of midwesterners - willing to help strangers out of a ditch without particularly caring much about them.

Was making friends and meeting people in Costa Rica in general easy or difficult? How did your social life evolve? What did you do to meet people? How does your social life in Costa Rica compare to how it is/was in other places you've lived?

It was difficult - it got easier as we learned more Spanish and met more young english-speaking ticos, but we didn't know anyone when we moved there at all. It was difficult being dependent on the tourism industry or other english-speaking expats for help, especially when we don't have much in common with backpackers or retirees. Some of them are downright awful, there for the wrong reasons, or really soured by their experiences. I was really surprised by how easily you could stay in this english-speaking cocoon if you wanted to, and not interact with the culture at all, and we made a concerted effort not to be "those expats". This probably actually made it harder for us to meet people, but we've still built a nice friend group meeting people in town and at the bar.

How does your race, nationality, gender, accent, etc. affect how you are treated or how people react to meeting you in Costa Rica?

As a white male, I've never been in the minority, or ever had to think of myself as representative of a group that might be judged by my actions, so that's a bit of a mind-expander. As a white american in Costa Rica, most people just assume that you're a tourist - it's a little depressing when they're surprised you 1) speak spanish, and 2) are there for more than just fun. Being treated differently afterwards is nice, but it's still a weird dynamic when everyone assumes a certain thing about you.

How does the language barrier affect you (if it all)?

Pretty heavily. It's sink or swim if you really want to be a part of the culture, rather than just a tourist. I'm not very good at languages, but got really into Spanish after a while. It was also nice to learn something big like that so many years out of school.

Any social/cultural advice for others who might come to Costa Rica? How do people in Costa Rica socialize differently than other places you've been?

For Americans, I'd probably just reiterate what I said before: it's easy to stay in an english-speaking tourist-town bubble - work hard to break out of it.

What sort of work/school do you do in Costa Rica? What's it like working (or studying) in Costa Rica compared to what it was like where you lived before?

I'm a freelance web consultant and programmer, my wife is a freelance illustrator. We're extremely lucky to have jobs where we could continue to earn US-level wages in a foreign country, and it made the whole thing much easier.

Does your money go further or not as far as it does in other countries and cities? Are you able to afford a better standard of living than in other places you've lived, or able to afford less?

Farther and better, but not by a whole lot. It's all dependent on decisions - things like electronics and cars can cost a lot more here, so you can easily end up losing a lot of money by trying to replicate a US lifestyle, instead of rearranging your life around the things that are cheap and plentiful here, like fruits and vegetables or housing.

How much is an average rent for an apartment/house/whatever? A beer at a bar? A meal at a restaurant?

A two-bedroom apartment in the nicest parts of the country (not the most touristy) would be $600/month. Beer is $2 at the bar, and a restaurant meal is just a little cheaper than the US - you can get a good $5 lunch most places.

Do you have any stories to share about dating, relationships, gender norms, or sex in Costa Rica? Or any impressions of how these things are different in Costa Rica than in other places you've been?

Latin America is very Catholic, but in its own special way. It's not uncommon for single twenty-somethings to still live with their parents, or for multiple generations to live under one roof. Not coincidentally, the parks are full of couples making out.

Any good stories you can think of that you haven't mentioned yet?

I haven't mentioned having to testify against organized crime because our first house was full of squatters, or chasing machete-wielding thugs back into the jungle with my pocketknife, but you probably "had to be there".

What are your favorite things about Costa Rica? Least favorite?

I like farmer's markets full of actual farmers, and driving right up to an empty beach in a rusty 4x4. Buying ceviche and ague pipa from street vendors. Strangers inviting you to grill out chicharrones at their house. Secret backyard waterfalls. I don't like the cultural lag I get from living somewhere that I didn't grow up, or the feeling of being a target that gives me. I like all the European and South American immigrants, and hearing multiple languages around a crowded bar. I don't care much for the other Americans here at all, and there's a bunch of them.

What things about Costa Rica surprised you?

Hm - I'd say something along the lines that moving out of the country is a good way to create big changes in your life, but you don't get to decide what those changes are, exactly.

What do you miss while living in Costa Rica (could be something tangible or a cultural/social phenomena)?

My friends, though by that time half of them had left the city too. That's probably as much of a turning-30 thing than a moving thing, but it all happened around the same time for me.

Would you recommend Costa Rica as a place to live, travel to, or neither?

Travel definitely, especially for longer visits where you can really take it all in. Living there isn't for people looking to solve all their problems or find an unspoiled beach paradise - there's no such thing, and it's got plenty of problems of its own. But it's a great starting point for exploring Latin America, with an insane amount of natural variation packed in a very small space. I regret very little about our move, but a huge part of that was being able to roll with the punches.

Anything else you can share?

A few months ago I wrote a small bit about what I've witnessed expats doing wrong down here, in response to another post on reddit about going crazy in Central America. It's a bit more caustic in tone, but you might find it interesting, as it has a lot to do people's thought processes behind moving out of the US, and covers most of what I'd consider my advice to future expats to be - Hope that helps! m;

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