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Living in Costa Rica
A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Costa Rica
Are you interested in living in Costa Rica? Before you go, you should educate yourself on the practicalities and nuances about the country’s way of life. For example, Ticos will consider it rude if you point at them or an object. Instead, you should use your whole hand.
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Do you want to know how it is like to live in Costa Rica? For many expats, living in this tropical country seems like a dream come true. Driving and public transportation options allow residents to spend their weekdays in cool, lush rainforests and weekends sunning on the beach. But what are the real pros and cons to living in the Pura Vida (“pure life”) country?
This section of our guide covers what you need to know to live comfortably in Costa Rica. We talk about the practicalities of the cultural norms and taboos so that you do not commit a serious faux pas. One important social norm to keep in mind is that local Ticos are largely non-confrontational. Raising your voice or arguing in public will be greatly looked down upon.
We also include information every resident should have such emergency numbers, information on public holidays, and the address and communication options for the country’s main embassies.
Pros and Cons of Living in Costa Rica
The pros and cons of living in Costa Rica often work like two sides of a coin: every pro can also be a con. For example, Costa Rica’s slogan Pura Vida, meaning “the Pure Life,” symbolizes the country’s laidback, chill lifestyle. When there is a task to be completed, you will often hear local Ticos and expats say, “Mañana,” meaning tomorrow.
While this relaxed vibe may seem like a great benefit of living in Costa Rica, it grows frustrating with time. Expats may experience abnormally long wait times, such as days or weeks, for processes such installing WiFi or restoring your power after an outage. It is also not unheard of for mailed packages to never arrive, and you may find yourself calling several repairmen before one actually shows up.
See below for the other pros and cons you should be aware of before settling in this picturesque country.
Pros of Living in Costa Rica
- There is no denying that Costa Rica is a beautiful country. Whether you prefer to just lounge on the beach and swim in warm waters, or hike in the cool mountains and take a plunge beneath waterfalls, this country has something to entice every adventure seeker.
- Costa Rica is a tropical country with temperatures ranging between 12-27°C (70-81°F) year-round. If you are trying to escape the cold of your home country only seasonally or for the long-haul, this country is ideal for you.
- The crime rate is low. Costa Rica is especially safe for solo female expats, although a standard amount of caution is always advised.
- Costa Rica is one of the best countries in which to retire abroad. This is thanks to its various visas, that allow foreigners to remain in the country without a steady job. You will, however, need to prove adequate savings or proof of a pension.
- It is possible to find expats in nearly every corner of the country. Foreigners who move here will not need to worry about a lack of resources or communal support. To get your network started, consider joining the online San José chapter through InterNations, the largest expat social networking platform.
Cons of Living in Costa Rica
- With the country’s bountiful nature also comes many different types of critters in all shapes and sizes. While this may seem like a pro, expats will need to be wary of aggressive monkeys that are likely to swipe phones, wallets, and even glasses. Scorpions and snakes are also common guests in households, shoes, and even beds. Expats will need to be careful of where they step and always be sure to carry bug spray with them.
- Costa Rica is not just a popular place for expats to settle down; it is also a thriving tourist destination. Tourism opens up more job opportunities for foreigners in the country, but it also leads to higher costs and annoying crowds.
- Although crime in this country is low, foreigners will need to be aware of pick pockets. If you buy a house, but only use it seasonally, you may also experience some minor theft and property damage during the months while you are away.
- The country is small, but bad roads and few major airports can make it hard to travel great distances that often. If you plan to return home a lot or hope to welcome frequent visitors, you may consider living in one of the major cities rather than a small beachside town.
- The hot, humid climate can feel oppressive at times. Expats will feel the need for cool showers more than once a day.
- Rain in this country is often a downpour and floods are not uncommon.
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When moving to a new country, or even traveling to one, it is important to know practical information such as emergency numbers, main airports, and where your country’s embassy may be located. Below, we cover this information for expats arriving in Costa Rica.
If you experience any kind of emergency while in Costa Rica, call 911. Because of the large number of expats in the country, both Spanish and English is available.
Other useful numbers include:
- 118—fire department and paramedics;
All embassies and consulates will be found in the capital of San José. The following is the contact information for some of the main diplomatic missions.
Embassy of the United States of America
Calle 98 Vía 104, Pavas
Embassy of Canada
Oficentro Ejecutivo La Sabana
Detrás de la Contraloría
Apartado 351-1007 Centro Colón
(+506) 2242 4400
Embassy of the United Kingdom
Edificio Centro Colón
Paseo Colón and Streets 38 and 40
(+506) 2258 2025
Embassy of Germany
Edificio Torre la Sabana, 8° piso
300 metros al oeste del ICE
Apartado Postal 4017-1000
(+506) 2290 9091
Costa Rica has two main airports. The most popular is San José International Airport (SJO) in Alajuela. The other is Liberia International Airport (LIR), which is in the northwest city of Liberia.
The following are national holidays celebrated annually in Costa Rica.
|New Year’s Day||January 1st|
|Holy Week||Takes place the week of Easter (includes Good Friday)|
|Juan Santamaria Day||April 11th|
|Labor Day||May 1st|
|Guanacaste Day||July 25th|
|Our Lady of Angels Day||August 2nd|
|Mother’s Day||August 15th (Also called the Assumption of Mary Day)|
|Independence Day||September 15th|
|Army Abolition Day||December 1st|
Culture and Social Etiquette
Knowing the culture and social norms of Costa Rica will not only help you be respectful in your new country, but it will go a long way to making you feel like a part of the local community. Here, we go over the general customs you should be aware of whether you are moving to the Latin country temporarily or for many years.
People in Costa Rica typically shake hands when greeting one another, although a kiss on one cheek is also common. This is normal between opposite genders or woman-to-woman; it is rare between men.
If you speak Spanish, use the formal usted when meeting people for the first time. Do not use vos or tú unless instructed to do so. If you greet people in English, be sure to use titles and surnames.
Ticos are generalized as easy-going, welcoming people. Public confrontations in this country are rare and you should be mindful not to try to start an argument. If you are meeting someone for the first time or talking to a stranger (such as a taxi driver, waiter, store clerk, etc.) refrain from sarcastic banter or being too direct in your speech as this may be interpreted as aggressive behavior.
You May Receive Incorrect Information Often
Costa Rica is a country without an army; a fact that they are proud of. Because of this, confrontation is not common, especially between local Ticos and foreigners. Thus, you may find yourself brushed aside if someone does not understand you or does not have the answer to a question you have asked. For example, it is common to be given vague or incorrect directions just because someone did not want to upset you by telling you they didn’t know the answer. Or, if a store clerk does not understand what item you are asking for, they may simply tell you it is not available.
While Costa Rican business culture calls for punctuality, social settings allow for tardiness. Falling in line with the country’s general relaxed vibe, local Ticos, and resident expats, are known for showing up to events and gatherings late. If you are invited to someone’s home for dinner, aim to be at least 15 minutes late. Chances are, the host will also be running late, and showing up on time could cause them added stress.
What to Wear
One of the easiest ways to spot a foreign man is by the way he dresses. Local Costa Rican men, especially ones living in Central Valley, rarely wear shorts and sandals. Instead, Tico men dress more conservatively with long pants and close-toed shoes.
Women have a bit more freedom with the way they dress. It is common for ladies to wear shorts and tank tops, although some level of modesty is still preferred. Unless you are at the beach, it is not advisable to walk around in cut-off shorts and a bathing suit top.
That being said, snug cloth on women is the norm in this country. You will find that one of the most common ways for Tico women to dress is in tight jeans and high-heels.
Ticos are known to start their days early in the morning. It is not uncommon to see people up and about as early as 6:00. While this does not mean you have to wake at the break of dawn, you should expect a fair amount of commotion early in the morning. If you live in an apartment building or shared housing, you will hear people moving about loudly as if it is midday. Construction and yardwork will also likely start well before 8:00. If you enjoy sleeping in, you may want to make sure you move to a quiet area or invest in ear plugs.
Unlike some countries such as the US or Sweden, Costa Rica does not have a rigid concept of personal space. Crowding someone or lightly nudging them aside is not a rude gesture. If you take public transport in Costa Rica, expect a fair amount of shoving in order to accommodate as many people as possible. If you are in a shop, you can also expect people to lean over you, maybe even leaning into you, in order to grab something.
It is acceptable to bring gifts if you are invited to someone’s home for a meal or to a birthday party. If you are not intimately familiar with the person to whom you are bringing the gift, an item such as chocolate or wine is acceptable. Flowers are also okay, but avoid lilies as these are typically reserved for funerals.
Should I Know Spanish?
While speaking Spanish is not completely mandatory in Costa Rica, it is advisable if you plan to live there for half a year or longer. For the most part, expats should learn polite phrases and the basics of counting. Many Ticos do know some English, but showing that you have tried to learn Spanish will go a long way to helping you adapt to the community and showing locals that you are making an effort to fit in.
Just because Costa Rica is known for beautiful beaches, you should not mistake the country for a raucous beach town. At its heart, this is still a fairly Catholic country with conservative values. Because of this, there are some taboos all expats should keep in mind.
- Topics in opposition to Catholicism should be avoided in public. This includes conversations about abortion, pre-marital sex, and marriage equality.
- Public displays of drunkenness are frowned upon, as is loud, extravagant behavior.
- Do not place your feet on furniture.
- Not maintaining eye contact during a conversation can be seen as rude.
- Do not point at a person, object, or direction with your finger. Instead, use your whole hand.
Driving in Costa Rica
One thing expats should take note of when driving in Costa Rica is that it is common for streets to not have names. Instead, locals give directions using landmarks. Like with many aspects of the country, it is best to have a laidback approach when navigating by car. Try not to be in a rush if you can help it and always having a paper map nearby will ease a lot of stress. It is also worth joining different expat forums and asking local residents for the best navigation apps to use in the country.
Can I Drive in Costa Rica with UK, US, or European License?
Whether you are a tourist or in the process of becoming a resident in Costa Rica, you can drive on a foreign license for your first 90 days (three months) in the country. After that, you will need to exchange your license for a local one. Even if you are in possession of an international driver’s license, this will need to be exchanged for a Costa Rican one after three months.
How to Get a Costa Rican Driving License
If you have an unexpired license, you will need to visit a Consejo de Seguridad Vial (Road and Safety Council) office, also known as COSEVI. You will need to take a written exam in Spanish as well as provide the following documents:
- your valid passport;
- Costa Rican residency card or permit;
- your current driver’s license.
You will need to provide photocopies of each of these documents as well as a Spanish translation. If your name is different from any of these documents because of a marriage or divorce, you will need to bring a certificate proving that.
In addition to these items, you will also be required to bring the results of a recent medical exam (dictamen médico). Many of the clinics that conduct these exams can be found near a COSEVI office.
Rules for Driving in Costa Rica
- You drive on the right-hand side of the road.
- Drivers are required to use indicators when changing lanes or turning but they often do not.
- Dogs and other animals will wander into the road frequently. It is best to always be on alert.
- Car passengers must always wear a seatbelt and motorcycle riders must always wear a helmet.
- If you receive a fine or ticket while driving, never pay this in cash. All road fines are paid through a bank transfer in Costa Rica.
- It is advisable to not drive at night in Costa Rica because streetlights are not common.
The Speed Limit in Costa Rica
- Residential areas: 40 km/h (25 mph)
- Hospitals and schools: 25 km/h (15 mph)
- Highways: 80-100 km/h (50-60 mph)
What is the Legal Driving Age in Costa Rica?
You must be 21 years old to drive in Costa Rica. If you are planning to drive a rental car, most companies will require you to be at least 25.
Renting a Car
Because the Pura Vida country is such a popular tourist destination, it is easy to rent a car. As a foreigner, you will need to provide a valid driver’s license and your passport. If you have Costa Rican residency and have been in the country for more than three months, you will need to have a Costa Rican license.
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Public Transportation in Costa Rica
There are a lot of public transportation options in Costa Rica. Residents and tourists alike can take advantage of public buses, taxis, shuttles, and even domestic flights to navigate around the Latin American country.
Below is a brief summary of how the public transportation system is in Costa Rica.
Types of Public Transportation in Costa Rica
Buses are the cheapest and most convenient way to get around Costa Rica. The convenience, however, has more to do with the plentiful stops rather than speed. Buses in this country tend to avoid major highways and instead move through smaller towns, making frequent pick-ups and drop-offs.
In each town, there are usually several bus operators and more than one terminal. The easiest way to arrange a ride is to ask locals or tourist agents for the nearest bus terminal and book your ticket in person.
Shuttles in Costa Rica will look like slightly larger minivans (or a camper van with seat rows installed). These are similar to buses in that they are frequent and tend to make a lot of stops. However, because of their smaller size, they are typically more comfortable. It may also be possible to get more personalized service, such as being dropped off at a specific location rather than a public stop.
The main shuttle services in Costa Rica are Interbus and Gray Line. Because these vehicles are smaller than buses, it is best to reserve a ticket at least a day or two before you intend to travel.
Taxis are popular whether you are traveling within the same town or wish to drive across the country. Like the shuttle service, these are popular options with expats because they are more comfortable, and you can be driven to an exact location.
Trains in Costa Rica are more similar to commuter trains, largely connecting San José with other nearby towns and cities. These are not as popular with foreigners, although they are a fast and cheap option.
Domestic flights are by far the fastest and most expensive way to travel around the country. In addition to the country’s two main airports, San José and Liberia, there are other smaller airports found in the south and northeast. When heading to a remote area, this is typically the most preferred way to travel.
Domestic airlines in the country are:
- Green Airways;
- Nature Air.
Cost of Public Transport in Costa Rica
Below is a look at some general price ranges for public transit in Costa Rica.
|Shuttle bus (one-way)||20,000-51,000||35-90|
|Public bus (one ride)||570-10,200||1-18|
|Domestic flight (direct)||28,300-56,600||50-100|
|Commuter train (San José to Heredia)||400||0.70|
|Taxi (base fare and per km)||570||1|
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