Travel

The Pros & Cons of Living in Costa Rica (According to a Horrible Person)

February 11, 2023

Turns out, even city-loving curmudgeons can love Costa Rica—so long as you don’t poison the neighbor’s dog.

Ever daydream about just selling it all and going to live in Costa Rica / invest in Costa Rica / buy property in Costa Rica / sweat in Costa Rica while drinking a tropical cocktail that has way too much sour mix? PERFECT! You’re in the right spot. I’ll hold the sour.

In case we haven’t been internet friends since 2009 (weird?!), I’m Ash, and I’ve had a home base in Costa Rica since 47,000 years ago—a cozy little mini villa overlooking the ocean that is a pretty fine spot, despite wanting to tranquilize the neighbor’s dog—which is absolutely a euphemism.

I want to do much worse things to that dog.

Anyway, I’m a real dislikeable pissbaby—and that’s precisely why I have no business being in a Central American rainforest. Do you know how weird it is to wear velvet here? To hide a stomach pooch here? To walk so much as five steps without chafing your legs??? Alas, you’ve got people walking around in sports bras like they’re actual deities—and, me? Well, call me when you can speak at a decibel higher than .0000004.

However, a decade ago I shacked up with The Tall Costa Rican (if you’ve read the book, you know), and so the place has grown on me—sort of like the mold that grows at NASCAR speeds in the shower. I’m still trying to figure out how to outsmart the criminal mastermind that is humidity, but since I’m not your typical Costa Rican transplant—I call Philly home and London’s my favorite place on earth—I thought it might be fun to do a pros/cons list of living in Costa Rica if you’re a city-ish curmudgeon like me who squirms at the idea of being around wholesome, shiny people all day who read your energy and do things to your chakras.

Allow me to introduce you to:

A City Curmudgeon’s Pros & Cons to Living in Costa Rica

Living in Costa Rica image of a deck with a tropical plant and chair

PROS OF LIVING IN COSTA RICA

  • Some of the most *SERIOUSLY* friendly people in the world.
    The difference is striking. Anytime we return to Costa Rica—especially if we’re coming from Europe—I think to myself, “Wow, the people here are really so much nicer.” And, they are—and, not in a simpleton kind of way, where “nice” is a function of “sheltered,” like I experienced in some parts of the midwest, but rather, Costa Rican niceness is actually something else: warmth. I tend to think that being a warm, approachable person is a sign of emotional intelligence, and Costa Ricans have it in spades. I can also vouch that this is not because I’m a tourist and I’m interacting mainly with service-industry folks who are paid to be nice to me. Rather, I hear the way the person at the IRS responds to C over the phone. I hear the way he handles different situations with his own people. I see the way that Costa Ricans behave among each other. And, of course, by being a participant observer for almost twenty years, I have been endlessly privy to the authentic culture of Costa Rica, and the overall disposition of its people. I’m telling you: this is a bunch who will literally stick their head out the window and politely ask if they can cut in front of you in traffic…and, it works every time! (C has repeatedly tried to make me do this in other places, and I flatly refuse. I, on the other hand, am a horrible person.)
  • You will feel like you belong, wherever you go.
    There’s a strong sense of community here, and it’s not exclusionary. Visit a restaurant twice? They’ll know your order and call you by name and give you a “mop,” which is the closed-fist Costa Rican version of a high-five. Doesn’t matter if you’re a foreigner. Doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, straight, gay, unsure, vegan, meat-happy, into yoga or into booze. This, more than anything, is why I suspect so many people love Costa Rica…and keep coming back, year after year: you will mean something here. You will know people. They will know you. You will feel seen. You will feel important. You will feel like you are a part of something. You will feel like you truly have a community—and, that goes for expats and nomads, too. You can quickly become a part of the gang, and that gang is a gorgeous mix between foreigners and locals alike. You’ll know where everyone meets for sunset on Tuesdays. You’ll know where everyone sits at the beach on Sundays. You’ll know everyone’s car. You’ll know everyone’s story. You’ll know where they live, and you can call them anytime for help. You’ll walk in somewhere and be greeted by 20 people, all thrilled to see you. Cheek kisses then ensue—this is a cultural norm that extends to all people living here. It’s casual. It’s easy. And, it’s a sure thing: you won’t come here and be alone.
  • Lots of things are surprisingly faster and easier.
    It never fails to amaze me that I could have a nail in my tire and just pull up to a guy and get it fixed in five minutes flat, no problem. Or, that I can go over to the local clinic and just ask for whatever bloodwork I want, and have results in two hours. Or, that I can go over to the nursery, pick out a few shrubs, and then they’ll plant them in a pot for me, with soil, and then send them right over to our place in a truck—no extra charge. Another fun one? Calling a taxi to pick up whatever you need: take-out, milk, condoms. Not kidding. You know the taxi drivers here, and you can call ’em for instant delivery. Not to mention, when we decided to package and sell coffee as an experiment, all it took to get it into the local market was a phone call. With business, there are far less barriers to entry—and far more opportunity, since the country could benefit from lots of ideas. Plenty here is easier than you’d expect (even though we’ll get to what’s hard in a minute!)
  • So much fresh produce, fruits, vegetables.
    You literally haven’t tasted a pineapple unless you’ve been to Costa Rica. We pick mangoes, and papayas, and bananas right off some trees outside—and our place is in town. 😂 Limes at the supermarket has just been brought in from the owner’s farm. (And there are at least 3 variations.) You can go to the vanilla farm a few miles away and get fresh spices. The Friday market brings in all of the gorgeous produce from the farmers in the mountains, where it’s cooler. Eggs are fresh. Lettuce is crisp. And, you never feel like you’re guzzling pesticides. Even friends have commented that they felt like the chicken tasted better; everything more fresh.
  • The birds! The birds!
    I know that becoming a bird watcher is a rite of passage into a senior living home, but oh my god. We own multiple pairs of binoculars because there are PRACTICALLY PTERODACTYLS FLYING AROUND OUTSIDE. There are pigeons that look like they got into a pot of turquoise eye shadow. Hummingbirds buzzing around in the upright position, making you somehow feel like there’s hope in the world. And look, a Goldfinch! At least, that’s the kind of thing that someone who knows nothing about birds would say about a bright yellow bird, about as big—and as cute—as the hummingbird. Actually, maybe that’s a canary? I should probably look these things up. Then, just as I think I’m getting the grand bird buffet on my doorstep, the “papa de los tomates” flies by, which is one of my favorite Costa Rican sayings. Directly translated, it means “father of the tomatoes,” which is absolutely a future movie title, but it’s used to mean “head honcho; big daddy mack.” You’d say it when referring to, I dunno, Al Pacino in The Godfather. Or, like, Superman, since he seems to be el papa de los superheroes. And, you also say it when two Scarlet Macaws thunder by. Picture a colorful parrot, and then supersize it. These are the pterodactyls, because trust me when I say: when you hear one fly by, you think you’re in goddamn Jurassic park. (They make the Toucans look like nobodies.)
  • God, do I really need to bring up the ocean?
    I guess I need to bring up the ocean. It’s a pretty big selling point, even though I am not a “beach person.” I’m just not. Every time I go, I’m like, “oh yeah, I guess this is nice….I should do this more often.” And then I do not do it more often, because #heat #humidity #sweat #sun. BUT HERE’S THE THING: the beaches here are the most unreal beaches, not because the water is crystal clear (it’s not, it’s more like a royal turquoise), but because of the environmental laws that have prevented construction on the beaches. Ergo, beaches are surrounded by rainforest, flora, fauna, mountains, and the collision of bright blue sky with dark green leaves is one of my favorite things. The views here are some of the most stunning in the world.
  • I should also mention the frigging animals.
    The fact is, no matter how many years you’ve been here, you never *don’t* stop to watch a troop of monkeys swing by. Somehow, the magic in that never fades. There are three kinds of monkeys in Costa Rica, and sometimes you see all three in the same day. The best time to see ’em? What I call “The Witching Hour,” right around 4:30pm: an hour before the sun sets. We often go for walks at that hour, (a) Because it’s no longer blazing hot, and (b) It’s The Witching Hour! Beyond monkeys, there are also tons of sloths hanging around—sometimes with their babies hanging onto ’em for dear life—and these are common to see, too.
Living in Costa Rica image of palm trees looking toward sky

CONS OF LIVING IN COSTA RICA

  • I spent $2,766.20 on import fees last year.
    Oh, you think I stop shopping online just because I happen to be in a Central American rainforest???? HA! When we’re at the villa, we import a lot. It’s not necessary by any means, but there are certain creature comforts I’m willing to pay good money for. For example, Our Place pans. And Ritual zero-proof gin alternative. And Rifle Paper Company fabrics that we take to the local seamstress and have her spin into a new chair. And don’t forget the electric fireplace TV console I completely imported, despite weighing a ton, because I am a person who needs coziness (even though, god forbid, we’d never turn the heat on. 😂)
  • Costa Rica lacks cosmopolitanism.
    This is my biggest gripe. I want to surround myself with writers, and thinkers, and do-ers, and this is not a place where people come to do things. They come to stop doing things. They come to take it easy, relax, enjoy “the pure life.” I don’t relate to most of the people who come here, and I’ve found it difficult to forge social ties that aren’t centered around “let’s go to the beach and have a beer.” That said, Costa Rica is worldly, by which I mean the tourists that come are interesting people from all over the world. As a result, you find excellent hotels and restaurants with phenomenal menus and world-class experiences. That is sanity.
  • Unless you’re rappelling down a cliff, there’s not much to do.
    It’s an adventure-lovers paradise, but this means that the majority of activities are centered around ziplining, white-water rafting, waterfall-jumping, skydiving, ATV-riding, surfing, river bathing, etc. If you’re a city person, you’re going to get bored…quick. My saving grace has always been the fact that I’m a writer, and I work online: the combination of these two things gives me plenty to do, and keep myself perfectly happy and busy. In fact, one of the reasons I like our time in Costa Rica is because I can come here and focus when I need to. But, other than that? Your options are: outdoor activities during the day, and going to eat at a restaurant at night. Period. (Unless you live in the capital, but most transplants do not, as it’s an industrial, car-dependent city that lacks infrastructure and charm.)
  • The humidity is for real.
    People in America’s deep south think they know humidity? PLEASE. I’d bet my imported fireplace that Costa Rica will give ’em a nasty run for their money. You can’t do your hair here, because the minute you step outside, you will be sweating. Which basically means you need to look like an unpolished beach rat every day of your life—a look I’m not exactly a fan of. Speaking of which…
  • Dressing up is not a thing.
    This seems superficial. It is not. You don’t realize how much of your identity is in your clothing; your ability to express yourself; to show off your personal style. That all goes out the door here, first and foremost, because your wardrobe is now limited to “things that I’m going to sweat the least in.” Bye-bye blazers! Bye-bye jeans! Bye-bye booties! Bye-bye trench coats! You’re stuck with the most basic of summer attire, which often means—ugh—flip flops and tee-shirts. 🤢 Secondly, you’d look like a real bozo wearing heels, so don’t even think about that. There are no sidewalks, and you’re walking on dirt paths, usually up the side of a mountain. Thirdly, in order to source cute new things in the first place, you either need to take a plane to get to the nearest mall, drive 3 hours, or import your clothes like I do. I suppose you save money this way, from having your access cut off, but unless you’re already someone who lives in shorts and a tank top, prepare to feel like you have sawed off your own head once your identity goes into a blender and you wake up like it’s Groundhog Day to put on another pair of sensible, breathable undies.
  • Oh, and living in Costa Rica is not as cheap as most people think.
    Costs end up being comparable to living in the United States—at least, if you’re in a tourist town like we are, which is pretty much the only place a city person will want to be (anything else and you’re in the mountains far away from civilization). While some things are cheaper (doctor’s visits or dining out), it evens out by all that is significantly more expensive. For example, a BIGGIE is the cost of cars here: they cost almost double what they do in the states, so even an unremarkable 4-cylinder Hyundai SUV can cost $45,000. If you try and import a vehicle, you’re subject to an import tax that’s going to make your eyeballs bleed. (Anything 5 years old or newer is taxed at 50% of the value; anything older than 5 years is 70%!) Finding housing is difficult, because so many of the gorgeous homes here are rented out weekly to tourists for $3,000 – $5,000 a week. That means that you’re going to have to lower your standard of expectations for a home—there are plenty of “tico-style” houses you can rent, but they likely won’t match your usual aesthetic. (This is why lots of people buy a lot & build.) Sometimes, we pay $10 for a little bunch of asparagus, because it has to be imported. Ditto the $18 we have paid for a pack of deli sliced turkey. (I KNOW.) But, hey, eggs are dirt cheap. And a domestic beer still costs $2. And a gorgeous meal for two in a high-end restaurant with a bottle of wine will still be $75 instead of $200. TRADE-OFFS, AM I RIGHT?
  • Last but not least…there are cockroaches the size of a mouse.
    Okay, so not as big as a mouse, but you definitely chase after them the same way (and shriek). I won’t beat around the pineapple bush: they’re extra, extra jumbo—the size of two pinky fingers put together—and this, along with the humidity, ranks up there as “the #1 thing I’d change about Costa Rica if given a magic wand.” Unlike city roaches, which are small and operate military-sized armies in your walls OR WHATEVER THOSE CREEPS DO, these are jungle roaches, which on the plus side means that even though they’re bigger than your grandmother’s tit, they’re also much more random and dopey. You’ll see one mayyyybe once a month, or once every couple of weeks, wandering around on the floor—and that is when you sprint for the bug spray and really show your true colors as the murderer you are. While I do have recurring nightmares that I’m going to wake up and find one in my mouth, this is actually not something to worry about (she tells herself, calmly): it’s just a fact of life. (And you’ll rarely see in hotels, unless you’re in an ecotourism resort in the jungle.) Fortunately, I’ve found that the combination of: (a) Having an exterminator come monthly to spray; (b) Sealing up any holes to the outside through cables or air conditioning; and (c) Closing your bathroom sink drains and your kitchen drains at night—you’ll barely know they’re a thing. Am I that person really going around closing my drains at night though? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT, BUB. Am I also the person who refuses to stumble into the bathroom at night without the light on my iPhone shining the way JUST IN CASE??? hahahahahahahahahahahha, ask me what other weird OCD I’ve developed since living here. 😂
Living in Costa Rica image of woman walking on beach

FINAL VERDICT

Yes, even city curmudgeons can love living in Costa Rica, but come in sprints, bring your sense of humor, and plan on having another place where you can regularly escape to.

I tend to travel in 3-month cycles: three months in Central/South America, three months in Europe, three months in New England, etc. I’ve found that this pattern works well because it gives me the best of ALL worlds in a way that’s sustainable and slow-paced and lovely and nourishing…without ever letting anything get stale.

Plus, I never get pushed over the edge to actually tranquilize the neighbor’s dog—which should definitely go in the “good” column, and make me less of a dislikeable pissbaby. Am I going to heaven yet? Probably not, but I tell ya—sometimes when I watch those damn birds, even I find myself wondering if I’m already there.


After that fun-filled summary, do you still have the proverbial bug up your butt to come down to Costa Rica and try it out for a while—but sorting through how to make it work financially? Or what you would do for work? Or how to work remotely? Check out Selfish School, my course that teaches you how to earn $250K/year from anywhere in the world 🌎, or Rookie School, my course that teaches you how to do life in Costa Rica. 🇨🇷

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