Tips to Living in Costa Rica: Lessons Learned After 8 Years
Living in Costa Rica, I’ve gotten used to hearing my last name mispronounced. It’s “Mason,” but for some reason Ticos want to pronounce it like I’m a mass-murdering cult leader.
I was sitting in a waiting room looking forward to finding out whether my residency had been approved when a man came out and said, “Mary Manson. Mary Manson.” At first this didn’t even register with me. But I finally figured out who they were talking about, and I marched inside an office to hear the happy news that my residency was approved.
Adjusting to a few harmless errors is part of the charm in moving to a new country. What’s not quite as charming are the more challenging snags that one learns to surmount in everyday life. I offer the following suggestions, compiled during the eight years I’ve lived in Costa Rica, as tips to fine-tune your life as you settle into your new homeland.
Tips for living in Costa Rica
When you’re living in Costa Rica, priority one is to acquire some rudimentary Spanish. One benefit is that learning a new language increases cognitive abilities and the capacity to focus. Online and private lessons abound throughout Costa Rica. Participating in Spanish immersion by living with a family or taking a class with your peers can help. So can watching Spanish television, with or without subtitles.
Before going on any errand, I prepare a printout in Spanish of the essential information required to complete the task. I hand the taxi driver directions to my destination, and I give the bank teller written instructions about the transaction I wish to make. I practice speaking the instructions before I go.
If you’re new to Costa Rica, and to the Spanish language, I suggest you download apps on your phone that provide immediate translations, such as SayHi or iTranslate Voice, which offers “magical voice to voice translation.” Google Translate mixes the feminine and masculine, resulting in some odd conversations, but will suffice. I prefer the DeepL Translator. Many others practice Spanish on the free DuoLingo program.
Learn some idioms and amusing Costa Rican phrases beyond the obvious “pura vida” that punctuates most conversations. When I first arrived, I was baffled by folks on the street who as they walked towards me were telling me goodbye. Just as the word “goodbye” is shortened from “God be with you,” “adios” (“to God”) is a shortened blessing used as a greeting.
Another quizzical greeting shouted at a gate or door is “Upe.” Some claim it is a shortened form of “nuestra señora de Guadalupe,” evoking a patron saint. When you hear “Upe,” it’s the equivalent of someone knocking at your door.
Before living in Costa Rica, check with your bank in your home country about processes and fees for transferring your money to a foreign country. If you receive Social Security benefits or a pension, thoroughly explore the deposit options and create a streamlined process to gain access to your money in Costa Rica. There are several blogs filled with the ins and outs of this process.
A word of warning: ATMs here have occasionally been known to devour debit and credit cards. Learn to remove your card immediately after a transaction or you may lose it to the machine. Banks use this procedure as a safety feature to protect those who forget to recover their card. Typically, the card will be retrieved by those who service the machines and will be delivered to the bank. It’s not a bad idea to get a photocopy of your card made to facilitate its recovery from the bank.
Develop a technique for leaving your house, taking everything you need. My exits are now automatic. House keys, loose colones and my gate opener are assigned to pockets. In my purse is my wallet, which holds colones in various denominations, since large bills are sometimes difficult to change. My billfold also contains credit cards, my residency card, and a laminated 3×5 card that contains a snapshot of my life. My name is printed at the top, and below is my address in Spanish, P.O. box, cell and house phone numbers, and email address. The card saves me time. English names and cursive writing are difficult for Ticos to decipher.
Like most Costa Rican addresses, mine requires a paragraph and does not include a street name or house number. My address gives the position of my house in relation to a popular restaurant and an oxcart monument. Although the country is slowly creating street signs (my town actually has a Zero Street), often a location is described by how many meters away from some landmark it is, and in which direction. Some landmarks have long ago disappeared, such as the famous Coca-Cola bus station in San José, named after a factory that no longer exists.
You’ll learn to carry an umbrella here in the rainy season, particularly in the afternoon. You’ll need a hat and sunglasses in the dry season. Sunblock is recommended even on shady days, since skin cancer is on the rise in Costa Rica.
Clothes dryers are a major drain on electricity, so here you learn to hang out your laundry early in the morning and retrieve it before afternoon showers.
Residency allows you to avoid having to leave the country every 90 days to renew your visa. If you’re considering seeking residency status in Costa Rica, explore the process before arriving. It’s much easier to obtain the documents you need, and get the all-important apostille stamp, on your home turf before living in Costa Rica. Consult with a good lawyer or with immigration services such as Outlier Legal Services.
Find a reliable business to handle packages sent from your country that you order online or have sent to you by friends. A local company I use maintains a warehouse in Florida that receives packages that are then forwarded to Costa Rica. For a fee, this business assumes the burden of customs and delivery. Ask locals about the method they use for sending and receiving packages.
Develop among your friends a pipeline to get essentials and even non-essentials from your country. Tico Sherpa is a private FaceBook blog where members help one another in procuring items. Share a container when moving with someone who has engaged a mover.
Although you can browse upscale grocery stores and perhaps find your favorite cake mix or salad dressing, many hometown brands will not be available. Customs authorities prohibit many food items, but you can transport many packaged foods, cans and if you dare, jars in suitcases.
If you live at a higher altitude, food can take longer to cook. I have a conversion chart held up by a magnet on my refrigerator so I can immediately see that 180 Celsius is 350 Fahrenheit. Keep an oven thermometer inside your oven to determine the accuracy of temperatures.
I store eggs on my counter, out of the sun, and so far I’ve avoided salmonella. Eggs are typically not refrigerated here. In Canada and the United States, the process of cleaning and spraying eggs leads to a need for refrigeration.
Another tip: Making deviled eggs here is a challenge because the yokes are near the bottom and close to the shell.
Many Ticos do not wash dishes in hot water. Cold water suffices with products like Axion, a cold water detergent that could degrease a McDonald’s fryer.
Moving abroad can feel like you’re the new kid in school. The good news is that you will be joining others who will be eager to welcome you to the lifestyle they have chosen. Living abroad can be a common bond between you.
That said, friendships everywhere wax and wane. It can be like you are given a deck of friends at the beginning, often based on the commonality of living in Costa Rica, coming from the same region or some other random factor. You may find that in a year or two you will re-deal the deck and circulate with a different group of friends.
Socializing is enhanced by joining a group that relishes whatever activity excites you. Options abound, such as birdwatching, surfing, bicycling, meditation, book clubs, bridge or dining out. Shared interests often lead to lasting friendships.
Books often disintegrate in the tropics. Buy a Kindle or Nook for reading.
Bring greeting cards with you. Ticos rarely exchange cards. The ones available are mostly religious and oddly, often do not have glue on the envelope. Those that do often glue themselves shut, so store in a dry place.
If you like gardening, you may have to learn some new techniques. Visit the glorious nurseries and buy exotic, tropical plants, especially orchids and bromeliads. Don’t overwater in the dry season, allowing plants to continue their cycle of growth. If you hire a gardener, observe how the locals nurture and enhance the natural growth cycle.
For your medical needs, investigate some of the excellent private hospitals that have skilled staff and state-of-the-art emergency facilities. You’ll find the pharmacies here efficient and reliable. Some have a medical person on staff who is able to give flu shots and can answer your health questions in English.
Pills are dispensed in small flat packets, requiring you to plan ahead if you are on blood pressure or other meds. Bring an empty box to show the pharmacist the exact dosage and name of a medication for automatic refills of non-prescription meds. You can actually buy just one aspirin here, or even one Band-aid.
My recommendation for all nomads following their bliss is to develop a list of tips. Soon, you’ll be advising others on what you’ve learned during this life journey.