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10 Tips for How to Live in Costa Rica, Happily. . . Part 1

How to live in Costa Rica, happily ever after: that is the question. For “expats,” transitioning to life in these tropics can be frustrating — in addition to exciting, healthy, and wonder-ful. I hereby offer the following hard-won counsel to those of you who face such ch-ch-changes in latitude. Or did I mean attitude? (despite the question being rhetorical, for the answer see the last paragraph below, starting, “In conclusion…”)

The “secrets” of how to live in Costa Rica (happily ever after) require years of effort to learn on your own. Some of the examples may seem counter-intuitive, but logic in Latin America is sometimes based on a different premise, if not reality. Certain things that you take for granted back home will require a total re-think here. The trick is to avoid frustration to the point of letting the trees blind you to the beauty of the forest. Try to view life through the eyes of the Costa Ricans, and you will be amazed at how coherent and attractive the vision can become.

What do I know about the clash of cultures in this neck of the world? Well, I was born and raised in Panama (not the Canal Zone), and am a citizen of both the US and Panama. Since 1998 I have worked full-time in Costa Rica, and am about to acquire citizenship here. Ten years ago, I married a Costa Rican attorney and notary, with whom I have two “tico-gringo” kids (or is it the other way around?). And prior to my move to Costa Rica, after I practiced trial law in San Francisco for the better part of a decade, I ran jungle tours and lived in the Peruvian Amazon for three and a half years.

Along the way, I have picked up a few life lessons in how to get by in Latin America — and sometimes get ahead — even when some of the familiar rules seem to be askew. Here goes, absolutely in order of importance.

1  To Live in Costa Rica, Learn to Communicate in Spanish

Sorry, but there is no substitute for this one, no short cut. If you plan to squeeze the juice out of life here, you have got to get rid of that all-English “filter.” Your Spanish does not need to be perfect, by any means. But you have to work at it till it’s “good enough.” To be understood, to understand. Otherwise, you will forever miss out on the “tiquismos,” i.e., the nuances of tico life. But the task need not intimidate. Check out this great book on how to learn any language: The Sticky Little Ball, and 9 tips for successfully learning a language . . . by Ron Snell ( Your task to learn passable Spanish segues nicely into number 2, below.

2 Mingle, Assimilate, Congregate, Volunteer, and Join!

Get out there and meet the Costa Ricans. Offer them friendship, and they will do the same. I don’t mean to neglect the expats, by all means hang out with them too. But the point here is to practice your budding Spanish skills every chance you get, and for that to happen you have to got to interact with Costa Ricans. Join schools, NGO’s, churches, etc. Locals will be delighted that you showed up.

And if you follow two simple rules, 1) smile, and 2) don’t be shy, people will not resent your broken Spanish but rather admire you for your efforts. Which leads in turn to the next number, 3, below.

3 Treat The Costa Ricans With Utmost Courtesy

This has come as a shock to more than one foreigner, but you have to treat the Costa Ricans with “kid gloves.” As a rule, they are very sensitive to, and put off by, overt displays of anger. They shun confrontation. As a technique to get what you want, it always backfires. If you raise your voice, or loudly dress them down, they will typically turn away and not respond, except by taking off. I lost some excellent workers once when I spoke forcefully to them, as I was accustomed to doing with legal staff back home. They hung their heads, then just melted away, leaving two good jobs hanging in the wet air — and their boss astonished.

For officials, the only approach that works is heaps of courtesy, good humor, and patience. As you would expect anywhere in the world, if you try getting tough with a traffic officer, he or she will deflect the same right back ‘atcha, and you will pay. As for employees, you must speak very carefully to them, or risk being regarded as a bully, or worse.

4 Watch Your Own Back, ‘Cause Nobody Else Is

This is NOT a police state. That’s good, right? Maybe so. But if the government is not “watching your back” (or your emails), it also means you cannot just rely on calling 9-1-1- in an emergency.  Cops can take an hour to get to our house from the nearest station, which is a mile away.  Nor can you necessarily assume that an ambulance will zip to your house, speaking specifically of the rural areas along the Pacific Coast south of Quepos.

The same would apply to firemen. I know. One night I had to put my neighbor’s fire out with my garden hose, by linking every hose I could find and running down there at 10 PM. The need for me to take action became painfully apparent after the firetruck couldn’t make it up our hill, despite having taken an hour to arrive from San Isidro. So they sent up Plan B, a tiny 4 wheel drive truck. It finally made it up, but because there were no hydrants, it quickly depleted its tank water.  Which was when yours truly took over.  No big deal, and I would think this neighbor would have done for me.

You must also assume far more personal control of many other aspects of how to live in Costa Rica (happily ever after), including health. Detoxify, eat well, exercise, think positive, and give back all that you can, these are the well known paths to physical and mental strength.  And living here makes them all easy to do.  Notice, too, that Costa Ricans are far less medicated than Americans, and yet they live longer.  Could the ticos be on to something?  Medical care here is pretty good, ranked above the US health care system — but isn’t it better to prevent?

Ditto as to the legal system.  Try to avoid getting ensnared in it, as you would attempt to ward off a stroke. And don’t think that you are going to get rich suing anybody.  I noticed right away when I started coming to Costa Rica that being a victim does not pay.  Nobody in these parts thinks much of victims.  They are not lionized, venerated, or celebrated by national talk shows, nor do they get to write best-sellers about how they are abused members of a special minority, or over-taxed members of an over-scrutinized majority, or, well — the list is endless.

But down here in Costa Rica, you’re kind of on your own. If you fall into a hole in front of my office, good luck suing the complex, the town, the Municipality, or me.  Rather, your best bet would be to get some medical attention, and next time watch your step.

5 Slow Down

You’ve heard this a thousand times but here is one of the better examples. My business partner Brice came home fuming one day because a store owner told him he would no longer stock an item that the store kept selling out of, and that Brice was finding hard to get. The owner told him “it was too much trouble” to keep ordering that product. Brice couldn’t believe it. How could the guy be so freakin’ lazy? Wasn’t he in business to sell? I agreed with Brice when he told me the story. This was in 1998, when we had recently arrived in Costa Rica to live full time and start Land Assurance.

It took me about ten years to finally “get it.” One day it dawned on me that the owner preferred, as in, made a conscious choice, to make a little less money by not having to deal with the hassle of stocking the item in question. What was so wrong with that? He didn’t want to be Sam Walton. If you remove the premise, namely, that all anyone works for is to “get ahead,” then the owner’s actions seem perfectly understandable: he wanted to enjoy his life. Come to think of it, didn’t a lot of us move down here for pretty much the same reason?

See the next article for Part 2 of “10 Tips on How to Live in Costa Rica, Happily  . . .”

copyright 2015 by Tim Woodruff