What is it like to live in Central America?

I travel a lot, and whenever I mention that I live in Central America, the one question I am almost always asked is… What is it like to live there?   The answer is different for each country, because they are in fact, different countries.  The three countries that I know the best are, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua.  They have many similar aspects, like a common language, and roughly similar cultures, but as much as they are similar, they each have cultural differences.

I live in Costa Rica, and I have actually lost track of how many times I have been asked what is like to live there.   It is often asked by people who are thinking about the possibility of making the move here from their native country.  The list of things to consider is very long. Over time I will try to address the most important issues in my blogs, but for now, lets consider some of the items on the top of the list.

Of the three countries, (Costa Rica – Panama – Nicaragua), Costa Rica is the most expensive. The price of some items in Costa Rica is even more expensive than in the USA, but some things are less expensive, so your wants and needs will dictate what it takes for you to live in Costa Rica. However, if one has a decent retirement package, they can live very well in Costa Rica. I like to use a rule of thumb comparison chart to show the difference in the cost of living in each country.

Below is my unscientific comparison chart that shows the cost of living in each of  the three countries as compared to the USA.  It  is ONLY a rough comparison.

If you consider a basket of goods and services, that in the USA costs an exact $1000, then here is the cost comparison for that same basket of goods and services in:

   Panama:     $675
Nicaragua:    $550
Costa Rica: $1,100

YES, Costa Rica is now (on average) more expensive than the USA. Naturally, your life style could alter my comparison chart up or down, and when one factors in the price of a house, all of the countries could be much cheaper.  However, if you want to live just like you did in the USA, or Canada etc., it could cost you even more than my chart suggests. Happily the current monetary exchange rate between the USA and Costa Rica gives you a net gain of about $13 to $20 per $100 exchanged. Of course, the banks have found ways to reduce that, so it is not like the good old days.  As for you Canadians, well you just don’t get the same deal. Sorry aboot that.

Economy:

The TV in the USA in the 1950’s and 60’s gave us the notion that all the people living south of the Rio Grande are riding donkeys wearing big sombreros. (The people not the donkeys were wearing the sombreros.) That is the picture that so many people, me included, once had of Mexico etc. Those days are long gone, but for some folks, the mental picture still exists. Now the Internet, jet travel, and cellular phones have erased many of the differences between the various cultures that once existed.  The world is becoming much more homogenized.  Costa Rica has some poor people, but they also have a well established *middle class. They also have a relatively high number of rich people, and some very rich people.

*THE RECENT WORLD-WIDE VIRUS PANDEMIC HAS ALTERED THE STATUS OF THE MIDDLE CLASS IN COSTA RICA.  (JULY 2020)

Economy Part II:

One of the problems that one must face when living in Costa Rica, is dealing with the customs agency called the Aduana. I am happy to report that all my dealings with them have, so far, been pleasant, but that is often not the case. but I have never imported anything of great value. In addition to paying substantial import taxes, sometimes as high as 100%, one often endures a lengthy wait for their merchandise. Sadly, this is also true in Panama and Nicaragua as well. The taxes on the importation of materials and goods are how they generate a sizable amount of cash for their economies.

Tourism:

While Nicaragua and Panama were both involved in wars, and/or living life under a dictator, Costa Rica was busy developing a very strong, and well established, *tourist industry. Today, Nicaragua, and Panama are catching up, but I believe that it is fair to say that Costa Rica is, for now, still the leader in Central American tourism. The thing to remember is that Costa Rica does tourism very well, and it is an incredible place of great natural   beauty in which to vacation.

Language:

Would you consider learning to speak Spanish? They speak Spanish in Costa Rica, and in general practice, they DO NOT have PRESS ONE FOR ENGLISH in their phone systems. The good news is, there are signs this is changing, and many businesses now have English speaking people on their staffs. The tourist industry is the clear exception. They speak English, and in many cases, French, and German as well, and who knows what else, but the folks in street, in the corner store, and in many restaurants, only speak Spanish.

Culture:

The hardest part of integrating into a new culture is actually learning the culture. It is very important to understand a culture, and you may find that after the initial exposure, you may not like it. Latin America has a distinct culture, but it is not like the rich cultures of Europe, or Asia.  What was cute and quaint the first year that you live there, may not have the same feel the second, or the third time around.  Nevertheless, it is probably more important to learn the culture than to learn the language. The typical Latin American person is quite tolerant and easy going, but as some people discover, it is possible to accidentally offend someone here and usually hard to make amends. From day one, I focused on the culture, so I have never had a problem.  The food news is that… If they can deal with me without problem, I suspect that you will have no problem when you come here..

Medical:

The medical system in Costa Rica is a two tier system. There is the public, socialized medicine, and  private hospitals that are of US quality, or better. By the way, that holds true in Panama as well, and most health insurance costs about 1/10th of what you experience in the USA. Isn’t that a nice surprise. In my experience I encountered a number of doctors who speak English. In fact, they all seem to speak English, and many are board certified in the USA.  The flight time from Florida to San Jose, Costa Rica is two and a half hours or less.  Accordingly, there are medical specialists that commute from the USA on a somewhat regular basis.

Working:

Most of the people looking to immigrate to another country are retired, but what if you want to work in Costa Rica.  I can sum it up in one word. Forget it. Wait that’s two words. You simply do not have the right to work here. There are many avenues of investment available to you here that will allow you to “work,” and I know several people that work using the Internet. That is perfect.  You could start your own company, or open a branch of an existing company from another country, such as the USA, that is okay as well, but to simply work in Costa Rica–No way José. Even if it were easy to work here, the average wage is about $14 to $20 a day.

Schools:

Costa Rica has good schools, especially in the primary grades. They also have Universities, but they are not as well known for their higher education as they are for their basic education. Many US universities have exchange programs with Costa Rica. A student could go quite high in the educational ranks if they were so motivated.

Crime:

It is important that I tell you that crime has been on the rise ever since I got here, but I hasten to add that I am not the problem. The problem is that terrible four letter word… DRUGSCosta Rica has for years long been a way station in the transportation of drugs, but increasingly the involvement has expanded, and illegal drugs are now staying in country.  Not long ago, two men were shot to death gangland style within a couple of blocks of my house.  They were separate incidences, but in both cases it was a drug deal gone sour.  The poverty in this part of the world lures many young men and women into a life in the drug world. The poverty in Central America is, in some cases, extreme, and not pretty, so I have a hard time blaming them for their choices, but a life dealing drugs is a life filled with traps and unintended consequences.  After the last execution, a mother living in the next bock had to tell her four-year-old daughter that daddy is not coming home anymore.  That is sad no matter where one lives.

Real Estate:

Real estate transactions in Costa Rica are in many ways similar to the USA, where I am from, but like other things they do have some significant and important differences.  It is a mixed bag.  Some good deals clearly exist, but some not so good deals await the new arrivals from the USA or Canada.  In the past there was also the specter of buying a nice piece of paradise only to find out later that you don’t actually own it. Those days are all but gone, because now there are American style title companies that will guarantee your purchase, but one still must be aware of the traps.

Often the best ways to find deals are by word of mouth.  The private offerings are usually the best. That is how most of the locals buy land or houses.  But what if you are not a local? That does present a small problem. If you only look at the openly advertised properties you might not find a really great deal.  I am not in the land, or house selling business, but because of my 28 years here, and the fact that I was both a traditional tour guide, and what is called a relocation guide, I seem to hear about many special properties every week. I hasten to stress that I am not in the real estate business, but if you are looking for something, I might know of an available option.

Legal Issues:

It is important to understand that the laws of each country differ. You may be the CEO of your own thriving enterprise in the USA, but you are a babe in the woods when it comes to legal and cultural matters in Latin America. Therefore, having a good attorney, or using a good consultant to keep you out of hot water long enough for you to learn the ropes, is paramount. The very worst place to find a lawyer in Latin America is in the phone book under Attorneys-Are-Us. There are some really good attorneys in Costa Rica, and Panama, and many that, well, let me put it this way, are not capable of representing you, or your interests. This is one area where I am happy to assist someone who is looking for a trustworthy attorney. When you come to Latin America, if you do nothing else right, at least get a good attorney. From then on, things will seem to always work out well for you.

Weather:

Depending on where you live now, you might not like the following. I am writing this in mid April and I am seeing things on the weather channel that I just don’t believe. I grew-up in the Midwest of the USA—Southern Michigan to be exact. As far as I can remember, April was springtime. The trees were budding with new leaves, and colorful flowers were popping out of the ground everywhere. Apparently, someone changed the deal. As I write this in Mid April, snow storms are happening in the Midwest, and the northern tier states–even all the way down to some southern states. In San Jose, Costa Rica at 3,500 feet elevation the temps were in the low to mid 80’s. However, down the mountain at sea level, it was in the mid 90’s with almost 100% humidity, It almost never gets hotter than that because nature gave Costa Rica a self regulating temperature apparatus. When the temps get to about 94, the rain showers start and that cools things down.

You may have noticed that I said that I live in the mountains. Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama are geographically what they call an isthmus. There is a similar mountain range that runs the length of the respective countries, which splits them into an Atlantic side, and a Pacific side. If one wants to live in the tropical part of the tropics, then one just need live at sea level. If one prefers a cooler climate, then a location in the mountains is the ticket. There are some locations in Costa Rica where people wear winter coats all of the year. I hasten to add that I don’t live in any of those places.  However, my point is, you can dial in your weather, and for ten months have fantastic weather. The other two months are not so bad either, but rain predominates the weather in those two months.  Like many long term residents, I have come to enjoy the freshness of the rainy season. It is however, not the monsoon season.  it simply means that is when it can rain.

There is more to living in a new country, no matter where that country is located. You can learn many facts from the Internet, but you can never learn what boots on the ground will teach you.  At the end of the day, just  being here will make for a pleasant experience.

There are many ways to experience the adventure of a new country, but I feel that the best way is to come on vacation first and see for yourself what fits your dream. I am willing to bet that there is something in Costa Rica will complete your dream.

In the event you encounter something on the Internet about a place that interests you, and you want a personal perspective, I will be happy to share what I know. I am not a travel agent, but I will be happy to give you my perspective since I have probably been where you want to go.  I may even have a humorous story about the time that I… Ah Never mind.

–Jim