What is it like to live in Central America?

When I announce that I live in Central America, the one question I am almost always asked is… What is it like to live there?  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 are also distinct from each other. The answer is different for each country because they are different countries.

I have actually lost track of how many times I have been asked what is like to live in Costa Rica. It is a difficult question to answer, because 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 almost everything in Costa Rica is more expensive than in the USA. There are several reasons for that, but 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 chart to show the cost of living in the three countries as compared to the USA.  It  is a general unscientific comparison.

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

Panama: $675
Nicaragua: $550
Costa Rica: $1,125

YES, Costa Rica is now (on average) more expensive than the USA. Naturally, your life style could greatly alter my comparison chart, but 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 $6 to $7 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.


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 hats) 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. Costa Rica has some poor people, but they also have a well established middle class. They also have a relatively high number of very rich people.

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 always been pleasant, but that is often not the case. 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.


While Nicaragua and Panama were both involved in wars, 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 fun to vacation in this place of the beauty.


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 a clear exception. They speak English, and French, and German, and who knows what else, but the folks in street, and in the corner store, and in many restaurants, only speak Spanish.


The hardest part of integrating into a new culture is actually learning that 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 lived there, may not have the same feel the second, or the third time around. However, it is probably more important to learn the culture than to learn the language. Even though the typical Latin American person is quite tolerant, and patient, it is easy 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 here. If they can deal with me without problem, I suspect that you will have no problem as well.


The medical system in Costa Rica is a two tier system. There is the public, socialized medicine, and there are 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 it is in the USA. Now 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 Miami to San Jose, Costa Rica is about two and a half hours. There are medical specialists that commute from the USA on a somewhat regular basis.


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 avenues of investment available to you that will allow you to “work,” and I know several people that work using the Internet. That’s quite alright. You could start your own company, or open a branch of an existing company from another country, such as the USA, that is okay, 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.


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.


This is the sad story in Costa Rica today. It is not a pleasure telling you that crime has been on the rise ever since I got here. Hmmmm. Maybe I am the problem. No wait, it is not me, it is that terrible four letter word… DRUGS. Costa Rica has long been a way station for the transportation of drugs. Now some are staying in country. In the last three months, two men, in separate incidences, were shot to death gangland style within a couple of blocks of my house. They were both from drug deals gone sour. The poverty in this part of the world lures many young men and women into a life in the drug lane. Seeing the poverty here is not pretty, and I have a hard time blaming them for their choices, but a life in the drug lane it is a life filled with traps and unintended consequences. Knowing that a mother living in the next bock had to tell her four-year-old daughter that daddy is not coming home anymore is a terrible thing.

Real Estate:

Real estate transactions in Costa Rica are in many ways similar to the USA, where I am from, but they do have some significant and important differences. Like anything else, it is a mixed bag. There are some good deals, and some not so good deals. 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. Now there are USA style title companies that will guarantee your purchase, but you still have to be aware of the traps.

Often the best deals are word of mouth, and 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 25 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 weather I want to or not. 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 that can 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.


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. It was in the high 80’s here today in San Jose Costa Rica at 3,500 feet elevation. Down the mountain at sea level, it was in the mid 90’s. 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 come and cool 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. They each have a mountain range that runs the length of the respective countries, and 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 one must look for a location in the mountains. There are some locations in Costa Rica where people wear winter coats much 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. What a concept! However, like many long term residents, I have come to really enjoy the rainy season. It is 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 the boots on the ground type of things that, at the end of the day, are the things that will make the experience a pleasant one for you. 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 happily give you my perspective since I have probably been where you want to go. I may have a humorous story about the time that I… Never mind.

–Jim Sayers