What is it like to live in Central America?

When I travel and mention that I live in Costa Rica, the one question I always get asked is… What is it like to live there?   The three Central American countries that I know the best are, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua.  They have several similar aspects, such as a common language, and roughly similar cultures, but as much as they are similar, they have unique differences.

I have actually lost track of how many times I have been asked what is like to live in Costa Rica.   I am usually asked by people who are thinking about the possibility of making the move to Costa Rica from their native country.  The list of things to consider is not so long but it is important that one understand the things that one must know before they make the move. Over time I will try to address the most important issues in my blogs, but for now, let’s 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 many things are less expensive. Your wants and needs will dictate what it takes for you to live in Costa Rica. However, if one has a decent retirement package, one 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 lifestyle could alter the cost up or down. When one considers 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 $30 per $100 exchanged. You make on average $300 extra of buying power for every $1000 exchanged. Of course, the banks have found ways to reduce that with fees but it is still not so bad. As for you Canadians, well you just don’t get the same deal. Sorry, aboot that.


The TV in the USA in the 1950s and ’60s gave us the impression 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 have a sizeable *middle class. They also have a number of rich people and some very wealthy 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, so far, been pleasant, but that is often not the case. I have never imported anything of great value so I have not paid any of the high import fees. 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. The good news is that individuals or couples that come to Costa Rica on a retirement visa are given an import allowance that includes a car as well as household goods.

A new visa was just created in August of 2021 that allows someone who works using the internet to stay in the country for a year. It also offers a path to permanent residency. The visa can be extended an additional year if the applicant so desires.


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 trying to catch up, but I believe that it is fair to say that Costa Rica is, for now, the leader in Central American tourism. Costa Rica does tourism very well, and it is an incredible place of great natural beauty in which to vacation.


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 staff. 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. Most medical doctors speak English.


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 here, may not have the same feel the second, or the third time around.  On the other hand, you might really like the lifestyle here. 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. From day one, I focused on the culture, so I have never had a problem.  The really ood news is that… If they can deal with me without problem, I suspect that you will have no problems at all.


The medical system in Costa Rica is a two-tier system. There are public, socialized medicine hospital systems, and private hospitals. Many of these hospitals are of US quality, or even better. By the way, that holds true in Panama as well. 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.


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 perfectly okay.  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 work in the traditional sense 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 so a student could go quite high in the educational ranks if they were so motivated.


It is important that I tell you that ever since I got here crime has been on the rise, but I hasten to add that I am not the cause. The problem is that terrible four-letter word… DRUGS.  Costa Rica has for years-long been a way station in the transportation of drugs, but increasingly the drugs are staying here. More and more illegal drugs are 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.  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 now more similar to the USA where I came from, but as with other things they do have some significant and important differences in real estate sales.  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. Nevertheless, one still must be aware of how to buy a house in Costa Rica.

Often the best ways to find good deals are by word of mouth.  The private offerings are usually the best. It 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 a business, but because of my 30 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 quite often. 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 million-dollar 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.


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, snowstorms 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 are in the low to mid 80’s. However, down the mountain at sea level, it is in the mid-’90s 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 degrees, 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 actual tropical part of the tropics, then one needs to 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. For ten months it is 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 the season that 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 that 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 can 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.