Expats from all over the world move to Costa Rica for the warm weather, laid back lifestyle, easy accessibility to flights to both North America and South America and the ability to live in areas that aren’t overdeveloped yet. A country where horses still roam free, jungles are lush and beaches are untouched.
Costa Rica has a population of 5 million people. Most of the population is in or around San Jose, the capital, which sits in the middle of the country. Costa Rica is the 129th largest country in the world, which puts it about the size of Denmark, or West Virginia, if you need a state reference. For a small country it has a topographical variety – oceans, mountains and volcanos. A spot in Barra Honda National Park sits 790 feet below sea level, while the tallest volcano in Costa Rica stands 11,259 ft.
But the things that don’t vary a lot are the temperatures and sunrise/sunset. Year round, it’s usually between 72 and 82 °F (22 and 28 °C), and year-round the sun rises around 5:30 am and sets around 5:30 pm. And while it doesn’t have a traditional winter and summer, it does have a dry season and wet season.
Costa Rica, specifically the Nicoya peninsula, is considered to be a blue zone, or area where many people live to be over 100.
When I moved here, I couldn’t find much information on the area. There were blogs on moving to Costa Rica, but it is an entire country, so much of the information was irrelevant, outdated or just straight up wrong.
I won’t speak to all the areas of Costa Rica that you can live in, but will focus this blog on Guanacaste’s Gold Coast, the stretch between Tamarindo and Playa Danta, which is the area I know best. And, in my opinion, the best area.
My favorite thing about Guanacaste is that it is wonderfully inconvenient. I have access to everything that I need, but nothing that I want. Sure there are groceries and pharmacies and medical care nearby. But there’s not a lot of consumerism here. To get consumer items like children’s clothes, shoes, electronics or home goods, most expats and locals get these items either while traveling abroad or on trips to San José, which is approximately 4 hours away, give or take 3 hours depending on traffic.
We originally moved to Guanacaste for the surfing, international schools, short flights back to the US and close proximity to an international airport (Liberia – LIR). That’s why we moved here, but we decided to stay because of the hospitable people, the phenomenal sunsets and the carefree cows, horses and pizotes that roam free.
It is relatively easy to apply for residency in Costa Rica if you: buy property, open a business, invest enough money in Costa Rican banks or if you or your children are enrolled in a school.
However, if you chose not to apply for residency, don’t worry, you can still live here on a tourist visa. But you have to leave the country every 90 days and be gone for at least 3 days. So you have to leave the country 4 times a year, which if you have children in school conveniently falls around the times of fall break, Christmas, Spring Break (Semana Santa) and summer break. Costa Rica does not care what country you go to as long as you leave Costa Rica.
And the 90 day conditional visa or tourist visa isn’t an actual visa that you apply for or need in your passport. They just stamp your passport and look to see that it hasn’t been more than 90 days since the last time your passport was stamped.
There are several bilingual private schools in Guanacaste that speak both English and Spanish.
Tide – Has small classroom size and caters to families who need flexible schedules.
Costa Rican International Academy (CRIA) – Located near Brasilito. (Pre-K through 12.)
Journey – This is a new school between Huacas and Tamarindo that uses a project based learning approach. (K-12)
Guanacaste Waldorf – Uses European style Montessori approach (Pre-K to grade 8)
Educarte – International school with a local feel. (Pre-K thru 12)
La Paz – Is accredited for IB or international program. (Pre-K through 12.)
There are many local clinics in the area. I usually go to the Beachside Clinic because it is close to where I live, open 24/7, has a pharmacy attached, is English speaking and if you are still sick and have to come back later that day for another visit, they don’t charge you.
There are dentists everywhere and other specialty doctors between here and Liberia. You can buy local healthcare insurance depending on your residency status, however I just pay out of pocket for everything and it is about the same as my copay was in the US. Depending on what insurance you have in the country you currently live in, it may still cover you in Costa Rica, so call your provider.
There are many vets in the area. I have gone to Cavellini, Dogtor and Tranquila Vet. I would recommend all of them. There are more, but I haven’t personally used them.
Most expats I know here either started their own business locally or have a job or revenue stream from abroad like remote work. I only know a handful of people who moved to Costa Rica and had a job already or found a job here. Most of the jobs that expats get in Guanacaste are in the service industry or tourism.
You do not have to have a license to practice real estate here, which is why every 3rd person I meet is a realtor.
Not all, but many vacation rentals will do long term rentals. Some landlords may want you gone for the week of Christmas and Semana Santa (Holy Week) because those are the peak weeks for vacation rentals. But if you don’t want to leave those weeks, you can negotiate that. I do not know of an up-to-date rental website or service, it’s mostly word of mouth, VRBO or using a realtor.
Some realtors want nothing to do with people looking to rent. But others will gladly help you find a place, in hopes that you will buy from them if you decide to buy property in Costa Rica, or because they are making money off finding the landlord a renter.
I do not recommend buying a home before visiting here. A sight unseen home purchase would be riskier here than most places, not because it won’t hold it’s value, but because although a home may look nice in photos, it may be in an area accessible only by 4WD, or next to a loud bar, etc.
Normally I would not mention scams when moving to a place, but since several people I know have been scammed by landlords or real estate agents, it’s worth a mention. While there are many reputable landlords and real estate agents, some are not.
Do not give money to anyone without googling them first. And don’t enter into a contract with anyone without googling them first.
Many landlords live in other countries, and once you have given a deposit, you have no legal recourse to get it back. Also, local landlords will try to come up with an excuse not to give you your deposit back, and you don’t really have a legal recourse, as you will usually spend the same amount on attorneys as your deposit. Some landlords will act like everything is great and they plan to give you 100% of your money back. Then after you move out and have left the country, they simply say that they changed their mind, even though they have agreed in writing to give you your money back.
If you are giving someone money, a broker or a landlord, ask to see their ID to make sure they are who they say they are, then google that name. Most of the people running scams in Costa Rica have a track record for fraud and have been in other lawsuits in other countries.
One current scam is for a broker to take the money for the deposit on a place then say he gave it to the landlord, but he didn’t. Then they both are pointing fingers at each other and you’re out thousands of dollars.
One scam is for a “real estate agent” to “sell” a house that has already been sold. He gets the downpayment for the house and keeps it. One scam artist took a downpayment and “sold” the same house three times to different people, and none of them actually ended up owning the house.
Many places in Costa Rica have beautiful websites and are great at marketing. This does not mean they will be like anything on the website when you arrive. On the flip side, many other places have horrible websites or no websites at all, and when you show up, they are amazing. So take every website with a grain of salt, until you see the place.
Things take a lot longer here. It’s part of the charm. Most restaurants will never bring you a check unless you ask for it. I know someone who has a car that has been in the shop for over a year. When someone tells you how long something will take, know that will take longer.
I have found people to be very reliable here, in that if they say they are going to do something, they will do it, however, no guarantees on how long it will take.
Also, often people have the misconception that things will be cheaper in Central America. They are not. Things are either the same price as the US and Canada, or more. The only thing I can think of that is cheaper is tropical fruit.
Costa Rica charges a 30-50% import tax on goods. So anything you buy that was imported, will obviously cost 30-50% more. The only exception is cars, which they charge a 50% to 70% import tax.
This is somewhat annoying because I still gasp every time I go to buy something, but it is good because it discourages a consumer driven culture. And fiscally smart for Costa Rica because expats and tourists here pay into the community.
If you look at driving distances on a map, you should know that driving takes way longer than it should. So check the travel time, not the distance before you embark on a road trip. And know that there are a million things that can get in the way between you and your destination. I double the time that it says it should take so if I get there on time, I’m pleasantly surprised.
There is a Costa Rican law that if there is an accident, you don’t move your car until the police arrive. This obviously creates a lot of traffic. A lot of traffic is also caused by wayward horses, cows and dogs that roam free, trees that fall during rainy season and two way streets that suddenly turn into a one lane bridge. The streets are also shared with pedestrians and bicyclists, which creates congestion even in rural areas.
Cows sometimes sleep on then road late at night if the road is paved. In Guanacaste, usually the only paved roads are from town to town or within a development.
There have been significant improvements in the roads in Guanacaste in the past year. Kudos to Guanacaste for working hard to make things better. I am actually impressed. However, they are still deplorable by North American standards. Many potholes, usually no lines down the side of the road… or in the middle of the road… no reflectors on the side of the road. Which makes driving at night in the rain a bit treacherous.
Depending on what country you are moving from, you may get a break on taxes because you are no longer living in your home country and using the infrastructure. I almost hate to even mention this, because tax laws change almost every year, but do your own research on whichever country you will be an expat from or taking revenue from.
Right now, US expats don’t have to pay tax on the first $109,000 as long as they are out of the US for over 330 days per year. So if you are planning to be back in the states for more than 35 days per year, you won’t qualify. Of course, this law may change tomorrow, so talk to an international accountant.
I think I would be remiss to not look at crime when moving anywhere. Costa Rica is the safest country in Central America, and Guanacaste is safer than most areas of the US, in my opinion.
Costa Rica is an entire country, so obviously crime rates vary from area to area. When I first considered moving to Costa Rica, I looked at national crime stats and was mortified. Then for comparison, I looked up crime rates in the US and was even more horrified.
Basically there is a lot of petty theft in Guanacaste, and a fair amount of robberies. A lot of people buy second homes or vacation properties that sit empty during off season, which coincides with when a many places close for off-season and people are out of work, so you put the two together, and there’s some burglaries.
But for the most part, violent crime, like a mass shooting is unheard of. Most of the violent crime in Costa Rica is on the Caribbean side or in San Jose. (Limón is known to have high crime.) Actually if you google mass shooting and Costa Rica, it will pull up articles about mass shootings in the states written by Costa Rican newspapers.
I can’t end a blog on a downer like crime stats. If you’re interested in moving to Costa Rica, the first step is to visit and see if it’s for you.
If you don’t have to pick a location based on schools or surfing, Central Valley is lovely and I believe still more affordable real estate than Guanacaste, and doesn’t get as hot. La Fortuna is gorgeous. I love going to Escazu in San José for the weekend, but weekday traffic can be intense. Dominical has a new school and slightly cooler weather than Guanacaste. If you don’t have to be near an airport or international school, really, the whole country is your oyster.
If you are looking for hotel, restaurant recommendations or things to do, check out this blog Travel the Guanacaste Coast.
And if you don’t think Guanacaste is your place, check out FindingPuraVida for other destinations. I’ll be adding more. I hate to spoil your dreams of moving to Costa Rica with one last exciting but overwhelming thought, but if you have the ability to work remotely, you really have many options as an expat. Canada is very generous with a 6 month tourist visa. Most countries allow for around 3 months like Costa Rica, as long as you aren’t taking jobs away from locals, you are spending money in their country and you don’t have a criminal record, they are okay with expats.
So try out Costa Rica for a year. If you like it, stay, if not, there’s always Uruguay.