San Jose, Costa Rica Report of what it's like to live there - 06/10/13
Personal Experiences from San Jose, Costa Rica
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, we have lived in Fajardo, Puerto Rico; Bucharest, Romania; Rome, Italy & The Hague, Netherlands.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Florida - 3 hours to Miami & another 1 hour to Tampa.
3. How long have you lived here?
2 years, 4 months
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
US Government - U.S. Embassy
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
It's a mix of apartments, duplexes and houses, and most come with very small yards. Some apartments are located near the embassy making it a 5-10 min commute, but these are typically assigned to singles or couples. Housing is typically located in Escazu or Santa Ana, with more & more housing moving towards Santa Ana due to sizes & costs. It can be difficult for large families, as it is hard to find housing with more than 3 bedrooms. Commutes from Escazu to the embassy range from 15-30 min. Commutes from Santa Ana range from 25 - 40 min. Most housing has space for maid's quarters, which typically includes a bathroom. Many families use this for additional storage space, as storage is limited. Most houses are also multi-story, making it difficult for the physically disabled. Additionally, most flooring is either tile or wood or a mix of both. Carpeting is rare due to the humidity.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
HIGH - for my family of 5 we average $1000 plus a month in groceries, school lunches, embassy lunches, and once-a-week dining out. Granted, we do maintain a diet of many American products, but we also spend a lot of money buying fresh produce. We tend to eat a lot of it, and it spoils quickly because of the humidity & heat. I order almost all my paper goods & cleaning supplies through Amazon or WalMart due to the double or triple prices locally.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Any consumables you can spare the weight for in your HHE. Liquid laundry detergent averages $50 (yes, you read that correctly) for the large 96 load jugs. All American goods are available here but at a huge mark up due to import taxes which are crazy. I order online for large packages of toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap & dishwasher detergent (they don't sell this much here, and a very small box of powder runs $10). I save about 50% by online orders. Same for clothing & toys. Bring lots of extra toys if you have school-age children -- for fiestas! We average 4-5 birthday parties per month per kid. Also OTC meds, especially for children.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Everything, it's like living in the U.S. but at double or triple the price. We have Cinnabon, Burger King, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Wendy's, Applebee's, Chili's, Tony Roma's, TGI Fridays, Starbuck's, KFC, Subway, Teriyaki Experience, Cosi, Smashburger, Moe's Southwest Grill, and Hagen Das.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
TONS - don't move here if you can't live with bugs. We've really only dealt with a baby-ant problem and the occasional other larger, unknown bug. However, I've heard of others with a much larger bug issue. Furniture can easily be infested with termites.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO - average delivery time is typically 5-7 days.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Good availablity but it may take awhile to find a keeper who's trustworthy & good. Cost is fairly inexpensive monthly. However, you must pay into their Social Security which runs 25-30% of their monthly salary. Additionally, you must navigate their laws, which include paid holidays, 13th month bonus at Christmas & a severance package which includes payments based on number of months/years worked for you, Christmas bonus, payment of unpaid leave, and an additional payment of any "gifts in kind" such as daily meals eaten at your residence, extra gifts, etc.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy has a very nice gym in the basement with treadmills, elipticals & free weights, among other things. There are also other gyms around the city, but I cannot comment on them. I think many people use World Gym in Escazu.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Safe at all places which accept them.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, Baptist and an Interdenomination that I am aware of.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There is only 1 English-language paper, and it's now only published online. As for TV: through our cable service we receive US channels out of Miami for ABC, NBC & CBS. A lot of other channels are US as well: HGTV, Food Network, SyFY, HBO, Cinemax, AXN, ESPN, etc. Many are in English if you use the SAP setting on your TV. The signal is NTSC, like in the US.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
A lot. This is a highly educated society and most of those are English language speakers, however for daily dealings with the public (taxi drivers, shop keepers, household help, wait staff, etc.) you need to know a really good amount of Spanish.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
A lot. Sidewalks are very uneven if they exist.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Buses are off limits by RSO. And the train is not located effectively for use. Taxis are average cost. I pay approximately $16 for a 9 km trip home from the embassy to Santa Ana.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
A 4x4 and a high-clearance vehicle is a must here as during rainy season. Roads will wash out in the countryside. Within the city you deal with potholes the size of a small compact car. USAA does not cover Costa Rica. You must purchase CR 3rd party insurance here. Expect to be involved in an accident during your tour here. The majority of dealerships are covered here: Land Rover, Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, Chevy, etc. Parts are expensive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is available through a couple of companies. It goes out frequently. The average for our internet & cable, which includes movie & sports channels, is approximately $120 per month. For long-distance calling, I recommend Vonage or another VOIP service.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
They have several companies. I use a prepaid plan, which is cheap, but I don't make many calls.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Vet care is average cost and excellent here. Our dog died at post from cancer, and we never stepped inside of a vet office. The vet made house calls at all hours of the night and took care of everything for us. Ticos don't particulary like large dogs. Boarding will run about $15 a day.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Few & far between but possible. You must have a work permit, which the HR office at the embassy can help procure. There is a bi-lateral work agreement. If you are a professional (lawyer, doctor, accountant, etc.), work is also possible.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal to business casual. No pantyhose for ladies!
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Typical concerns as in any big city. The most prevalent are smash & grabs while you're sitting in traffic. Also, there's been a rise in burglaries at banks & pharmacies in the embassy area. Some home invasions, but they typically happen in standalone homes rather than in a gated community. There are a few areas of the city that RSO has deemed off limits. They've also issued travel warnings to a couple of Caribbean costal towns.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Dengue fever in the coastal areas. Medical is on par with U.S. standards, and almost all doctors are U.S. trained. Additionally, this is a huge medical tourism country. There is excellent dental care at about half the cost in the U.S.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Excellent except during rainy season, when mold is present.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
There are only two seasons: dry & raining. The dry months are November through May. All other time is the rainy season. GSO provides each home with 2 dehumidifiers to combat the humidity.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is a very large selection of schools to choose from. Embassy families have chosen to spread their children out to many different schools that fit their individual needs. The big ones are: CDS (Country Day School, however this school will not accept childen with any type of learning disability), AIS (American International School), SEAS (only to grade 5 or 6), Lighthouse, Blue Valley, Tree of Life & Lincoln. Additional ones are Marian Baker, St. Jude, Washington School, and PanAm. There are others as well. SEAS & AIS are capable of working with learning delayed children. Most schools require an entrance exam.
We have a senior at AIS. For the most part we have been extremely happy. They have accommodated him with extra tutoring and assistance for certain subjects. In fact, they have allowed him two extra attempts to take a final in order to pass the class and receive credit.
I've had several friends state that they've had bullying issues at CDS.
Depending on your housing, school commutes can be long. From Escazu to AIS, the commute is approximately 45 minutes. For Lincoln, 45-1hr. From Santa Ana the commute to AIS is 30min. CDS, Blue Valley & Lighthouse are the closet schools to the Escazu area.
Please note that Blue Valley, PanAm, St. Jude & other schools operate on a Feb - Nov school schedule. CDS, AIS, Lincoln, and SEAS all operate on an American calendar Aug - June.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Only SEAS & AIS can accommodate mild special needs. Please contact the schools before arriving.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Excellent. We use Prodigy Kids Academy. It is a small school with a 4:1 ratio of students to teachers. It is a Montessori school and is a true Montessori school with trained teachers. Many schools here advertise they are Montessori but do not follow the teachings or have the proper equipment for Montessori. We are extremely happy with PKA and have elected to keep our twins there for their kindergarden year. PKA will take kids from 10 months to 7 years old. It is located in Escazu and is reasonably priced compared to other US preschools.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
All the schools offer after-school sports & other activities. It's hard for me to comment, because our children do not participate. I hear from neighbors that there are many activities available, but they are all in spanish: gymnastics, cheer, ballet, soccer, piano & other instruments, etc.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large - many move here for a different lifestyle or to retire.
2. Morale among expats:
Good, I think, outside of the embassy. Poor in the embassy community.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
I'm sure there's some, but we lead a very quiet life. Our social life consists of a few dinners out and a movie once in a great while.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It can be good for all, I think.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
We have several GLBT officers/couples & singles at post. The biggest issue has been that the MFA will not accredit anyone's "partner" unless they are officially married & hold a dip passport. We have one couple at post that holds a dip passport & they have received all entitlements, those that are not married do not receive tax exemption, etc. Since this is a catholic country, there's not a huge community here, but there is one.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Not many, other than taking part in the tourist trips, such as coffee plantations, rain forest & waterfall trips, the beaches, watching green sea turtles lay eggs, etc.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
This is where you will spend all your extra money. This is a beautiful country with so much to do: coffee plantation tours, beaches on the Pacific & Caribbean, white-water rafting, hiking, golfing, deep-sea fishing, whale watching, etc. This is a huge tourist destination, so there's no shortage of things to do.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Coffee from local plantations.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Tons of tourist/nature experiences throughout the country. Additionally you could conceivably swim in both the Caribean & Pacific in one day.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No, I don't care for Latin America.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothing -- except for trips to the U.S. Also any ideas that this is paradise.
3. But don't forget your:
Money! It's so expensive here.
And your sense of urgency -- it is very latin & they operate on "Tico Time".
4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Do you have any other comments?
Vehicles can take 3-5 months to arrive in country get get to you due to diplomatic customs processes. This can be a hindrance for families regarding grocery shopping, etc. If your budget allows, ship two vehicles or plan to purchase one upon arrival. It is hard to live here with only 1 vehicle and a stay-at-home spouse.