San Jose, Costa Rica Report of what it's like to live there - 04/13/14

Personal Experiences from San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica 04/13/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Second tour. Previously in Brussels.

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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?

Midwest. Connections through Houston were ideal, usually six to eight hours total travel time including connection.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Four years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Houses and nice apartments, mainly in Santa Ana. Commute can vary from 15 to 45 minutes or more depending on traffic, accidents, rain, and the latest bridge collapse.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Widely available and surprisingly expensive. Attention: This is not a cheap post. If you can live on beans, rice and fresh fruits and vegetables at home, then you won't spend too much. If you want decent meat, cereal, bread, coffee, beer... then it adds up quickly. Cheese, for example, is absurdly priced. You might pay US$10 for a small block of mediocre cheddar. The "cheap" national lager costs more than US$1 per 12 ounce can in the supermarket -- and is no cheaper in quantity. Meat can be expensive and is usually not great.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Cheap sunglasses? They are weirdly hard to find in such a sunny place. But generally you can find whatever you need here.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

American-style fast food is plentiful, popular, and of poor quality. American-style chain restaurants like Fridays are not much better except that they add good service and cold beer. The local 'sodas' are like diners and can be very tasty, inexpensive and are an important part of the cultural experience but Americans will miss variety and spice. The real fun of Costa Rican food is in the bocas -- like tapas, best with beer, and including patacones, chicharrones, ceviche, wings, ribs, chifrijo... Lots of fun stuff.

There are tons of restaurants with New York prices. Few are worth it. Doris in Santa Ana and Furca near Sabana offer terrific dry-aged steaks for a splurge. Product C serves excellent fresh/sustainable seafood and with craft beers. In general, trying out new restaurants is an expensive gamble though -- too many 'concepts' that are all style and price with no real substance. We were burned many times.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

What kind would you like? Moths, termites, ants have all been issues. There is the occasional mutant cucaracha or freaky looking spider. We once had a scorpion hanging by its tail from the ceiling fan over our bed -- true. Mosquitoes are a dangerous nuisance in humid areas, with frequent warnings about dengue. BUT most days you don't necessarily notice any of them.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Through DPO. There are few proper addresses in Costa Rica -- the cliche is a short story involving a horse or long-gone mango tree -- and how the local Correos works is a mystery to me.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Widely available, mostly Nicaraguan, and inexpensive, but of widely varying quality. Typical wage is US$350-400 per month plus legally required Christmas bonus, insurance, etc. Know the local laws on paying the Caja (Social Security) and follow them.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Plenty of gyms; not sure about costs. The Embassy has a good one. Indoor soccer facilities are popular, numerous, and inexpensive. Most condos have pools. Most embassy housing is in neighborhoods that are relatively safe for daylight walking/jogging.

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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?

Most places accept credit cards safely. There are cash-only places here and there. ATMs are not on every corner but you can find them when you need them. There is one in the Embassy plus a bank windor and cashier.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

This is a great place to learn Spanish; take advantage of the opportunity. Inevitably you will meet other expats and retired gringos who don't speak a word of it; they get by but they make life harder on themselves. Some Costa Ricans speak passable to excellent English but not necessarily your waiter, your supermarket clerk, your bank teller, etc.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. Access is improving but has a very long way to go. Sidewalks are spotty at best. Elevators and ramps are scarce. Disabled parking is fairly common outside of old San Jose.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Trains and buses are generally safe but crowded and deemed an unnecessary risk for U.S. embassy folk. Red taxis are generally very safe -- keeping a few of their phone numbers can come in very handy. The less official "pirate" taxis are also usually safe, and cheaper, but another unnecessary risk.

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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?

4x4/AWD is not strictly necessary but recommended. Roads have gotten better here over the past decade but potholes can still appear suddenly out of nowhere. Beach visits can mean long stretches on bumpy, gravel roads that are occasionally steep. We've been thankful for our 4WD many times.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, moderately expensive. Infrastructure is improving but not great so it can be spotty.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Over the past few years it's gotten easier to get a local cell phone and number. Service quality is spotty with data plans improving.

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Pets:

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?

No quarantine and there are plenty of vets and kennels.

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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?

I think there may be opportunities for bilingual speakers. Some run small businesses. I think this Embassy has more EFM opportunities than most.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Myriad, everything from assisting the poorest families to meddling in the protection of turtle eggs from natural predators.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Relatively formal with healthy splashes of non-conformity. Suits for male professionals. Gringos love wearing shorts but jeans or pants are really more appropriate for going out. I think 80% of the Central Valley wears blue jeans every day.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

This is the safest country in Central America but that is faint praise. There are reasons for all the high walls, bars and razor wire. House break-ins are fairly common, but rare at Embassy houses protected by bars. Car break-ins are common too. Gang violence is becoming more common in troubled neighborhoods, occasionally spilling into nicer ones. The South Caribbean area is wonderful to visit but also plagued by crimes that target tourists.

Safety-wise, driving can be a thrill, especially in the San Jose area. The number of Costa Rican vehicle owners grew relatively quickly, and you wonder how many of them learned by watching cartoons and each other. Motorcycles present the biggest peril, coming up on your right or left indiscriminately and heedless of turn signals. You will check your left-side mirror when turning left, and your right-side mirror when turning right.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

The biggest health concern is road safety. There is the occasional poisonous snake, Dengue case, or inexplicably swollen bug bite. Health care is excellent, especially at the private Cima hospital.

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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?

Moderate to good. Car exhaust in San Jose is worse than you might think but not so bad as other capitals. Environmental allergies gave me a tough time here until I found the right drugs.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Dry season theoretically from November through April. Early and late parts can be gray and windy but still pleasant enough. Rainy season typically means warm sunny mornings and a good hard rain every afternoon, sometimes stretching into evening. It's warmer and more humid on the coasts, while in the Central Valley you can usually wear either shorts or pants and still be comfortable. Climate can vary a lot based on elevation. Some housing is up on the mountainside, where it's cooler, somewhat drier, and A/C may be unnecessary. Those down in the valley find it balmier and run up higher electricity bills.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Several international schools get mixed reviews. Many embassy families go to Country Day. Our smaller ones go to the nearest Montessori. They love it. We like the school but get annoyed at frequent long holidays.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Our Montessori appears to do well with this. I have heard mixed things about the elementary and high schools.

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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?

There are many. About US$300-350 monthly plus various fees is typical.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, especially swimming and soccer.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Besides Nicaraguan migrant workers, there are lots of Americans -- business people, retirees and the occasional gambler or money launderer -- as well as Colombians and Venezuelans. There are smaller groups of Europeans, including French, Germans, Italians, and Israelis. Morale is pretty high -- most people are happy to be here. The retirees can be a cranky lot; they expected a cheap paradise.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Barbecues. Pool parties. Kids' birthday parties are over the top here with pony rides and giant bouncy castles being uncomfortably common.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Better for couples and families I think. Singles may find it hard to meet people but speaking Spanish obviously helps. Couples will find plenty of romantic trips to take and families will find tons of quality beaches and swimming pools.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

They appear to get along OK. On the one hand, it's still a conservative Catholic country in many ways, and on the other hand, it's surprisingly open-minded. Gays and lesbians will experience both sides of that.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Relatively tolerant. Women walking alone or sometimes even in groups will hear whistles, absurd cat-calls, and the occasional lewd suggestion. Any response may be viewed as an invitation. Machismo in effect but probably no more than elsewhere in Latin America.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Visiting some of the world's most beautiful landscapes. Boat rides off the Pacific Coast. Fresh seafood. Getting to know the friendly, laid-back locals.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Everyone has their own favorite beach areas. Part of the fun is finding the ones that suit you and your family. The range of hotels can be mind-boggling, from bare-bones boutiques to tree houses to swanky all-inclusives. Beaches around Peace Lodge, Waterfall Gardens all provide quality day trips on weekends.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Furniture at Sarchi, sport-fishing trips, luxury hotel resort splurges.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Weekend beach runs, fully developed tourist industry (lots to do), and Central Valley weather that is generally very pleasant.

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10. Can you save money?

No, except on the most severe personal austerity program.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Didn't realize how expensive it would be.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. I am going to miss the weather, beaches, and the people a lot.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothes and hurry.

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4. But don't forget your:

Sunscreen and barbecue grill, both very expensive here.

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