San Jose, Costa Rica Report of what it's like to live there - 02/10/16
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?
We've lived in many posts abroad.
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?
Change planes in Atlanta, Miami, or Houston. Typically takes about 12 hours from Washington.
3. How long have you lived here?
Currently living there.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is fine, except that Costa Rican homes generally have teeny tiny yards or gardens. There is no typical commute time, as traffic is so bad that you never really know how long it will take you to get anywhere, except that it will almost always be painful. The housing close to the Embassy is 30-45 minutes to the Embassy and 30-45 minutes to the location of the new site of the main school (CDS). The housing closer to the new school site is 45-60 minutes to the Embassy and 15-30 minutes to the school. Some Embassy staff commute to and from work very very early or late to reduce commute times. There is another school that is a good deal further from the Embassy, and there are some other smaller schools that are not quite as far.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Prices here are higher than any other developing country I've experienced. It's really shocking. Expect to pay the same or somewhat more than you would in the U.S. Fruits are cheaper; anything imported, like U.S. brands, is much more expensive.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Everything I could think of, to save on costs. We order almost everything through Amazon.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
U.S. chains dominate fast food here, and are very common.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are pretty common. The CDC has noted that Zika has reached Costa Rica, though the Costa Ricans are denying it, fearing the impact on tourism, I suppose.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Widely available. For 40 hours per week (not live-in), US$475 per month plus $160 in payroll tax and a mandatory 13th month equals $690 per month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, though my sense is they are as expensive as those in the U.S.
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?
Widely accepted, though at ATMs you'll pay fees.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Spanish is really important here, unless you only exist in tourist destinations.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I think living here with physical disabilities would be difficult. I've never seen anyone in a wheelchair here.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are common though pretty pricey. RSO advised never to use buses due to safety risks.
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?
In San Jose a sedan is usually OK, but outside San Jose a 4X4 with high clearance would be a big help to drive beyond the few highways and to tackle the potholes. Japanese makes are common, but U.S. makes are uncommon, so parts for U.S. makes are really expensive. Cars cost twice in Costa Rica what they do in the states, and gasoline is much more expensive.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
OK Internet speed for US$50 per month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phone service is OK though pricey.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
More formal than in the U.S.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime has increased greatly over the past few years, with drive-by assassinations and the increase in crime/murders in the forefront of news and politics.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The CDC has noted that Zika has reached Costa Rica, though the Costa Ricans are denying it, fearing the impact on tourism, I suppose. Medical care is fine, though if you needed an ambulance it could take a long time to get to a hospital, due to traffic.
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?
During the dry season (December -April) the smog or smoke from burning trash, burning vegetation, and exhaust is quite noticeable.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I understand pollen is bad in the dry season.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
December - April it never rains, May - November it usually rains hard every afternoon. In the valley where the Embassy (and most Embassy housing) sits, it can get hot, so the Embassy runs the A/C nonstop. December - March the temperatures are pleasant.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are pretty good school choices, except that the largest international school (CDS) that was relatively close to the Embassy is now moving very far out into the countryside along a toll highway. Given the pain of traffic, I can't recommend any Embassy families that they choose CDS with its new site. Since expat kids in San Jose are spread out among several international schools, each school has relatively few native-English speaking students, and each school's student body comes overwhelmingly from Spanish-speaking families.
2. 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?
It's good if you have a good salary and expat package to cover the high costs of living here. Or if you can live away from San Jose and enjoy the outdoors, you will probably be happy. But living in San Jose would be hard for anyone who works Monday-Friday because it's hard to escape the traffic (and the accompanying noise and insanity) in San Jose.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There is a huge American expat community, especially retired folks, though a large fraction live away from San Jose. 1 million American tourists visited Costa Rica last year. I think folks who live outside San Jose like it here, especially the large number of surfers. Among those who are part of the U.S. Embassy, I've found morale is generally low. People come here expecting an eco-paradise and they find a city and country constantly overwhelmed with traffic on very poor roads; even though it is a small country, the roads are so bad and crowded that it takes forever to cover short distances. Most things are much more expensive than they should be, and the country suffers from the same or worse problems of inefficiency and government bureaucracy that plague other Latin American countries.
2. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I've met a number of gay or lesbian couples, and I've found their morale to be low. I think they expected Costa Rica to be a livelier place than it is.
3. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
My experience is that typical Costa Ricans are much more prejudiced against people of African heritage than typical Americans are. Gender prejudices are also much stronger than in the U.S.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
When we've been able to take off time to reach places a day's drive away, we've been to nice beaches and national parks.
5. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Some wood carvings. Surfing lessons.
6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The tourist infrastructure is pretty well developed, and there are pretty good eco-tourist destinations, though there are not very many that can be reached during the weekend.
7. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How expensive it is. How bad traffic is, everywhere.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Would come on vacation, but probably not just to live here. It would depend on how compelling the work here is.
3. But don't forget your:
Ship everything that isn't grown or produced here to save on cost.
4. Do you have any other comments?
I think folks who live outside San Jose like it here, especially the large number of surfers. Among those who are part of the U.S. Embassy, I've found morale is generally low. People come here expecting an eco-paradise and they find a city and country constantly overwhelmed with traffic on very poor roads. Even though it is a small country, the roads are so bad and crowded that it takes forever to cover short distances. Most things are much more expensive than they should be, and the country suffers from the same or worse problems of inefficiency and government bureaucracy that plague other Latin American countries. Much of the countryside is beautiful, but the country's reputation for being eco-friendly is overstated; the rivers, air, and roadsides are polluted, and your average Costa Rican is no greener than those in other Latin American countries.