San Jose, Costa Rica Report of what it's like to live there - 05/27/24

Personal Experiences from San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica 05/27/24


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

No, I have lived in Europe and the Middle East before.

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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?

Washington, DC. The trip from the DC area if you can find a direct flight is 4 hours or so. Locations in the southern US (Texas, Florida) are pretty easily accessible to and from Costa Rica.

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3. What years did you live here?

Until 2024.

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4. How long have you lived here?


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

Diplomatic mission

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Housing is generally good, but in my opinion, the commute is just horrific. Commuting is the single most important morale issue at post to the point that I've heard some people talk about curtailing. Housing is generally situated in "condominios", which are gated townhouse grouped neighborhoods. There are a limited number of apartments for singles within walking distance to the embassy. Houses typically have a pool (large or small) and a communal gazebo/grilling area. Appliances and installations not of high quality: lend to water leaks, appliances breaking down, toilets and showers breaking or low water pressure, but generally the housing is fine.

Back to the commute: the furthest housing complex from the embassy is fewer than ten miles away, and with traffic at rush hour it can take 30 minutes to an hour to get to work. If there is an accident, which happens 2-4 times a week, all bets are off. Local practice is to not move the cars and block up the highways for 2-3 hours while police and insurance show up.

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

Availability of groceries is high as are the prices. You can find local as well as American and European products easily and in most grocery stores. There are American chain stores like PriceSmart (which is essentially Costco). Cost of groceries is extremely high though. The exchange rate to the colon has widened badly, so the US dollar doesn't go far in Costa Rica.

Local beef is gristly and chewy and tastes almost gamey, but chicken and pork are good. The fresh fish selection is not as varied as you would think being situated between two bodies of water. There is tuna, snapper, sea bass, and mahi mahi - and that's pretty much it. You can find other fish at the farmers market or imported, but other varieties are not easy to find.

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

Nothing of great import, but it is vital to have access to Amazon through the DPO. Everything is so outrageously expensive in Costa Rica, most people buy everything they can wait for that's non-perishable from the States, even Costa Ricans. American and European products in the grocery store will be wildly priced. For example, a box of Triscuits is $9, strawberries push $8-10, and a bottle of beer at the grocery store will run you $3-4 (and usually be sold as single bottles or cans). Oh! Sunscreen. Ship sunscreen as it's incredibly expensive here. I saw a bottle at the store for $50.

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

There are lots of American fast food and chain restaurants. The best restaurants are really expensive, which seems obvious, but the point being is that middle-class priced restaurants are not very good. The food in Costa Rica is very disappointing, ranging from mediocre but edible to really awful. And that's not a review based on a select handful of restaurants. Casado is good (rice, beans, & meat), but you can only eat but so much casado. Eating out is expensive, hit-or-miss, and generally not worth braving the traffic on a weekday.

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

Ants are a pervasive problem. No matter what you do, there are always small black ants everywhere. You get the occasional leaf bug, tarantula, whip spider, or other bugs that may wander through the largely unsealed doors, but the ants are the most obnoxious and common. Bats as well.

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Daily Life:

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

All mail through the DPO. Local postal facilities are not adequate.

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

Household help is commonly available at a very high price. The general expectation for in-home help is that households pay wages, taxes, and holidays (even if they come clean once a week and don't live in). You have to hire a lawyer for a fee to enroll domestic workers in the public healthcare tax system. It is a burdensome and expensive process.

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3. Do you feel that it is safe to walk, run or hike outside? Are there areas where bike riding is possible? What is the availability and safety of outdoor space for exercising? Are these easily accessible?

There are hardly any sidewalks and even fewer crosswalks. People generally find themselves walking on a highway or a street that people treat as a highway, so no, walking is not safe. As for crime, I don't feel particularly unsafe walking or hiking, but the diplomats do not live in the rougher areas of town.

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

The embassy has a small gym on the grounds. There are private gyms for membership pretty well dispersed and common.

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5. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Yes, credit cards are widely accepted. ATMs are common and disperse CRC and USD, generally. They are generally safe to use.

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6. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Unsure, but it's not difficult to find based on what other colleagues have said. The predominant religion/denominations here are Catholic and evangelical Christian or Jehovah's Witness. There is a healthy Jewish community as well.

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

Spanish is helpful in a day-to-day setting. You generally won't be able to conduct routine business without it outside of tourist or medical interactions, doctors and professional-level class will speak English generally well.

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

Absolutely. There are few sidewalks, fewer crosswalks, and rare handicap ramps to any walking area. Buildings are not designed with accessibility in mind either.

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

Diplomats are only authorized to use Uber, which is technically not legal in Costa Rica, so drivers frequently want you to sit in the front with them so it looks like you're a friend if they get pulled over (yes, it is awkward). There are red taxis that are generally considered a rip off, even by locals. There are no other transit options for diplomats.

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2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?

SUVs with easily available parts for repair. Gasoline and diesel are available but pricey without the tax-free diplomatic exoneration (at embassy gas station). Unsure about electric vehicles but doesn't seem advisable. Transportation infrastructure is poor, lots of potholes, dirt/rock roads, etc., so a car that can handle that is advisable. burglary and carjacking is increasingly common. Tourists are victims of crimes of opportunity on a routine basis, having all their things stolen from their cars or from the beach while they're swimming.

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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?

I do not use local phone service for personal phone, but my work phone service is middling. Internet is good though and about $50-60 a month, depending on the service provider, which is dependent on where you live. I've heard other people having difficulty with internet, but ours has been fine.

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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?

Google Fi. Home country plan.

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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?

A mixture of all of the above. Local salary scales are surprisingly low, but I don't know anyone who works on the local market here.

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

Business casual or above at work. In public, there is no dress code.

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Health & Safety:

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

Violent crimes due to poverty and narco-trafficking are increasingly common. Crimes of opportunity against tourists are very common as well. The general review of the police is they are not interested or able to do much. As for being a diplomat posted here, there isn't a high threat level for these types of crimes beyond having your things stolen at the beach, from your car, or non-traditional rental house accommodations. The police have reported that thieves have signal jammers so when tourists lock their car (rental or personally-owned) with remotes, the signal doesn't reach and the car doesn't actually lock. They then open the doors and take all their stuff.

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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?

There are occasional threats or water impurity, but generally it's not a problem. Tap water is fine to drink in developed, urban areas. I wouldn't drink it way out in the countryside/mountains. Dengue and malaria have seen an uptick in the past 6-9 months as business largely don't report it in order to not scare away tourists, so it's not reported until it's a real problem. Medical care at the private hospitals is generally quite good. You wouldn't want to have a heart transplant here (or other major surgery), but routine medical care is quality and doctors are internationally educated.

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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?

The climate in San Jose is the best part about the city. It's never too hot or too cold, sometimes muggy and sometimes windy, but no extremes. The air quality isn't bad, but there are allergens due to the local flora and volcanic activity. Runny noses and persistent coughs come and go every 1-2 months.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

For food allergies, be sure you're very clear when ordering at a restaurant what you cannot have. If you're prone to getting migraines, they can be exacerbated by the volcanic ash that isn't always visibly present.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Not that I'm aware of beyond maddening gridlock traffic.

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

The climate in San Jose is the best part about the city. It's never too hot or too cold, sometimes muggy and sometimes windy, but no extremes. Six months of the year it rains heavily every afternoon. Dec-Feb is extremely windy and can be difficult to sleep through. And March-May is sunny, dry, and warm.

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Schools & Children:

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

I wouldn't call them international schools more than wealthier local schools where English is the base of the curriculum. The American International School is not very nice and situated far from embassy housing. People have mixed opinions about Country Day, Pan-Am, and Blue Valley. The general level of communication and organization isn't strong, but they're decent schools. There isn't much attention to special needs students though. The German school (right next to the embassy) is good I've heard. There is a British school as well.

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

I have heard from colleagues with special-needs kids that the accommodations aren't robust.

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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?

Yes, preschool and daycare is widely available and considerably more affordable than the DC area. A month of preschool tuition here will get you one week in DC.

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

Yes. Paid private sports/dance/swimming, etc. are widely available. There are no public offerings of these kinds of activities though.

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Expat Life:

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

The expat community is large: lots of Americans living in Costa Rica, mostly Guanacaste and Osa Peninsula. The Americans who like it here stay, those who don't like it leave pretty quickly. There is a general sense of unease with the American community here. They've invested considerable funds in property and see violent crime and property crime rising. The general consensus is that the police cannot or will not address the crime problems.

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

I would say good for all compositions of people mentioned above. There is something for everyone. But a post is all what you make it, and if you're into outdoor activities, there is no shortage of things you can do and places you can go.

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3. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

It's easy to get along with Costa Ricans if you're American. I think if you're from another Central American country there are prejudices that exist.

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

Yes. Costa Rica is pretty liberal and accepting, generally speaking. There isn't systemic oppression of LGBTQ expats, and there are accommodating activities.

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

Not that I'm aware of in a conspicuous way, but Costa Ricans think there is no racism here despite the fact darker-skinned Costa Ricans are agglomerated on the Caribbean coast due to racist laws in the past that wouldn't allow Jamaicans building the railroads to come to San Jose.

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

Manuel Antonio Park is incredible. Arenal volcano is awesome too. And areas south of Puerto Viejo are really great (the city itself is not really). The beaches are hit-or-miss, despite the American tourist consensus. There are some white sand beaches here and there, but by and large there are kind of grey or brownish dirt sand beaches. There is occasional black sand beach, which is also not particularly attractive, but there are some nice beaches if you look for them (and can afford the hotels).

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

Poas volcano coupled with a stop at the Starbucks coffee plantation is a nice day trip. La Paz waterfalls is nice because it has an animal conservation/zoo as well, but it's wildly expensive for some waterfalls you can find in most places in Costa Rica for a more local price or free. Hacienda Orosi hot springs is a nice day trip too.

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

Nope. Everything is imported from the US or Asia. Local "Costa Rican" stores are junky souvenir shops. There are not walkable shopping areas with local offerings pretty much in any city. Anything like that is manufactured for tourism.

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

Being a short flight to the United States and the climate. Beyond that, San Jose is not a very attractive city.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

I wish I had known how outrageously expensive it was going to be and how awful the traffic would be. The traffic discourages many people from venturing out into the country for weekend trips as it's so unpredictable.

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


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

Cosmopolitan lifestyle and urban walkability.

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4. But don't forget your:

bug spray, sunscreen, and patience.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Not really.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Costa Rica is not the paradise that it's advertised to be to American tourists. There is traffic, crime, and everything here is overpriced, but the people are lovely (when they're not behind the wheel of a car) and there are some really nice excursions. You can also travel without the imminent threat of disease or political instability like much of the rest of Central America. I'm not sure if I understand why so many Americans want to move here, but it can be a really nice place to visit.

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