San Jose, Costa Rica Report of what it's like to live there - 07/05/08
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?
Extensive travel experience in Mexico, but this is the first time I've lived abroad for so long.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I am an educator/researcher from the U.S.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
5-6 hours from LA (CA).
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Varies. I lived in three locations over three years, including a very local, typical small town, and two affluent, expat areas. If you work at the Embassy you will most likely live in Escazu and the distance between Escazu and the Embassy is not far at all, but it all depends on traffic....which in Escazu on the main road is horrendous.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Cheap and plentiful fruits and produce, rice and beans. If you buy American/Euro goods at Automercado, expect to pay.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
BOOKS, and good quality clothes.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonald's and Wendy's if that's your thing. Costa Rican traditional style restaurants.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
No address system at all - need a Miami P.O. Box with Interlink, or a Costa Rican P.O.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
No problem - much better than Mexico, my other basis of comparison.
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
International Baptist Church, Escazu, and Escazu Christian fellowship meet in the same building, but IBC is in the morning and ECF is in the evening.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Tico Times is English language newspaper for CR and Nicaragua. TV is AMNET or CableTica (mostly Spanish stuff, but subtitled.)
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You should know at least basic Spanish to be respectful, but most Costa Ricans are very open to trying to speak English with expats.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
Right, with all the usual caveats about no rules and crazy drivers, etc.
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Affordable compared to the U.S. - YES. Taxi prices are going up along with fuel prices. Buses are cheap. Safe depends on your definition. Drivers, when asked, will say, yes, of course they have seat belts. Then the taxi arrives, and lo and behold, the seat belts are shoved so far under the seats as to be unusable. I had to learn to specify that I needed the seatbelts to be functional and on more than one occasion I asked the driver to demonstrate how he would go about using them since he insisted that they were there. Later I got a car.
3. 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?
Extortionist import taxes prohibit anyone but the independently wealthy from bringing a vehicle. Amost all cars are standard, not automatic. Potholes are GIANT and plentiful, both in the city, on highways, and in rural areas alike. Worst roads in Central America, by all accounts. Most foreigners drive giant, gas-guzzling SUV's through the narrow streets of Escazu. Fuel in Costa Rica in Jan. 2008 was already at US$4 a liter.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. Reasonable, I don't remember the exact price.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Foreigners can't get a line without a bona fide residency permit.
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
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?
Teaching english will barely allow you to live, but if you just want to surf on the weekends and really live like a local, I guess you'll be okay.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Tight jeans and tight shirts are the standard uniform for women, shorts for either sex usually only worn by foreigners. Jeans and shirts for men. One rule of thumb - everything is tighter.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
YES. I never had a problem, but I know people who did, including locals. Home invasions were becoming more and more popular in affluent Cariari, and the expat suburb of Escazu is also heavily targeted, including by people jumping drivers stopped at traffic lights. In Escazu the affluent expat houses have the ubiquitous guards with large rifles, and of course the rumors are that the guards can always be bribed. Again, I never had a problem, not once, I just heard of tragedies and misfortune from other people and read about these security concerns in the Tico times, the English-language newspaper.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Rain for six months, dry for six months (in San Jose).
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
From intimate knowledge and personal experience, the American International School is a real mess. There are serious controversies and challenges with the board, teachers, and parents. HOWEVER, when I was there, most of the problems were confined to the high school, rather than the elementary school, and my children had a pretty good experience there, despite all the problems. If your child has special needs, they have the best special needs program in the country. My children did not have special needs, and that was part of the problem - the school tilts heavily in favor towards this population. This is positive in the sense that there is a real need to be filled, and the other schools aren't doing as good a job. Country Day School is generally the ex-pat school of choice. It has an international population with a distinctly American cultural emphasis. Many of my children's friends went there (we couldn't afford it). It is definitely the school for the wealthy expats, and super wealthy Costa Ricans and others. They have great activities. I do know kids who had problems with a teacher, etc., but I know this can happen anywhere. Lincoln and British school have a serious reputation among ex-pat kids I have talked to as being very culturally insular and biased against American and foreign kids. They also have a reputation for excellent academics. Do not consider unless your child is young enough to learn Spanish language and culture quickly and blend in, and you have enough money not to feel like an outcast. I speak Spanish fluently, but this still would have been a problem.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
Daycares are totally inadequate. This is not a problem because nannies are relatively inexpensive and certainly plentiful. HOWEVER, do your research on Costa Rican labor law before hiring one.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Pretty large - embassy of course, gaming folks, leave the rat race folks, old guys looking for Heaven downtown at the Del Rey Hotel, teachers at the international schools, the entrepeneurs, multinational execs, and retirees.
2. Morale among expats:
Varies wildly - depending who they are and why they're there.
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?
What you make it.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It depends on what you like to do. Single men, so I've heard, can be in Paradise..., single women probably won't be far behind, (depending on age and interests - sorry but it's true!). Families with young children will be disappointed that parks are extemely sub-par. If you like the outdoors and can get out to the beach (closest to San Jose being 2 - 21/2 hours away) every weekend, then people of all ages who like the beach can enjoy it.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Probably - but I have no experience with this. Younger Costa Ricans are very liberal with sexual expression (at least compared to conservative Mexico), and I can easily imagine that this extends to gays and lesbians, but I don't know for sure.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
YES. I have mixed-race children, and as Latin Americans in general ALWAYS comment on their skin, eyes, hair, etc.,
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Inbioparque is fun for kids, the Children's Museum is okay, the Sloth Refuge on the Carribean Coast, and Tirimbina rainforest Reserve, Sarapiqui, Totuguero, etc.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Going to the beach - not really any unique local items to stock up on.
9. Can you save money?
Totally depends on your habits.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I'd go, but no way would I go for that long. Six months is way more than enough.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
North American expectations of customer service.
3. But don't forget your:
Bras and good quality clothes.