4 C’s of Costa Rica Expat Living…

The decision to leave a “comfortable” life in your country of birth for a strange and exotic land is a daunting, perhaps even scary, one.

How exactly does one even go about making such a momentous life-changing decision? Here’s a suggested framework. I’ll call it the 4 C’s of Costa Rica Expat Living…

1. Climate

People who make the decision to become Costa Rica expats are often motivated by the idea of living in a warmer climate. Of course, you could just move to a southern, or southwestern, state and accomplish that. So, I hope there is more to your motivation than climate alone.

Nevertheless, climate does seem to play a significant role for most.

Costa Rica is a warm climate, no doubt about it. But it is also a land of diverse climates. And that is true despite the fact of little temperature change throughout the year.

There are only two seasons: winter and summer. Winter is around 7 months, from May through November. Summer is 5 months in duration, from December through April, with December actually being a somewhat volatile “transition month.”

The thing that separates one season from the other is not temperature, but precipitation…meaning rain. During the winter, in most parts of the country you will get rain and lots of it. Now, that doesn’t mean zero sunlight. Mornings can be delightful, as well as clear nights. But every day around 3:00 PM, or so, the clouds roll in, the thunder might boom, and down it comes.

That is just a fact of Costa Rica life and there’s really no escape from it.

Now, having said all that, here’s the cool thing…Costa Rica is a land of “micro-climates.” And the reason for that is simple…altitude. The Costa Rica landscape is an extremely mountainous one.

If you are near sea level in Costa Rica, it’s going to be hot. All beach areas of Costa Rica are hot…in fact, the hottest of the hot. If you like the idea of being in a warmer climate, but perhaps simmering heat doesn’t really have that much appeal, I have good news. You can easily escape the heat by simply moving up the mountain a few hundred meters.

The higher altitudes of Costa Rica offer almost perfect weather. And what’s great is that you can live in the mountains and still not be very far from the beach. I live at the foot of the tallest mountains in Costa Rica, but still less than an hour from the gorgeous southern Pacific coast.

Yes, climate is an important and somewhat complicated factor in deciding where you want to live in Costa Rica.

2. Culture

The Costa Ricans are known as “ticos.” As an aside, the reason for the name is because in their day-to-day speech, they tend towards the diminutive by using the spanish suffix, tito, or tico. For instance, my name is Scott, but my wife, a tica, often refers to me as “Scottito”…or, little Scott.

The tico culture is a delightful one. There are, however, aspects of it that drive hard-driving gringos, who come from a culture enslaved to the time-clock (since time is money, right?), nuts. The tico culture is one that is never, ever, in a hurry to do anything!

For that and other reasons, gringo expats tend to congregate in enclaves. The closest beach to my home, Playa Dominical, is a great example. There seems to be more gringos down there than ticos. This creates what I refer to as a bubble culture. The gringos seem to occupy a culture of there own that’s somewhat separate and apart from Costa Rica.

For some, that’s a good thing. For others, not so much. It all depends on you and what you want. If you want to immerse yourself in real Costa Rican culture, then I would suggest not opting for a “gringo enclave.” On the other hand, if you’d prefer to be surrounded by people and a culture more familiar to the one you left, then perhaps a gringo enclave would be perfect for you.

Of course, language plays an important role in this decision. How motivated are you to learn the local language, spanish? If the answer is not much, you might be more comfortable surrounded by english speakers. On the other hand, if you really want to learn spanish and be able to communicate with ticos on their level, then immersing yourself in their culture is a very good way to accomplish that.

This can be an important element in making sure your new life in Costa Rica is as enjoyable as you might be envisioning.

3. Convenience

Costa Rica basically has one “huge” city and, apart from that, smaller towns. The huge city is the San Jose metropolitan area, also know as the Gran Area Metropolitana, or GAM. It’s actually the hub of 4 provinces. The main cities of each province are situated so close together that seems like it’s all one huge city in which almost half the entire population of the country lives. So, if you want to escape big city life, then you probably don’t want to live inside the GAM.

On the other hand, if the conveniences of a big city, such as huge shopping malls, American style big-box stores, excellent medical care, the best possible communications infrastructure, etc., are very important to you, then the GAM might be exactly where you need to be.

Like I said, outside of the GAM, you will find mostly small towns and tiny pueblos. There are a few secondary cities of notable size where you can find most conveniences of life in civilization. A couple noteworthy ones are Ciudad Quesada near the Arenal Volcano area and, in the southern Zone, San Isidro de El General.

San Isidro is where I live, so it’s somewhat near and dear to my heart. It is larger enough to have a lot of the conveniences that one would find in the GAM, even a mall with a cinema, but it still retains a small town feel. It’s also surrounded by incredible natural wonders, including Chirripo, Costa Rica’s tallest peak, and it is less than an hour’s drive to the coast.

In terms of convenience, you can opt for the GAM, you could go with one of Costa Rica’s secondary “cities”, such as San Isidro, or you can really live “out there.” Being out there means you better be prepared to live with inconvenience, meaning you need to be the kind of person who can be self-sustaining. Some are looking for exactly that style of expat life and that’s great.

But it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into as you choose the optimum setting for your new life in Costa Rica.

4. Context

The word context means the circumstances that form the setting for an event. For purposes of this blog post, that “event” is your life.

It’s important that you take into account the overall context for your expat life in Costa Rica. And that depends a lot on the type of person you are, or would like to become…

Are you a rugged mountain person, a bohemian beach-going type, or a city dweller?

Can you catch my drift?

Being happy in Costa Rica means first stepping back and really doing some vision casting. What do you want the picture of your life in Costa Rica to look like? Due to the great diversity that exists here, there are many different forms that picture can take.

I hope that the 4 C’s of Costa Rica Expat Living offers a useful framework for evaluating the type of life you want to live in Costa Rica.

A good place to start in making this evaluation is to take the Costa Rica Expat Tour.

Scott Bowers

Scott Bowers

I’ve been a resident of Costa Rica for the past 15 years. I first arrived in 2001 to broker the deal that sold one of the country’s premier private universities to a U.S. publicly-held education company. For the past decade I’ve been arranging eco-intensive Costa Rica vacation tours to locations throughout the country, as well as Nicaragua, Panama and Colombia. I’ve also worked with many of the indigenous tribes in Costa Rica, helping them sell their arts and crafts and keep their cultures alive. My most recent project, in addition to joining the Coldwell Banker Dominical Realty team, is to bring the joy of growing your own food with hydroponic gardening to homes throughout Costa Rica. In a former life, prior to becoming an expat in Costa Rica, I practiced tax and corporate transactional law in the Carolinas. I also have extensive experience as a business valuation consultant and mergers and acquisitions advisor to companies in a wide variety of industries. My wife and I have seven grown children between us. I love exploring the nature of Costa Rica and I am a life-long surfer. I’ve been a blogger about all things Costa Rica for the past decade and I’ve published one popular eBook entitled 100 Cool Things to do in Costa Rica. Credentials… - Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Campbell University School of Law - LL.M in Taxation, with distinction, from Georgetown University School of Law - M.B.A. from University of South Carolina - Chartered Financial Analyst - Former Certified Business Appraiser from the Institute of Business Appraisers - Former Licensed Real Estate Broker in N.C. and S.C.