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  • Writer's pictureJeanne and James Bellew

The 7 Biggest Mistakes New Expats Make When Moving to Costa Rica (and how to avoid them)

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Are you thinking of moving to Costa Rica?

Known as The Land of Fire, with 200 identified volcanic formations, a biodiversity that contains 5% of the world’s species, and one of only five “Blue Zones” in the world, why wouldn’t you be?

As an ex-pat living in Costa Rica with my husband, we welcome you with open arms!

During our 1.5 years here, we’ve seen people come and go and always wonder about their motives for leaving this beautiful country. So, we’ve made it a point to ask and find out.

Keep reading, and we’ll give you an overview of the seven biggest mistakes we’ve seen and heard about and how you can avoid them.

The 7 Biggest Mistakes

1. Thinking You Don’t Need to Learn Spanish

While knowing the language fluently is a dream goal, it will only happen for some, depending on their willingness. However, everyone can learn pleasantries to conversational Spanish and everything in between.

Coming to Costa Rica thinking you can get by without knowing or learning some Spanish is counterproductive and appears arrogant.

You’re in a country whose native language has been Spanish for 500 years, and while you can get by without it, it makes living here more difficult and makes you appear to the locals as disinterested in their culture and lifeways.

So, start by learning the alphabet, the pronunciation of vowels and consonants, listening to Spanish TV, downloading some language apps, and practicing with anyone you can.

Costa Ricans are very generous and will talk with you if you show them you’re trying; they’ll even teach you!

Knowing some Spanish and respecting Costa Ricans will bring you much joy during your time here.

2. Looking for the instant gratification you’re used to

Unlike in the U.S. and Canada, Costa Rica moves slower. Costa Ricans aren't in a hurry…ever. From banking to restaurant service, contractors, retail, and everything else.

If you come to Costa Rica with a mindset that expects life to run as smoothly and quickly as you’re used to, you will be sorely disappointed.

You have two choices—

· You can bring your fast-paced expectations and live your life feeling annoyed and angry all the time (which you will), or…

· You look for the virtues of the slower-paced lifestyle, i.e., less stress, more peace, joy, and enjoyment.

3. Being complacent about protecting your valuables

Costa Rica is known as a safe country. There is very little violent crime, but you will hear about petty crime—stolen valuables out of cars, off the beach, and even house break-ins.

Petty crime is no joke, and we are all susceptible to it.

For example, we were robbed two months after we got here because we didn’t take security seriously. It was something we were “going to get to.”

We had a fireproof/waterproof safe with all our belongings because our American mentality told us that a safe would keep our belongings safe.

We went out one night to one of the fabulous “night markets” they have in Costa Rica to enjoy a night browsing the artisans’ tables and eating great food.

We left the house around 5:30 pm with our dogs, locked up, and headed out.

We returned home at about 7:30 pm. I was the first one in the house and noticed that the door didn’t open easily, as though something was behind it. I slowly pushed and got the feeling right away that something wasn’t right.

My husband looked in and saw our floor covered with papers and our belongings.

We went further in and saw this—

They used my 7 lb. free weights to bash the door in and safe open.

We called the police, and they came and took a report, but nothing happened.

*NOTE­—There is a lot of repeat petty crime because negative consequences such as jail time are not enforced. They aren’t easily implemented because putting and keeping people in jail costs money. The Costa Rican justice system isn’t private; no one makes money putting people in jail. Therefore, public funding is low, and the country can’t afford to house and feed people. Criminals know this and act with more impunity.

Since the robbery, we have fortified our house and property. We have an electric fence and an alarm with motion detectors on the property, the windows, and the home.

Since then, we’ve had one more attempted robbery, but they fled when the alarm went off.

Fortifying our home should’ve been done immediately upon moving in. But, again, our American mentality told us that we could behave like we were in the states, where we didn’t feel we needed an alarm, instead of paying attention to what the needs were in our new home.

No, this doesn’t dissuade us from living in this beautiful place. It’s always something somewhere, so we figured out how to be safe.

If you plan to move here or visit, don’t leave your valuables unattended.

This means—

· Don’t leave them in your car; if you do, ensure they are hidden and your vehicle is locked.

· Also, please don’t leave them sitting on a towel unattended while swimming. Instead, buy a waterbag and take them with you. Or, better yet, don’t bring valuables to the beach.

· When leaving your home, owned or rented, ensure it’s locked, outdoor lights are turned on, and if there is an alarm system, USE IT.

4. Not understanding the sun this close to the equator.

Hey, the sun is everywhere. So we spend our days in the sun, with or without sunscreen, and don’t think much of it.

We watch people new to Costa Rica thinking the sun is like everywhere else they’ve been, and it’s not.

Costa Rica sits 10° off the equator, which means that the sun shines straight down v. at an angle and heats the earth’s surface more than places further off the equator.

*NOTE—Although the sun is intense because of its position at the equator, the country's temperatures vary greatly. The most heat, and where you feel it most, is at the beach, where we are. If you live in the mountains, valleys, or cities, you will feel less heat, but don’t be fooled that the sun's intensity is any different.

The best way to avoid getting badly burned, which is dangerous for you and will ruin your time, is to—

· Stay out of the sun during the midday sun

· ALWAYS wear sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses

· Wear UV protection clothing

5. Underestimating what driving can be like

When we first got here, I wouldn’t drive for three weeks. It took me that long to understand the traffic rules, how Costa Ricans drive, and to be confident.

While there are many similar road rules here, whether drivers pay attention to them is a whole other thing. Here are some tips for driving safely in Costa Rica—

  • There are many motorcycles on the road, and they zip around in traffic. So always be aware of them, and always give them the right of way.

  • Be careful when turning left. Always put your turn signal on, and don’t assume it’s enough before making a turn. Look over your left shoulder for any signs of someone passing you.

  • We were in an accident driving home one day. We slowed down, put our left-turn signal on, and started to make the turn, and a car came around us on the left and sideswiped us.

  • When crossing one-way bridges, pay attention to the CEDA sign on the road. This means you must stop and give right-of-way to cars coming the other way. Don’t cross until there is no traffic coming toward you.

  • Drive slower than you’re used to. The roads are narrow, people and families with children are walking on them, and the potholes will tear your car up.

6. Thinking you should become a resident right away

Becoming a resident takes time and money.

The two pluses of residency are 1. not having to leave the country every 90 days and 2. being a part of the public health system, Caja.

When you move down here, you are on a 90-day tourist visa, meaning you must leave the country every 90 days and return to have your passport stamped.

While this sounds like a big deal, it doesn’t have to be. We know people who have lived here for years without residency.

Without residency, you can easily travel out every 90 days using a company that provides a “border run” for people who need it. These companies offer shuttles, car services, private planes, etc., all over the country.

*NOTE — when you leave the country, you must show proof when you re-enter that you are going again. There are services such as that provide a professionally processed, inexpensive airline ticket to show that you are leaving again.

Becoming a resident is something to be thoughtful about. First, see if you like living in Costa Rica and whether taking the time and money to become a resident makes sense.

7. Trying to live your North American lifestyle in Costa Rica.

There are always the people who come to Costa Rica thinking they’ll continue to live the life they’re used to, just in a different location.

Some have the resources to move everything down in shipping containers, buy large homes, and decorate them just like they’re used to, and they try to maintain the same lifestyle they had.

While they can find others like them in the right area, like a gated community, they still can’t make it like home and become unhappy.

Costa Ricans, rightly so, don’t care how much money you have because their ability and incredible desire to give you what you want is still hampered by what is available to them.

For example, grocery stores, repair shops, and hospitality services are what they are, and if you come here expecting to be treated differently, you will be disappointed.

Best advice? Remember you’re in a developing nation (not a third-world country), be grateful for the beauty and kindness surrounding you, be polite and kind, and take deep breaths when times get frustrating.

A Final Thought

Living in Costa Rica has been an excellent choice for us. Even with some of the issues mentioned here, there have been more better experiences that make living here more than worthwhile.

We’ve taken the high road as much as possible by learning, sometimes the hard way, and following the tips above.

We encourage you to learn from others’ mistakes to enjoy Costa Rica.

There is so much to love and value about being here… but that’s another story for another day.

Pura Vida! 🌺

James, Jeanne, Cousteau & Ferdinand 💕🐩🐩

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