“Wow, you live in Costa Rica? Everything must be super cheap down there!”
This is perhaps the most standard comment from friends and family in North America when they learn that you reside in Costa Rica. And while it is true – the overall cost of living can be significantly less than it is in the U.S. – it all boils down to how much you want to spend. Be it $1,000 per month for a modest lifestyle or $5,000 for a lavish one, it is easy to find a comfortable niche that just feels like home.
Costa Rica is one of the most well educated and affluent countries in all of Latin America. For a nation roughly the size of West Virginia, it is wildly varied in climate, landscape, biodiversity and cost of living – which is apparent in the pricing of real estate, rent, food, and utilities throughout its seven provinces.
For example, leasing a comfortable and spacious apartment in the Central Valley is inexpensive by American standards – between $300 and $500 per month. On the other hand, that same living space in Guanacaste – one of the most notoriously pricey regions in Costa Rica – might go for twice as much; the same rule generally applies to real estate, food and imported goods.
Services are extremely affordable nationwide – from housecleaning to landscaping you can expect to pay up to 90% less than what you would in the United States. Hourly rates vary by region, but are usually cheaper farther inland and more expensive near the coast.
With so many outdoor activities to choose from in Costa Rica, entertainment possibilities are endless and usually easy on the wallet. Utilities are also fairly priced here – particularly water. Electricity is cheaper in Costa Rica than in the U.S., but escalates dramatically with an air conditioner running night and day. Comprehensive private healthcare plans can be had for just a few hundred dollars per year per person, and all child residents are automatically insured by socialized healthcare.
Rent in Costa Rica varies by region. As previously mentioned, a modest two-bedroom Costa Rican, or Tico, style house with no air conditioning can cost between $300-500 in the Central Valley, and twice that amount in Guanacaste. On the other hand, a comfortable two-bedroom condo on the Pacific with most of the comforts of home can cost between $700 and $1,000; a swankier version of the same place could run upwards of $1,000. Costs in rural areas and the Caribbean tend to be lower than the rest of the country.
Phenomenal real estate bargains are available throughout the nation, and it is possible to pick up a one-bedroom condo just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean for well under $100,000 – or a spacious three-bedroom house on the Caribbean for less than $200,000. Karen Real Estate features condos, farm properties, business and hotel real estate for every price range.
Utilities differ slightly from place to place, but rates are more or less consistent. Water is a steal at about $.007 cents per gallon, and electricity runs $.17 cents per kilowatt-hour. In a select few tourist hotspots – namely Playa Tamarindo and neighboring Playa Langosta – water prices are notably higher.
Just like everywhere else, excessive use of electricity guzzlers like air conditioning units and clothes dryers can drastically increase monthly bills. Air conditioning consumption is not an issue in cooler climates like the Central Valley. Electricity is always billed at a lower rate at night, and a small family might pay anywhere from $30 with no A/C, $70 per month if using A/C conservatively, and as much as $200+ if it is continually running.
Contrary to the U.S., it is actually cheaper to eat fresh organic fruits and vegetables in Costa Rica than it is to eat junk food. Here, healthy eaters will find themselves in paradise: two kilos of vine ripe tomatoes can cost as little as two dollars at the grocery store, while lunch at an American fast food chain restaurant can easily run eight or ten dollars. Meat and chicken prices are comparable to those in the U.S., and fish caught right out of the ocean is about $4-5 per pound.
Anything that originates in Costa Rica (food especially) will be much cheaper but anything imported, toiletries, appliances and imported furniture, imported tires, electronics including computers and printers, printer ink cartridges, shoes and other clothing, will be more due to Costa Rica's high import duties.
For the freshest and most affordable produce in the country, major towns offer a weekly farmers’ market known as la feria, which lasts for one or two days. Here, vendors from all over the country sell a variety of locally grown fruits and veggies. For $20-30, a small family can acquire enough food to last all week.
Dining out at a mid-range restaurant will cost between $7-12 an entrée and, just like in the U.S., fine-dining establishments set the sky as the limit. Small, Tico-style restaurants called sodas offer typical fares at incredible prices; an enormous casado dish of rice, beans, meat and salad can be had for about $4-6.
Cell phone service is very consistent in Costa Rica, and basic plans start at around $6 per month. This includes approximately 60 minutes of outgoing calls. All incoming calls are free – unlike in the United States, where users are billed on both ends.
Internet service is reliable and widely available. Cable modem 512/128kb connections cost about $25 monthly through private companies like Amnet (www.amnet.co.cr) and Cabletica (www.cabletica.com), and include cable television. ADSL connections are available through ICE (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad) for roughly the same price, along with subscription to a telephone land line (www.grupoice.com).
Public healthcare in Costa Rica is inexpensive, with prices working on a sliding scale and beginning at about $20 per month. Because wait times can be exponentially longer at public hospitals than commercial ones, many people prefer to invest in private plans – which are about $50 to $100 per month depending upon general health, age and medical history. Approved expenses, including prescriptions, doctor appointments and hospital stays are normally covered at 70%. Pre-existing conditions and maternity are not covered until the plan has been in place for ten months.
Health services purchased on their own without insurance are remarkably affordable, and often negotiable. An appointment with a doctor at a private clinic costs about $75, and many prescriptions, exams and procedures cost a fraction of what they do in the United States. Always ask for a discount to ensure the best possible price.
The public bus system is the most affordable and reliable mode of transportation in Costa Rica. Local busses charge about fifty cents to any destination within city limits. A five-hour, one-way trip from Playas del Coco on the Pacific Coast to San Jose costs about $8, as does the 4.5-hour trip from San Jose to the Caribbean town of Puerto Limon. Buses are usually on time and in good working order.
Taxis are modestly priced in comparison to other countries. Tariffs from one place to another usually won’t exceed more than $2 within a medium-sized city, like Liberia, Guanacaste. To ensure a fair rate, ask the driver to turn on the maria, or meter, before entering the cab or simply agree upon a fair price in advance.
Cars are ridiculously expensive to import to Costa Rica. Taxes alone can be almost as much as the value of the car itself. Each year, car owners are required to pay marchamo, a $100-1,000 (depending on the age and brand of car) fee for mandatory liability insurance. Considering Costa Rica’s notoriously poor quality roads, cars need frequent repairs; however, reparations fortunately only cost about 20-30% of what they would in the states.
Additionally, vehicles don’t lose their value here like they do in other places. If you buy a car today and drive it 50,000 miles, you can still sell it in a couple of years for almost the same price for which you bought it. Auto insurance can cost more than private health insurance and is not required.
Boat prices vary from one place to another. An hour-long excursion from Playa del Coco to the legendary surf break Witch’s Rock and back runs about $60 per person, depending upon group size, while the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera costs just a couple of dollars one way – and $10 more to tow a car.
Flights within Costa Rica – as well as to Bocas del Toro, Panama and certain places in Nicaragua – can be purchased for $100-150 one-way. Nature Air and Sansa are the country’s two commercial airlines.
Imported goods in Costa Rica are anything but economical. A small jar of JIF-brand peanut butter can cost over $7 – about the same price of cleaning an entire apartment in a major city. Electronics like laptops and iPods costing $150 or more in the U.S. are commonly marked up at least 30%.
The old banana town of Golfito features an enormous mall where shoppers can purchase big-ticket items like washing machines, televisions and furniture at discount prices. Best of all, items bought here are exempt from sales tax.
One of the greatest advantages to living in Costa Rica is the bargain pricing for services and manual labor. A gardener or maintenance person may earn between $2 and $3 per hour to tend grounds. Local seamstresses will tailor a pair of pants for $2-$3, and leather workers can mend a broken zipper or an old shoe for about $3 per job.
In a city like San Jose or Liberia, a housecleaner may charge as little as $6 to clean a small house and do laundry – making it easy to splurge weekly or even daily on a housekeeper. This rate escalates to about $20 in beach towns, which is still quite a bargain.
Many parents choose to send their children to private English-speaking schools that charge anywhere from $200-1,000 per month, per child. Many institutions, like the Green Life Academy in Playas del Coco, offer full and partial scholarships to especially promising students.
Private Spanish lessons for adults generally cost between $8 and $20 per hour.
Let’s face it: most people don’t move to Costa Rica to strike it rich – they come to enjoy the country’s immense natural beauty and incredible quality of life. Luckily, Costa Rica is the land of free and inexpensive activities.
It doesn’t cost anything to slap on a pair of sneakers and go hiking along the nearest trail; or to cool off at the bottom of a refreshing waterfall. The country’s extensive national park system provides thousands of acres of trails and untouched rainforest teeming with plant and wildlife; miles upon miles of rugged mountain biking paths afford spectacular views and unbelievable opportunities for bird and animal watching.
Costa Rica’s entire coastline is considered public property, so 100% of its immaculate shores are accessible to everyone. Hundreds of white-sand beaches with turquoise waters are perfect for kayaking, snorkeling and sun bathing. Surfing enthusiasts can ride Costa Rica’s legendary waves to their hearts’ content – completely free of charge; for those that don’t own a board, rental rates are between $10 and $20 per day.
For guided tours, everything from canopy to ATV and scuba diving tours are available. Hundreds of directed excursions ranging in price from $30 to $100 depart each day: including parasailing, zip lining, bungee jumping, mountain biking and turtle watching.
Indoor activities in Costa Rica are few and far between. An adult movie ticket can be purchased for about $6 per person. Many theaters feature a “buy one get one” day once per week.
When it comes to nightlife, most bars and clubs along the coast have negligible or nonexistent cover charges; establishments in San Jose can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 to get in. Domestic beers cost about $1.50 in a local bar or soda, and $2 or $3 in touristy beachside locations. Many establishments offer ladies’ nights on Wednesday or Thursdays, when women drink on the house until 11:00 p.m. or midnight – a great way to experience Costa Rica’s incredible dancing culture.