How Much Does it Cost to Live in Costa Rica?

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I know one of the first things I wondered when I decided to move was how much it would cost per month.  Of course, I got this information from expats (mainly Americans) living there and the ranges were different, which was to be expected.  It all depends on what your minimum requirements for creature comforts are and what you’re willing to sacrifice.  Most locals only make about $400 a month and still survive somehow, usually with a family of at least 3 or 4 to support.

As others had said, if you look for a place to rent on the internet, you’re going to pay more than if you actually get to know the locals and find out some ‘local prices’.  However, it is sometimes necessary to book a place in advance before going somewhere.  So with that said, those of you who happened across this post and looking to live/move anywhere in the word, I’ll say this much:  Only book it for one month.  It might sound attractive to possibly save money on a 3 month or more ‘deal’ but sometimes pictures aren’t very accurate.  In a way, I wish I wouldn’t have done a three month deal in Puerto Viejo.  It still looked pretty nice when I arrived, but once I got used to being there, I found things out that I wish I could’ve lived without!

When you get to where you’re going, take the time to get to know the locals.  EVERYONE knows someone who is either selling or renting.  It seems every single place here is for sale.  And even if it’s NOT for sale, it could still be for sale, just not advertised.  I wouldn’t recommend buying anything either (if you plan on actually moving and staying).  I used to see the International House Hunter shows and I just had to laugh.  These people go to a few different areas (sometimes for the very first time in their lives) and think it’s great then sign their lives away a week later.  Now I don’t know how much of this is staged, but I have to believe there really are people like that out there.   I remember seeing one guy who bought a bungalow in a country I know quite a bit about because he liked the look of it and it was near the water.  Well, what he didn’t know apparently was that was an area where cocaine runners tend to pass through quite a bit.  Not to mention the drug problem in the area.   It pays to read the local news for a while if you plan on buying in a different country.

I think the other problem with buying is that if you need to sell it for whatever reason, you could have problems getting what you want for it or selling it at ALL.  Some people may think it’s an investment, which it could be (or not!?) but you never know what’s going to happen.  You need to know about potential disasters (living near active volcanoes, below a mountainside, near rivers, etc.).  That nice piece of land with the stream running through it could easily flood during rainy season and cause serious erosion issues.  Or that active volcano could be set to pop any day now and devastate your community.    That beautiful hill side behind you could turn into a landslide during a heavy rain or earthquake and bury your house.  So…enough about the warnings…how much does it cost to live here!?!?

I kept a spreadsheet for the past four months because I was curious what I was spending and what it was going toward.  The first four months, I rented places.  The past 2 months, I’ve done a house sit and do NOT pay rent (this is the way to go!!!).  So take that into consideration when looking at the numbers.  The best thing I’ve done so far was joining a house sitting site.  I think anyone who wants to live in another country for an extended amount of time should absolutely do this.  It might cost a little out of pocket, but in the long run will pay off that fee and you’ll probably live in a lot nicer place than you could have rented.

So, here’s the breakdown (in USD):

July-Tronadora on Lake Arenal.  2 bedroom house furnished with lake view.

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  • Rent: 450
  • Transportation (with tip): 42
  • Food: 230
  • Utilities: 6
  • Lodging: 70
  • Misc: 49
  • TOTAL FOR THE MONTH: $847

All utilities were included in my rent except for my cell phone so that $6 went to recharge that.  The lodging and transportation were from when I came back from the border run and spent the night in San Jose and got a ride to Arenal.  The miscellaneous expenses were from eating out a couple of times (and paying for someone else’s lunch one time), buying a shirt for myself and giving someone money to take me on a boat ride.  The house was nice but I found out later that I could’ve rented a different place cheaper had I just known someone in the area…about $100 cheaper.

August-San Antonio de Turrialba.  House sit (no rent paid) 2 bedroom furnished on acre+ of land with fruit trees, fish ponds, view of volcano.

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  • Rent: 0
  • Transportation (with tip): 80
  • Food: 448
  • Utilities: 6
  • Lodging: 0
  • Misc: 192
  • TOTAL FOR THE MONTH: $726

I did not have to pay the first month’s utilities so the owners paid for the previous month since I wasn’t here.  Yeah, I went a little crazy on food.  I was STARVING and was glad to finally shop in a decent grocery store and ended up getting a lot of things in bulk.  I had to take a bus to the store so when someone would actually drive me, I’d stock up so I didn’t have to get as much when I took the bus.  So a lot of the expense was for things I could use for the next month also.  The transportation cost was for getting here from Arenal.  The misc. total went up also because I bought a bike (that I ended up never using), some creature comforts for the house, a bill I still owed from Texas, and a donation to a family here.  But I also wasn’t having to pay rent, so I did splurge a little on other things.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten most of the things I had.

September-San Antonio de Turrialba.  House sit (no rent paid) 2 bedroom furnished on acre+ of land with fruit trees, fish ponds, view of volcano.

  • Rent: 0
  • Transportation (with tip): 290
  • Food: 203
  • Utilities: 93
  • Clothing: 99
  • Lodging: 220
  • Misc: 317
  • TOTAL FOR THE MONTH: $1222

Yow…what happened in September!?!?  Well, the bulk of that came from my border run to Panama.  Yes, that’s another thing one needs to take into consideration…border runs!  They can be cheap or they can be expensive.  Again, i felt like I hadn’t really done anything fun and I wasn’t paying rent so I splurged.  In a big way.  The transportation cost was the flight, the lodging was for the hotel and the bulk of misc. stuff came from a TV I bought for $140, a couple of entrance fees to local places, stuff I bought at WalMart and a birthday present for someone back home.   Oh, and the Panama expenses aren’t done yet!  More in October!  As you can see, the costs do vary wildly so it’s really hard to predict how much you will be spending while living abroad.  Now, for this current month…I’ve done pretty well!

October (up until the 22nd)-San Antonio de Turrialba.  House sit (no rent paid) 2 bedroom furnished on acre+ of land with fruit trees, fish ponds, view of volcano.

  • Rent: 0
  • Transportation (with tip): 84
  • Food: 136
  • Utilities: 84
  • Clothing: 175
  • Lodging: 0
  • Misc: 27
  • TOTAL FOR THE MONTH: $506

Yeah, I didn’t really NEED those clothes but I got them anyway in Panama.  I’ve already paid the utilities.  Transportation was for getting to the airport, taxis and a tour guide.  Misc. was for a haircut ($10) and the Panama Canal entrance fee.  I have one more trip to the store this month, another $4 for the fruit guy this week and that should pretty much cover it, so the real total will probably be about $565 or so.

<Updated on 12/30/13 are Nov. and Dec. expenses:>

Total for November: $172.42 (nice!! $70 was for food)

Total for December: $460.65 ($312 of that was a flight to Panama; sold my bike for $50; $135 for food; didn’t have to pay electric bill this month)

So there it is.  That averages about $840/mo.  However that is also skewed if you have to pay rent.  It would come out to more like $1200 if you were paying $400/mo. for rent for the past three months.   I could live a little leaner if I needed to.  I certainly won’t be buying any more clothes.  I’ve started making my own items instead of buying them and I’ve cut back on the things I have to PAY to go do for fun.   I also intend on selling the bike and the TV before I leave, so I’ll recoup almost $180 from that.  Food isn’t exactly cheap here either.  Panama had much better prices.  CR is the ‘California of Central America’ as they say, so expect to pay more for things you’re used to getting at home cheaply.  Namely CHEESE.  Yeah, I can’t let that one go…I’ve mentioned it, what, 4 times at least on this site?  Personal hygiene items cost a bit more than they did in the U.S.  I almost keeled over when I saw the Almay makeup that I use (makeup is really difficult to come by for brand names also) selling for $20!?!?!  This is a drugstore brand, folks.  I paid at the MOST $8 or $9 at the grocery store in the U.S. or even less on Amazon.  Even saw some powder I use and that was also $20 ($6 in the states).  I have never seen Olay in any of the stores around town but I did see it at the Walmart in Cartago and the price was almost double from what I’m used to seeing.   I brought as much of that stuff with me since I knew it’d be hard to come by and expensive, so ladies…don’t skip that if you really need it!

My side businesses over the internet help pay the expenses and I’m proud to say that I haven’t touched my REAL savings account since I moved down here (7 months now).  I did have a couple of other accounts to draw from aside from savings but those haven’t really depleted much at all either.  I could find some work here (under the table) if I really needed to by designing websites or doing computer work.  But for those of you who move to another country without an actual work permit from a company there, don’t expect to find much.  And you’d also be working illegally.  You never know if that immigration guy is going to come into the restaurant you’re waiting tables for.  Some people find jobs teaching English or babysitting or gardening.  But locals have a hard enough time finding work.  Oh, and don’t expect to get paid ‘what you’re worth’ either.  A design job in the states could run $85/hr but here you’d be lucky to get $20.  I believe minimum wage for non-skilled workers is about $3/hr here.  I made more at my old job in 2 1/2 months than most people make here all year.  Pretty depressing.  So please think about the job you might be taking from a local who really needs it and have a way of supporting yourself without relying on the local economy.

A final word on border runs too.  CR is starting to crack down on the 90 day visa for ‘repeat offenders’ who are not locals.  Recently they passed a law that if you don’t have your cedula (proof that you are or are becoming a citizen) you can’t renew your driver’s license.  Ok that’s fine if you don’t have a car.  But what happens if you rent a place for a few months and have to do a border run in between that time and the immigration officer only gives you a few weeks instead of a few months?  Back to the border you go (airport tax fee, transportation, food and lodging costs) only to hope they let you in for the maximum time again!  They don’t really want you here unless you’ve invested in a business or land and are in some way supporting the economy.  They also don’t want you taking a job from a local.  So come prepared with some documentation as to WHY you’re here just in case you need to show it (and it better be good!).

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the ‘onward ticket’ thing.  You must show proof that you are leaving the country either to your airline and/or immigration.  Otherwise you could run the risk of not being let in unless you mosey on over to that full priced ticket counter and make a fast purchase.  Some airlines don’t care but a lot do (they don’t want to have to pay to send you back to your country) and I have been asked a couple of times by immigration to show that ticket.

Please feel free to post any comments or questions, as I feel I’m fairly qualified to answer them after living here for a while now!

End of Year Update:

I figure the first three months I lived here (that I didn’t record) ran me at least $2100 which included a flight back to the states and then I came back to CR.   So I’ll estimate that for the past 9 months I have spent a little over $6000.  That didn’t include the health insurance I paid before I left so I could be covered for 6 or 7 months which was about $450.

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Spider Wasp

The poor original spider
The poor original spider

Last week I witnessed an amazing feat of nature taking place in the yard.  I think most of you have seen this already, but just wanted to do a quick post on it.  While looking for a hummingbird I thought had hit the window, I came across a wasp dragging a wandering spider (I said tarantula in the video before I knew what it was) so of course I had to film it.  These wasps find spiders (the larger the spider, the larger the baby wasp will grow) and paralyze the poor spiders but keep them alive.  They lay an egg on its abdomen and when the egg hatches, it starts to eat the spider alive…waiting to eat the major organs until last.  It’s a horrible death for the spider and I felt really torn as to what to do.  But I let nature take its course.  However, the really bad thing about this one was that the wasp was trying to get the spider into a vent hole and after trying for hours, couldn’t do it so she left it and went to get another spider the next day.  The only funny thing about Part 1 was me almost being attacked by the wasp (not so funny at the time).  I escaped thankfully because the sting is supposedly a 4 on a pain scale of 1-4 (4 being the highest/most painful).  I read they don’t like to waste their venom and typically don’t attack humans unless threatened (or in my case, insulted).

So I went out the next morning to find Part 2 taking place which I made a video of (long video…about 12 minutes) and saw the wasp dragging the new, smaller spider to its ultimate resting place inside the vent.  Today, 4 or 5 days later, the wasp is still visiting the vent.  I was under the impression that it would lay the egg after it got the spider and just leave.  So I don’t know what’s going on in there, but I’m pretty sure that poor spider is still alive and suffering (if spiders can actually suffer).  I just buried the original one after keeping it in the freezer for a few days because I didn’t want a zombie spider to be paralyzed for god knows how long and suffer(?).

Panama City

Shopping district
Shopping district

Wow!  I’m in a REAL city (well, I’m just now leaving it though).  Panama City (PC) is very modern looking with tons of high rise buildings and what appears to be a lot more being built.  This sort of makes CR look like a third world country.  And let me just say the shopping is SPECTACULAR!

Shopping
Shopping

But I’ll start off by saying that I took the flight here on Copa (a United/Continental partner) whom I had never flown with before.  I LOVED that they actually gave us food and FREE WINE…I think I even saw a bottle of booze on the cart as well.  That was amazing.  This is something that I believe most latin airlines seem to do (I’ve heard that about Taca as well).  So I was happy to say the least!  The plane was nice, comfortable and sort of on time.  It was only a 55 minute flight from SJ to PC which was also good.

At the Tocumen airport, they actually took everyone’s fingerprints and pictures in immigration.  I’ve never been to a country that does that.  I’m pretty surprised the U.S. doesn’t.  I’m not exactly sure of the reason behind it but it does seem like a good idea.  On the way out of Panama, Copa did NOT check for an onward ticket which seemed unusual to me.  I had purchased a ticket on United (one way) back to the U.S. because you are allowed to cancel it within 24 hours with no fee taken out.  This will also satisfy immigration in CR because last time I was asked for that.  I seem to have gotten really lucky this time around because they did NOT ask to see it, didn’t ask how long I wanted to stay and stamped me for 90 days.  Unbelievable.  I’ve been stressing over this for weeks now.

Front of hotel
Front of hotel
Riande Granada room
Riande Granada room
View from room
View from room
Yeah, not really sure...
Yeah, not really sure…

The hotel I stayed at (Riande Granada) had a driver pick me up and they were REALLY THERE!  Amazing.  I was having anxiety dreams a couple of nights before but they were unwarranted.  However, he drove like a bat out of hell and there was traffic (Friday afternoon) so that sort of scared me.  Then we SAT in traffic forever.  People were very impatient and honking for no particular reason in anger.  I now know what ‘nice’ honking and P.O.’d honking is and this was not nice.  I saw motorcycles jump on the sidewalk and drive on there.  Crazy!!  He said this traffic really wasn’t that bad either.

Anyway, got to the hotel which I really liked a lot.  It was funky/modern and recently refurbished.  My room was great, the atmosphere was good and the people were nice.  I didn’t have any

complaints at all.  AND there was this huge strip just around the corner with TONS of shops and I absolutely took advantage of that.

My hotel at night by the pool
My hotel at night by the pool
Grocery store bread isle!
Grocery store bread isle!

I think I spent almost $200 in the first few hours I was there.  Clothes, shoes, going to the grocery store.  Things were cheap (cheaper than the states) and the grocery store rivaled anything I’ve seen in CR.  I hadn’t had shrimp in…um…FOREVER so I bought a package of cooked shrimp (fresh) for about $9, cocktail sauce, bread, bleu cheese, wine and grapes for my dinner.  It was all great!!  I bought things there to bring back to CR that I either can’t get or are way too expensive.  Another bonus was the free alcohol they were sampling.  I walked around the store with rum on the rocks for a while.  I LOVE this place!

The next day I went to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal.  I knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t go.  They got me a guide that only spoke spanish, which was good for me since I need the practice.  We did pretty well together!  It cost me $40 for him to

Miraflores Locks
Miraflores Locks
Panama Canal
Panama Canal

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Check out the size of that anchor!
Check out the size of that anchor!
Oh yeah....
Oh yeah….

take me there, hang out for an hour 1/2 or so then he took me to the mall.  It cost $8 to get into the locks and they had a viewing deck of the ships coming in and a museum and 3D movie.  I’m glad I went.  They are building an expansion for it which I believe will be done next year in time for the 100 year anniversary.  It will accommodate larger ships which saves on pollution and of course generates more money for Panama.

Albrook mall when it was still empty
Albrook mall when it was still empty

I went to Albrook mall after that and let me tell you…this is one of the largest malls in all of Central America and I can certainly attest to that.  I don’t think I even saw it all after 3 1/2 hours of being there.  There were so many shops (over 800) you wouldn’t even believe it.  GREAT prices too.  And talk about self restraint.  All I bought were some q-tips, band aids, shoe inserts and food.  I sound like I’m 90 years old…I know.  It was just all too overwhelming honestly.  My head had been hurting ever since I landed in Panama and it still did up until now ( 2 1/2 days later) so I decided to just leave after all that time.  I did have a good steak kabob lunch there though with an awesome blackberry frosty drink for about $10.

Cool kicks
Cool kicks
Very cool soap store where I didn't buy anything!
Very cool soap store where I didn’t buy anything!
King Kong at the mall!
King Kong at the mall!
Did someone say SHOES?
Did someone say SHOES?
Yep, your eyes do not deceive you
Yep, your eyes do not deceive you

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Cool furniture
Cool furniture

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I went to the pool until the sun went behind the building and went out for more shopping down the street!  I found a neat dress and a beautiful top and that’s all I got…I was done.  Glad my suitcase was half empty when I started this trip because it’s now full!  I was able to easily pick it up when I arrived here and I had to have it weighed at the airport..24 pounds now.  haha!  I had to move stuff to my personal bag to avoid a fee.  P1020497

Cool looking wood shoes (not really wood)
Cool looking wood shoes (not really wood)
Ok, why is there a GUY on this ad?
Ok, why is there a GUY on this ad?
Gotta love the buses
Gotta love the buses

Overall, it was a good trip and I’d like to go back eventually to see the rest of the country.  I could totally live there, especially with the shopping and prices of grocery items.  I hear that rent is higher there and I have never seen a house sit come through for Panama yet.  In regard to the attitude I’ve heard so much about, I did witness that.  People didn’t seem as friendly as Costa Ricans, but that could have been city life too.  There was quite a bit of “I don’t give a damn” attitude with people in shops, but not everywhere.  Oh, the drivers are nuts.  And the highways there really were quite good…they looked a lot like they do in the States.  It’s just the drivers on them that make it bad.  Our driver from the airport (same one I had before) that took us back again drove like a maniac.  He was doing around 140/145kmh in a 100 and it felt like we were going to kareen off the road at any moment.  Luckily there wasn’t much traffic but still…it’s not like we were in a rush…and he certainly shouldn’t have been considering he was at work!?  I don’t know.  I definitely didn’t feel safe with him which isn’t good for the hotel.

I read there was a lot of rain happening in CR and some people last night got diverted from CR to Panama because something at the airport wasn’t working.  Glad I’m able to get there today!