“Is this Paradise?’
‘I can guarantee you that it isn’t,’ Jubal assured him. ‘My taxes are due this week.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
If you’ve been following our blogs for any length of time, you know that we often refer to Costa Rica as Paradise. In the larger sense of the word, compared to where we came from (New York City), our new home certainly does possess many of the merits we associate with the word “paradise”.
But to be honest – and we are, if anything, brutally honest – about our lives here, we have to admit that there are many facets of Costa Rica that hardly constitute living in paradise. Just because we love living here doesn’t mean we have to be absolutely thrilled with everything. Below are a few examples.
- The roads: We could have titled this blog the Potholes of Paradise. It’s halfway through the rainy season (our favorite time of the year), and the heavy rains have taken their toll on our dirt and gravel roads. But “potholes” would be a misnomer. We have craters and trenches so deep you could lie down inside of them. Usually, the Santa Cruz municipality – who is responsible for road conditions – throws some extra dirt and gravel on the road once or twice during the rainy season. It’s called “grading” – smoothing it out and making it somewhat drivable. At the beginning of this year, the municipality promised to not just “grade” the roads, but to actually put down a new road – 3 inches of asphalt – and new drainage on the side of the roads. We wept for joy, as we thought the original promise included not only all of the main road of Santa Rosa (our hometown) but also the next town over, Guatemala. I have been fond of saying “Jesus will come again before they fix our roads.” Naively, I posted that our roads were being fixed and I would have to withdraw my threat. Well, the municipality came alright, but they only put the new road from the turn-off into Santa Rosa to the town square – about 2 kilometers worth. Two months later, we watched as they packed up their backhoes and pavers and skedaddled out of town. We scratched our heads and wondered when they would be back to finish the last kilometer to the end of Santa Rosa, including the turn-off to our development. Well, they haven’t been back since February, so I think that’s a pretty good indication that they never intended to go past the town square after all. Driving involves zig-zagging your way carefully, not ever getting out of first gear, maneuvering as if you are trying avoid land mines. It’s no wonder that routinely, people keep and drive their cars for 20 years here, but the shocks and tires have to be replaced almost every 2-3 years. The condition of the roads is a disgrace, and it severely inhibits our ability to get around, particularly as we have a small SUV and not a large AWD like many people drive. I take small comfort in the fact that in a wealthy development nearby, Hacienda Pinilla (think million dollar homes), their roads are even worse, if that’s even possible to imagine — so much so, that people have taken to standing in the roads, blocking traffic and deliveries, in an effort to protest and force the hand of the municipality. And not just there, but in many smaller communities, the residents are protesting, but to no avail, it seems. These are photos of the road taken about a month ago. Imagine, if you can, what the road looks like this month — the craters are deeper, the trenches are wider, the mud patches are slimier. Cars have broken axles on these roads and last week, I read that two older women fell and hurt themselves trying to navigate these calderas. I’m back to predicting Jesus will come again before our roads are paved.
- There are no secrets here. You might think you live towns apart and nobody knows your business. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is Peyton Place. EVERYBODY knows everybody and “chismo” (gossip) reigns king. Opinions are formed very quickly; either you make friends or enemies. And believe us, you don’t want to make any enemies here. Every so often, we read of some expat who has been living here and then all of a sudden, mysteriously disappears. Gary and I look at each other, both thinking the exact same thing: “Who did they piss off?” Who did they try to get over on, or cheat, or toss around their “We’re better than you” attitude? So, if you keep your head down, be humble and mind your own business, be friendly and courteous to everyone you meet, don’t flash your money and bling around, do kind deeds for your neighbors and workers — then, yes this is a great place to live. But cross the Ticos, and you will never find peace here. Kind of reminds me of Jamaica, where up in the mountains, the local people would take matters into their hands — beat a thief half to death, roll his body into a ditch, and then call the police. Justice served; welcome to the jungle (a la Guns ‘N Roses).
- Critters: Speaking of the jungle, we can’t go without mentioning the overwhelming variety of multi-legged (and some with no legs) creatures that form our habitat. Yes, they were here first, but that doesn’t make dealing with them any easier sometimes. I have overcome my fear of most critters – except for the dreaded locusts (Death to the locusts!) – Gary is far braver. I even get excited when I can correctly identify a snake in my backyard now – but if you’re really squeamish about bugs, snakes and other small animals (armadillos, skunks, disgusting toads, for example) this might not seem like paradise to you. Then again, it might take years before you encounter any of these critters. We didn’t see our first snake for 3 years. Last week, I was washing my hands by the garden faucet and I noticed a long tail by one of the buckets. I thought to myself “Gee, that’s an awfully strange looking tail for a lizard.” Well – it wasn’t a lizard; it was a rather large snake who decided to make an appearance and then shimmy up on the deck towards the sliding door. Oh no, you don’t!! — a swish of the broom made him promptly do an about-face and slither off into the empty field next door. The mantra here is “Live and let live”, so we’ve learned to just chase away things, especially those that lurk in the dark at night. Except, of course, the bats – I love the bats. We have one that flies low in our backyard every evening at dusk and I love watching him, swooping around – our very own pest control guy at no cost. And at least I don’t have to worry about him hitting me in the head, like some of the other flying/crawling critters around.
- Crime: Yes, there’s crime here (tell me some place in the world that is totally crime-free). Year after year, Costa Rica is the safest country in Latin America. But, again, this is Latin America, and crime can be rampant in these countries. Here, petty theft takes the #1 prize. If it isn’t nailed down, it will be stolen. We are constantly reminding tourists not to leave ANYTHING unattended; people on vacation tend to let their guard down. There are more serious crimes, though – home invasions happen, but again, many people don’t lock their doors or windows, or have any kind of alarm system or dogs. And it all depends on where you live. A million dollar home?? That’s kind of advertising that you’ve got a lot of “stuff” that someone else might like to have. Flashing a lot of cash and expensive jewelry? Not smart. You do have to keep your wits about you. For us, coming from New York, no place could be worse when it comes to crime, so nothing scares us. If you’re coming from some small rural town where you slept with your doors open, well then, you might have to learn to adjust.
- Utilities: Any day where the electric, internet and water are all on at the same time is an amazingly wonderful day. If two out of those three are working, it’s still a great day. Have battery back-ups, emergency lighting, spare bottles of water, and a good book — and you’re all set. Before you quickly dismiss living here because you absolutely could not tolerate being without your creature comforts, you should know that utility outages of more than an hour is rare. If you’re working remotely, a boss or company that understands your internet may be sporadic is very helpful, and fortunately I hit the jackpot in that department. That said, a fair amount of patience and a “What can you do?” attitude is mandatory. We look upon these interruptions as a good time to just take a break, sit outside and breath the fresh air or go for a walk, time to regroup.
- Bureaucracy: Life goes on, as normal. People moving here think their lives will be completely different, but in many ways, it’s still just life as usual. There are utility bills, property taxes, grocery shopping, routine errands, car repairs — none of that changes. My clients routinely ask me “How’s life in paradise?” I always respond “Great!”. But I wonder what they are thinking….they must know I’m not swinging in a hammock and sipping margaritas all day. After all, I am working Monday through Friday. One benefit: the cost of living can be much less than what you are accustomed to, depending on your lifestyle. But the bureaucracy here is awful; what can take you 5 minutes in the States can take you days here. Banks routinely change their requirements for even the most basic transactions. Yes, government-subsidized healthcare can be great, but you might have to get on line at 5:00 am outside an office that opens at 8:00 am, just to get an appointment to come back later in the day. Replacement parts for cars or appliances can take months to get. Yesterday, a friend was telling us if you want to buy a new Toyota Fortuner, you can put down a $1000 deposit now, and you’ll be lucky if the car is here in one year. Very little is easily accomplished here when it comes to dealing with a government office.
- Entertainment: Unless you live in the Central Valley, you’ll become very good at learning how to entertain yourself. Here, in our neck of the woods, we have no movie theater (it closed during COVID and never reopened), no ballet or opera, no museums, no real cultural attractions. What we do have is an abundance of nature and outdoor activities: sailing, fishing, laying on the beach, pickleball, horseback riding, surfing, etc. One of our greatest pleasures is sitting on the back deck, watching the magnificent sunsets. For a while, we had Netflix, but the only Netflix you can access here is the Mexican version, even with a VPN. So not the same line-up of shows you see in North America. We went 6 years without live TV and this month, finally just invested in internet TV, mostly because we missed watching sports. So now Gary can watch the Yankees and I can watch Nascar and the U.S. Open. Prior to this, we watched the recaps on YouTube the day after the event, so this is a step up for us. Of course, now I get to see all the commercials of things we CAN’T get here. Which brings me to the next point….
- Availability of goods: When you find something you like, you have to buy 3 or 4, because you may never see it again, or at least not for another six months. We like Hershey’s Chocolate syrup, and when I see it on the shelves, I buy ALL the bottles they have. You have to learn to live without a LOT of the things you are used to routinely having. Imported goods, when you can get them, are very expensive. But you learn to be creative. Find alternatives or learn to make from scratch. I make my own ricotta rather than pay $11 for a small container, and that’s when it’s even on the shelves, which is not often. Yes, you can order from Amazon, but you’ll still be paying import taxes and fees and you need a reliable delivery system. Or you won’t ever even get your package. I still chuckle over the large cooking pot my friend Annie sent me. It went from New York to who-knows-where here in Costa Rica, sat in customs for 2 months, and then it was mailed BACK to Annie in New York — even though she had my correct mailing address. And then, when she flew down here, bringing the pot, the customs officer tried to charge her $200 to bring it in!! Fortunately, she spoke Spanish and argued her way out of the import tax. I would love a salad spinner; but I haven’t ever seen one for sale here. When you do find what you need, be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for it. We have quickly learned the best places to shop. A women’s Facebook page has turned out to be a great resource for finding hard-to-get items. And when you can’t buy it – find someone to make it. That applies to everything from clothing to furniture to fabrics.
So, what’s the verdict? Even with all these so-called negatives, we wouldn’t trade our lives here for anything in the world. I’ve said it before and I still believe it – If you put a million dollars on the table and told me that we’d have to move back to the States, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you to keep your money. I love this saying of Gary’s: “We didn’t come here to do, we came here to be”. And we are having a great time just “being”. That sense of wellness and peace does come with a price tag (all the negatives above), but one that we are more than happy to pay.
Come and visit us and see for yourself what a better way of life can look like. Different? Very. But better? Absolutely.
Cheryl, Gary, Kaia the crazy Labrador, and Mister Chan the sweetest pitbull
P.S. As always, please feel free to share our blog and website with anyone thinking about relocating to Costa Rica. We are happy to share our experiences.