Cost of living in Costa Rica

I’ve had a few people tell me about how great it is to be living in Costa Rica, and how much cheaper it is to live here. Some people know from a little bit of experience, but others are making the assumption — it’s not Calgary, it’s not Canada, so it must be cheaper.
Funny thing about foreign countries: if you live in the right places, if you know how to blend in, you’ll do well. But if you’re a gringo, you aren’t going to get the free ride that you want.
We had this problem the first week we were here. We had people suggest:

Oh, just hire someone for that! You can pay ’em a couple of bucks a day.

In some parts of the world, that’s totally true. Maybe even in a few places in Costa Rica. But not here. We’re in the gringo areas of Costa Rica, as these are the easiest ones to handle without the jarring impact of the barrios. There are two tiers here: The Haves, and the Have Nots. Period. No grey area. You know when you’re in a good area. You know when you’re not. There is no in-between.
And believe me, people here know this. How do I know? Lemme elaborate:

  • Want to rent a decent place? You’re looking at a minimum of USD$1,500/month. That’s more than most Costa Ricans earn. Me? I’m paying more for a condo than I did for my mortgage back in Calgary for a nice house.
  • Car? You have three options:
    • New. You pay probably 20-30% more for a new car here — even a low-end one — than you will in North America.
    • Used. Depending on age, anywhere from USD$6,000 for a decent mid-late 80s car, to well over USD$25,000 for something in the last couple of model years. And it’s caveat emptor — Jason’s come across a couple of cars that looked good online until he did a little digging. They turned out to be dry lemons.
    • Import. Welcome to 80% import tax on the book value of your car. I have no idea — none — why this is in place. Either way, it means you’re not bringing your car to Costa Rica unless it’s worth almost nothing to begin with.
  • Taxis are way more expensive than they should be — if you’re a gringo. A lot of drivers don’t turn on their meters when they see us white folk, then nail you with a 2-3 times increase in price, ‘cuz they know you can afford it. It’s something you need to remember when you’re in a taxi — make sure they turn the meter on! And avoid at all costs the Aeropuerto taxi service. It’s an official, pre-paid service that’s tantamount to highway robbery.
  • Food is one of the biggest disparities.
    • Restaurants. You can go to decent restaurants and pay what you pay back home. We’ve done this a few times. As we start to branch out, we find cheaper and cheaper places that have pretty good food. At Yakky’s, for example, we can get three rounds of beer and a decent meal for about USD$20 each. And we know of places cheaper than that.
    • Grocery stores. There’s a few major box-style stores, such as Auto Mercado, Mas Por Menos, and Super Mercado that offer pretty much anything you would need in a store. They’re very similar to Loblaws, Safeway, Albertson’s, etc. And the prices aren’t really that far off, either. You can find cheaper stuff, but if you stick to brands you know, you’re paying. Key advantage? Many foods are local.
  • Gasoline. Let’s remember that you still have to put gas in your car. It’s over CDN$1.50 per litre. I have yet to fill up a car tank (we’re still mired in the get-a-car phase), but we know it ain’t cheap.
  • Clothing. Maybe it’s a thing with disposable income, but there’s a lot of very expensive stores here. Not nearly as many as Panama, but enough to make it harder to find reasonably-priced attire. This is something we’re still looking into.
  • Internet is the same price as in Calgary. But it’s slower and less reliable. BitTorrent? Good luck…

Is it all bad? No. Some things we’ve learned about Costa Rica that really do seem to help a lot.

  • For food, there’s a few options that seem to help, if you’re willing to venture away from the supermarkets.
    • Local stores. Some of these are really sketchy-looking. You wonder if there’s anything remotely fresh in there, and if you turn into the wrong aisle that you might never come out again. But the prices are for Ticans, not gringos, and you can save a few bucks pretty easily. The brands aren’t recognisable, so you might have to ask what it is. Which ain’t easy when you know very little Spanish.
    • Markets. Jason found one two weeks ago in central Santa Ana. It’s a farmer’s market, held every Sunday. It’s freaking HEAVEN for food. Everything is fresh, farm-grown, and insanely delicious. For a mere USD$1, Mark collected spices and herbs that would run USD$30 in any store up north. A kilo of fresh strawberries? 1,500 colones less than USD$3. Some things you won’t recognise, but then that’s half the fun. Everyone there is friendly.
    • Street vendors. These guys are often the same farmers, just looking to sell things a little to the side. From what I gather, it’s not too bad. They’re not there every day and the items often change, but if you’re on your way home, literally picking up something along the way is often a possibility.
  • Movies are cheap here, less than USD$4 at a regular theatre. (Popcorn comes in regular and caramel.) The catch? Not all movies are subtitled. Some are only available dubbed. (Some theatres don’t even bother with the subtitled movies.) Animated movies (like Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E) seem to be only dubbed — a minor problem for those of us still unable to entirely understand spoken Spanish.
  • Beer is cheap. Less than USD$1 for a bottle of Imperial, the local brew. Which, I should point out, is far from crappy. It’s lighter than Canadian beer, though, which makes me wonder if I’ll be able to drink that as easily.
  • If you want to take the bus, it’s also pretty inexpensive. The problem is that the routes don’t seem to be published anywhere (that we’ve been able to find), so you’re almost at the mercy of fate to get where you’re going.
  • I got my first electricity bill while we were in Panama. Grand total ? Less than USD$16 for a month. And two of those weeks weren’t even mine.

How are we netting out overall? Hard to say, really. We’re still dealing with a lot of high costs to get things going and settled. Hopefully in the next month or so, things will calm down again and we’ll return to normal.

Join the Conversation


  1. I would really really recommend you to use the Aeropuerto Taxi service (when going to the airport of course) a lot safer and professional even though I know is expensive. Same thing going from airport to home.
    About the regular taxis.. make sure they use the meter or “Maria” (that’s how we call it here). DO NOT get into a taxi without the meter and/or a sign in the doors or in the roof, those are called “Piratas” or “pirates”. Those are unofficial and they don’t have insurance and many other things…
    You may also want to call for a cab directly you can try these numbers: 2289-0026 and 2289-0826 (they are for Escazu/Santa Ana)
    Sorry for the extend comment, just wanted to give you some tips about the taxis here in Costa Rica…

  2. Geoff
    I saw Kung Fu panda two weeks ago with Spanish subs, you should give Terramall (in Tres Rios) a shot, they’ve got a decent cinema and usually give you a choice of both options.
    The buses don’t have written routes (not that I know of) pretty much all buses go to San José and back, there are new “Rutas Intersectoriales” that appeared about 2 months ago, you could find out about those.

  3. Just wanted to know Is $1500 per month is sufficiant to survive in Costa Rica?
    Which is the Cheaper and best place in Costa Rica to rent the Home for 3 member?
    Let me know if you have new infomation that you can share with me as i am coming for the first time in Costa Rica …. Thanks

  4. Hey Deepak,
    I know many Ticos who can live on $1,500. But you do have to accept that it’s not a lot to live on.
    As far as renting, that I don’t know. I came across one place that was just under $1,000/month, and that was at the low end of the “fancy” places. You can find a lot cheaper elsewhere, but I neither know what those places are or whom to talk to about getting them.

  5. At 74 I was hoping to find a paradise that was an inexpensive place to retire, or perhaps find a place that I could both retire in and work part time. As a Realtor with 9 years experience selling oceanfront luxury condominiums, I thought Costa Rica might be the answer, but with my lack of the local linguistic skills I may not be able to work. I now I read on this site, opposite of what I have been reading elewhere, that Costa Rica prices for food and lodging and services are FAR below what one is use to paying in the U.S. and Canada, I’m not so sure Costa Rica is the place to head to. At my age, I don’t want to make any costly mistakes. I have $3000. a month to live on if I don’t work. Any suggestions?
    Many thanks.

  6. You may want to look at “Craigs List” for rental places many under $1000.00. My one bedroom in Sabinalla costs me $450.00 a month all inclusive, furnished. Maid service 2 times a week and my laundry done for $5.00. Very nice area. right on the bus route. You can eat at any soda for 2 or 3 dollars.
    barter for everything The longer you are here the cheaper it gets…Pure Vida

  7. Hey Dennis,
    Sadly, we learned that after-the-fact. Sadly, we came down here without any appreciable information on costs, etc., or the differences in prices if you knew what to look for. We relied far too much on our relocation company (an absolutely terrible excuse for a relocation company, if you ask me), which is how we ended up in the nightmare we’re currently in.
    If I could go back 18 months, I’d change a LOT.

  8. I know of building lots for $22,000 in the South near Uvita, and a new home built on the lot is less than $60,000 A mortgage on that amount wouldn’t cost you $1,000 per month. A duplex can be bought for $85,000 to put on that lot, and the income on the second unit will pay most of the mortgage. I’m not a real estate agent, that is just the route I took. If you want full information just contact me at [email protected]

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