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.