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Why Costa Rica is Just Not for Everyone

May 18th, 2006

The writer of the article below, Michael Quinn, recently visited Costa Rica with his lovely bride Patrice.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with them before they arrived. He spend a couple of weeks here, and upon his return to the USA. Michael wrote the article below. It appears he may not be moving to Costa Rica real soon.

Although I do not agree with some of his conclusions, (he simply made the common mistake made by many folks, of spending too little time in too few locations). I’ll address those in a future Post.

His article, printed below with permission, is scheduled to appear in The Free Press of Havasu, Arizona on 5-20-06, which, on a separate note, easily qualifies as the most useless and annoying newspaper web site ANYWHERE in the free world. Just try mousing over those links… ARGH!… but I digress…

Here then, for your consideration, is Michael’s review of Costa Rica. My point in printing it here is that Costa Rica needs to be seen. Extensively! Each visitor comes away with a different viewpoint. I reiterate my suggestion that before considering move to CR, come and visit.. preferably for 6-12 months. You will see the parrots, the monkeys, the beauty of a still rain forest, the astonishing canals of Tortuguero, Arenal erupting at night, and beautiful (and clean) pristine beaches. You will also see bars on windows, bad roads, and some of the other things in Michael’s article.

Many of us have complained for years about the high taxes and the sad state of medical care here in Lake Havasu. Rather than just complaining, my wife and I set out to upgrade our lot in life, to make our money go farther and to access quality health care at a reasonable price. The amount that Americans have to pay for health care and associated medicine seems criminal. We spent the last couple of years researching our options and thought we had found the perfect solution though it will sound radical to many. There are not many corners left in this world that can be considered extra friendly towards the United States but Costa Rica, in Central America, is one of them.Unlike many countries in the world we learned that legal residency there was quite easy to obtain and that one could have his entire family completely covered with quality health care for around $100 dollars a month, a fraction of what most of us pay, and the care is as good or better than here.In addition, the climate was said to be perfect being close to the equator, the people were friendly, and it was said that you could live on the beach for a fraction of what it would cost up here, something which is out of the question here unless you have millions to spend.

We were very curious and began some dedicated research. We found a couple of very interesting web sites, www.arcr.net which is a web site named Association of Residents of Costa Rica, and another one, www.therealcostarica.com, The Real Costa Rica.

We came to learn that there are literally thousands of Americans (ex-patriots as they’re called down there) who live happily in Costa Rica at a fraction of what it costs to live up here. Every question and answer under the sun can be found on these and other web sites and we decided that it all sounded too good to pass up. We started planning to check it out since most of our income goes to health care and other insurances.

The picture presented on these web sites seemed very objective, even warning us that this adventure wasn’t for everyone and that around 40% of those who think they want to make the change will return home. After doing so much homework I was convinced that we wouldn’t fall into that 40%. Boy, was I wrong.

We saved our money for the trip, made arrangements to cover my responsibilities to The Free Press of Havasu by submitting my items to my editor ahead of time, and prepared for what we thought was going to be a very important “reconnaissance mission” in our lives. It truly was, but not in the way we expected.

With two years of research and homework under our belts we boarded our plane in Las Vegas for San Jose, Costa Rica, the capital after what seemed like a totally absurd degree of getting undressed and searched for security (especially considering that the borders are wide open for anyone who wants to walk across).

We landed in Costa Rica at what looked like a very modern airport and we were as enthused as could be. Our plan began there in San Jose with the first two days consisting of a learning seminar put on by the Association of Residents of Costa Rica where we were instructed on all manner of things pertaining to living and functioning in this new country.

We learned exactly what we had to do regarding becoming legal residents, how banking works, how we’d get our mail from the states, what our options were for medical care, what was entailed in renting and buying property, especially at the beach.

They covered topics such as how to go about shipping your property down there, what the costs would be and what the import taxes would be. We learned that it could take up to a year to get a phone line and that virtually everything involving the government takes an eternity.

I had to laugh during one of the classes, one of the speakers at the seminar asked if anyone in the group had a “type A” personality and I sheepishly raised my hand. He said that he was Type A as well and that it’s harder for our personalities to make the change because much of the new life down there involves “waiting”. Standing in line for everything, the ATM, the hospital, the plumber. Everything involved patience and he said “if you’re impatient you’re going to have a hard time down here”. That was my first clue.

So after the two-day seminar we had rented a vehicle and were ready to head for the Pacific Coast for some exploration. We would be glad to get away from San Jose because by all indications there was a lot of crime there in the big city, but this should not be the case out in the country. There were said to be thousands of monkeys and parrots playing in the trees everywhere and we were excited. This is where our preconceived adventure began to come to grips with reality.

Imagine you wake up from a coma in a strange city, you have no idea where you are and there are no street signs anywhere, no addresses, no way to get your bearings. That IS Costa Rica. There are no signs anywhere except on the main highway and no addresses. So getting around is an absolute nightmare. If you don’t speak Spanish you’re dead in the water.

We were well on our way to picking up the language by the end of the week! The roads and drivers are the worst I’ve ever seen. The roads don’t have pot holes they have craters that could easily swallow up a Volkswagen in some cases. The law says that if you’re in any sort of an accident you have to remain with the vehicles, unmoved, until the police AND the insurance agent arrive. Can you imagine? The one-lane roads over the mountains are a massive traffic jam even when there are no accidents involved. It makes rush hour in L.A. look like Autopia at Disneyland.

We felt very insecure in San Jose as virtually every structure, residence and business is covered with steel bars and razor wire for security. The banks all have guards with shotguns and side arms. They made my wife take her sunglasses off in order to enter the bank. We thought that once we got away from the big city things would settle down but that was not to be.

The general feeling in every part of the country that we visited was that you’d be foolish to go out at night. And of course since guns are outlawed only the criminals have the guns. That’s a very uncomfortable feeling for me. We also found that, contrary to what we had learned in our research, there is a lot of poverty in Costa Rica. Another observation was that a lot of the property and real estate bargains had already been “Americanized” as it were and the bargains were no where to be seen. In fact we had to laugh at the difference between the advertisements and the realities of some specific properties. They looked like paradise in the brochure but that didn’t show that the entire city was locked down after dark.

We met one young American couple there who had been there a year and they were heading south to Panama as that is supposed to be the NEW frontier for Americans who are fed up and trying to stretch a dollar. The message was that we were too late with our ideas for Costa Rica. That seemed to be the way it played out for us.

I guess the thing that struck us both was that there were so many Americans who live there and apparently love it, crime and all. The medical system DOES seem like a great improvement from here. I got an ear infection on the trip and went into a little “farmacia” (pharmacy) and within 10 minutes I had antibiotics in my hand, an injection, and a medical checkup all for under $70. I got back to my room and looked up the drugs he had given me on the computer and discovered that in the U.S. I would have paid several hundred dollars just for the very same medication not to mention all the hassle of appointments, prescriptions, and overcharges for doctors. My symptoms were gone in the morning and didn’t come back. That part impressed me a lot! If THEY can sell me American made drugs so cheap, why can’t the American medical community and cut through some of the red tape?

We found the beaches to be dirty and the cities adjacent to the beaches to partake in the razor wire and steel bars syndrome. Some ENTIRE homes were actually enclosed in huge steel bars less than a quarter mile from the ocean, it’s like living in a jail cell. There just isn’t a police force of any significance there. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even if you have a nice house on the beach, and there are some, you are still surrounded by this atmosphere of insecurity everywhere you go. I’ll tell you, you don’t appreciate what a great police department we have here in Havasu until you spend a little time in a place like Costa Rica. We were getting homesick, that’s for sure.

Parrots? Monkeys? We traveled all over and never saw ONE single parrot or monkey, only a few lizards unless of course you count the painting of a parrot on a man’s canvas in a poor little village…he wanted $500. Like I said, Americanized.

Things happen for a reason though. Both my wife and I needed a little jolt to get us to focus on just how nice we have it here in Lake Havasu City, with it’s clean air, great police and fire departments, beautiful lake, and generally secure environment. By the time our trip was half over we were both longing for our beautiful little home back here in Havasu. We were elated when we landed in Las Vegas and, as if the universe was sending us a “job well done, welcome home” present, we checked into our pre-arranged $65 room at the Las Vegas Golden Nugget for the night and the gentleman at the desk announced with a big smile that he was “hooking us up big” and presented us with the keys to an $800 a night suite. It looked like Trump’s place. America never felt so good and we couldn’t wait to get home! Our lake looked glorious as we approached the city limits the next day.

Our attitude about Lake Havasu City has changed in the last 2 weeks even though we’ve been here 10 years. We have a lot to be thankful for. I’ve traveled all over the world. No place is perfect. The grass always seems greener somewhere else but I think the lesson we take a way from this adventure is that we would do well to count our blessings. I won’t be complaining about the water running down the street anymore or getting overly animated about the seemingly overwhelming issues regarding village properties and sewer debacles, and the petty little accusatory squabbles of our elected leaders. I’ll still pay attention of course, but I’ll be keeping things more in perspective from now on. And of course I didn’t know if I’d be able to sell my idea for a “Truth From Costa Rica” column (I had visions of writing for The Free Press of Havasu from the sunny beaches of Central America) to Mr. Moffett, my editor, so I’m happy I will be able to keep this relationship going.

My wife and I spent 7 years on the road traveling full time in our recreational vehicle and we had one rule. We would never move on to another spot for any length of time unless it was superior to the previous location. Our travels halted when we came to Lake Havasu to spend a short time. That was 10 years ago and we’ve found nothing to beat our little city. Our trip to Costa Rica was a complete success because it woke us up to just exactly how good we have it here. We will revisit our budget and make some revisions in order to deal with the terrible hardship health care and health care insurance puts on all of us, but we’re here for the duration, good Lord willin’. It’s not perfect but it’s better than anything we’ve found.

Michael Quinn
TheQuinns@MQPQ.com


7 Responses to “Why Costa Rica is Just Not for Everyone”

  1. Michael Quinn on May 19, 2006 10:45 pm

    Tim,
    My appologies for our fledgling website at Free Press of Havasu, we are a new newspaper in a town which has been overpowered by the established paper for years and we’re making an attempt. I’m happy to report the paper itself has made much greater progress than the website has thus far especially given we’re in our 4th month. Again, thanks for the great seminar and we certainly won’t forget our trip down there. The master plan calls for a complete website including electronic edition of the paper…stay tuned.
    Michael Quinn

  2. Erin on May 20, 2006 2:30 pm

    While I understand the points made in this article, I can’t say I agree with them.

    First, if you don’t want to pay American prices, don’t expect an American lifestyle. Yes, the Costa Ricans are more laid back (“Type B”, if you will) than Americans. That’s part of the pura vida. It’s part of what we should all embrace if we make the move. Costa Rica is not–and never will be, thank GOD–the USA.

    Second, real estate can be found for cheap. Even close to the ocean. Check out Golfito or the Caribbean side. Again, though, don’t expect American homes for tico prices. Not going to happen. If you want to live on a tico budget, buy a tico home. Better yet, rent. I know people that rent on the beach, or very close to it, for $200-$300/month. And that’s for a 3 bedroom. Yes, it’s tico style. But it’s a slice of paradise.

    Third, if you don’t speak Spanish, of course you’re going to be taken advantage of (i.e. asked to pay $500 for a painting). Happens EVERYWHERE. Just check out the next time a pretty blond enters the local mechanic; watch them tell her she needs a new engine and a paint job and, while they’re at it, they might as well sell her a new car. Furthermore, you shouldn’t go to a country to live if you don’t speak the language. There’s been more than enough debate over that here in the States.

    Fourth, yes, there are parrots and monkeys. In fact, they’re everywhere. But they’re wildlife. Don’t expect them to be where are the people are. Darwin did have this theory, you know… and I doubt that parrots or monkeys would have survived if they eagerly approached every human that came their way. Go into the country, into the forest, and you’ll find sloths, caimans, and yes, monkeys and parrots as well.

    Fifth, not all of the beaches are dirty. Many are gorgeous. The insinuation that CR beaches are dirty offends me, and I’m not even a tica.

    Sixth, one American couple that was met on their way to Panama? I meet couples all the time on their way to leaving wherever they currently are. Again, let’s remember that many, MANY American expats are living quite happily in Costa Rica.

    Seventh, San Jose is a city. Yep, that’s right, a CITY. Of course there’s crime. Costa Rica isn’t some mythical country; there are the same problems there as in every other place in the world. The bars? Well, they’re for safety’s sake. But did you know? Costa Rica has far less violent crime, murders, and at-gunpoint muggings than the USA. (They do have more petty crime though: purse-snatching, for example.)

    Anyhow, I guess I’ll finish up with my rant here. I don’t mean to offend, but I’m passionate about Costa Rica and slightly offended by the article. Michael, I’m sure you and your wife are wonderful people. But, as Tim said, it’s best to spend months (not days or weeks) in Costa Rica to really get a feel for it.

    p.s. The redesign looks great!

  3. Jamison Kelly on June 9, 2006 11:53 pm

    Michael,

    I can appreciate the feelings that you shared with regard to CR. I have to admit though, that some of the things you stated actually are the reasons that I am attracted to the country.

    I too am at times called ‘Type A’. But I swear to you, going down to Costa Rica and just melding into the slower culture (I’m not talking the capital though) does wonders to make you stop and start breathing, experiencing, and just being. Maybe I’m getting old; but I look at the way society has gone in the U.S., with corporate-style customer service at every turn, great emphasis on efficiency, and immediate gratification – I wonder if something didn’t get lost in the process. Fortunately, in my experience in CR, I could see that areas that were a little slower, a little less efficient also created an atmosphere where connections flourished. People all knew each other. A sense of community. Here in the U.S. I have no clue who my neighbors are. And I know it’s not just me – I hear the same sentiment all the time. Obviously, that is not the case all across the U.S., but as I see the multi-generational communities literally being replaced by big-box retailers who feed the mass-consumption madness that we as a society are stuck in, the communities suffer.

    Another point: the Spanish language. Let me tell you like it is: if you don’t know Spanish, you will always be an outsider in Costa Rica. It’s just the way it is. If you are American and are fluent in Spanish (or at least give it a running shot), you get a hundred times more out of your experience. My wife and I have been invited to the homes of complete strangers with the kindest of hospitality that I know would not have occurred if we didn’t know Spanish. But all this takes time and effort.

    Okay, now two things: 1 – you never saw a monkey or parrot when in CR? Let me just say then that your wagon wheels fell flat off. 2 – there was virtually nowhere you felt safe going out at night? Again, where on earth were you? (Other than San Jose and many Puerto Limon). I can honestly say that in many places I have never felt safer. Samara, Santa Elena, La Fortuna, Heredia, Alajuela, Bananito, hey even Montezuma. I just don’t get it.

    I’ll tell you this though – I highly respect you for taking the dive. Experiences like that, whether good or less than so, help us find out what is really important to us inside. And even though you headed back, it sounds like you took as much good as you could out of it. My hat is off to you.

  4. Sylvain on January 2, 2007 6:20 pm

    Michael,

    Please keep writing bad things about Costa Rica. It is a good way to keep more americans from invading the country and perhaps eventually get the land back to the Ticos. You see, there is one reason why Cuba, despite the poverty and regime, is one of the nicest places in the world… no McDonalds, no Taco Bells, no Walmarts… and best of all, (sorry to say but…) no americans. Unfortunatly, that may not be the case for too long.

    Enjoy your life in the U.S. Personally, I tend to stay away from there as there are way too many guns everywhere.

    Cheers!

  5. Molly on January 10, 2008 7:29 am

    The word is: EXPATRIATE: someone who has left his own country.

    Not EX-PATRIOT: as in someone who no longer loves his own country nor is supportive of it.

  6. Chris F on January 16, 2008 12:23 pm

    \”Hi there, I just wanted to say what a great site this is, I came across your site while searching around on Google. Your post, osta Rica is Just Not for Everyone at The REAL Costa Rica Blog has some good info! Thanks again, keep up the good work and have a great Wednesday!\”.

  7. Nick on January 11, 2009 2:51 pm

    Great web site and very interesting reading.
    One thing i noticed is whatever the subject be it seems some Brit sticks there 2 cents in and knocks the U.S.
    Its funny how fast they forget when there bulldog begged us for help to keep them from wearing little mustashes and goose-stepping all over the place!Granted the U.S. has its problems but a stong U.S. means a safe world! Maybe they would like it better if the Soviets were the ones ruining CR…they would all be in work camps!

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