Can You Show Me The Way To San Jose (Costa Rica)
I just got back from Costa Rica a little while ago and I thought I'd pen a short submission on some of the differences and similarities I noticed in relation to Thailand. I must make an important disclaimer here, I was only in Costa Rica for 9 days so please understand that most of my impressions are going to be pretty generalized, based on my gut feelings, and some discussions with expats, more so than actual long term experience there. I did manage to sit down with some guys who are living down there and we did have some decent conversations about living, working and loving in CR.
The first thing we noticed upon arrival in Costa Rica was the outstanding weather, at least this time of the year, when we exited the airport. An expat we had met on the plane had told us that he felt it was a little humid in Costa Rica, so my friend and I were expecting that humid blast of hot air that many of us know so well when we arrive at Swampy. This was not the case at all, at about 7:30 PM it was around 65F and not very humid. When I got back home I did a quick search on the weather in San Jose and I found that the lowest temp recorded is 52F and the highest is 92F, average relative humidity is 68%, and during the rainy season which is about two/three months the average rainfall is 12"/month. There is a reason why they say that being in San Jose is like living eternally in spring.
There were a few touts trying to grab fares at the airport, but we ignored them and caught a metered cab into downtown San Jose, the fare was a metered $26USD, although there is a surcharge from the airport. In general most fares around San Jose cost us from $1-$6USD. There were of course a number of drivers who did not want to use the meter and most of these were stationed around the Gringo hangouts, much the same as Thailand. Interestingly enough, the girls that we met at these places told us that the drivers try it on with them as well, even when they are going home alone, and they insisted that we walk (can you imagine a Thai lady insisting on walking anywhere?) around the corner and get a "good taxi." Pretty crappy when they pull that scam on their own people.
The unlocked phones we bought in Thailand worked fine with the pay as you go SIM cards we bought in the airport upon our arrival. The cost of the SIM was $6USD which gave us about 2 hours of talk time and almost unlimited texting. As a bonus, they also gave us an extra $4USD of talk time for free. Interestingly enough, we ended up having to buy another SIM for my friend in downtown San Jose and the price and bonus were exactly the same as at the airport. Note that if you turn your phone off, upon turning it back on you will need to enter a four digit pin to access the SIM card, so don't lose that pin #! We never had to top up our phones so I can't speak to that, although we were told it is easy enough, and there were certainly enough places around to get it done, just look for the green Kolbi frog.
The language of Costa Rica is of course Spanish, but in the tourist areas and hotels English is spoken very well and one should have no problems. As you get away from those areas there is less and less English spoken, but in general we found it quite easy to communicate with the locals and somehow there always seemed to be an English speaker lurking close by and eager to help (at no charge). In general we found that the "working girls" in CR spoke far better English than their Thai counterparts, and we found it quite refreshing to be able to talk to most of these girls. Don't get me wrong, they of course asked where you're from, how many times have you been to CR, etc, these ladies are just as savvy at sizing up their marks as the Thai ladies. It's just that they were able to carry on somewhat more of a conversation after that and in our opinion they seemed to be a little more forthcoming about themselves than the Thai ladies.
The ladies in Costa Rica run the gamut, short, tall, fat, thin, light skinned, dark skinned, etc, etc. I must say that quite a number of the "working" ladies have a predilection for silicon enhancement, a little more than the Thai ladies. The proportion of the "regular" ladies leaning toward enhancement was not nearly as large as the working girls. In my opinion there are lots of beautiful woman in and around San Jose, both p4p and non p4p, be aware that quite a few of the ladies are in fact not Costa Rican, there are Peruvians, Nicaraguans, etc, and it's all good.
If you're in San Jose and looking for some p4p company, it's not hard to find because prostitution is legal (18+) in Costa Rica. However, pimping is not legal, and what that means is that in the large, and well known venues (Del Rey, Key Largo and Sportsmens Lodge) the girls are freelancers and do not work for the bar. In fact the bars mentioned above seemed to be very careful about checking the ladies IDs as they entered the bar, please note I wrote "seemed to be", and the hotels will actually hold the girls IDs until the guest gives the ok to the front desk to give it back to them. What this means to some of the more cost conscious guys is that there is no such thing as "ladies drinks" in these places, a drink for the ladies is going to be the same price as yours. At one place we ordered a round of five drinks, 4 alcoholic and 1 coke light, the cost was just under $12USD. Much to our surprise one lady actually asked us if it would be ok if she ordered a top shelf drink! Now before you start doing the happy dance and booking tickets to Costa Rica, be aware that the girls are more expensive than in Thailand. At the three venues mentioned above, the ladies starting quote is $100USD/hour! Of course this is all negotiable and the later the night the lower the price, etc, etc. There are also massage places which are much cheaper and will generally cost from $30-$35USD for the half hour and $50USD/hour. I really encourage you to do some research before going to San Jose for some p4p fun as there are both freelance and massage venues that are much less expensive. Also, be aware that the massage places do get raided from time to time. If you're not into the p4p scene San Jose does have a pretty good regular nightlife with lots of clubs and restaurants, etc, throughout the city.
The "regular" women that we met were, in general, very friendly and we found them to be quite pleasant. One common theme that we heard from both the expat residents and the guys who take fairly regular holidays to Costa Rica is that if you are not living in Costa Rica then you can pretty much forget about having a steady girlfriend there. However, if you do live there and speak decent Spanish then finding a girlfriend is pretty easy. One thing that we did find surprising is that quite a number of the women we met seemed to have husbands/boyfriends who were quite a bit older than they were, in some cases 15-25 years older, and to them it was no big deal. Of course we wouldn't have been surprised if these women were dating or married to older Gringos, how often do we see that scenario in Thailand, but a lot of these ladies were with Costa Rican guys. Perhaps it's a cultural thing? The Gringos that we met who are dating or married to Costa Rican women seemed to be pretty happy and from our general conversation with them we gathered that they are not being pressured to support the girls family financially. Most of the guys that we chatted with seemed to be with non-p4p ladies, but to be honest we couldn't be sure as there was no way that we were going to ask "the dreaded question!"
Here's a few other bits of info that we picked up on our trip:
1) Foreigners can own land/property in Costa Rica.
2) Immigration seems to be fairly laid back, but rules and regs do change and there can be a lot of paperwork involved for getting permanent residence. Tourist visas are good for 90 days and then you must leave CR for a minimum of 72 hours before returning to get another 90 day visa. Although it sounds like the Costa Ricans seem to love their paperwork, like the Thais, the actual requirements of establishing residency and then becoming a permanent resident are not all that tough. Here is a link to a page that gives you the basics of getting residency and then permanent residency . Note, that if you choose to go the Pensionado or Rentista route, you will be able to apply for Permanent Residence after three years. For those of you that are on a pension, the requirement of a lifetime pension of $1000USD/month is not too bad (the average wage in CR is $400USD/month) and if you're not making that then maybe you should reconsider your immigration plans. Here is a link to the Assoc. of Residents of Costa Rica, who can help you with immigration and other needs, for a fee of course.
3) There is a lot of varied information in regards to work permits. One thing that most people agreed on is that unless you are working for a large multinational they can be hard to get. It would seem that there are quite a few people who are in CR working on a tourist, Rentista, or Pensionado visa, which is a no-no, but most of the people we talked to feel that if you stay away from the jobs at the beach or a job which might skirt the law, and of course keep your head down, then you will be pretty safe. Of course, a relatively inexpensive propina (tip) to an investigating officer can make many problems disappear, sound familiar?
4) One can get the public health insurance or opt to get a more expensive private plan, and in comparison to what I am paying for my (self insured) health care here in the USA it seems like a pittance! Feedback on the actual care, especially if you are privately insured, has been generally very good. Some American expats did say that in certain circumstances they have travelled to Miami for their health care needs.
Unfortunately, we had to cut our trip short due to a family emergency and we did not get to travel outside the San Jose area, so I can't speak to the beaches and other areas of CR, but I have heard really good things. In regards to the San Jose area, one can live quite cheaply or very expensively depending on your tastes and of course means. Cheap does not necessarily mean horribly, it just means doing a little research and a willingness to go outside the box. For example, a meal in the tourist areas may cost around $8-$12USD, but if you walk 2-3 blocks away you can get the same meal for $4-$5USD or less. The same theory applies to housing and groceries, we met quite a few expats who are living in predominantly Costa Rican neighborhoods who are very happy and living quite comfortably. We met one young American woman who is renting a 3 bedroom, 2 bath house for $500USD/month in a decent, not high end, area. She says that she generally feels quite safe and secure where she lives and the neighbors are very friendly. FYI, internet seems readily available and we were impressed at how many places had free wifi on the premises!
My initial impressions leads me to believe that the cost of living in San Jose might be a little cheaper than Bangkok, relatively speaking of course, rent, utilities, and groceries seem to be a bit less. It certainly seems that immigration is not nearly as tough/xenophobic as Thailand and if you can navigate the paperwork you can be a permanent resident in 4-5 years. Considering that if you are a Pensionado or Rentista, you only have to be in residence for 4 months per year for the first three years it's not too bad, and in the event you are married to a Costa Rican or have a child born in Costa Rica then you can immediately apply for Permanent Residency. From a purely personal point of view, as I live in North America, travel to and from Costa Rica is much easier and of course much less expensive than going to Thailand. Depending upon one's departure point from North America ticket prices can vary from $300-$600USD round trip. I have to say that we enjoyed our time in San Jose and we are already planning another trip to Costa Rica so we can investigate other places than the Central Valley. Obviously my time was short and my impressions are by no means definitive(they could be horribly wrong), but I have to say that Costa Rica bears further investigation as a place for retirement/relocation or simply a place to go and have a good time.
Costa Rica has always seemed like a real option to the Americans – the proximity to the US and the fact that people speak Spanish as Americans may be used to. I do wonder if there are many expats from other parts of the world there?