Driving in Costa Rica


Traffic in San Isidro

Driving in Costa Rica can be much the same as in the U.S. Lets see…..both countries drive on the right. And I think that’s about it for the similarities. Driving here takes some getting used to. You need a whole new set of driving skills as well as a mindset revision and attitude reset.

First off, as I have mentioned before, in general the roads are not anything like the U.S. Rural roads are often unpaved. When you are lucky enough to happen upon one that is paved it is very likely to be full of potholes. Washouts and landslides are not uncommon. The first time I visited Costa Rica we rented a car with a GPS. The GPS would announce things like “washout ahead”. It occurred to me that the washout had been there so long (having not been repaired) that it had been incorporated into the GPS warnings! Wow.

Primary highways are mostly paved and usually in pretty good condition. When I speak of primary highways I am referring to a 2 lane road. There are no roads in Costa Rica that remotely resemble the U.S. interstate system. There is one new highway from San Jose to the Pacific coast that is 4 lanes in places. Other than that I am not aware of any 4 lane divided highways. These main arteries can be quite pleasing to drive depending on traffic and where it is. Highways in the lowlands are OK because they are mainly straight (see image below). However roads through the mountains, even though they are main highways, can be a nightmare. I once drove the highway from San Jose to San Isidro at night. This route is 2 lanes, crosses a mountain range, road markings are worn or non-existent, and it was rainy and foggy at the time. Now it just doesn’t get any better than that!

Main Highway Along the Pacific Coast is Pleasant

Larger town and city streets are generally paved and in pretty fair condition. The main issue with urban driving is the lack of signage and street markings. One way streets are very common but poorly marked. I have almost started down a one way street the wrong way a number of times. I say almost, but in fact, I have probably driven the wrong way more than once. I just didn’t know it. There are few traffic lights, even in lager cities. Cross streets and intersections usually rely on stop and yield signs for traffic control. But these signs are apparently only mere suggestions. Streets can be wide enough for 3 lanes yet have no lane markings. The sheer number of vehicles in San Isidro would be bad enough but the variety of vehicles adds to the confusion. Percentage wise there are many more buses and motorcycles than in the U.S. Buses bully their way through town and the 2 wheelers snake in and out of traffic apparently with little regard for their own safety. Add this to the lack of street markings and you have the makings of the perfect storm.

With the hectic city conditions and the trying rural roads people here must have a short fuse. But wait. Something really, really strange is obvious. There is no road rage. No fists waving in the air, no brandishing of middle fingers, no blasting of the horns. What is going on here? I’m not sure but I like it. The drivers here at first glance could be called aggressive. But they aren’t. Sure, they pass when they shouldn’t, they park wherever and whenever they like, even if it blocks part of the road. They will nose ahead of you in an attempt to gain position. They will challenge you, tailgate you, and drive slowly for no apparent reason other than to hold you up. But there is not a malicious content to any of it. If you dont want that guy to nose you out then stand your ground. He may push the issue and you have every right to resist. Sooner or later someone will give, but there is no attitude. No glares or horns. If you are driving too slow for someone they simply tap the horn to let you know they are coming (even if it is on a curve) and they zip around. They don’t blast the horn and flash sign language on the way by. If someone wants to stop along the road they just stop. Even if there is not room to pull off to the side. Even if it blocks one lane and requires traffic to take turns getting by. Something like this would invite a lynch mob in the U.S. But here no one gets upset. They simply wait their turn to get by. During all the driving I have done in Costa Rica I am certain I have committed numerous, egregious driving mistakes. Yet not once have I been yelled at, honked at, or shown the número uno. When I first noticed this phenomenon I wondered how a society could take this approach to driving. Then it dawned on me. It isn’t just driving. It is life in general. Costa Rica people do not like conflict or arguing. In fact, they will go out of their way to avoid it. Live and let live. I drive like I want, you drive like you want. I like it!

The Cost of Housing in Costa Rica

This is the last post regarding the cost of living in Costa Rica and it is about housing. Just like so many other areas, housing is a mixed bag. I’ll remind you again, I am trying to cover the real Costa Rica. Like most other countries Costa Rica has it’s share of high dollar, touristy, resort areas. It has gated communities with manicured lawns and 24 hr security. That is not my concern here. Also, since we are renting (and that is what we researched before moving) that will be the housing cost in question.

First it is helpful to know that the physical house itself is quite different here. Because of this you can’t really make apples to apples comparisons with regards to costs in the U.S. The average house here does not have the amenities found in the average U.S. house. In most parts of the country there is no need for heating and , except for the muggy coastal lowlands, most places have no AC. Houses have no insulation. There are no lawn sprinklers, no pools, no garages as we know them. Kitchens are quite simple with only the basics (no dishwashers, no double ovens, no center islands). There are no basements that I have seen. Most houses here are very simple construction without frills as we expect.

Tico Houses are Typiaclly Small and Simple

So is housing in the real Costa Rica cheap? Reasonable? Expensive? Again, since we can’t make direct comparisons (we are comparing apples and oranges) it can be a difficult. Speaking in broad terms I would have to say reasonable. Unless you require a “North American style” home (and they can be found) the cost to rent is fairly nice. Generally speaking a 2 bedroom house will range from $350 to $700 a month. Often the price will include utilities, even TV and Internet. When you get in the $500 to $700 range the houses will will usually have more North American features. As you would expect, closer to larger cities will be more expensive than a rural setting. Closer to tourist attractions will be more expensive. 

The house we are renting (pictured at the top of this post) is $490 a month. That includes satellite TV and high speed Internet. It sits on 11 acres, although most of the land is hilly and rocky. It has a beautiful 50 ft waterfall at the opposite end of the property. The house is a cross between a “real house” and a cabin. We have a nice kitchen with gas range and oven. There is a washer and dryer. And as I said, there is TV and Internet. But there are definitely “cabin” characteristics as well. For example, the upstairs bedroom is more like a loft that is accessed by something that is more a latter than stairs. Water pressure is low since there is no pump. The water comes from up a hill where it is collected and gravity supplies the pressure. The washer and dryer I mentioned are in a shed outside. There is no microwave. I can hear the gasps from here. No microwave!!!?? How can a civilized person live without a microwave? So far we have survived. A lot of the amenities we care about are not in the house but outside. The plants, animals, birds, rivers, and waterfalls make this place special, as do the people that are our neighbors. All things considered, I don’t think we could live the same in the U.S. for as little.

More on the Cost of Living

Beautiful Fruit

In my last post I talked about the many ways Costa Rica can be more or less expensive than the U.S. I’ll continue on that topic with the cost of health care. (OK, the picture above has little to do with this subject but I don’t have a particularly interesting shot of a hospital. And since I always like to start with an image this is a random shot from one of our previous trips here)

Let me start by saying that in the short time we have been here no first hand experience with the health care system has been necessary (luckily). However, in our extensive research on Costa Rica we have learned a lot. We have read the entire Internet (it seems) as well as talked to many people here that do have first hand experience. Since we are interested in the system as it pertains to us, expats, that is the stick with which we measure. And again, what we find is a mixed bag.

We are in the process of getting what is called a pensionado residency permit. Once the permit is nearly ready to be issued we must join the national health care program “Caja”. This is a requirement before the permit is issued. It will cost roughly $75 total a month and that covers both of us. So, what does it cover? Everything. The way I understand it, everything from doctors visits to surgery to medications is covered. We talked with an expat couple last year about their experience. She had broken a bone or joint, her knee if I remember. She had orthopedic surgery in San Jose which is about 40 minutes from Atenas, where they lived. She said the surgery went smoothly. At the time we talked with them she was well on the way to recovery and seemed very happy with the whole ordeal. Being covered by Caja she had paid nothing. The original emergency visit, the surgery, the meds……everything was covered. She was even picked up at her home by an ambulance and taken to required post-op visits, then returned home. Again, no charge. There were no co-pays, deductibles, etc. She paid not one red cent for anything. Of course there is a downside to this kind of system. It is over crowded, as you might expect. However, emergencies are handled in a timely matter. Things that can wait a bit may be put off a bit. Things that can wait longer are put off longer. If waiting is something that you don’t want to do then there is private care available.

Private care is just that. You choose who, where, and when you want treatment. You also pay 100% out of pocket. On the bright side, the cost of most medical procedures are very much less than in the U.S. For example, diagnostic testing such as MRIs, X-Rays, CT scan, and X-Rays are roughly half the cost of the equivalent in the U.S. Dental procedures are also about half. Surgeries can be even less. In fact, there is a growing industry here based on “medical vacations” for North Americans and Europeans. People who do not have insurance, or adequate insurance, will fly to Costa Rica for medical treatments or procedures. The total cost of the trip and the medical is less than what the medical alone would have cost them at home.

So the inevitable question. What is the quality of the health care? Again, I have no first hand experience but from all that I have read and all I have gathered from people I’ve talked with, it is quite good. A large percentage of the doctors are trained in the U.S. or Europe. It is true that the very best care is confined to larger cities, mostly San Jose. Care in remote areas can be sparse or non-existent. For us a visit to a doctor means a 1 hour drive to San Isidro. But once there we have a number of doctors, clinics, labs, and pharmacies from which to choose.

This brings us to the last and one of the more interesting aspects of health care here in Costa Rica. Evidently, doctors are not gods. Who’d have thought?? I can walk into a farmacia (pharmacy) and pick up my blood pressure meds, no prescription needed. Many drugs here are over the counter. Abusable drugs like narcotics do require a doctors prescription. Also antibiotics are controlled to keep people from over using them and creating resistant bugs. But for the most part just walk in and get what you need. Generally speaking drugs are much cheaper here. Most countries just will not allow the type of price gouging practiced in the U.S. There is a difference in the pharmacists here also. Many ARE doctors, but not all. even the ones that are not doctors are highly trained. So you can go to the pharmacist and explain your ailments. He or she will ask questions and zero in on the drug that may be needed. But in the final analysis, you make the decision. Weird, no? You can also get injections from you pharmacist. If I feel I need blood work done I can walk into a lab and request whatever level of testing I wish. Come back later and a printed report will be provided. Everything look OK? Great. Something out of whack? Then I can see a doctor, or a pharmacist……or not. So it seems that the doctor here isn’t the be all, end all as I’ve known. The doctor is here to help when you need it, but every single aspect of medical care does not have to pass through the doctor’s hands. That makes things a bit less costly.

The system isn’t perfect. I don’t think there is such a thing. But considering everything at this point, I see medicine and health care as a definite savings over the U.S. Here one would be much less likely to go into life long debt over a hospital stay as is very possible in the U.S.

Next I’ll cover housing.

Living in Costa Rica is Cheap…….right?

One of the most common questions people in the US  have about moving to Costa Rica is about the cost of living. Actually, most people have a preconceived notion they it is really cheap, they only ask the question in a rhetorical sense. So is the cost of living is substantially lower here than in the US? Well, yes and no. (Don’t you hate answers like that?) But the answer really is not clear cut. We have only been here a week but we have already had many surprises when it comes to the cost of goods and services. Some surprises are good….some are not. As you read keep in mind that we live in a rural area. Prices in large cities like San Jose and in tourist areas are not the same.

Since we do live in such a remote area we found a car to be a necessity. Even though bus service in Costa Rica is very cheap and can get you to and from almost anywhere our house is so remote the bus does not (could not) come this far. So we were lucky enough to learn that our landlord, who is traveling the world for a yet to be tetermined length of time, was willing to sell his car. Since buying a car here can be a daunting and confusing task we welcomed the chance to streamline the process by purchasing from someone we already knew and trusted. This brings up the first example of the cost of living in CR. Owning a car is expensive. It starts with the cost of the car itself. The accepted formula for car value here is Kelly Bluebook value (US) x 1.5 = CR value. With the generally meager wages here I can’t understand how so many people own cars. I suppose that is the reason so many cars are old and dilapidated. Then there’s insurance. Again….expensive. Gas……EXPENSIVE. Gas is considerably more costly than in the US. Almost everything that has to to with a car is more expensive except repairs. Repairs are for some strange reason less expensive than in the US. Just the other day we took our Toyota 4 Runner in for some minor work. They replaced a front sway bar bushing, wiper blades, rear light bulb, oil, filter, and air filter. Total bill was less than $100. Now that may not seem terribly inexpensive but I think it is less than you would pay for the same work most places in the US. And considering everything else car related is way expensive the cost of repairs are definitely a relief. 

Typical car seen in rural Costa Rica

Food can be put into 2 very general categories. Local: fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meats that are produced locally. Food from “elsewhere”: this would be processed foods from other parts of CR or other countries. The cost of foods in the first group ranges from very cheap to reasonable. Almost every town and village has a farmer’s market open at least one day a week. These markets are the place to buy local, inexpensive foods. in the larger towns, like San Isidro, the market is extensive with hundreds of vendors. The variety and choices are staggering. Foods in the second group range from a bit unreasonable to outrageous. The worst case examples of outrageously priced items would be name brand items from the US. Example: a medium size box of Cherrios can run $8.00 or more. But if you must have your Cherrios…. Luckily for us, coffee is inexpensive. Goodcoffee can run as little as $4 pound. That is calculated based on a true 16 ounce pound, not the US coffee sellers “12 ounce pound”. Toiletry and cosmetic items from the US are very costly. Basic toiletries, things like soap, that are produced here are inexpensive and actually pretty good. So the cost of a trip to the grocery store can vary greatly depending on how you shop.

Roadside fruit stands are numerous and fruit is inexpensive

In general, labor is cheap. This may be one of the reasons car repairs are not expensive. The shops here don’t charge $75 an hour for labor. But the real bargain here is domestic help. We have numerous people in the village that we can call on for house cleaning, yard work, and general maintenance. The going rates are from $2 to $4 an hour depending on the type of job. Yesterday we had a thorough house cleaning done by a wonderful lady that lives up the road. The total cost was $9 for 3 hours. On some level I almost feel guilty, like I’m taking advantage of the local people. But these are the going rates, at least in this rural setting. They are happy to have the work.

So you can see so far, the cost of living can vary greatly depending on your lifestyle. Costa Rica can be quite cheap or it can be very expensive.

Housing, health care, and medications are all another mixed bag of cheap to expensive. I’ll cover these in my next post, including pharmacies which are quite different from the US.







The First Week

It is now exactly 20 days since my last day of work, June 4th, 2013. Since then I, along with my wife Beth and 2 cats, have moved lock stock and barrel to Costa Rica. Over the past 2 years we have been researching a place to retire. We wanted something different than the typical “Florida experience”. Looking for the right fit we made 2 trips to Costa Rica, one each to Ecuador, and Panama. We liked all 3 places but decided on a remote area of Costa Rica. So after selling virtually everything we owned (house, cars, furniture….everything) I am writing this from a recliner (with a cat sleeping on my lap), in our rented house in Herradura de Rivas, Costa Rica.

Unless you have an unusually detailed map don’t bother looking for Herradura┬áde Rivas. It is about 20 kilometers northeast of San Isidro de General, AKA Perez Zeledon. You can find San Isidro along Rt 2 in the southern half of the country. In Costa Rica many towns share the same primary name. For example, there may be 3 or 4 towns named Herradura. So to eliminate confusion towns often “tack on” the name of a close, larger town. Herradura de Rivas identifies this Herradura as being the one close to Rivas, a somewhat larger village down the mountain. In turn, Rivas can be identified as Rivas de San Isidro, and so on.

The drive from San Isidro to Herradura may only be 20 km but it takes every bit of an hour, if not more. Once past Rivas the remaining 12 or so kilometers are along roads that I can only describe as brutal. To call them dirt roads would be misleading. They are dirt and rock. A lot of rock. Rocks ranging from baseball to watermelon size. There are potholes by the hundreds, some seemingly large enough to swallow a small vehicle. The road to Herradura is streaked with ruts and gullies as a result of heavy rains. It is not uncommon to come across landslides from the hills on one side or washouts where part of the road has descended into the river on the other side. Over the years there have been futile attempts to pave particularly treacherous or steep parts of the road. Over time most of these “paved” stretches have turned into nothing less than gauntlets of broken concrete/pavement chunks that are harder to navigate than the original road would have been. A 4×4 is necessary. A large 4×4 is better. The first time coming to this area will seem like driving to the Earth’s end. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Why settle in such a remote location? It was more of a process of elimination. Neither of us like really hot weather. We don’t particularly care to live at the beach. The lowlands of Costa Rica are very hot and very humid. Not good. The average daily temperature range here is between 65 and 75 degrees. Nights may dip to 50 but that is rare. We did not want to live in a tourist area. This area certainly has visitors. The main attraction being Chirripo National Park featuring the highest mountain in Costa Rica. But it isn’t overrun with tourist and the commercial “glop” that inevitably arises in such an area. We did not want to live in a planned, gated community full of North Americans. We could have done that in Florida. We wanted to live amongst real, working Ticos (native Costa Ricans). While there are a number of expats in the area it has not been heavily diluted with American culture. So this area had a lot of what we wanted and very little of what we didn’t.

In my next post we’ll begin to take a closer look at the lesser seen Costa Rica. Please follow and feel free to comment and ask questions.