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The Challenges of Living in Costa Rica

In my prior article, I reviewed some of the main pros of living in Costa Rica. Today we’ll take a look at some of the challenges of living in Costa Rica. However, while there are

In my prior article, I reviewed some of the main pros of living in Costa Rica. Today we’ll take a look at some of the challenges of living in Costa Rica. However, while there are many things that create frustration here, I’ll also try to point out any silver linings to the challenges where I see them.


If you live in San Jose or the GAM (Greater Metropolitan Area), you’ll encounter an abnormal amount of traffic for a country of this size. This is due largely to an antiquated road system that doesn’t often follow logic or have many alternate routes to get to the same destination. As such, thousands of people have to jam themselves into two lane roads to get to work and if there’s any construction occurring at the time (I still have nightmares about the Platina bridge construction a number of years ago), may God have mercy on your soul.

In addition to the byzantine roads and the gobs of inefficient construction projects that you may encounter, you’re also likely find yourself aggravated by many of the drivers here. They are often aggressive to a fault and frequently would rather cut you off than let you into their lane. Common courtesy isn’t very common on the roadways. Add to the mix motorcyclists who drive between lanes and seem to follow their own set of “rules of the road” (which often leads to horrific accidents) and driving in the GAM can be a chaotic and stressful experience.

Silver lining: Since I first arrived in 2004, the roads and highways have improved massively. They finished Route 27 out to Caldera making Jaco a short hour and a half trip away as opposed to the four hours it would take in years prior. The coastal highway was also finished years ago making it easy to get down to areas such as Dominical or Uvita. As we speak, the Pan-American Highway (Route 1) is being widened making the trip from the Central Valley to Liberia better and I’ve already mentioned the Platina bridge improvement made a few years ago. Additionally, if Costa Rica could make public transport easy and efficient to use, things would be markedly better.

Lack of a Deep and Varied Cultural Scene:

Costa Rica has seen some real growth in the arts scene over the past couple of decades, but if you are looking for a vibrant and thriving cosmopolitan city, San Jose is not it. While there is live music to be found (or, should I say, there will be if/when the pandemic abates) and the existence of Parque Viva and the National Stadium have attracted big-name artists over the years, it’s hard to find a broad variety of options on a nightly basis. You’ll be able to find places to dance and places to have a few drinks for sure, but a full-on gallery scene is hard to come by. Poetry readings are few and far between. Most forms of music from North America (blues, jazz, and country to be specific) are rarely to be found and other forms of artistic representation from non-Spanish speaking countries are also sparsely found, which brings me to the next point…

Costa Rica is, by and large, a monocultural country meaning that while English is readily heard and spoken, few other cultures find more than a token representation here. There are pockets of Europeans and there are some Chinese immigrants as well, but you will not find a huge Oktoberfest or Chinese New Year celebration, nor will you find an Ethiopian restaurant opening up any time soon. In short, if you’re looking for a worldly experience, it is difficult to come by here.

Silver Lining: The above being said, Costa Rica’s Limon province is home to some unique cultural aspects of its own and can claim to be where calypso was born. It has a distinctly Caribbean flair and adds some variety to the Costa Rican cuisine with such delicious treats as rice and beans (don’t be fooled by the bland name) and patty. Also, as I mentioned in the prior article, the cultural offerings in Costa Rica have grown dramatically over the years and (in “normal” times) no one should ever find themselves with a lack of things to do.


Costa Rica is a safe country when compared to many of its neighbors and, indeed, compared to many other countries in the world. That being said, crime does exist here. I, personally, have had my car broken into twice though thankfully the thieves were only interested in some items I had absentmindedly left inside. While I have never been mugged or assaulted, I do know a handful of people who have had this traumatic experience. It’s fair to say that crime exists in any country, but based on my own anecdotal evidence, I feel I am much more likely to be robbed or pickpocketed here than when I’m in the States.

Silver lining: The stats say that living in Costa Rica is actually far safer than living in the United States when it comes to most violent crime. While incidents of rape are a bit higher in Costa Rica, murder and other violent crimes are far more prevalent in the USA. It’s always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings, avoid unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhoods, and get a lay of the land wherever you are and Costa Rica is no different. You may fall victim to aggravating petty crime here, but serious crime is less common here.

Cost of Living

Sadly, despite the fact that I’ve lived here since 2004, I never lived in Costa Rica when it was truly a bargain. Those days are long, long gone. In fact, some things like eating in restaurants, getting gas for the car, or even buying groceries in some of the upper-end grocery stores are downright expensive when compared to the States. Electronics and cars are almost prohibitively expensive. Many people, North American and Tico alike, will head to Miami to buy clothes, laptops, cell phones, and the like rather than pay the cost here. If you are looking for bargain living, Costa Rica is generally not the place for you.

Silver lining: As mentioned in my previous article, Costa Rica has a stable government, a strong economy for the region, and it substantially invests in education and health care. These come at a cost and mean that living here isn’t going to be as inexpensive as a country like Nicaragua or Honduras. Also, you can find inexpensive food products at the local weekly farmer’s market that each town/neighborhood has and also at the cheaper grocery stores like Pali. Apartments for any budget can be found so, as long as you aren’t planning on buying electronics and cars and you are willing to forgo some luxuries, you can live on a modest budget here.

 General Cultural Differences

Living in a foreign country by definition means that there are bound to be some things that are done differently when compared to how they are done in the country you come from. Costa Rica is no exception and you’ll find that school systems work differently in North America, the health care system can be downright Kafkaesque at times, and some local habits can be aggravating if you have the same expectations you would have if you were living in North America. Customer service can be wonderful here, but you’ll also find that it can take forever to get a check at a restaurant. Ticos are friendly and lovely but are also quite frequently non-confrontational to the point that they’d rather tell you a lie than disappoint you (a friend once told me that if you haven’t been stood up for something—“dejado plantado” in Spanish—that you haven’t truly experienced life in Costa Rica). Ticos are also famous for being on “Tico time,” meaning that start times for events are mere whispers of a suggestion. Lastly, I consider the fact that Spanish is the national language here a plus because I have always wanted to learn another language, but if you insist on always speaking English you may find yourself frustrated from time to time. It’s a good idea to learn at least the basics of Spanish while living here so that you can get around.

Silver lining: These cultural differences both great and small can oftentimes cause a great sense of aggravation, however, aren’t the cultural differences at least part of the allure of living here? Isn’t learning another language a wonderful challenge that can open up the world and new experiences and friendships to us? These differences can be frustrating, but they are also part of what makes the experience of living abroad so rich.

I hope that in reviewing the pros and cons of living in Costa Rica you have come to a deeper understanding of what it is like to live here. I have gone through many phases while living here and, to be honest, initially didn’t really like being here. But the country quickly grew on me to the point where I plan on making it my home for the rest of my life. I’ve learned that while it’s natural and even healthy to look at the cons, to vent your frustrations, and to acknowledge the differences, learning to appreciate and focus on the good things of what Costa Rica does offer (which is an awful lot in my opinion) helps one maintain not only a positive outlook but truly immerse oneself in the country and another way of living. Pura vida!



William Harris has lived in Costa Rica (on and off) since 2004. He has a Masters in Applied Linguistics and has worked in the ESL/EFL field for 20 years. His interests include writing fiction and poetry, playing bass, and traveling locally and internationally.

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  • Henry June 10, 2021

    Good article. We should keep two goals in mind:
    1. Lower your expectations (if you come from EU, Canada or the US)
    2. Prepare to overcome and live through the cultural shock – get adjusted.