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My Path to Costa Rica

When I’m asked about how I ended up in Costa Rica, the person asking is oftentimes surprised to find out that I never set out with a goal of ending up here and, in fact,

silhouette of man facing sea

When I’m asked about how I ended up in Costa Rica, the person asking is oftentimes surprised to find out that I never set out with a goal of ending up here and, in fact, it took me some time to even truly enjoy living here. My journey was fairly circuitous and not at all what I expected when I left the United States many years ago in search of something new and an adventure to revitalize my life. I never imagined that I would wind up in Costa Rica and that this country would become my permanent home.

Thinking back now, my path to Costa Rica actually started in my hometown of Chicago. I had spent most of my life growing in the Chicagoland area and had gotten a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and then taught high school English for a year. While I loved teaching, the school I was teaching at wasn’t a great fit for me and I also had come to feel like my life had gotten stale in Chicago. I loved the city and my friends and family, but I wanted a new start and that led me to move to Seattle.

I moved to Seattle because, like Chicago, I had many friends and family there and I loved how green and lush it was. I loved the mountains and Mt. Rainer looming in the distance and I loved the expanses of water that surround the city. It’s a gorgeous city and truly one of the most beautiful places to live… for about 4 months out of the year. Unfortunately, the rest of the year is often gloomy and rainy. I would often tell people that from late October through April you don’t really need a weatherman as every day was like the movie Groundhog Dog: exactly the same. It would start out about 37- or 38-degrees Fahrenheit and drizzling. By noon, it would have climbed to around 46- or 47-degrees Fahrenheit and, if you are lucky, the sun would poke out of the clouds in what are locally known as “sun breaks.” Yes, just seeing the sun has its own name in Seattle as it is a special occurrence in those dark months. By the day, it would generally fully cloud over and the drizzle would start again.

A few years of these long winters coupled with a job that was adequate for the time being, but didn’t seem to offer much of a future meant that I started casting around for what was next. It wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to get back in to teaching and use it as a means to see the world and to also learn Spanish which I had studied in high school and briefly in university, but that I had given up on. After doing a bit of research, I found a TEFL certification program in Seville, Spain and headed overseas with the intention of making a go of it in Spain.

Spain in general was everything I wanted it to be and more. The people were friendly and I found it easy to make friends there. Although I went over in January, the sun was often out and the weather was cool but rarely verging on truly cold. The Moorish architecture in Seville and Andalusia was exotic, mystical, and in many cases simply stunning. Add in flamenco bars, great tapas, and museums and culture nearly everywhere you turned and I was smitten. I loved Seville and felt that it was a place I could see myself in long-term. There was only one massive problem: work.

At the time, the UK was still part of the European Union and that, coupled with the fact that British English was generally preferred in Spain the way that North American English is favoredin Costa Rica, meant that it was exceedingly difficult to find work there. Most language schools could hire Brits legally whereas hiring a North American meant work visas and fees for the school. Some places were willing to hire people under the table, but the pay was always bad and there were no real benefits. Rather reluctantly and after dragging my feet for a few months, I started to turn my eyes back to the Americas.

I remember whiling away many hours at internet cafes (remember those?) in Seville and searching places like Dave’s ESL Café for job postings in Spanish speaking countries. I narrowed my search down to jobs in Argentina, Chile, and Costa Rica mostly because my perception of those countries was that they had more stable economies and governments than other countries in Latin America. I really didn’t know much about Costa Rica other than that general reputation of being the “Switzerland of Central America” and that it was supposedly a paradise for nature lovers.

Sooner or later, I ended up interviewing with an English language institute here in Costa Rica and I was hired. I came down here expecting to stay for a year only, learn some Spanish, and then most likely move back to the States and on to a new phase in my life. At first, I didn’t even know if I’d make it a year here in Costa Rica. My impressions of San Jose were not very good. It was hard coming from Seville where there were literally thousands of years of traditions and culture and beauty to build on and transition to a city where all the windows were covered with iron bars and all the houses were surrounded by walls and barbed wire. It seemed like everyone was in their own little prison and there was little of architectural interest in San Jose outside of a few scattered buildings in the very center. Quite simply, San Jose pales in comparison to cities like Seville, or even Seattle or Chicago. I couldn’t see why people would like this country for the first month or so as I started working and spending most of my time at home with little to do.

Luckily, about two months in to my first year here, a number of people from the language institute where I worked decided to go to the beach. We ended up in Esterillos Oeste at a small, cozy hotel that was inexpensive and right on the beach. There was a group of teachers and staff from the institute where I was working and few friends of theirs that went on the trip and we had an amazing time. We swam in the ocean and frolicked in the waves in water as warm as a nice bath. We ate fresh fish for dinner and drank cold beer all day and all night. One of guys on the trip, who later ended up a very good friend of mine, had brought along his guitar and we built a bonfire on the beach that night and he played song after song and we sang and laughed and drank and watched the stars come out and the heat lightening rumble across the sky on the horizon. It was the kind of day that let me know that Costa Rica may not have the amazing architecture of other places in the world, but that it had a natural beauty and also and openness and freedom to it that was hard to find. It was amazing to be on a huge beach with hardly anyone on it and just be able to spend that time in a joyful way.

That trip was a moment that helped change the trajectory of my life. It was soon followed by other memorable trips where I went whitewater rafting, ziplining in the cloud forests of Monteverde, taking night hikes and seeing all the beautiful flora and fauna that Costa Rica has to offer which started to place an indelible mark on my heart. Despite the fact that It has taken me some time to fully commit to living here (my wanderlust wasn’t quite sated for a while and I ended up with a sojourn to Argentina and a couple of years back in Chicago for another Master’s degree this time in Applied Linguistics), Costa Rica has always kept calling me back with its beautiful forests, pristine beaches, beautiful and friendly people, and values that make a comfortable place to live. After some years, I finally realized that I had fallen in love with this country despite the traffic and cultural differences. I couldn’t be happier now with my decision to stay here and make Costa Rica my home.

Before I wrap up this article, I’d like to say to anyone who is reading this article who has just made the move or is thinking about making the move to be patient with the transition to living in a new country. It’s a process and you’ll go through many phases. Often, there is a honeymoon phase where everything seems wonderful, different, and new and then that can be followed by a phase where all the inconveniences and differences start to grate on your nerves. If there is something about Costa Rica that calls to you, give these phases time. It’s normal to go through some discomfort and irritation, but once you get a better sense of what life can truly be like here and have built up some antibodies to some of the things that bother you, living here can be a wonderful, enriching experience. Remember to enjoy Costa Rica (or wherever you are) for the things that it offers and not to dwell on the things that it does not.



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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