Living in, or even visiting, another country is always an unforgettable experience. It’s always useful to know something about the country, its people, amenities, services, culture, etc. before you arrive. Here are some brief facts and observations about Costa Rica that will help you begin your adventure.
Costa Rica is a tropical country located between 8 and 11 degrees north of the Equator. There are two well defined seasons: the rainy season or winter (invierno), and the dry season or summer (verano), with basically one main difference between them: rainfall averages. The Dry season runs from December to April, and the Rainy season from May to November. Seasonal changes do not bring significant changes in temperatures, although nights may be cooler in some areas during the rainy season. Mornings will usually be sunny all year round. When it rains, temperatures will drop slightly, mostly because of the humidity and winds.
The 1949 Constitution guarantees all citizens and foreigners equality before the law, the right to own property, the right of petition and assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to habeas corpus, among others. The government is divided into independent executive, legislative and judicial powers. Costa Rica's executive power is composed of the president and two vice-presidents, elected every four years by universal suffrage, and ministers, making up what is called the Government Council. Legislative power is vested in the Legislative Assembly, a unicameral body composed of 57 members elected by proportional representation. Assembly members are elected for four years but cannot serve two terms in succession, although they can run four years later. Costa Rica's Legislative Assembly also appoints the Supreme Court judges for a minimum term of eight years. They are automatically reappointed unless voted out by the Legislative Assembly. Costa Rica has seven provinces: Alajuela, Cartago, Heredia, Limón, Puntarenas, Guanacaste and San José, with limited powers. There are two major political parties, National Liberation (PLN - nominally social democratic) and Social Christian Unity (PUSC – nominally conservative) which have more or less alternated in power for the past 60 years. Trade unions and public organizations have a relatively strong political voice, but little actual political power.
Costa Rica's basically stable economy depends on tourism, exports of microchips, and agriculture. Real poverty has been substantially reduced over the past 15 years, and a strong social security safety net has been put into place. However, almost as many people as before, 20-25%, still live below the official poverty line. Foreign investors are attracted by the country's political stability and high education levels of potential employees. Tourism continues to bring in foreign exchange. However, traditional export sectors have not kept pace. Low coffee prices and an overabundance of bananas have often hurt the agricultural sector. The government continues to grapple with the deficit and with the need to modernize the state-owned electricity and telecommunications sector. Almost a million Nicaraguan immigrants are a source of extremely cheap labor-power in the agricultural, construction, leather, furniture-making, catering and domestic service industries. Costa Rica’s currency, the colon, devalues daily against the U.S. dollar, at a rate of about 17% per year. The November 2004 rate of exchange was 451 colones to the dollar.
Cost of Living
For ex-patriots, the cost of living in Costa Rica is significantly less than it is in the United States, Canada or Europe. Property taxes are very low and there are no capital gains taxes. Excellent food, housing, entertainment and medical care are available and affordable. Many people come to Costa Rica for cosmetic and dental surgery. Many ex-pats who now live here point to the availability of good medical care as one of the main reasons that brought them here. You can also enjoy the services of full-time maids and caretakers for reasonable fees. About the only things more expensive in Costa Rica than in the U.S., Canada or Europe are cars (because of import taxes) and gasoline.
There are both government-owned (Banco Nacional, Banco de Costa Rica, Banco Popular and Banco Crédito Agrícola) and private banks operating in Costa Rica. All money placed in government-owned banks (checking and savings accounts, term deposits, mortgages, etc.) is guaranteed. These banks have branches throughout the country, but line-ups can be long, and service exasperating. Most of the private banks are affiliated with or majority owned by international, mainly Panamanian banks. These banks are regulated by the government and often provide better, though not exceptional, service, but have almost no branches outside of major cities and towns. Most banks offer savings and checking accounts in U.S. dollars and colones, ATMs, and credit and debit cards if you meet the requirements (but not all are internationally accepted either). They also have different requirements for opening accounts, both personal and business, and obtaining credit cards. All banks will change money, although there is a huge chunk taken off for Canadian dollars. Bring US dollars! Some banks charge a commission.
Costa Ricans are a highly literate people. Costa Rica boasts of having more teachers than police. The literacy rate is 95%, highest in Latin America. Since the 1970s the country has invested more than 28% of the national budget on primary and secondary education. Good elementary and secondary schools are to be found in every community. Public education at the elementary level is nominally free, although parents will have to pay for school supplies, books and many other activites. Elementary school (obligatory for all) is six years and secondary five. Although the country’s first university was founded in 1940, Costa Rica now boasts four state-funded universities and many smaller private ones, whose number has increased dramatically in the last decade, as it is tough to enter the more prestigious state-funded universities, where entrance requirements are high. Adult education, public and private, is booming, and many Costa Ricans are earning the primary or secondary diplomas they failed to gain as children. Apart from public schools, there are many private schools throughout the country, some of them bilingual, where more well-to-do families send their children. There are many solely English-language schools (North American and British), a German school, French school and a Japanese School, where tuition is only in these languages (Spanish is considered and taught as a second language). The explosion of private Costa Rican and foreign schools provides an alternate educational system for those who can afford it.
Costa Rica has a very good health care system, one of Latin America’s best, offering both public and private care. Many of the doctors are foreign trained, most in the United States. Universal accessibility to public health care is guaranteed. All employees and employers pay health-care contributions, while those who are personally-employed are required by law, if not in fact, to acquire public health coverage. There are also private health-care schemes that non-Costa Ricans can join if they are residents here. Those over 65 receive free public health care. Many medicines are free or subsidized though the public health system. The emergency wards of public hospitals will turn away no emergency, whether the patient is Costa Rican, a tourist or foreign resident. Private hospitals in San José, for instance, such as the Cima San José, Clínica Bíblica or Católica, offer faster, more personalized service than public facilities and are usually preferred by foreign residents. There are small public ‘Ebais’ clinics in most rural communities. Many people come specially to Costa Rica for cosmetic surgery and dental work. Some U.S. and Canadian insurance plans will reimburse for medical care in Costa Rica. Both public and private hospitals can arrange for air evacuation to U.S. and Canadian hospitals if necessary.
Flora and Fauna
Costa Rica is one of the biologically wealthiest nations in the world. The country's varied natural environments include lowland rainforests, coral reefs, sultry swamps and lush cloud forests. Each is home to a wealth of animal life. This treasure trove of tropical flora and fauna is exemplified by the more than 9,000 different kinds of flowering plants, approximately 850 species of birds - more than are found in the United States and Canada combined - 205 species of mammals, 376 reptile and amphibian species and about 10 percent of the world's butterfly species. Costa Rica has 20 national parks, eight wildlife refuges, a national archaeological monument, 26 protected forest areas, nine forest reserves, seven wildlife sanctuaries, and a national forest. Protected areas total 21% of the country’s territory. Because of its commitment to preserving the environment, in 1992 Costa Rica was made the world headquarters of the 'Earth Council'.
Costa Rica is truly one of the world’s most delightful and most exciting tropical vacation destinations. There are not only tropical rainforests and beautiful beaches but also some surprises - active volcanoes and windswept mountain tops. Although Costa Rica is a small country, a large variety of tropical habitats are found within it - and they are protected by the best developed conservation program in Latin America. There is no shortage of beaches. Some have been developed for tourism while others are remote and rarely visited. Wherever you stay, you are likely to find a preserved area within driving distance where you will find monkeys near the beaches. Adventurous travelers will find the opportunity to snorkel on tropical reefs, surf the best waves in Central America, or raft some of the most thrilling white water in the tropics. Saltwater fishing is among the world’s best all year round, and freshwater anglers will find the rivers and lakes extremely rewarding. The transportation system is inexpensive and covers the whole country, so Costa Rica is both one of the most beautiful and one of the easiest tropical countries to travel in.
If you enjoy shopping in the U.S. and Canada, you will love shopping in Costa Rica. Almost all important products that you buy at home - foods, domestic appliances, clothing, motor vehicles, etc. - can be found here, especially in San José at Supermarkets such as Price Smart and Auto Mercado, and at huge shopping malls such as San Pedro and Multiplaza. Shipping large-size items to your home is no problem - door to door service is available almost anywhere in Costa Rica. Costa Rica also offers to those who love to browse and buy a rich variety of items that reflect the country's tastes and culture at local stores, fruit and vegetable markets, and craft centers. Malls are complemented by smaller specialty shops located in the business districts.
Most older "Ticos" are conservative and don't usually welcome "strange" or different ideas. The country's economy and industry have grown incredibly in the past years, but the culture still retains conservative tendencies. Most Costa Ricans live at home until married. Besides national holidays such as Independence Day and traditions that revolve around the family, there are also several significant religious celebrations: Easter Week or Semana Santa, Christmas Week and August 2, which is the celebration of the Virgin of Los Angeles. Interest - and excellence - in the arts have been slow to develop. Costa Rica does not overflow with native crafts. Apart from a few notable exceptions - the gaily colored wooden carretas (ox-carts) which have become Costa Rica's tourist symbol, for example - you must dig deep to uncover crafts of substance. There is a strong domestic market for local painting and sculpture among intellectuals and the wealthy, but few Costa Rican artists have won international recognition. The national orchestra is adequate, with a mixture of locally trained and foreign (mainly from the former socialist-bloc) musicians, and offers an extensive program of concerts. Although the government, private donors and the leading newspaper La Nación sponsor literature through annual prizes, only a handful of writers make a living from writing. Theatre is thriving, however: Costa Rica supposedly has more theater companies per capita than any other country in the world. Ticos love to dance. By night San José gets into stride with discos hotter than the tropical sun. On weekends rural folks flock to small-town dance halls where their celebrated reserve disappears.
Safety and Security
Costa Rica is a peace-loving country with far less violence than occurs in other Central American countries, although petty theft, break-and-enter and pilferage are not uncommon. It is best not to wear expensive or ostentatious watches and jewelry. Cameras, handbags and other personal accoutrements should not be left unattended even for a moment. Car doors should always be locked, car windows rolled up tight, and nothing of value left in plain view. Home-owners should reinforce and secure doors, windows and other possible entrances, and nothing of value should be left unprotected either indoors or outdoors. Don't leave anything to temptation.
Permanent residency is available to those individuals who can prove a permanent and stable income from investments, pension or retirement benefits. The law is always being revised and changed, so you will have to ask a competent attorney what the current requirements are (they change without notice). Several categories such as the Rentista Program are no longer available for new applicants. A form of Resident Investor Status has been accorded to individuals who invest at least $50,000 US in projects which have been approved by the Center for the Promotion of Exports (PROCOMER) as a priority investment area. If the investment is in a non-priority investment area, the investment required is $200,000 US. Again, questions of acquiring permanent residency should be addressed to the local Costa Rican embassy/consulate in your country, or a competent, respected lawyer in Costa Rica. Most Costa Rican lawyers demonstrate all the negative features associated with lawyers at home, except to a far, far greater degree. Competence and efficiency are definitely not among their strong suits. So be careful in your choice.