The Ups and Downs of Costa Rica (a list of 5)
In preparation for the Foreign Service bidding season here is a list of my biggest pros and cons of life in Costa Rica:
Top Five Cons:
1. Driving/Roads: Driving here is stressful, and not just because I’m an uber cautious driver. The drivers tend to be quite aggressive and they don’t do a great job of following the laws–to the point where, on a daily basis, I see at least a handful of people run red lights as if it’s just not a big deal. There is a lot of risk taking, a lot of people who think backing onto a road from a parked position without looking behind them is a fabulous idea, and a lot of people who are pretty cool with going top speed regardless of conditions. And I won’t even address the ninja motorcycle problem. I’m far more zen about it than I used to be and it’s still, after a year, white knuckle time for me when I’m behind the wheel. To make the situation worse there are A LOT of potholes, not quite as big as the ones where we lived in West Africa (those bad boys will swallow your car whole) but big enough to cause a lot of damage. One more drawback about driving here is that, if you are in an accident, you cannot move your car from the spot of the accident–it doesn’t matter if the accident happened in the middle of a one-lane street, you must stay where you are or you will automatically be held responsible for the accident. We were told by the RSO that if we truly think it’s unsafe we should go ahead and move it and the embassy would deal with the fallout but that’s only for dire emergencies. To make things worse, a fair number of Costa Ricans don’t have insurance so make sure you have excellent insurance on your car, just in case.
2. Lack of Activities for Children in San Jose: There just is not a lot for kids to do in the city and the surrounding suburbs, which is a bummer. There is one big, central park but, to my knowledge, that’s the only big park where kids can run and play in the city. There are a couple of museums but they’re downtown and that’s not an easy place to drive to or in. This might bother me as much as it does because I got used to DC and, then, Dublin where parks, playgrounds, kid-friendly museums, activities for kids, and all-around fun for kids were in abundance so we got pretty spoiled. This lack of daily stuff for kids to do is made worse by the next con …
3. Close to Zero Walkability: Again, this probably gets to me more because DC and Dublin are SO walkable and we got very spoiled, here you have to drive everywhere with very few exceptions. This is made worse by the fact that, while there are buses here, at the time I’m writing this blog, we are not allowed to take them for security reasons. So there ya go. This is the first place we’ve lived where we’ve found it necessary to have two cars but both the person working at the embassy and the spouse doing whatever the spouse has to do, need to have a car; unless you feel like dropping off and picking up your embassy spouse every day, which I don’t because that adds two hours of driving to my day. Which, beyond the fact that I don’t have time to do that, would drive me insane. See Con #1.
4. It’s Expensive!: Food, clothing, electronics, personal products, household goods, and most things you need for daily life are incredibly expensive and not always great quality (for example, kid’s shoes at Payless cost us $40 and fell apart after about 2 months–no thanks). We don’t buy a lot of imported food ($40 maple syrup is too rich for our blood) and we still spend much more than we do in the US. The one exception to this is local produce, which is gorgeous and cheap and a visit to our local’s farmers market on Sunday is a highlight of our week. So prepare–bring all electronics you’ll need with you, keep in mind that ipads and things with built-in batteries cannot be ordered through the pouch/APO, and plan to shop for clothes when you go to the US. Also, stock up on shaving cream because it’s nearly $10 a can here. Seriously. There are gorgeous clothing stores but unless you can afford to drop a huge amount of money on clothes they’re for gawking and not shopping.
5. Hard to Fit In: I’ve heard from just about every American family that I’ve talked to that it is tough for their kids to fit into schools here, they’re singled out for being American by the local kids and they often end up feeling isolated and picked on. The main school kids go to here, CDS, seems to have a problem with this at the Elementary level more than at the Middle School level. Our Middle schooler has had no problems making friends, fitting in, being happy at school. Our middle child, however, was isolated by her Spanish-speaking peers and this was one reason we decided to transfer her to a different school. The bright side is that there are a handful of options for schools so it’s not a zero sum game, which leads me to my list of Pros …
Top Five Pros:
1. Incredible Elementary School: it’s small (17 students right now), it’s academically challenging, the lesson plans are tailored to the needs of each child, the children are held to a standard of kindness and respect for their teachers and each other, and there is just an all-around sense of joy to the school. We have ended up transferring both of our Elementary-aged kids to the school and we simply could not be more pleased, they are thriving. This school, SEAS, has been an absolute blessing for us and I highly recommend anyone with an Elementary-aged child look at it first, here’s the website.
2. Housing: All of the embassy leased houses I’ve been in are gorgeous and, for the most part, seem well-built and maintained. We love our house, high in the hills of Santa Ana with a view of the valley and surrounding mountains. The houses for families tend to be large, each of our kids has their own bedroom and there is plenty of play space. We got very lucky and ended up with a big yard and a pool, which is great for the kids. We were told that houses were on the small size here, more like European sized housing than Latin American, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that at all so I’m not sure where that comes from.
3. Health Care: The health care here is excellent, every bit as good as the US, and this includes dental care. Many of the doctors/dentists are US trained and many of them speak excellent English, which makes handling a medical emergency (when one is flustered and in panic-mode) much easier if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker. The private health care, at the swanky clinics and hospitals, is dirt cheap compared to the US. For example, our youngest fell off the back of the couch and cut his head open. His ER visit, including three stitches, was around $150 US. A trip to the swankiest dental clinic in the swankiest neighborhood in San Jose will run you about $40 US, and the dentists are excellent. The embassy also has an incredible Nurse Practitioner, she’s extremely dedicated and attentive and will go out of her way to help in any way she can. So, health care is a definite plus!
4. Natural Beauty: Costa Rica really is as jaw droppingly gorgeous as it looks in photos, even more so really. Roads are sometimes pretty rough but it’s all worth it in the end when you’re taking a night hike through a cloud forest or strolling along a wide, sandy beach in what feels a lot like paradise. Lodging during the high season is on the pricey side but not prohibitive and the benefit of living here is that you can travel in the off season, making the posh spa hotels a lot more accessible! If you’d like some examples of places you can visit I’ve written one piece about an incredible spot right outside the city that is perfect for a romantic getaway, and one piece about a beach getaway that was loads of fun! There are photos–gotta have those!
5. Hiking: The activity that San Jose does have going for it is the hiking opportunities in the mountains around the city, which is a life-saver if you love to enjoy the outdoors on the weekends! We’ve found a lot of lovely spots to hike just by driving into the mountains, parking, and walking. The views of the valley are breathtaking, the hikes are easy enough for even our youngest (who is 5), and they’re great for dog walks. Here’s a photo of one of our favorite spots:
There are also some amazing national parks within driving distance of San Jose that we really enjoy, including the park where parts of Jurassic Park was filmed (or so we’ve been told), and Poas Volcano:
All in all we’re quite content here and I’m glad we decided to make this my hubby’s link assignment after Iraq. The first six months were a bit of an adjustment, it was a little shocking coming from a gorgeous city like Dublin to San Jose, which is not a pretty city. At all. But our quality of life is high, our kids are happy, and we get to visit places that look like they should only exist in movies. Definitely, taken as a whole, a lot more pros than cons to life in Costa Rica. So bid it if you can!