Last week, someone emailed me with an important question. He was thinking about moving down to Costa Rica, along with his family and young children, and asked me something that may be in the back of all of our minds:
"Is Costa Rica safe?"
Like everything, there's a simple answer and a much more complex, detailed answer.
(For instance, I emailed him back asking if he considered life in the U.S. these days safe?)
In the Moving to Costa Rica Handbook, I went to great lengths to explore all aspects of staying safe while living or even just vacationing in Costa Rica. Of course, if you're moving your family and children down to Costa Rica, this is of the utmost importance.
In fact, I've written extensively for publications like the Huffington Post and others about safety while traveling and living abroad.
Here are a few notes, thoughts and highlights from that guide for you today:
Costa Rica can be considered a safe country, but it’s important to use common sense and act responsibly at all times, just like you would in your home country.
The reality is that you have to be careful no matter where you are in the world, but with some common sense, you can stay super safe in Costa Rica.
Every country (including the U.S.!) suffers from street crime. But you want to avoid countries where there’s political upheaval or religious extremist groups — and Costa Rica definitely doesn’t have those problems.
But whether people want to face the facts or not, Costa Rica is a major transit point for drug trafficking (especially cocaine that comes from Colombia and South America, is dropped off the shores of Costa Rica, and then makes its way up the Pan American highway and into the U.S.)
So, it goes without saying that NEVER buy drugs or go into places, neighborhoods, remote coastal areas, etc. you shouldn't be in.
Travelers who run into problems are usually doing something illegal, wandering around drunk at night, in a place they shouldn’t be, or not keeping their wits about them.
I've found that the local guys can get really feisty at the bars or when drinking, and often becoming aggressive and territorial towards foreigners. The easiest way to counter this is just to make friends with some local guys, who will then watch out for you! But be careful where you go, who you talk to, always pay respect, and don't get too drunk.
Petty theft is also a big problem in Costa Rica, although it's usually just break-ins to homes and cars, not violent muggings. In the handbook, I cover plenty of methods to protect yourself from theft.
Here is just one of those many safety tips:
Use official taxis.
It’s usually best to arrange taxis and car service through your hotel or legit tourist agency because then you know they are accountable and official. But if you do need to hail a cab on the streets of Jacó or late at night out by the beach, it’s a good idea to ask for the river’s ID and then snap a photo of it.
Also, if you need to get out for any reason, snap a photo of the car’s license plate number. Show them you’re doing this so they understand that you’re on guard, and also you can pretend to talk on your cell phone while driving, too. But usually just making small talk and asking about their family, their hometown, and their favorite futbol (soccer) team will do the trick as well!
Moving to Costa Rica tip: Enroll in the U.S. embassy's STEP program:
The United States State Department also has a program called STEP you may want to log on and register with. https://step.state.gov/step/
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
Benefits of Enrolling in STEP:
• Receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, helping you make informed decisions about your travel plans.
• Help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency.
Are you an adrenaline junky?
Someone who lives life to the fullest, never missing the chance to experience new and bold adventures?
Or, do you prefer something more relaxing, a nature enthusiast who enjoys communing with wildlife and playing in the ocean under postcard sunsets?
No matter what is on your bucket list, Costa Rica has an adventure for you to check off. In fact, we’ve hand selected the best tours, adventures, and excursions in the whole country.
Here are just a few highlights:
If you want to experience some of the best deep-sea fishing in the world, come aboard a privately chartered boat for a day of hooking Pacific Sailfish, Blue, Black and Striped Marlin, Yellow Fin Tuna, Dorado (Mahi-Mahi), and Wahoo, among others.
Horseback mountain and beach excursion
Saddle up for an excursion up to the mountains, 2,000 feet above the coast, or trot along the beach through the sand and surf. Enjoy the unique flora and fauna in virgin rainforest. Swim in fresh natural spring pools, and play under the majestic waterfalls.
Waterfall and repelling
What would a trip to Costa Rica be without hiking through the jungle to a beautiful cascading waterfall? You’ll zip line out over a 200’ waterfall, and then rappel down the face of four “smaller” 60 to 0-foot waterfalls! Make sure you bring your GoPro and waterproof camera on this one, because the photos will be once-in-a-lifetime.
The Aerial Tram is a can’t-miss activity for the whole family, one of the most fun adventures in all of Costa Rica. Fill one of the 18 modern, state-of-the-art gondolas with nine friends and embark on a natural adventure with a bird’s eye view of the rich ecosystem of the Costa Rican rainforest, including so many remarkable tropical flowers, birds, monkeys, and other wildlife that you’ll wish you had a camera crew with you!
This is one of my personal favorites, and perfect for an overcast or rainy day (not that we get many of those). Sitting safely in a river boat, traverse up the Tarcoles River in Central Pacific Costa Rica in waters teeming with American crocs of all sizes, as well as iguanas, lizards, and monkeys; a 2-hour tour you’ll never forget!
Get muddy! Explore unpaved roads, rustic towns, untouched forests, and cattle ranches on an ATV tour with a group or in a private tour with your friends or family. ATV’s are safe and easy to operate, with automatic transmissions so even city slickers will have ear-to-ear smiles.
You can’t visit one of the most popular hotbeds of surfing in the world without waxing up your board and hanging ten. If you’re an experienced surfer, then I won’t need to remind you that Costa Rica was featured in the movie Endless Summer that started it all.
The offshore winds, prolonged dry season, and dramatic rights up and down the Pacific coast make it the mecca of surfing. But even beginners will feel the exhilaration of paddling out and riding a wave in your first lesson with a local surf professional. Before you know it, you’ll be a true Costa Rican surfista!
Can you really live in Costa Rica for $1,500 per month?
Sometimes, I feel like I’m spending way too much money living in Costa Rica. There is always something extra or unexpected that strains the budget – a few big nights out with friends, an extra trip to San José, or a couple of charitable donations around town. Surely, I can’t afford this extravagance and I’ll go broke soon!
But then, I look up my bank balance and realize that things are actually just fine. How is that possible? When I lived in the United States, I grew accustomed to stressing about every dollar and always coming up short, so this feels almost too good to be true. How am I managing to live by the beach in beautiful and exotic Costa Rica and still spend way less than I would in the U.S.?
People often ask me how I can afford to live abroad in some of the most beautiful places on earth, so I’d like to share the financial aspect of traveling, to show you that it’s obtainable.
The good news is that it is possible to live a very modest lifestyle for about $1,500 a month in Costa Rica, or $50 a day!
But here's the bad news: While that $1,500 per month goal is obtainable, Costa Rica shouldn’t be considered a “cheap” country to live in. In fact, that number becomes more and more of a stretch with each passing month. But I'm happy to report that it is still possible, IF you budget, sacrifice, live simply, and often like a local Tico.
First off, there is a HUGE difference between being on vacation and living abroad. That image you have of sitting around on a beach chair all day with a coconut drink in your hand at a luxurious resort? Get that out of your head, because I live as simply and humbly, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still enjoy all the benefits of my new home.
Next, you should realize that it's MUCH harder to live inexpensively in popular tourist destination, where vacationers and international residents drive up prices. But remember that if it's possible for a local to do it (and most Ticos do), then you can, too!
Last thing, everyone shouldn’t expect to spend only $1,500 a month or less in Costa Rica. This is just a baseline, or standard of what’s possible if you make the appropriate lifestyle choices and sacrifices. The whole point is that your money will go much further in Costa Rica, offering a better quality of life. But everyone’s budget will differ.
Speaking of which, how much do you spend every month in the United States? If you add up mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance, your car and gas, food and clothing, etc., the average budget for one person comes to around $3,200. But for a family, you could easily increase that by 150% or more.
In fact, I just read an article that said 76% of the U.S. population lives paycheck-to-paycheck, despite the fact that the median take-home pay is $51,100. That means most of us spend approximately $4,000 per month per household, and still, we don’t feel like we’re getting ahead or enjoying life enough.
Now, let’s look at my budget in Costa Rica:
One of the biggest advantages of living abroad, not just vacationing, is the savings you get when you rent an apartment. Hotels are expensive, but simple, clean, safe (nothing fancy) accommodations might run $350-$600 a month for one person. Many times, utilities are included (except electric), or it still lands within that price range. It definitely saves to get a two-bedroom place or bigger and get a roommate(s).
If you’re eating out at tourist restaurants most meals, your food budget could easily add up to more than your rent in Costa Rica. But you can save a ton of money staying out of the tourist trap restaurants, where meals might cost you $10-$12 each. Instead, find out where the locals eat - the food is usually great, and a meal will cost you $3-$5. Even better, hit the local markets and stores and cook for yourself, saving even more.
Medical care: $60/month, $2/day
Of course, the cost of medical care can vary widely depending on your health needs and if you keep a U.S. health insurance policy. But there are plenty of serviceable clinics and good doctors in Costa Rica, and even the occasional trip to get medical care of the flu, a sprained ankle, dental work, etc. will be way cheaper than if you paid monthly insurance with a deductible. But play it safe with health insurance and coverage because you’d rather err on the side of caution.
By the way, I once met a Canadian traveler who jumped into a bullfighting ring in Costa Rica during their fiestas (not a good life choice) and was gored badly in the back. An ambulance ride, overnight stay, painkillers, minor surgery, 25 staples and 50 stitches cost him $110!
Local transportation: $90/month, $3/day
You usually don’t need a car when you’re living most places in Costa Rica. I prefer small towns, so I like walking everywhere (it gives me a chance to take in the sites and meet locals.) Or you can utilize cheap transportation like public buses, motorcycle taxis, etc. the locals use for about $1-$2 a ride. I also rent or buy a mountain bike and cycle around to get some exercise and be more mobile.
What entertainment can you afford for $4 per day? Not much...except NATURE; The best entertainment there is!
$30/month/$1 a day
$120 a month, $4/day
That brings us to a daily budget less than $50 a day!
Of course you might spend more on food, less on entertainment, etc. But for less than $1,500 a month, you should be able to live simply in Costa Rica while still enjoying the best parts of life as an expat: the freedom, the beach, the weather, the nature, and the people!
Do you want more valuable tips, hacks, and info on saving money when you move to Costa Rica?
Purchase the Official Expat's Moving to Costa Rica Handbook - it will be the best investment you ever make!
1. It’s ecologically friendly
Costa Rica is considered one of the most ecologically conscious countries in the world, instituting a goal to be carbon neutral way back in 1997 – and coming close these days. In fact, Costa Rica is ranked no. 5 in the world on the Environmental Performance Index, the best country outside of Europe. It’s probably also the no. 1 eco-tourism destination in the world.
2. It has the oldest constitution in Central America
Costa Rica is the longest-standing democracy in Central America, thanks to a national constitution drafted in 1949. This governing document affords many rights and protections to its citizens, allowing Costa Rica to enjoy stable and peaceful growth. Costa Rica consistently ranks the highest of any Latin Nation on the Human Development Index and United Nations Development Program.
3. It’s a country with no army
With their progressive constitution in 1949, Costa Rica decided to ban any armed forces, making it one of only countries in the world without an army, still to this day.
4. A model education system
By investing in education instead of funding an army, Costa Rica now boasts a 96% literacy rate, the highest in Latin America. Their commitment to education has allowed them to attract good skilled jobs and boost income for their citizens. 5. Unmatched natural beauty Costa Rica has not one but two gorgeous coastlines, with more than 800 miles of shoreline and tropical beaches between the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the country.
The landmass of present day Costa Rica is the result of volcanic eruptions 75 million years ago – and still is active today. In fact, Costa Rica still has five listed active volcanoes and more than 200 volcanic formations. The most famous of these is Arenal Volcano, an easy day trip from San José. It last erupted in 1968, but it’s now considered safe and you can still enjoy the hot springs at its base.
6. The most diverse wildlife on the planet
There are over 130 species of fish, 220 of reptiles, 1,000 butterflies, 9,000 plants, 20,000 species of spiders and 34,000 species of insects in Costa Rica. That represents 5% of the world’s biodiversity even though it is just about .03% of the earth’s total landmass. Costa Rica is also known for its sloths and turtles, which can be seen in protected habitats and beaches. But if you’re more of a monkey, lizard, or exotic bird lover, Costa Rica will be your favorite place! In fact, the country became the first place in the Americas to ban recreational hunting.
7. Adventure sports galore
Zip lining, sky diving, jumping off waterfalls, repelling, exploring caves, horseback riding, 4×4 runs, jet skiing, and just about every other adventure sport you could imagine are all on the menu in Costa Rica.
8. Unmatched natural beauty
Costa Rica has not one but two gorgeous coastlines, with more than 800 miles of shoreline and tropical beaches between the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the country.
9. Protected nature reserves
Costa Rica is on the forefront of environmental conservation, long ago protecting about 25% of their country as national parks. Manuel Antonio National Park on the west coast is the most famous, but Tortuguero National Park and La Amistad International Park are amazing, too.
10. A top surfing destination
Costa Rica is ranked as one of the three best surfing destinations in the world, home to year-round warm water and a unique microclimate that bring consistent offshore winds. Big competitions like the Billabong World Surfing Games are often hosted by Costa Rica, but even beginners can wax up their boards and catch some waves.
To get the full list of 20 Reasons Why Costa Rica is the Coolest Country in the World, grab your copy of Official Expat's Moving to Costa Rica Handbook.
You can also email me any time with questions or just to say hi!
A few tips on culture and etiquette when you move to Costa Rica:
If you’re planning on visiting the beautiful tropical nation of Costa Rica for a vacation - or maybe a more prolonged stay - it’s important you learn about the culture, etiquette, and traditions of the wonderful Ticos and Ticas (we’ll explain that) who live there.
For that reason, I’ve included a detailed chapter on culture, etiquette, and traditions in my Moving to Costa Rica Handbook. But here, I wanted to give you a few quick notes about adapting culturally to life in Costa Rica.
-My greatest hope is that when you live in Costa Rica, you make a genuine effort to learn the local culture and assimilate. Of course you don’t have to pretend to be a Tico (they won’t let you forget that you’re a foreigner!) but, to me, it shows respect that you want to blend in and adopt some Costa Rican ways, finding a happy medium between who you were in your home country and the new, evolved and more worldly person you will become living in Costa Rica.
-I’ve seen far too many expats that move abroad (in many countries - not just Costa Rica), only to refuse to learn the language, refuse to learn the local etiquette, nor adopt any of the customs or traditions.
(They basically sit around and complain about their new host nation.) In my opinion, that is a travesty!
-Every moment you’re in Costa Rica, think of yourself as a guest in someone’s home and act accordingly. By following this rule, you’ll find that you assimilate and blend into life in Costa Rica seamlessly, enhancing your enjoyment and endearing and representing both yourself and the perception of foreigners to all the Ticos you encounter day to day.
-Costa Ricans are known for their laid back, friendly and hospitable ways. They are almost always cordial and welcoming to foreigners, too, often inviting them to family gatherings or dinners.
-Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos and Ticas, a reference to their affinity for adding an “ico” to the end of words, which denotes that something is small or little in a cute way.
-For some people, it’s difficult to learn a second language (myself included), so be prepared to put in the work if you are serious. Keep a notebook and write down new words every night and study for half an hour or an hour every morning and you’ll pick up the basic vocabulary very quickly. These days, there are amazing apps and interactive games you can access on your smart phone to help you learn.
You may think that because so many people speak English, you don’t need to learn Spanish. While it’s true that you can probably get by with only English, especially in tourist areas, it’s a travesty if foreigners don’t make an effort, and reinforces the perception among Ticos that people from the U.S. and maybe Canada are lazy and a little arrogant.
-It’s best to start learning the basics before you arrive – you will never be able to fully immerse yourself in the culture unless you understand that.
-To take your language lessons to the next level, look for a local teacher for some lessons in grammar and how to speak in complete sentences correctly.
-Tico time, “la hora tica” means that people generally arrive 30 minutes late or so to a meeting or any event.
-So, remember to be patient! Things do not move as quickly and efficiently as they do in the U.S. and Canada (and you wanted to move out of that fast-paced rat race!).
-Customer service can be painfully slow and frustrating, especially outside of the cities A simple task could take half of your day, so manage your expectations – there is no sense in being that annoying, frustrated gringo. You WILL have to wait longer, so just accept that and try to cope with respect and understanding.
-Costa Rica has been ranked as the happiest country on earth in yearly polls! Some of that Tico happiness will definitely rub off on you when you live there!
Want more tips on culture, ettiquette, and traditions in Costa Rica?
We have a WHOLE lot more to give you in the Official Expat's Moving to Costa Rica Handbook.
Or you can email me any time with questions or just to say hi!
For the majority of expats and visitors that stay long term in Costa Rica, getting official residency is something that’s not worth the time, money or hassle. That means “living” there as a tourist, not a permanent resident or citizen. That's altogether doable, but it entails a lot of juggling to accommodate the visa situation.
When researching visas and staying in Costa Rica, you’ll notice there is a large gap between fact, rumor, and the blurred lines of what occurs down there every day. For that reason, I suggest doing your research online and from official sources but also, talking to some expats and people who have lived in Costa Rica a while to get insider information.
First, the official word on U.S. citizens getting visas in Costa Rica from the U.S. embassy and its travel site:
This is no longer automatic that the customs worker at the airport or border will give you the full 90 days. In fact, they have been known to ask you how long you are staying for your vacation (it is a tourist visa) and then give you only 10, 15 days, etc. just to cover that period. This is because Costa Rica is trying to stem the prevalence of “perpetual tourists.”
• Americans and Canadians do not need to acquire a visa to enter - you can stay for 90 days as a tourist.
• However, you must have a valid U.S. passport
• Your passport must be valid through the length of your stay (not just upon arrival)
Most countries are now instituting internal measures that mandate visitor passports must be valid for at least six months after the date of departure from the country. That means even if your U.S. passport is good for a few months after you arrive in Costa Rica, you will likely be turned away.
• Make sure your passport is in good physical condition – they will not honor if it is too damaged
• You must present a round trip ticket or proof of travel to another country upon entry
• Immigration is allowed but not required to allow residency/travel within the country for up to 90 days
• If you overstay your visa, you will be charged a fine of up to $100 USD for every month you overstay
• Most schools will help you acquire a student visa if you are studying abroad
• Any airline is allowed to require you to present proof of $100 monthly income for the time you remain in Costa Rica
• Most countries (North America, Europe) require a renewal of a tourist visa every 90 days (some Central American countries require renewal every 30 days)
So with only a 90-day visa, how do most travelers and expats stay long term in Costa Rica?
That’s where “border runs” come into play, or as they’re often casually referred to, “the border shuffle.”
U.S. citizens, Canadians, and other foreigners staying on tourist visas usually just head overland to the neighboring border of Nicaragua to the north or Panama to the south. There, they can cross the border, wait a little bit (usually just long enough to get lunch and a beer before getting back in the long line!) and come right back into Costa Rica, renewing their visa for another 90 days.
Of course, once you enter Nicaragua or Panama you’re welcome to stay and visit for as long as you want, or other travelers have the resources to fly out of Costa Rica to a different country for a vacation.
But make no mistake, this system of crossing the border and then coming right back into Costa Rica is discouraged by Tico authorities. Although the “border shuffle” is inconvenient, time-consuming, and pretty sweaty, it usually goes without a hitch IF you are careful and know what you’re doing.
But there could be more stipulations based on Costa Rican visa requirements:
• According to the Migración y Extranjería, (the Costa Rican immigration department), there is technically no minimum period of time that you have to remain outside the country before reentering
• However, there are plenty of stories from expats about having been solicited for a bribe, denied entry if they do not meet the 90 day requirement, or they try to reenter the country the same day
• Immigrant officials are being more strict with enforcing higher fines for expats
• New laws state that you cannot renew a tourist visa by traveling to the same country twice. (a.k.a. you cannot go to Nicaragua twice in a row, you will have to go to Nicaragua then to Panama after another 90 days.) After two border runs, tourists will have to leave Costa Rica for a minimum of 15 days in order to renew a tourist visa again
• But instead of traveling to another country to renew a tourist visa, a foreigner can go to any immigration location and renew another 90 days for $100. Offices have recently been in San José, but will soon be available at international airports, border posts, ports, marinas and other locations.”
• Tourists are not allowed to work in Costa Rica, but many do so illegally. This puts you at risk of being deported! (We’ll cover a lot more about working later on.)
But there are plenty of foreigners getting scammed, robbed, and paying unnecessarily at the borders. Touts and pickpockets abound, but there are also poor but honest workers willing to carry your bags or expedite paperwork.
I recommend going along with another expat or foreigner that knows the lay of the land and has done border runs before, or sometimes social clubs, community groups, or even bars organize border runs where they provide comfortable transportation.
If you want a real life account of the chaos and confusion at the Las Penas border crossing in northwestern Costa Rica (about 2 hours from the main city of Liberia in Guanacaste,) check out this article I wrote for the Huffington Post:
The Border You’ve Never Heard About: http://ow.ly/lO158
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