Thursday, December 13, 2007

August 04, 2007 - Costa Rica Decision Details

When we first investigated how to retire early, and where we could do this, we made a list of “needs” and “wants” – we’ve both worked on trade studies in our technical careers, so this was nerdy second nature to us ;).

Our original list, and how Costa Rica scored (before our first trip, book & internet investigation only):


· Affordable (can we live there on less than $30,000 / year): Costa Rica has a good exchange rate, medical costs and medical insurance are reasonable, housing is reasonable (especially if you are not in a beach resort)

· Safety (laws, enforcement, history, stability, how does it feel): CR has been a stable democracy for over a century, with one 2-week civil war in 1948. It has no army; the government saw that the main purpose served by the neighboring armies was to control their countries, not to protect them. The people are welcoming and friendly. They are generally happy and caring. The country gets earthquakes, but they build for them (and we are used to this phenomenon, being from California).

· Able to live there year-round (weather, visas, residency): Costa Rica has good weather year-round, with the temperature dependent on the elevation. It is off the hurricane belt, and has many sunny days even in the rainy season. Tourist visas are easy to get, and last 90 days. A three-day trip out of the country is enough to get a new tourist visa for another 90 days. Residency is relatively easy to get.

· Religion (tolerant, doesn’t dominate life and laws, the people are not fanatical): Catholicism is Costa Rica’s official religion, but there are a multitude of other churches and temples. Many major Catholic holy days are also state holidays. Some church buildings (e.g., the basilica in Cartago) are state-funded. Costa Rica farmacias sell birth control; prostitution is legal, abortions are not.

Wants (weighted and scored)

· Language (English, or able to learn fairly easily): Weight = 9, Score = 7. Spanish is spoken in Costa Rica, and many people know some English and French. There are many language schools and tutors.

· Easy to travel “home”: Weight = 7, Score = 8. It is physically possible to drive to Costa Rica from USA, but there are several somewhat-unstable borders to cross. Flying is relatively easy. Cruises stop in Puntarenas and Limón.

· Easy to establish residency: Weight = 9, Score = 8. The Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR) is an organization that helps people immigrate. The information is easy to get, and the immigration laws are such that we could do it without too much risk.

· We fit in (purely feeling): Weight = 9, Score = 8. This is almost simple gut reaction. Are we comfortable walking around the towns? Do we feel energized or depressed? Is it likely we can adjust through all the phases of the culture shock we know is coming?

· Interesting (culture, activities): Weight = 8, Score = 8. Costa Rica is a small country (approximately one eighth the size of California, about as big as from the San Francisco Bay Area to Lake Tahoe). It has a huge diversity of environments (but no snow – boo hoo – when was the last time I actually sought out snow?). Tourism is a large part of the economy, so there are plenty of activities geared toward fun. There are many universities, and the “college culture” that goes with them. There are museums, theaters, and a symphony (but mostly only in San José). Music is a big part of life. Cowboys (sabañeros) are alive and well, contributing fancy horse-back riding, topes, and rodeos to the scene.

· Dangerous diseases (few or none, please): Weight = 7. Score = 7. I am including snakes and bug bites here. There are something like 20 different venomous snakes in Costa Rica, but they are rare in the cities, and only a couple are aggressive. I figure the less you know about something dangerous, the scarier it is. So I intend to learn a *lot* about snakes and bugs. Mosquitoes carry malaria in the wet lowlands (mainly in the far North and South boonies). Dengue fever is on the rise - it is usually not fatal, but gives you a week or two of hell instead (Hawaii has this mosquito-borne disease too). CDC recommends hepatitis shots (this is easy to do, and is a low-risk vaccine). Most of the water is drinkable (we found a few places where we had problems).

· Medical care (accessible and good): Weight = 8, Score = 9. Any resident may buy into the state-run medical insurance ($60/month for both of us. It is less if you are older – yes, *older* - the extra that younger people pay goes towards a pension.). There are several excellent private and public hospitals, but the best ones are in San José. Many of the hospitals in towns have the ability to stabilize you, but then they transfer you to San José. Costa Rica is sometimes known as “Beverly Hills South” because many people come to get cosmetic surgery done on “medical” vacations.

· Expatriate community (available, supportive): Weight = 8, Score = 8. There are many centers for ex-pat support. These include ARCR, internet groups, and local hang-outs in most towns (and they are amazingly easy to find).

Since visiting and living in different towns in Costa Rica, we have fine-tuned our list, and added some more specific things to help narrow the list of towns.

· A Central Park – there is just no substitute

· A Central Market – variety is the spice of life

· Friendly people, with few ulterior motives (this is difficult to determine, and even more difficult to agree on)

· Able to find housing within 10 blocks of the center of town (5 is even better, as we’re still trying to go car-less)

· Feels safe (emphasis in addition to above list) – not necessarily all places in a town (most towns of size anywhere will have *some* “bad” parts), but safe enough that a woman can walk around alone at night

· Climate – cooler elevations (1200-1300 meters or higher); beach is too hot for us

· Community – need to be part of an artist/music/movie community (how far away is too far?) – near UCR, or other center

· Entertainment / Mental Stimulation – we need a town with more than churches and bars (of course, parks are very entertaining)

· Water – must be drinkable (bottled water is available, but too expensive and bothersome)

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