Many budget items here are far cheaper than U.S.

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Obviously the discussion continues and the complainers write letters to A.M. Costa Rica. The issue is that expats living here, and more and more Ticos, want to have a First World lifestyle at Third World prices. The complaints are  that Costa Rica’s roads aren’t good enough, traffic is horrible, bureaucracy is intrusive, taxes are too high, food and services cost too much and finally that it is “nicer” or “cheaper” in neighboring Panamá and Nicaragua.

Let me deal with this point first. Maybe Panamá has nicer roads and malls and services and is more welcoming to expats. It also has the revenue from the canal ($314 million in 2012 and $9.07 billion in 2012 revenues) to help meet its citizen’s needs. Nicaragua ($2.72 billion in 2012 revenues) continues to be one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere with 44.7 percent of its people below the poverty line and a regime led by Daniel Ortega that remains antagonistic against foreign (read American) investors.  But an expat can feel really rich there if that is what they are looking for! Costa Rica had $6.5 billion in revenue in 2012 and only $922 million from taxes and 75 percent of that from corporations and NOT from individuals.

That means that Costa Rica has $922 million in taxes to pay for the complainers wish list: First rate roads, exceptional schools, well equipped and highly professional health care facilities and providers, quality infrastructure for cheap electricity and water and policing for public safety of an entire nation? Folks that just is not possible. That we get any of these services at all is pretty impressive, that we get the quality of services we receive is frankly miraculous!

So to the other complaint, the cost of life here. Let us look first at the things that never make the complainers’ lists. A university graduate here makes a minimum wage of around $900 a month. Every one of your expat readers makes more than that, so they start out ahead of the game. We can discuss what costs more, but first let us look at what costs less. Do you have a gardener? A maid? Your maid back home (which you didn’t have because you couldn’t afford her even with your expat salary) would cost almost a full day of pay in Costa Rica for an hour there. Someone to trim your lawn, care for your plants, trim a tree, clean a pool costs a minimum wage of about $18 a day here. Car repairs and car insurance are a wee portion of the U.S cost. Have you had to call a plumber or electrician or get an appliance repaired (you can have a repair done here but almost never back home)? And medical care? Everyone knows that it costs way less to see a doctor or go to a hospital here. Dentists are very affordable as are vets for our pet care. How about the price of a movie or a fabulous concert at the beautiful Teatro Nacional?

It is easy to complain about the Caja but it is a ridiculously low-priced medical insurance. Need a check-up a couple of times a year, take regular medicine for sugar or hypertension issues, need an ambulance in an emergency, hospital care, it is all free at the Caja. And recently they have changed so that appointments can be made by phone eliminating the horrid early morning lines.

And what is more expensive? Certainly not gas, the price is the same as in Canada and probably less than many European destinations. Not cable TV or Internet or cell phone service. My entire month for electricity, Internet, satellite TV, home and cel phone and water is just a few dollars more than a water bill in my home town, and I don’t pay for home heating or snow removal. In my mountain home I don’t pay for air conditioning. Certainly not taxes on my home or garbage pick-up services.

Well what is more expensive are all those things that expats want so they can feel like they never left home. All the things that have to be shipped here from the closest port (Miami) adding costs above those experienced by us back home. Want good quality cheese instead of the bland, soft white stuff that Ticos seem to love or your favorite Skippy peanut butter? Well it has to go in a refrigerated container, sent by road or rail to Miami, put on a ship, travel again by road here and is subject to taxes and duties at both ends. I urge you to take a challenge. Look online at the ad for groceries at your favorite store back home and do some comparison shopping. The only things on sale are junk food, nothing fresh or wholesome is inexpensive. Do the math remembering to multiply the home price in pounds by 2.2 to match with the local kilo price.

As for my personal safety. I am saddened to realize that crime is everywhere, even now in my beloved Yellowknife, a formerly peaceful Arctic community where house break-ins and assaults against women are on the rise, and residents are clamoring for a greater Royal Canadian Mounted Police presence. Here I choose to live away from San José and almost never go there. I am careful where I go and what I do and have three dogs in my home (more for company than protection but thieves don‘t know that!). I do not feel unsafe or threatened, but I watch out for myself.

And the bureaucracy. Well here I am with the complainers. It seems crazy that it takes 15 minutes for the simplest transactions at the bank; that there is only one office to handle your vehicle licensing needs, that immigration matters take forever. I have been here 21 years and still have no patience for the stupid things I am asked to accept because “that is the way we do it here.” I try to say forget it and that is the price I pay to live here but it is hard. However, I am confident that a growing and more demanding middle class and a move to adopt modern communication technologies that eliminate the visits to the office of some overworked, under-trained and under-qualified civil servant will improve this part of my Costa Rican experience.

In closing, to the complainers, count your blessings, consider the inconveniences and stay if you find you love Costa Rica as much as I do. And leave if you don’t. Panamá, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and of course back home, will take you!

K. Noel Montagano
San Pedro de Poas, Alajuela


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