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A Retiree’s Decision; Costa Rica or Panama?

The old adage “you get what you pay for” is one my husband, Mike, and I keep high on our list of “MUSTS” when traveling in a foreign country. Actually, it’s the attitude we take with us wherever we go! And, it has always worked well for us!!

costa rica retirementWhat do I mean by this? Well, if you put your full effort into making your travel experience a good one, it usually turns out well.  If you have a good attitude, smile allot, say “please” (por favor) and “thank you” (Gracias), attempt to speak “in their language” whether or not you speak well, keep an open mind, remember “you’re not in Kansas” any more, and go with the attitude of enjoying and absorbing “their” culture – then you’re 99% sure to have a great experience!!

Last July 29, 2012, after selling everything and paying off all debts, we climbed into our loaded to the gills SUV and headed out to make a 3 month US/Canadian cross country trip to see things on our “bucket list” and to see family and friends along the way.  A wonderful experience that we will cherish forever!

On November 11th, after a week of vacation in Aruba with family, we flew to Panama to begin the first phase of our journey. We had done our ad infinitum research on becoming an expat and had narrowed the search down to Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Spain.  A Spanish speaking language, lower cost of living or at least not more expensive, good inexpensive health care, stable government, friendly people, and walkability (we don’t want a car,  but to take all local transportation to truly immerse in the culture) were the top priorities in choosing these countries.

The decision had been made to rent for a month in 3 different locations in each country to actually gain a broader knowledge and experience of each. That meant from the mountains to the lower inlands to the beach. It’s been amazing to see how quickly we’ve narrowed our “wants and needs” after our 3 months in Panama and now our first 2 stops in Costa Rica.

Each and everyone’s “wants and needs” will be different, so I’m not going to expound on what ours are. What I want to present is our Opinions and Observations so far when comparing these 2 very different countries.

We make it a point to very quickly immerse ourselves within each areas culture including the expat community. There are no right or wrong answers but if consistent answers to our questions keep being reiterated, we begin to give it some validity even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves yet. However, it’s also important to keep a completely open mind on EVERYTHING!

So here goes….

Costa Ricans are warm and friendly, always there to give a hand. But, so are Panamanians! In both countries, we have costa rica retirement 2always felt safe wherever we’ve gone, walked night or day, taking busses or taxis. Our housing accommodations have all been within the $800/mo maximum budget that we set for ourselves and we’ve stayed in all different types of housing from apartment/condo, to a full house in a local neighborhood with no expats, to a cabina/casita. We have enjoyed both countries but have not “fallen in love” with any one place yet. I think this is probably because we promised ourselves not to until we’ve experienced every country first. We’ve definitely found places we could easily live but haven’t found the “perfect” place and may not. Time will tell and compromise is a given.

What we can absolutely say is that we LOVE the cleanliness of Costa Rica. People here have totally embraced the concept of being litter free and how good that feels! That’s not to say that there still isn’t room for improvement but NO country has achieved that yet.  In Panama, it’s very hard to find any areas that are clean and litter free – a very sad state of affairs and one that we would take on if that’s where we choose to “call home” later.

As to cost of living, Costa Rica is definitely more expensive, however, not on everything. I’ve already mentioned our housing and we found Costa Rica no more expensive than the areas of Panama where we stayed.  And, health care quality and cost, we would rank equal. What we are finding IS more expensive here but no more than in the states, are most goods EXCEPT fruits and vegetables.  Fruits and veggies can be more expensive in PA and can be harder to find.  So, if you are or can become a vegetarian, you’re set to go here in CR!  And, if you eat out but eat at the “local” sodas/fondas, you can experience wonderful food at very reasonable and inexpensive prices.  Gas is also more expensive here and, although we don’t have a car, it impacts the overall cost of goods and services. We can’t speak to services since we haven’t needed them in either country.

Another big difference is the “pensionado” benefits that PA is using to entice foreigners to settle there.  They are significant especially if the overall goal is to live as inexpensively as you can.  Costa Rica would lose hands down.  It’s our opinion that CR already has so many expats that have been coming to this beautiful country for so many years that they feel they don’t have to offer enticements.  PA, however, is just coming into its prime for expats.  And, this holds true for Ecuador too.

The most unique aspect to CR that we’ve found is the amount of English that is spoken by the locals compared to PA. This is neither a good or bad thing, it just is a fact. So, if you’re an expat that doesn’t have the desire to learn or improve your Spanish, CR is definitely a better place to live. The only personal comment I will make to that point is how much you’re truly missing out on to not learn at least some Spanish. AND, it’s good for your health! A proven fact that those learning a second language have less dementia and Alzheimer’s.

So to wrap up, here are our quick pros and cons:  Costa Rica is a more beautiful country in landscape and cleanliness; Costa Rica’s cost of living is more expensive but no more so than the US where we lived except gasoline; Costa Rica doesn’t offer “pensionado” benefits.  The true decision is what’s more important to you – Cost of Living or Quality of Life.  Your choice!

A Loyal Reader – Tricia Lyman – Credit for Photos to Tricia as Well

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