Costa Rica – A Cautionary Tale (Part 1)
If you examine just about any destination in the world, you will find it has both desirable and undesirable qualities. As we began our inquiries into Costa Rica, we were somewhat surprised at the amount of discouraging information we discovered. Don’t get me wrong. There are scores of websites touting Costa Rica’s well-documented and well-deserved reputation as a lovely country. But, if you dig deeper, you will find sites where peoples’ comments about their experiences here are quite negative.
Prior to embarking on this journey, we wondered if these negatives were objectively factual, whether they were completely fabricated due to an individual’s agenda, or whether they were subjectively valid. Admittedly, I haven’t lived here my whole life like many of the Costa Ricans we have befriended. But after being here for five months, I am ready to conclude the negatives that exist are indeed genuine, although they are more subjective than objective. Instead of simply listing the numerous pitfalls to which I’m alluding, I am instead going to tell you a 100% true story of the experience of a family who has now become our friends.
The couple is of retirement age, with two amiable elementary school-age children. Upon concluding they wanted to spend their retirement years somewhere beautiful with a lower cost of living than the U.S., the family decided to sell almost everything they owned and move to Costa Rica for good. Their calculation was that the money they would earn from their estate sale would get them settled here, and the fixed payments they would receive in connection with their retirement packages would cover their remaining living expenses in Costa Rica.
Accordingly, after their sale, they packed 10 bags, flew to San Jose, and took a shuttle to a coastal town between Tamarindo and Nosara called Marbella. The idea was to stay in Marbella for a week, while getting the lay of the land of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Once their week in Marbella was up, they determined it was too remote for them, and thus decided to begin their new life in Tamarindo. They hoped to stay in Tamarindo for the duration, and, in fact, signed a long-term lease that required a security deposit along with the first and last month’s rent.
The home they rented in Tamarindo was the first of their many nightmares. It had bugs and scorpions…lots of them. Also, it flooded regularly. So much so that the floors were constantly soaked and the electronics (including the television) shorted-out from the water. Aside from the house itself, they found Tamarindo to be quite expensive. Realizing it wasn’t a good fit for them, but still committed to Costa Rica, they began looking for yet another city in which to live. After doing internet research, they found what they thought would be a suitable home in Jaco. So they packed up again, took a shuttle to Jaco, and began to get settled into a house. This new house would also be a temporary situation. The idea was to live there for a short time while still another house supervised by the same property manager was being prepared for them. Once they were informed this final home was ready, they packed up and moved again for what they hoped would be the last time.
At this point, they were ready to begin enjoying the benefits of a life in Costa Rica. Just like they did in Tamarindo, they put down a security deposit along with the first and last month’s rent. They knew their new residence still needed work, but they were told by the property manager that he would continue to have repairs made with the money they gave him. As they waited for those repairs, water seeped through the roof. The toilets in the bathrooms didn’t function. The faucets leaked. The dishwasher didn’t turn on. The air conditioner didn’t work in certain rooms. And the electrical wiring throughout the home was bad. How do I know the wiring was bad? Well, I’m no electrician, but when they took a shower, the power would go out in multiple parts of the house. Yep. You read that correctly. But wait. It gets worse.
The unit was supposed to be furnished and it wasn’t. As a result, they were forced to invest in living room furniture, a refrigerator, a washer & dryer, linens, and dishes. They also paid for closet organizers, ceiling fans, and even a screen door. After it was all said and done, taking into consideration the money they had shelled out in Tamarindo, they spent well over $20,000.00 just to get settled into their new home in Costa Rica. But wait. It gets worse.
The property manager who helped get them into this home began asking them if he could borrow money from them. Here they are struggling through one of the most confounding experiences of their lives and the person who is supposed to be helping them is soliciting them for a loan. Think about that for a second. Imagine a real estate agent showing you a home you’re considering renting and then turning to you and saying, “Can I borrow $1,000.00?” But wait. It gets worse.
Since all of the repairs that were supposed to be done were not, they spent numerous days waiting for various contractors to show (who never did) instead of regularly enjoying the pool, beach, or mountains. When the owner of their home paid a surprise visit, they were told by the owner that he had sent thousands of dollars to the property manager for repairs. The money was missing and the repairs were never done. But wait. It gets worse.
They were told by their U.S. cell phone provider that they had an international calling plan that would not be too expensive and would work for calls in Costa Rica and for calls back to the U.S. How much did their phone bill for one cell phone come to for using it just over a couple of months in Costa Rica? $4,700.00. But wait. It gets worse.
As I discussed in a prior post, a U.S. citizen can stay in Costa Rica for up to 90 days as a tourist. Once you hit that threshold, you are required to leave. As long as you are engaging in legitimate tourism and not working illegally, you are eligible to enter back into the country to continue your tourist activities. Their original flights had them returning to the U.S. in November, which was within the appropriate timeframe.
The one remaining asset they left in the U.S. was a vehicle. At the outset, they weren’t sure if they would want or need one in Costa Rica. But once they were down here, they determined transportation would be useful to have. As I mentioned previously, cars in Costa Rica are a challenge. They are expensive whether you ship them in or buy them here. Our friend’s understanding from their property manager was that he could save money on taxes and import fees if he drove his car into the country as opposed to shipping it. This same property manager told them he knew people who had made the drive from the U.S. into Costa Rica and it wasn’t that bad. Hence, with the assistance of a relative who was available in December, our friends planned to drive back to Costa Rica with their vehicle. As a result, they paid to change the family’s flights to the U.S. from November to December to accommodate the schedule of the person helping them.
For those of you who might be geographically challenged (I believe those people are called “Americans”), that would have involved driving across the U.S. to Mexico, then driving through the entire country of Mexico, and next driving through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua into Costa Rica. I’m always up for an adventure. I’ve been in some fairly dicey situations because of that. But there is no amount of money one could pay me to make that trip with or without my family. Aside from having to travel at least 2,500 miles through various countries, and apart from the untold amount of inherent hazards in a journey like this, I can’t imagine the headaches involved in having to complete multiple land border crossings while not being able to speak Spanish very well. I was exasperated just doing a land crossing into Panama. Eventually, they decided the property manager’s advice wasn’t sound, the voyage was going to be too daunting, and the promised money savings wouldn’t be there in the end. Thus, the trip never came to fruition.
Because they changed their flights to December to make this drive, which then exceeded the 90 day threshold, they had to pay to change them back to a date in November. As a result, all told, they compensated the airline a total of $1,600.00 in change fees alone to essentially get the same flights they originally had. But wait. It gets worse.
They planned on home-schooling their children, but had trouble getting the materials they needed into Costa Rica. As a result, the kids missed the first few months of school. Not only was this not ideal for the education of these bright children, but it also added stress to the situation. Heather and I emphatically high five each day after we get Atticus and Maddie off to school. I can’t imagine being stuck in a hot, fairly dilapidated house for months without some type of structured, intellectual stimulation for the kids. But wait. It gets worse.
They repeatedly asked their property manager for an electric bill the whole time they were living there, but one was never provided. Unbeknownst to them, not only had their bill not been paid, but that of the prior tenant hadn’t been paid either. The bill was so sizeable and the delay in receiving a payment was so long, the power company showed up one day and turned off their power. They desperately called the property manager and informed him what had just occurred. To his credit, the property manager got the power back on within an hour. How was he able to accomplish this monumental feat so rapidly you ask? Not by paying the bill, but rather by having a handyman come to their home and rig the meter in a manner so that electricity flowed. But wait. It gets worse.
Due to serious family obligations and extreme frustration, they elected to leave Costa Rica after being here for less than 3 months. Once that decision was made, they then had to go through the process of selling the items mentioned above that they had recently bought. As you might expect, despite the fact that these items were basically new and barely used, they didn’t fetch anywhere near their original value. But wait. It gets worse.
Most terrible of all, since they were ceaselessly operating in crisis mode the whole time, they never had the opportunity to relax and simply appreciate Costa Rica. As a result, they have scant pictures of the sights and even fewer positive memories. Sadly, they went back home minus a bunch of money and plus a wealth of regretful experiences.
My motivation in highlighting their story isn’t to chastise them for any missteps they might have made. Rather, it is to personalize these events and show how easily something like this really can happen. We had heard horror stories about these types of incidents, but watching these pleasant and patient people go through all of these tribulations put a tangible face on it.
The dream our friends had of living comfortably for the rest of their lives in Costa Rica turned into a nightmare. You might be thinking their biggest problem was that they didn’t do their research. That’s not necessarily the case. I would say their biggest problem might have been that they are overly trusting people. They thought the house in Tamarindo would be as advertised. It wasn’t. They thought the person responsible for their home in Jaco would have all of the repairs made. He didn’t. They entrusted people throughout their whole ordeal and were let down each time. Fairly extensive travel experience, appropriate planning, and being a tad bit cynical has made this go really smoothly for us thus far. I guess the moral of the story is nice guys do sometimes finish last. This realization isn’t a concern of Heather’s as it relates to us, however, because she says I’m not that nice anyway.
Via this website, my objective is to prevent anyone else from suffering amid an ordeal like this. With an amount of research and planning that arguably bordered on neurotic, we have been able to avoid these types of pitfalls. Retiring to, or taking a sabbatical in, another country is not easy. But it is absolutely achievable if the proper steps are taken. In the next post, I’ll discuss how to avoid many of the incidents this family encountered. In the meantime, we’ll be thinking of them and wishing them all the best in life. As is evidenced by Atticus continually asking to play with the kids, we miss them already.