“Costa Rica seduced the young solo traveler me in the mid-1990s with visions of tropical beaches, smoking volcanoes, abundant wildlife, and friendly locals.”
Why I Chose to Be an Expat Retiree in Mexico Versus Costa Rica
Note: I spent approximately four months in Costa Rica exploring expat life there in 2008 and 2015. Most of these comments come from my experiences in Costa Rica then. I updated this blog post in late 2021 based on authoritative sources; however, some of this information may not reflect the realities of life today in Costa Rica. I welcome your corrections, comments, and constructive criticisms.
I have wanted to retire in Mexico since I was a little kid. I spent nearly six months traveling and living with local families in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 2005, after spending an additional four months in Mexico, I developed and taught a seminar about living and traveling in Mexico, which I presented at adult education programs throughout the US. The seminar was successful, drawing around 20 students per class.
In 2007, I noticed a substantial decline in enrollment based on media stories about violence in Mexico. I decided to develop additional courses about Costa Rica and Italy based on the seminar participant’s feedback. I spent four months in Costa Rica and two and a half months in Italy developing these courses when my parents got sick, and I stopped giving the seminars.
In doing the research, I became fond of Costa Rica, and when the opportunity came to live abroad in 2015, I considered living there. (Italy is too difficult to live in for most Americans primarily because of the government’s burdensome residency requirements and the country’s suffocating bureaucracy).
However, in reflecting on this pleasant dilemma, Mexico remained my obvious choice. I can’t resist Mexico’s rich culture, excellent architectural and historical sites, beautiful colonial cities, terrific museums, and world-class cuisine. Costa Rica doesn’t hold anywhere near Mexico’s allure in these departments.
While the choice was easy for me, Costa Rica has definite charms and advantages, and I do not blame other Fifty Plus Nomads for choosing Costa Rica over Mexico.
Mexico’s Advantages Over Costa Rica for Retirees (At Least, For Me)
- Until twenty years ago, Costa Rica was an almost ideal expat retiree destination. Properties were inexpensive, and Costa Rica was the most stable country in Latin America. Costa Rica also enacted laws (rescinded) that encouraged foreigners, particularly retirees, to live there. Over time, many benefits of living in Costa Rica have eroded.
- Costa Rica has experienced a dramatic crime increase. (Though, to be fair, Costa Rica and Mexico have nearly the same official crime rate, and the only time I was a victim of a serious crime, an express kidnapping, was in Puebla, Mexico). In the 2000s, I conducted interviews with 500 expats around the world (though most were either in Mexico or Costa Rica), and all the bad stories I heard came from Costa Rica, including one couple in Jacó. They were robbed several times and once sexually violated. (Note: Jacó is a high crime rate area and though crime is bad in Costa Rica, the case of this poor couple is thankfully rare in Costa Rica). I live in Merida, Mexico, one of the safest cities in Latin America.
- Today, it costs 50-80% of the US to live as an expat retiree in Costa Rica, which is between 10 and 50% more than the cost of living in Mexico. The country has expensive taxes on imported goods (cars cost two to three times more than Mexico). Life in neighboring countries like Nicaragua can cost less than half that of Costa Rica.
- Costa Rica also has scant cultural attractions for expat retirees compared to Mexico. Mexico has 35 world heritage sites; Costa Rica has five. (Mexico has one of the Seven Wonders of the World: Chichen Itzá, and has the seventh-highest number of heritage sites worldwide). Mexico has 132 pueblos magicos and many of Latin America’s finest colonial centers including Mérida, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Queretaro, and Mexico City.
- While San José, Costa Rica, does have an excellent national symphony, a lovely opera house, and many other low-cost cultural events, Mexico’s cities are some of the richest cultural meccas in the world. In addition, if you like colonial architecture, history, and popular art, Costa Rica has nothing much on offer compared to Mexico (though Costarrican oxcarts are impressive). Crossing the border into Panama, particularly Nicaragua, would be best to find colonial cities. (One of the best colonial cities in North America- Granada, Nicaragua– is located only one hour north of the Costa Rican border).
- There are no significant archaeological finds in Costa Rica. Mexico, in contrast, has 187 Mesoamerican historical sites, including some dating back over 4000 years. While San José has some worthwhile museums, they can’t hold a candle to those in Mexico City or some of Mexico’s provincial centers like Oaxaca, Puebla, Merida, and Queretaro. (San Jose has the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), National Museum, and the Museo de Jade (Jade Museum))
- Costa Rica has some worthwhile sites like ZooAve (Rescate Wildlife Sanctuary) and Café Doka (both are expensive, $30 for foreigners, but worthwhile anyway). Still, they are nothing like the rich diversity of sites in Mexico.
- Many parts of San José, particularly downtown, are dodgy at night, and the city does not have anywhere near the romantic ambiance of Mexico’s colonial towns. In addition, Mexico City is one of the planet’s most sophisticated cities if you want big city life.
- While Costa Rica has several indigenous groups and folklore, it is less culturally vibrant than Mexico. Mexico features 68 languages, and many Mexicans can at least converse in an indigenous language. I can visit dozens of pueblos that retain strong Mayan cultural roots just leaving my newly adopted hometown of Mérida. I know several older people in the Yucatan whose first language is Maya.
- Like most Central American countries, Costa Rica does not have an inspiring local cuisine like Mexico. Mexico’s cuisine is one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Mexico is also home to many of the world’s tastiest foods, including chocolate, vanilla, and corn. While Costa Rica’s signature dishes like Gallo Pinto (beans and rice) and Casados are nutritious, filling, and sometimes quite tasty, the lack of variety makes it easy to get bored. Thankfully, Costa Rica does have some of the world’s most delicious juices and fruits, and some areas, like San José, have an abundance of decent restaurants representing every major world cuisine.
- Costa Rica has more bureaucracy for foreigners to navigate than Mexico. Since Costa Rica was not a signatory to the Hague Convention, you must go through an unusually convoluted process – which can involve multiple visits to US state and municipal government agencies– to establish your identity before applying for Costa Rican residency. You must even have a cedula (a residency card) to get a telephone line. (If a country participated in the Hague Convention, its documents are recognized if the appropriate state or municipal authority notarizes them throughout the globe). In contrast, I didn’t have too many problems getting sufficient documentation to satisfy the requirements of the Mexican consulate in Boston. (I had to show the consulate my passport and submit copies of one year of monthly bank and investment statements and my house deed).
- Costa Rica requires less income for pensioners ($12,000) than Mexico. However, Costa Rica requires rentistas (investors) to put $60,000 in a Costa Rican bank account to meet the income requirements. (In Mexico, you can keep your money in any bank).
Why Costa Rica is a Good Choice for Many Expat Retirees
Despite the problems detailed above, Costa Rica attracts the second largest number of American expat retirees of any country. Why? Here are the answers that expat retirees told me when I asked why they liked living in Costa Rica in the 2000s:
- Many American expats are committed to Costa Rica. Repeatedly, I heard Americans commend the country for its decision to eradicate the army, commitment to environmental protection, and efforts to provide social services to its residents.
- You can own most coastal properties in Costa Rica (except those on the beachfront). In Mexico, properties fifty miles or less from the coastline or border require purchase through a fideicomiso, a fifty-year irrevocable bank-held trust.
- Costa Rica has some of the most spectacular and accessible natural landscapes anywhere. (Mexico also has remarkable biological diversity; however, the variety is not as easily accessible). In just an hour in Costa Rica, one can experience an impressive range of distinct ecosystems (from volcanoes to dusty plains to tropical jungles), each with its plants and animals. (There are more species of plants and animals in tiny Costa Rica than in the mainland US. Mexico has the fourth most diverse biodiversity on Earth. Costa Rica is the MOST biodiverse country on Earth).
- Costa Rica preserves its best landscapes within national parks, many of which are accessible by car and public transportation. (The entrance fees for foreigners at these parks are steep). In addition, Costa Rica has developed a highly active ecotourism program that provides many opportunities for anyone interested in learning about and enjoying Costa Rica’s varied natural offerings. (Though some programs designed to help enjoy nature, like canopy tours, according to some experts, can do severe environmental damage).
- In addition, Costa Rica has so many opportunities for people to enjoy water sports and activities within a short distance. Costa Rica is world-famous for its surfing and sports fishing and has a well-developed infrastructure –stores, schools, and tours– to help people enjoy these activities.
- Costa Rica’s peaceful climate shows in many Ticos’ unique mannerisms and traditions. People shudder at slammed doors or an angry voice (avoiding conflict and politeness is obligatory. In Latin America). Costa Rica flaunts its formality by using ” Usted ” frequently in conversations, including between a parent and a child. (Usted is a formal way to say “you.” The informal word for “you” is “tú” in Mexico and most of Latin America or “vos” in Central America, including Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina). Usted is used only to address strangers and senior citizens in most Spanish-speaking countries.
- Since Costa Rica has little indigenous influence, Costa Ricans are more European than Mexicans. Over 90% of the population is Caucasian, so many expats feel more comfortable with Ticos than Mexicans. However, I enjoy Mexico’s cultural diversity and feel delighted with Mexicans because I grew up in California.
- Here is a comment from Paul Yeatman about why the public healthcare system is better in Costa Rica than in Mexico:
The public medical system in Costa Rica is far superior to Mexico’s. We used it extensively and even gave a tour of the medical systems both public and private. Mexico spends only 6% of GDP while Costa Rica spends closer to 12% of GDP on its system. Recently, Costa Rica was the last country admitted to the OECD, the Organization of Economic, Cooperation & Development.
Mexico was admitted years ago. All of these countries (38) are supposed to be democratic with market economies. The OECD states that a country must spend about 12% of GDP like Canada, England, and France, in order to achieve a form of universal healthcare. Actually, it is the expenditure which is the big difference in achieving a more superior system.
However, expat retirees in Costa Rica and Mexico experience similar situations in many ways. In both countries, expat retirees should expect to:
- Pay more for services than locals, especially if your Spanish is limited.
- Be better received if they dress and act more formally than at home.
- Spend a lot of time and effort to form close relations with locals. However, it can be easier for older expat retirees to find local romantic partners, particularly younger partners, than in the US and Canada. However, once accepted into the local’s inner circle, locals will shower you with their warmth.
- Meet friendly people. Costa Ricans and Mexicans are well known for their warm and ingratiating nature. They are both very willing to talk to and help foreigners. I have never had so many people go out of their way to speak to me in English as in Costa Rica and Mexico.
- Be part of largely friendly and involved expat retiree communities representing various economic, political, and social backgrounds. Expat retirees have been attracted to Costa Rica for over forty years and Mexico for seventy years for multiple reasons. Some people saw both countries as great places to invest in real estate. (The cost of coastal real estate increased ten to twenty-fold in the past four decades. Before many gringos came to the shoreline, Mexicans and Costa Ricans previously could not understand why people would want to live by the coast).
- Have easy access to support services available for the expat retiree community, including help with residency papers and moving services. (Though, you must be careful to find qualified and honest professionals).
Costa Rica Exceptionalism: Fact or Fiction?
Many American expat retirees come to Costa Rica because of what historians have called “Costa Rica’s Exceptionalism.” Exceptionalism refers to Costa Rica’s historical commitment to stability, democracy, social equality, and environmental protection, which has made it an exceptional place in a region historically characterized by war, dictatorships, and ecological destruction.
While it is true that Costa Rica has a unique historical commitment to these ideals, one cannot help but wonder if they study the region in any detail if Costa Rica is unique today.
Let us look at a few of the factors that makes me wonder if Costa Rica is as exceptional as it used to be:
- Today many Latin American countries are democracies. Mexico became democratic in 1998. Few Latin American countries seem to be heading toward a military takeover, and no insurgent armies are ready to wrest control away from the democratically elected governments. However, Costa Rica has a more stable government and a better social services system than most of Latin America. (I did some research to compare the stability and social service programs in Mexico and Costa Rica and couldn’t find anything that was very definitive). Costa Ricans often cite their social service system and stability as primary reasons they have the highest satisfaction with their lives of all the countries in Latin America. (Most Latin American countries have higher crime and violence rates than either Costa Rica or Mexico).
- There is a lot of controversy about the effects of Costa Rica’s rapid economic changes on the country’s fragile and diverse environment. In recent years, many of the country’s pristine forests are now pineapple and cattle farms. Yet, the government reserves 1/3rd of the land for parks and other reserves. Since most Central American countries have not attracted as much attention from investors, more virgin land is available in other Central American countries than Costa Rica. Costa Rica still has more land set aside for reserves than most developed countries worldwide. In addition, there is unfortunately little assurance that as other Central American countries develop more, their virgin lands will not become spoiled.
Three Great Resources for Expat Retirees Living in Costa Rica
- Vicki Skinner, a transplanted Californian who has lived in Costa Rica for the past sixteen years, seems to know about every expat in the Central Valley. I stayed at Vicki’s guesthouse for a month in 2008 and, through her, met fascinating expats like Gail Nystrom, a thirty-year resident of Costa Rica. After finishing the Peace Corps, he has developed multiple self-help projects throughout her Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation. Vicki keeps an extensive list of resources (everything from English-speaking taxicab drivers to gay-friendly businesses) for the expat community in Costa Rica for no charge. She has no affiliation with any realtors, etc. Therefore, her information is unbiased. She loves “to connect people.”
- The Association of Residents of Costa Rica (ARCR) puts together the best seminar I have seen for expats contemplating moving to another country. The two-day workshop covers everything from learning Spanish to telecommunications to visa and real estate requirements. Most of the seminar features various businesspeople engaged in providing the association’s services. Some of the people I have talked to who used their services had strong praise, and others did not. While I wholeheartedly recommend the seminar, I recommend you ask around the expat community before contracting with any businesses that help put on the discussion.
- If you want to learn more about Costa Rica, check out: The Ticos by the Biesanz family and Culture Shock: Costa Rica by Claire Wallerstein. (Tico and Tica ( the female equivalent) are Costa Ricans’ nicknames throughout Latin America. Tico refers to the tendency of Costa Rica to use tico instead of tito to change words into the diminutive form. For example, instead of saying un momentito (a short minute) like Standard Spanish, the Costa Ricans say un momentico).