College graduation is a momentous time in the life of a young adult in the United States. Crossing the stage and receiving a diploma signify stepping out in to the world as an independent, valuable member of society equipped with all the skills and knowledge required to lead a successful life in a chosen field. It is an era of great triumph, a culmination of years of preparation, a new chapter in the book of life filled with exciting stories of finding purpose and following dreams.
Or, at least that is what it is supposed to be. Unfortunately, the reality faced by the vast majority of recent graduates in the U.S. is a much more daunting experience, as so many struggle to find the job they want in their field, or in some cases, any job at all.
Oftentimes graduates are met with the harsh choice of taking a position well below their skill level, far removed from their field of interest, making an even larger investment of time and money in grad school, or undergoing an unpaid and seemingly endless job-hunt. The cold hard truth is that the United States is experiencing an epidemic of underworked, underpaid and undervalued college graduates robbed of the Promised Land a university education was supposed to ensure.
The good news is that doesn’t have to be your reality. Perhaps the United States fails to meet the demands of an educated, ambitious young professional struggling to begin an exciting and fulfilling career, but there’s a whole world out there waiting for such an individual. As a native English speaker, you have already mastered one of the most invaluable skills in the world job market – the ability to teach English as a foreign language in another country.
The demand for English teachers across the globe is as high as ever and the opportunities abroad are endless. Regardless of your field of expertise, teaching abroad is a wonderful opportunity to start your career immediately after graduation. What’s more, teaching English right out of college sets a professional platform from which you can jump in to virtually any field in the U.S. job market, when and if you’re ready to come back to the States.
When I walked across the stage at University of Oregon in 2007, I couldn’t wait for what life brought next. I was excited to utilize and expand upon the skills I’d gained in college and start a new chapter as a self-sufficient, successful, young professional in a world of endless possibilities. All these expectations were met and then some, but it wasn’t thanks to the diploma I held in my hand that day, but rather the ticket to Costa Rica in my pocket.
Teaching English was the best thing I could have done to accomplish the aforementioned goals and jumpstart my career immediately after graduation. My U.S. job searches had proved futile and I didn’t have much money, so I needed to set up a flow of steady income right away. Teaching English in Costa Rica made this, and so much more, possible.
My time abroad changed my life in ways unimaginable upon embarking on the journey. It allowed me the opportunity to know life outside of the United States, an experience that continues to prove invaluable to my global outlook, belief system and attitude about the world around me as well as my place in it. I learned how to live healthily, happily and simply, without so much of what our culture in the States would have us believe we need. Living abroad, especially in a developing country such as Costa Rica, offers a chance to get back to basics and reevaluate what’s important to you, who you are, and who you want to become.
Furthermore, teaching in Costa Rica proved to be a surprisingly great way to jumpstart my career and set me up for success in the U.S. job market years down the road. I was hired as founding editor of a startup newspaper in the prestigious Silicon Valley before even leaving Costa Rica, and have since held stable, lucrative positions with well-known companies in communications and finance.
Meet Costa Rica
Costa Rica is an amazing place to live! It’s as beautiful and diverse culturally as it is geographically. From beaches to volcanoes, from reggae to rodeos, this Central American gem has a long-standing reputation as one of the best eco-tourism destinations, as well as home to the happiest, longest living people on earth. This explains the national colloquialism ‘pura vida’, or ‘pure life’ you’ll come to know and love. It’s no wonder why so many expatriates from all over the world reestablish their lives here; many never look back.
If you’re looking for the adventure of a lifetime, Costa Rica is a great place to find it. The landscape boasts some of the most diverse and pristine landscapes on Earth. As an isthmus, Costa Rica offers gorgeous coastlines along both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The central valley is as bustling ecologically as it is commercially, with hundreds of rare and endangered species of plants and animals just outside the capital city of San Jose. There are several amazing tropical rainforests with canyons to zip line over, rivers to raft down and mountains to climb. The country sits atop the Pacific Ring of Fire, resulting in over 200 volcanoes – about half of them still active!
As remarkable as Costa Rica’s geography is, the real treasure is its people. You may never meet such welcoming, friendly people as you will in this wonderful place. Life in Costa Rica moves at a slower pace than in the United States and the effect is notable in the relationships cultivated there. There is a much greater sense of community, belonging and being a part of something greater than oneself. Living in this kind of environment can have everlasting positive affects on you and how you interact with the world around you.
The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish, although a good amount of English is spoken throughout the country, and creole is spoken in some areas on the Caribbean side. Spanish is spoken differently across the globe, with vocabulary and pronunciation varying widely depending on the location. You’ll find Costa Rica to be one of the most Spanish learner-friendly countries there are, as people speak slowly, clearly and encouragingly to those picking up the language.
Those same aforementioned traits typical to Costa Rican culture are a godsend to English teachers who have the pleasure and privilege of working there. You’re hard- pressed to find better students than Costa Ricans, as they are some of the best mannered and eager-to-learn students to be found. This makes a huge difference in the teacher experience, and ensures a smooth and lasting transition in to your new career as an English teacher abroad.
Paving the Way to Your Future
Luckily, for those who decide to reenter the U.S. job market, living and teaching in Costa Rica provides a wide set of skills and valuable experience employers find attractive across industries. Regardless of the position you seek in the States, your experience teaching in Costa Rica can help get you there.
Having successfully transitioned in to and held an esteemed job abroad gives strong evidence of your problem solving skills, tolerance and stress management abilities. It’s safe to say that if you can thrive independently in a foreign country, especially in a developing country such as Costa Rica, you can handle whatever the professional world in the United States throws at you upon your return.
Teaching in Costa Rica gives you a great advantage over your colleagues who chose to stay in the States and try to work their way up the corporate ladder because it shows that you are not afraid to think outside the box and try an entirely new approach when confronted with serious obstacles. It shows that risk aversion is not something that will keep you from achieving your goals and that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in your path to professional greatness.
Why Teach in Costa Rica?
Upping Your Market Value
Imagine you’re in a first interview and are confronted with the timeless question, “So, what can you tell me about your background?” Chances are your interviewer has asked this question over 100 times, and 95 of the answers are some version of the same story – graduation, job hunt, menial job (if any), and struggling to move up in the world. The employer is probably as bored and discouraged with the story as the candidates are with living it.
But that’s not your story. You forged your own path, crossed borders, broke boundaries and took the road less traveled. You’ve lived abroad, learned another language, immersed yourself in a foreign culture and made a life for yourself in a world your interviewer has perhaps only dreamed of.
By making the decision to live in Costa Rica, you’re setting yourself apart from the competition in the U.S. job market by demonstrating a sense of adventure, courage and adaptability – all of which crucial elements to a successful career in any field. Living in Costa Rica adds an element to our resumes that are unattainable to our classmates who never left the country.
Spanish in Demand
Speaking a second language, particularly Spanish, is highly marketable in the United States. Mastery of the Spanish language is a standard requirement for more and more jobs from marketing to media, non-profits to sales of anything under the sun. Your experience in Costa Rica will allow you to perfect this invaluable skill and raise your resume to the top of the pile, greatly improving your marketability and chances of landing the job you want when you’re ready to come back to the States.
Although studying the language is a great asset, nothing can compare to the level of skill you will achieve by fully immersing yourself in to a Spanish speaking country. Your understanding and fluency of the language will reach unparalleled heights while living in Costa Rica, putting you a step ahead of even the most highly educated bilingual speakers in the United States.
Teaching Skills = People Skills
Mastery of the English language is more valuable than any other in the job market and what better way to demonstrate yours than by teaching it to others? When you teach English as a foreign language, you learn in- demand communication skills from which you’ll benefit throughout your entire career.
You’ll find that patience, active listening and the ability to explain an idea in a variety of different ways to be as valuable in your career as they are in personal life. In any industry, the ability to affectively communicate your ideas is crucial and teaching is a great way to perfect this fundamental business skill.
Tip of the Iceberg
In addition to teaching in Costa Rica, there exists a wide and diverse variety of occupations to simultaneously supplement your income and fine tune your other passions and interests, adding specialty talents to your already impressive skillset. Writing, translating, marketing, and management are just a few of the endless opportunities available to you in Costa Rica.
Teaching abroad provides the financial stability required to maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle, while still allowing you time and energy to explore your other areas of interest. This is a perfect combination for supporting yourself in the present moment and preparing yourself for a fruitful future at the same time.
Now, back to the imagined interview. You blow the competition out of the water with your story of how you refused the mediocrity of the menial jobs your classmates took. Imagine the look of impression on your interviewer’s face when you say that you followed your dreams to Costa Rica, where you mastered one language and taught another, acquired unique skills and lived outside the box of normality! That’s the story that will set you apart from the competition and secure you a comfortable position in the job market upon your return to the United States.
Before Coming to Costa Rica
Fortunately, the requirements to teach in Costa Rica are minimal, as the vast majority of teaching jobs won’t require you to have a work visa. If you’re coming from the U.S. (and a handful of other nations) all you need to get started is a plane ticket, as Costa Rica allows stays of 90 days or less on tourist visas. Keep in mind that in order to get your tourist visa you will need a round trip ticket to prove that you will be leaving the country within the next 90 days before they’ll let you in to Costa Rica. You can always change your return ticket once you’re in country.
You’ll need to renew your tourist visa every 90 days, and the easiest way to taking a quick jaunt across the boarder to either Nicaragua or Panama. Most language schools, and other places that employ foreigners, accommodate for this by allowing sufficient time off every three months to stay outside the country for the required 72 hours before returning to Costa Rica. Some places even provide a small bonus to help with the travel expenses!
Additional requirements can include a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certificate. This element depends upon where you decide to teach, as some institutions require them and some do not. Regardless, I highly recommend completing the TEFL course as it provides the tools and skills to a successful, smooth transition in to teaching in a foreign country. The course covers grammar, classroom management, lesson planning and many more lessons essential to your success as an English teacher.
You can complete your TEFL course online or in a class setting in a variety of formats almost anywhere these days. I find it particularly beneficial to complete the course in Costa Rica itself, as it provides the opportunity to acclimate yourself to the country, practice Spanish and help secure your job by getting your foot in the proverbial door to the teaching network and your new community. I earned my TEFL certification from Costa Rica TEFL, and the investment has returned itself in full over and over again throughout my career.
Finding a Job
The next best way to find a job teaching in Costa Rica (second only to getting hired straight out of TEFL courses in Costa Rica) is to complete your TEFL course in the States and then execute your job hunt in Costa Rica sometime between October and December, as the new school year starts in January. Arrive with your resume, teaching credential, professional attire and you’ll likely have your choice of several schools within a short amount of time.
The majority of jobs available are in or around the capital city of San Jose, located in the central valley. However, those seeking more rural environments can find great opportunities in language schools and private tutoring throughout the country. Regardless of whether you take a job at a large institution in the city or a small school out in the country, your experience teaching in Costa Rica will be an unforgettable and highly valuable experience both personally and professionally.
Preparing to Leave the U.S.
If you don’t already have a current United States Passport, that’s first and foremost regarding your preparations for leaving the country. Be sure to start the process as early as possible, as it can sometimes take up to 4-6 weeks to process your application.
You’ll also want to let all your banks and creditors know that you are leaving the States to ensure that no holds are placed on your accounts once your international transactions start showing up on your accounts. It’s a standard and easily avoidable precautionary tactic to ensure that your identity has not been compromised.
Another recommendation to take care of in the U.S. is to check with your doctor to make sure you’re up-to-date on all your vaccinations. The CDC recommendations for Costa Rica list Hepatitis A and Typhoid for most travelers.
Getting in to Costa Rica
Once again, Costa Rica proves to be one of the best countries for teaching English. In regards to entry requirements, it’s one of the most relaxed countries you’ll find. It’s literally as easy as buying your plane ticket, showing up on time and remembering your passport. Don’t forget to keep all your customs forms (they’ll pass them out on the plane for you to fill out before landing), ticket/boarding pass, and luggage tickets, et cetera, handy until after you depart the airport. There are no major hurdles to clear in order to get in to Costa Rica, just a little bit of courage!
Flights and Beyond
There are two major airports in Costa Rica. If you don’t already have a job lined up upon arriving, your best bet is to land in San Jose. However, if you’re heading to the Pacific side, specifically the province of Guanacaste, the smaller Liberia airport will get you much closer to your new home.
Most major airlines fly to the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) daily. This location puts you right in the heart of Costa Rica and the English teaching hotspot. Check out price comparison sites like Kayak or
Orbitz to get the lowest fares available. Book your flight as early in advance as possible, as prices get higher as the departure date approaches.
Once you’ve cleared customs, you will find a slew of taxi drivers eager to drive you to your final destination. For safety sake, only hire the official red taxis with a yellow triangle on the door, and be sure they use the meter aka ‘la maria’.
There’s also a public bus stop right outside the airport that can transport you in to San Jose Central, where you can catch other, farther-reaching buses to all over the country.
A second airport option in Costa Rica is the Liberia International Airport (LIR) in Guanacaste. If you plan on working anywhere on the Pacific side of the country, this smaller, more remote airport can save you the hassle of navigating the capital city and cut several hours off your in-country travel to your destination. Keep in mind that it costs a bit more to land in Liberia (up to $200) and the airport offers less airline options (namely Continental and United).
If landing in Liberia, you’ll be welcomed by a similar group of ‘taxistas’ in front of the airport. However, the nearest bus stop is a few kilometers away, so you’d need to hire one to get you to your local bus connection or to transport you all the way to your final destination.
Additional in-country transportation options are small, domestic flights run by Sansa. Although more costly, they can provide newly arrived foreigners with the peace of mind of having a straight shot from the airport to (or near to) their destination.
Rental cars services are available at both airports and offer GPS device rentals, but Costa Rican roads, traffic and laws are different than what most U.S. drivers are accustomed to. For this reason, flights, buses and taxis are recommended until you’ve had a chance to familiarize yourself with the new rules of the road.
As hard as it might be to leave the past behind, when it comes to packing for Costa Rica, keep it simple. Here are some tips to keep your light on your feet with all the essentials.
What to Take
- Passport (and two color copies, packed separately)
- Clothes (an interview outfit, casual attire, outdoor wear)
- Medication (prescriptions)
What to Leave
- Products (shampoo, lotion etc… buy them in Costa Rica)
- Unnecessary Valuables (expensive jewelry, birth certificates)
- Books (you can get them there)
Most everything you will need in Costa Rica can be found there. It may take a bit of time to find what you’re looking for, but trust that your needs will be met and embrace the chance to find new ways of fulfilling your desires.
Keep in mind that your DVD’s won’t work in Costa Rica because the disks are programmed to only play in the zone they were created for. Therefore, they are incompatible with devices abroad. Besides, you’re going to Costa Rica to see new things, not things you’ve seen time and time again back home!
Getting a Job
There are several mediums through which to execute your Costa Rican job hunt. Although a face-to-face approach is advantageous to landing a job teaching, there are several online and printed resources to incorporate in your search as well. Here’s a list of useful resources to get your search abroad started:
- Newspaper Classifieds (La Nación, Tico Times, Inside Costa Rica, Voice of Guanacaste, A.M. Costa Rica)
- Private Language Institutes (Intercultura Language School, The Swan English Learning, The Country Day School, Whittemore de Costa Rica, Universal de Idiomas)
- U.S. Based Websites (Craigslist , LinkedIn, Costa Rica Jobs, Indeed, Costa Rica Pages, GoAbroad)
- Personal Network (TEFL school, classmates, colleagues, social networks)
Be sure to have your resume up-to-date featuring your TEFL Certification (if you have it already) to present to prospective employers in Costa Rica. Feel free to include your passport photo, age and nationality for extra points, but they’re not usually used or expected in Costa Rica.
Good things to keep in mind when preparing your CV to teach in Costa Rica include any relevant work experience, volunteer work, specialized study/ accreditations, and academic background. Be sure to highlight any leadership positions and teaching experience you’ve had.
Although standard cover letters are not commonly requested, it’s always a good idea to have one ready should it arise. If you’re applying for jobs in Costa Rica from the United States, a good cover letter can help get your resume to the top of the pile and increase your hiring potential. Do your best to customize the letter for each school you apply to by using the reviewer’s name, institution name, position you seek, why you want it and how you’re the best person for the job.
Good interview etiquette to help guarantee your success as a candidate in any environment emphasizes punctuality, professional appearance, good eye contact and articulate, poignant speech. Do your best to answer the interviewer’s questions in a direct and friendly manner, and ask a few of your own about the school at the end to demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm.
There are a few things unique to Costa Rican culture to be aware of going in to interviews. The country is notorious for casually late (usually 5-15 minutes) arrival times, a phenomenon affectionately referred to as ‘la hora tica’, or ‘tico time’. So even though you’ll be sure to be on time, don’t be thrown off if whom you’re meeting with is not.
Also, it’s customary to give someone a little kiss aka ‘un besito’ on the right cheek when making an acquaintance or seeing someone anew. This really only goes for women/men and woman/woman interactions – men usually shake hands in professional environments.
Sharing is Caring
Lastly, Costa Ricans tend to be much more open and communally minded in the work place (and everywhere else) than most people from the States. Don’t be alarmed if you’re asked about your marital status, hobbies and other things you might identify as personal information.
Costa Rican culture values the collective over the individual, so be sure not to center the interview so much on your own needs, but how you can answer to the needs of the institution or group.
Renewing Your Visa
As mentioned previously, you’re going to need to exit the country for at least 72 hours every 90 days in order to keep your tourist visa valid. You’re welcome to visit any other country you’d like, but Nicaragua and Panama are the closest and least expensive options for meeting the requirement.
Oftentimes teachers in Costa Rica will plan their visa runs together as a group, which is a great way to share costs and ensure safety for everyone. Public buses are typically quite inexpensive and can get you across the border and there are always cheap hostel options that can save a lot of money if you’re willing to share a room and/ or bathroom. If you go to Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur and Granada are popular places to visit. In Panama, Bocas del Toro will prove to be a trip you’ll never forget.
After your three days (or however many more you choose) have passed outside Costa Rica, all you have to do to get your tourist visa renewed is cross back over the border and get your new passport stamp. It’s that easy! Now you’ve got another 90 days to teach and enjoy your new life in Costa Rica.
Even if you’re teaching full time in Costa Rica, both your bank account and your career can certainly benefit from a side job (or two!). Working outside the classroom is also a great way to dig deeper in to your new community and meet people outside the academic crowd. The possibilities to expand and fine-tune your skillset while living in Costa Rica are virtually endless. Here are just a few of the available options to expand your professional horizons while teaching in Costa Rica:
One of the best side jobs I took on in Costa Rica, which actually ended up being my main focus and eventually lead me back to work in the United States, is writing. I started off writing short stories and articles for a bilingual regional tourist magazine, which was a great way to start publishing my work. Soon thereafter, the local newspaper took me on as a correspondent for various regional news articles and eventually promoted me to editorial coordinator. This later led to a media position in the Silicon Valley, which facilitated my transition back to the United States.
You can even find freelance work in the United States online while living in Costa Rica. Elance.com is just one of many great resources for freelancers in a variety of different areas including IT & Programming, Design & Multimedia, Writing & Translation, Sales & Marketing and Administrative Support. Taking advantage of U.S. freelance opportunities is a fantastic way to start building your career portfolio and expand your network in the States (and internationally) while teaching in Costa Rica.
With the tourism industry spreading like wildfire throughout Costa Rica, more and more foreign entrepreneurs are starting new businesses across the country. From hotels, tour agencies, boutiques, surf schools and gift shops – the list is endless.
If you have an interest or talent you’d like to market, Costa Rica is a great place to start a new business. In order to do so legally, you’ll have to set up a corporation for your business, usually either a ‘Sociedad
Anonima’ (SA) or ‘Socieadad de Responsibilidad Limitada’ (SRL). You can accomplish this with one of the numerous English-speaking attorneys in Costa Rica.
Teaching Outside the Box
There are several ways to tailor your teaching expertise to go above and beyond the every day English class and attract more students to your classes, expanding your client base and securing your position as an English teacher in Costa Rica.
One way to add more students to your roster and more classes to your schedule in Costa Rica is to offer specialized English classes. Most classes cover very broad topics about every day life and practical use of the language. You can step outside this box and offer your students the chance to excel in a number of specific areas. Topics currently in demand in Costa Rica include tourism, security and hospitality.
Private Classes and Tutoring
Another option is to offer private classes in addition to your group classes. Teaching in this capacity can add significantly to your income, as most teachers are paid the same hourly rate for group classes and private sessions. You might also consider private tutoring outside your school in students’ homes or a public setting like a park, library or restaurant. If you’re working for a language school, be sure there aren’t any prohibitions on teaching outside the school first.
Tips on TEFL
Some of the most valuable things I picked up teaching English as a foreign language have helped me manage intercultural and business exchanges throughout my career. For example, imagine you’re teaching a lesson and your student makes a mistake. Rather than correcting them, or even telling them they’re incorrect, simply repeat what they said in the form of a question or simply ask them if what they said was correct.
This correctional approach allows your students the opportunity to identify the error and correct it on their own, which helps them to fully grasp a concept at hand. This same methodology can be applied to training new skills in any future workplace and proves advantageous throughout your career.
Another good idea to live by as an English teacher in Costa Rica is to refrain from using any Spanish you may know in the classroom. It seems like a short cut in the beginning, but it really does diminish the students’ understanding of the language and, ultimately, makes your job a lot harder. In the English classroom, only English should be spoken.
Where to Live
Costa Rica has several housing options available to you depending on what part of the country you’re going to live in. Most buildings in urban neighborhoods have brightly painted concrete walls and shiny tile floors, but wood houses can certainly be found, especially in more rural areas. You’ll find that security is a high priority in Costa Rican culture, as nearly all buildings have security gates and bars on the windows.
Near the larger cities you will find buildings new and old, including apartment buildings. In more rural areas apartments are a bit harder to find, but finding a house to share with others should be easy.
Finding a Place
The best way to find a place to rent in Costa Rica is generally by word of mouth. Communities are usually closely knit and if there’s an available rental, chances are almost everybody knows about it and will be happy to introduce you to the owner. You can certainly rely on your teaching network to help you find a place to call home. Other resources include newspaper classifieds, Craigslist and bulletin boards in public places.
Renting a room can cost anywhere from $100-400 a month depending on the area and building. Houses can be anywhere from $400-900 while apartments are somewhere in between.
There’s a wide spectrum of housing amenities available in Costa Rica depending on how much you want to spend. While electricity and running water are standard, air conditioning, heating (not that you’ll need it in the tropical climate) and hot water are not always available. Although hot water heaters are rare, a lot of Costa Rican showers have electric showerheads that provide warmer bathing conditions. A washer may be included to do your laundry, but most people hang their clothes to dry rather than using an electric dryer. Dishwashers are typically only found in houses built and owned by foreigners.
Oftentimes utilities like water, electricity and garbage are included in the rental cost, but it’s not uncommon to pay a certain amount of the utility bill directly to your landlord. If you are responsible for paying your utilities, you’ll likely do so in the town hall building (el salon comunal), pharmacy or sometimes the home of an individual charged with the responsibility of accepting payments. Utilities are usually fairly inexpensive in Costa Rica, not often exceeding $100 or so per month all together.
Electricity is monopolized in Costa Rica, so you’ll become very familiar with the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity I.C.E. (pronounced e-say). If you want a phone line (land or mobile), lights or Internet in your house, you’ll have to go through them.
Finding Your Niche
Finding Your Cronies
It’s important to build a support system for yourself in your new home. Luckily, Costa Ricans (colloquially ‘ticos’ for men and ‘ticas’ for women) are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet and most foreigners who gravitate to the country are good folks who’ve been in your position before and understand the importance of a good circle of friends to have your back.
Of course, the school where you teach will be the first community you are introduced to. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to make connections with people who are familiar with your unique situation and have the resources to help get you settled in Costa Rica. Once you have your feet underneath you, it’s a great idea to explore areas of interest and expand your network to include people interested in your extracurricular activities and interests. Check out whatever gets you excited – scuba dive shops, libraries, reggae bars, yoga studios – there’s something in Costa Rica for everybody to enjoy!
Cultural & Colloquial Norms
There are several parts of Costa Rican culture that are helpful for newcomers to know. We’ve already touched on the colloquial ‘pura vida’, which is used slightly more than the interchangeable word ‘tuanis’, especially in Guanacaste and beach towns. You will hear these words a lot, as they can mean anything from salutations to affirmations to goodbye.
No matter where you go in Costa Rica, you’ll most certainly come to hear the word ‘mae’ a lot. It’s similar to saying ‘dude’ in U.S. culture, and most people across generations and regions use the term abundantly in their informal day-to-day conversations.
Another good thing to know is that in Costa Rica, people will often say ‘adiós’ in passing, rather than ‘hola’. It’s not that they’re in a rush (people in Costa Rica rarely are); it’s derived from the saying ‘vaya con diós’, or ‘go with god’.
Local & Expat Friends
When it comes to making friends, you may find yourself initially drawn toward other foreigners in your new town. There’s certainly value in these relationships, as they can provide a familiar perspective and avoid any language barrier challenges.
However, the best way to get to know Costa Rica is to get to know Costa Ricans. Plus, oftentimes foreigners in Costa Rica aren’t permanent or full time residents, and it’s good to build stability in your safety net by establishing relationships you can count on to be there for you should you need their support.
Immersing Yourself in Tico Culture
If you’re used to a busy, modern city life, you might find the culture change in Costa Rica to be challenging to get accustomed to at first. Rest assured, once you adapt to the tranquil, no stress ‘pura vida’ lifestyle, you won’t want to go back to a hurried and complex life. Keeping in mind the old saying, ‘When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do’, try your best to give in to your new surroundings and let go of any previously held notions of how things should be done. Relax, take differences with a grain of salt, and enjoy your experience in this amazing country.
Last, but certainly not least, you should be prepared to feel homesickness at some point (or points) in your transition to living in Costa Rica. Don’t worry; it’s only natural and only temporary. Touching base with your friends and family in back home is great, but be sure not to spend more time on Skype and Facebook than you do living your life in Costa Rica.
Do your best to stay present and not get wrapped up mentally in what you left behind. You’re starting a new chapter of your life in a brand new, exciting and beautiful place – don’t miss this moment!
Eating in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has some delicious, healthy and affordable food. You’ll find that the easiest way to eat well on a teacher’s salary in Costa Rica is to eat like a local – and what a treat it is! The tropics provide a wealth of exotic fruits from guava, coconut, pineapple, mamón chinos (rambutan) and papaya. There’s also some great seafood and several well-balanced, tasty local dishes to choose from.
The national dish is called ‘gallo pinto’ and consists of black beans (usually) and white rice cooked together with onion, bell pepper and the most commonly used condiment, ‘salsa lizano’. Everyone eats it for breakfast, usually with a couple sides like toast, eggs, cheese or plantains.
The typical lunch and/or dinner dish is known as a ‘casado’ and usually has beans, rice, salad and a choice of pork chop, beef, chicken, fish or vegetables. Other local favorites include ‘arroz con pollo/camarones/ vegetales’, a delicious rice dish with your choice of chicken, shrimp or vegetables.
Smoothies, called ‘batidos’, are very popular and can be made with a wide variety of fresh fruits and either water or milk with ice. The milk in Costa Rica is unlike that in the States because it is pasteurized differently and is usually stored unrefrigerated until opened. The taste difference is notable but not unpleasant.
The most typical eateries with the best of the aforementioned dishes are called ‘sodas’ and can usually be found every few blocks or so. Also in abundance are local corner stores, called ‘pulpereías’ where you can pick up household necessities and some grocery items. Major grocery trips are best to save for the less expensive ‘supermercados’, of which there is usually at least one in each town.
Getting your hands on flavors from home is not a hard feat in Costa Rica, thanks to all the tourism and foreign influence in the country. You’ll find things like hamburgers and French fries on most local menus and other comfort foods like macaroni and cheese can be found at most supermarkets.
There are a lot of Italians living in Costa Rica, so it’s easy to find delicious pizza and pasta restaurants throughout the country. Recently there’s even been an influx of Asian cuisine including sushi, Thai and fusion.
Abiding by any strict dietary rules while abroad can be challenging, but Costa Rica is one of the easiest places in the world to find vegetarian options easily and inexpensively. As previously mentioned, the national dish, ‘gallo pinto’ contains no animal products at all. You can always get a ‘casado’ with fresh, local veggies instead of meat for lunch or dinner. ‘Arroz con vegetales’ is a delicious vegetarian option as well.
In the past few years, there’s been a notable increase in healthy food options both in supermarkets and restaurants, especially around tourist hot spots. You’ll find organic cafes with vegetarian/vegan options easily enough, but the prices will likely be higher than what you’d pay at a locally owned establishment.
There are several ways to explore Costa Rica comfortably and inexpensively. Most of the major roads are in reasonably good condition and public transportation is easily accessible throughout the country.
Public buses are the best way to get around Costa Rica as far as convenience and price go. They leave regularly and often, although they do make for a longer trip than driving. The only tricky part is there’s no central bus station in San Jose, so you have to go to the one that services your destination and they’re not all easily identifiable.
You can find which company or ‘empresa’ you need in a booklet distributed by the ITC (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism) or get it online at Anywhere Costa Rica. The site also lists the ferry schedules, which are a great way to cut some travel time out of your trip over to the Nicoya Peninsula, famous for the beautiful beaches of the Guanacaste province.
Should all the seats on the bus be sold out, there’s some good news and some bad news. The good news is that you can still get on the bus. The bad news is you’ll be standing in the center aisle, at least until somebody gets off and you take their seat. It beats waiting for the next bus in many cases, but just be prepared to be on your feet if the ticket is ‘de pie’.
There are two different types of public buses – ‘directo’ and ‘colectivo’. The theory is that you pay more for nonstop service, but unfortunately that’s not the reality. There may be a few less stops, but not enough to make a serious difference in drive time.
There are no restrooms on the buses, but if your trip is more than a few hours long, there’s a scheduled regular rest stop around the halfway point where you can use a public restroom and purchase refreshments if you’d like. Be sure you keep an eye on your bus – it will leave you behind if you’re not back on board when the driver starts the engine!
Of course if you’re in a rush and have the extra cash, Costa Rica’s aforementioned domestic airline, Sansa, can get you to several locations all over the country within a couple hours or less, assuming you’re already near one of their small airstrips.
Riding a motorcycle is a great way to get where you’re going quickly and save money on gas and maintenance, which is why you’ll see lots of ticos riding them; sometimes with two or three people at a time!
Riders should be cautious because road conditions are inconsistent and can be very dangerous for an inexperienced rider, especially if new to Costa Rica.
Road culture is less conservative than in the States; there’s not always a center dividing line and sometimes passing can turn in to pretty close calls, especially for motorcyclists who, in Costa Rica, almost never wear helmets.
Driving can provide you the same freedom of riding a motorcycle and cars are both safer and more convenient for carrying passengers and belongings (although not entirely secure, as cars do get broken in to). They are, however, considerably more expensive to fuel and maintain.
The country’s climate and roads are notoriously hard on cars, making ownership of one in Costa Rica a serious financial commitment.
Even if you have a really good map and keen sense of direction, using a GPS device is a good thing to do until you familiarize yourself with your new surroundings, as Costa Rica does not always have clearly labeled roads. In fact, most roads aside from the major highways have no signs at all, so it’s really easy to get lost if you don’t already know how to get to your destination.
A short term driving solution is a rental car, of which there are many all over the country. Prices vary depending on the type of car and location, but are usually around $60-$100 per day or $400-$600 for a week’s rental. You’ll need a valid driver’s license, your passport and a major credit card in order to rent a car in Costa Rica.
The earlier point discouraging the storage of belongings (especially valuables) in cars is especially important when driving a rental car, as they are easily and often identified as jackpots by thieves.
When you’re not going far from your new home in Costa Rica, you’ll find getting around your local area to be an enjoyable and easy experience. Most people walk leisurely from one place to another while going about their business throughout the day. You’ll rarely see anyone rushing and you’ll likely observe (and soon be part of) several stops for friendly conversation along the way.
Along with walking, bicycling is a very popular and fun way to get about town. Be careful on streets with a lot of cars, as the culture sees it as the pedestrian’s responsibility to ensure that they’re not in the car’s way, not the other way around like in the States. Be sure to get a bike lock, especially if you have a new bike, and lock it up when left out of sight or in public places.
Hitchhiking is neither recommended nor common along the major highways, but sometimes people hitch rides on the smaller roads in their own area. Those willing to take the risk should take precautions by traveling with others and letting someone know your plans. Women traveling alone should exercise extra caution, as in any other country.
Generally speaking, entertainment costs are lower in Costa Rica than they are in the United States. Although you’ll be hard pressed to find a movie theatre or shopping mall outside of San Jose, there are still plenty of fun things to do on a teacher’s budget no matter where you are living in Costa Rica.
Bars & Clubs
People like to go out in Costa Rica, especially in large and tourist towns. There are usually no cover charges, and if there is one, it’s not much money. There are two national beers to choose from, ‘Imperial’ and ‘Pilsen’ and they both cost about $2. A variety of imported beers are also available for a dollar or so more. You’ll find most bars have a full selection of liquors and spirits at reasonable prices as well.
Costa Rica offers a wide variety of eateries ranging from rustic to luxurious. You can spend anywhere from $5 to $50 on a meal depending on where you go and what you order. The most simple, typical restaurants can offer great food and an authentic dining experience for a very reasonable price. There are also many restaurants featuring culinary specialties from all over the world where you can try exotic and delicious meals for a higher price and a more extravagant evening out.
A great way to get to know Costa Rica and its people is to attend local events. Most gatherings are centered on the community and can be for a birthday, an engagement, a baby shower and life celebrations of the like.
There are also several very big and nationally celebrated holidays that can involve parades, traditional dance performances, special foods, music and singing.
Soccer is a big deal in Costa Rica. Whether it’s a small informal ‘mejenga’ on the beach or an official league game in the stadium, ticos are bound to flock to soccer games in masses and cheer for their team with gusto.
A Costa Rican cultural event to remember is the local rodeo. They usually take place around Christmas and Easter holidays and are a huge attraction. They’re unlike the rodeos in the States in that anybody with the gumption is permitted to enter into the ring and run around trying not to get mauled by the bull as it to throws its rider. People are also allowed to climb up and sit on the wooden fences securing the ring, so it makes for an up close and personal display of courage if you opt out of the bleachers.
There are some great musicians to watch perform live in Costa Rica these days. Many artists popular in the States tour through San Jose and occasionally other parts of the country. There are also a large number of local artists performing all over Costa Rica, whose shows are generally inexpensive and a lot of fun.
Finding Free Fun
There are plenty of fun things to do in Costa Rica that don’t cost any money. You can take hikes and see some amazing plant and animal life you’ve likely never set your eyes on before. The same goes for biking around. There are so many amazing places to check out and all you need to explore your new home is time and motivation. You can also practice your Spanish for free with new local friends or read a Spanish book in a park, on the beach, on top of a mountain or even a volcano!
Banking and Foreign Remittance
Adjusting to banking in Costa Rica takes a bit of time, but once you get started it’s smooth sailing and easy to exchange funds to and from the U.S. First steps are to familiarize yourself with the local currency and to open a bank account. From that point on, handling your finances from abroad is a piece of cake.
The local currency in Costa Rica is called the ‘colón’, or ‘colones’ if plural. The exchange rate usually hovers between 490 and 510 colones to the dollar, which makes it easy to round it off as 500 colones per dollar. Bills come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 and there are a variety of coins from 1 to 500 colones. You’ll quickly learn how to convert day-to-day expenses in your head, for example the 10,000 bill is equal to $20, 5,000 is $10 and so on.
There are several major banks in Costa Rica to choose from, namely Banco Nacional, Banco Popular, HSBC and Banco de Costa Rica. They all offer comparative banking services such as checking, savings, loans and lines of credit, but Banco Nacional and Banco Popular are more widely spread throughout the country.
In order to open a bank account you’ll need your passport and proof of a Costa Rican address, which can be accomplished with any local utility bill. You can ask your language school to help you supply one to the bank, since it doesn’t need to have your name on it, just an address to associate with the new account.
Banks in Costa Rica often have English-speaking representatives on staff, but by and large HSBC has the best reputation for catering to non-Spanish speakers. HSBC also tends to have shorter lines, both in the bank itself and the ATM machines.
How Foreign Remittance Works
Getting money back and forth between Costa Rica and the United States is fairly standard. Once you have a Costa Rican bank account established, you just need a few pieces of information and you can transfer funds internationally with ease; although it might involve a rather long wait in line at the bank.
You can make wire transfers to and from your new Costa Rican bank account to the U.S. by providing the account number, routing number and SWIFT numbers of the receiving account to your bank in Costa Rica. You can get the information from bank’s website, or by calling the bank.
The process is the same for the reverse situation. All you need is the same information pertaining to your account in Costa Rica to give to the bank in the States. Keep in mind that wire transfers cost around $30-40 each regardless of the amount being transferred, so it’s best to do larger transfers less often than small transfers frequently.
Ways Around the System
There are a couple tricks you can use to get around the wait and fee involved with bank wire transfers to Costa Rica. For example, you can use an outside payment service, such as PayPal, to serve as a means to access funds from the States abroad. The fee is considerably less, and it’s as convenient as entering the bank account in the website.
If you receive a payment from a U.S. freelance job while you’re in Costa Rica, you can access it directly from your account in the States without any international transfers.
Another way to save some money is by reducing the frequency of your debit/credit card purchases, as Costa Rica charges high processing fees for every transaction. Pull out your budget’s worth of cash once a week or so and make your purchases in cash instead and it’ll add up to a bundle saved.
Broader Saving Tips
Hacking Costa Rica
Here’s a basic rundown of several simple things you can do to save money while living in Costa Rica:
- Save loose change in a jar or bowl somewhere in your house. It’s heavy and cumbersome to carry and adds up to a helpful amount on the occasional rainy day
- When buying something from a street vendor or artisan, ask to bring the price down a bit before making a purchase. This tactic is less appropriate in set retail establishments or when there’s a price tag present.
- Eat at home. Host small dinner parties in rotation with friends. Cook together or have potlucks. Buying groceries is considerably less costly than eating out and making a habit of eating in will save you a ton of money in the long run.
Loving Life on a Budget
Whatever it is that you love to do in Costa Rica, there are usually ways to make doing it cheap and easy. The key is to work your way in to the network involved by offering to help in any way you can.
If you want to surf more, offer to wax the boards. If you want to learn how to dance Salsa, ask if you can help set up the dance studio. Once people come to know you as an interested, helpful and enthusiastic member of the community, you’ll be in a great position to continue doing what you love for little to no cost at all.
The decision to live and teach abroad in Costa Rica is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and it continues to prove its value in the United States even today. I came back from Costa Rica a different person – a more professional, balanced, secure and all around better person than I was upon my arrival to this amazing foreign land.
Teaching in Costa Rica set the professional foundation on which I continue to build a successful, fulfilling and exciting career. I have never questioned and certainly never regretted my decision to teach abroad, as it made for some of the most formative and fun years of my life while setting the scene for me to reenter the U.S. job market and thrive as a professional.
By embarking upon the journey to teach in Costa Rica, you are pushing the shutters on your window to the world wide open. Soon you’ll see your life with an entirely new perspective; one filled with endless opportunity and the security of knowing that you are a talented and valuable individual with the ability to forge your own path to success. ¡Pura Vida, Mae!