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Living in Costa Rica: Content Index

Introduction

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Teaching ESL in Costa Rica can be a wonderful experience. Those who have the most success are those who arrive with a correct set of expectations. Latin America is not as financially rewarding as other parts of the world can be in the ESL industry. If a teacher arrives here with the expectation to make a lot of money, they will be disappointed. Likewise, if they expect things to be given to them and aspects such as accommodations, directions and even jobs to be worked out for them, it may not be a great experience.

Those who thrive here are the teachers who have a sense of adventure and don’t envision Costa Rica as a final life destination. Jobs in Costa Rica are plentiful and if you are qualified, you will find one. Living here also makes a person much more independent – you have to work for everything you earn. The amazing beauty of the country, and its people, are aspects that cannot be overlooked or taken for granted. With all these things in mind, Costa Rica is a great place to teach for a few years.



andrew-woodbury.jpgThe ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

Originally from Toronto, Canada, Andrew is the academic director of Global TESOL College Costa Rica, a show contributor on the Overseas Radio Network, and an independent writer based in Costa Rica. Follow him @A_W10 and on his Blog About Something.

He contributes a regular column to The Costa Rican Times newspaper on the topic of teaching English. His articles can be read on the newspaper's website:

Posts by Andrew Woodbury

If you want more information about teaching English in Costa Rica or getting your TEFL or TESOL certificate in Costa Rica feel free to contact Andrew at: andrew@globaltesolcostarica.com.

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About Costa Rica

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Costa Rica – in a part of the world not often associated with a dream vacation, we find a true gem. A country full of beauty – its range of physical offerings range from beautiful beaches to rustic mountains to active volcanoes – Costa Rica has much to offer. Consistently ranking in the top five of the world’s happiest countries, its endearing qualities are not restricted to its people. Though small – its population is roughly 4 million people – many people travel to Costa Rica, fall in love with it, and eventually call it home.

Costa Rica is also often described as the most developed nation in Central America, and with good reason. With the highest literacy rate in the region, social security coverage for all of its residents and a growing middle class, Costa Rica certainly stands out in comparison to its geographical counterparts. In combination with the social growth, the financial district is not lacking, either. The country is home to many Fortune 500 companies from around the world – Intel, Hewlett-Packard, DHL and Kraft foods being examples.

With the business implications that result from this, the need for Costa Rican citizens to speak English with high degree of proficiency is at an all-time high. The market for ESL teachers is healthy and jobs are plentiful. As with many places around the globe, finding a teaching job in Costa Rica is not difficult, but finding a good one is.

Most schools don’t offer visas (see our visa section) and wages are minimal. With this said, it is easy to enjoy living in Costa Rica as an ESL teacher - with the right mindset. A sense of adventure, creativity and an open mind are all essential qualities. Keeping this perspective, and not getting discouraged in the early going, are all important when getting established in Costa Rica.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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Cost of living

One of the biggest mistakes – and therefore surprises encountered upon arrival – visitors to Costa Rica make is assuming that Costa Rica is inexpensive. Based on its placement geographically it is easy to see where this thought process is derived from, but it is inaccurate.

Being the most developed nation in Central America does have a cost. It is considerably more expensive than other countries in Central America and is even, in some instances, comparable to prices in the United States. This is especially true for imported items as the taxes applied by the Costa Rican government are extremely high. The trick is to befriend locals and have them point you in the right direction to avoid tourist traps and avoid overpaying for essential items.

Eating local cuisine, staying away from fast-food chains (which are quite expensive), taking the bus instead of taxis and shopping at local markets and fruit stands instead of big supermarkets are all tips that can help keep costs down.

Almost all worthwhile ESL jobs in Costa Rica are in its capital of San José, where affordable rent can be had. For a furnished two bedroom apartment rent would fall somewhere between $400 and $600 USD. If someone wants to live at the beach or other tourist rich areas, rent and cost of living in general can be increased by as much as twenty-percent.

The currency used in Costa Rica is the colón. Though it had drastic fluctuation tendencies five or six years ago, in recent years it has held steady. The normal conversion rate is 500 colones for one U.S dollar.

The Cost of Living question always comes down to lifestyle expectations. If someone wants to live like they did in the first world, they will find Costa Rica very expensive. If a person comes with an open mind and a willingness to adapt to Central American surroundings and customs, they will get by just fine.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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Language

The official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. While every Spanish speaking nation is proud of their own dialect, the Spanish spoken in Costa Rica is often referred to as ‘pure’ and, as a result, an easy dialect to learn. Good pronunciation, minimal accents and, in general, usage of more of the formalities of the language make it easier for foreigners to learn here than in other countries.

The slang in Costa Rica is called ‘Pachuco’ – which is a completely different language altogether. This is the tongue you will learn if you go to the bars, futbol games and in your most intimate talks with taxi drivers.

In tourist locations and among the professional and university demographics in San José English is widely spoken. In rural areas or non tourist centric locations (most restaurants, taxis, stores etc) English is only spoken at a very basic level, if at all.

Due to the rise of Brazil and its importance in the economy of the Americas, Portuguese is becoming much more important. It’s common for many people to be in Portuguese classes and for many language schools to offer Portuguese classes.

You can get by for a long time in Costa Rica without speaking Spanish - a lot of people do it – but your time will be much more enjoyable, and you’ll be much more widely accepted by the local people, if you make an effort to learn their language.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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Costa Rican customs and etiquette

The Costa Rican people, locally called “Ticos” for their tendency to add the suffix “tico” to the end of words in Spanish, are some of the nicest people you will come across. Relaxed, laid-back and always looking to be of help in any way, Costa Ricans will make you feel extremely welcome.

As is with travel anywhere, if you embrace their culture they will embrace yours. What they don’t like is people coming here and judging or comparing certain aspects of the Tico culture to elsewhere. If you embrace the difference and show a genuine interest in learning about their culture, you will make lifelong friends who never lose touch.

As far as etiquette goes, there are a few things to note. Ticos are not direct people and can appear to be standoffish at first. This is only as a result of trying to be as polite as possible and not offend anyone. If a Tico seems shy or reserved, it’s for this reason. Once you become better acquainted, you can expect to be invited to their home on a regular basis and become an extended part of the family.

This also goes for those who are looking to date here. Introductions to families occur much faster here than in North American culture, but do not have the same implications. Family is extremely important in Latin America and invitations for family dinners are customary. It does not mean you are getting married.

Other customs to be aware of:

• No tipping. Tips in restaurants, stores and even taxis are included in all prices. If you want to tip, it’s at your discretion.
• “Tico time” is something you will need to get used to. While Ticos are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, they are also some of the tardiest.
• “Pura Vida”. Meaning “Pure Life” in English, it is the unofficial motto of Costa Rica. Extending from greetings to the amazing, sarcastic and frustrating, it represents all that has to do with living in Central America. You’ll need to make this part of your vocabulary.
• Getting change, especially in small restaurants and from taxis, is difficult! Try to use as close to exact change as possible at all times.
• While most people are nice, there are those that will try to rip off an innocent tourist. Learning some Spanish will usually stop this. Likewise, doing some research into prices or befriending a local will also help.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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Transportation

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Getting around Costa Rica can be both some of the most memorable and most frustrating experiences in your time here. While fun, accessible and inexpensive, getting around the country can be an adventure.

Public bus is by far the easiest – and cheapest – mode of transportation. Bus fares in San José are on average about 300 colones, or about 60 cents USD. A fare to either the east or west coast, depending on the destination, costs between $3 and $9. While a very effective mode of transportation, getting a hold of schedules – and drivers that abide by them – and finding the commonly unmarked bus stops takes some getting used to.

Taxis are plentiful and clearly marked; all taxis in Costa Rica have to be red by law. While more expensive than neighbouring countries, the starting fare in a taxi currently is 570 colones, or just over USD $1.

Renting a car is an option for a temporary stay as it is convenient and there are many reliable international rental companies. Buying a car would be an option for extended stay purposes but it will be an investment. Due to high import taxes the cost of even used cars of five years old or more will be more than USD $10,000.

Traffic in San José is a major issue as well. Make sure to allow extra time no matter what time of day it is. Road quality is another big issue throughout the country. Pot holes, unpaved roads and other deficiencies make travel both entertaining and time consuming.

There is a joke in Costa Rica that says it takes four hours to get anywhere, no matter if you are just in rush hour in the city or driving coast to coast. While not completely true, it’s close.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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Health

Costa Rica has one of the best medical systems in Latin America and is also comparable to most first world systems. The hospitals are first-rate, as are their doctors. The public hospitals are government funded and all citizens and residents are covered. Private hospitals are just as good, though expensive. If you have a medical emergency while in Costa Rica, you can rest easy knowing you will be in good hands.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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What to bring

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Money and Essentials:
The currency of Costa Rica is the colon. American dollars, though, are widely accepted especially in tourist areas. To exchange money at banks you will require your passport. This is the most recommended route to do so, as the rates at the airport are not on par with the banks and tend to rip off its users.

Costa Rica is a cash society, but all major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. The exceptions would be little family-run businesses that only accept cash. Along these lines, in small businesses be sure to give as close to exact change as possible and avoid large bills. Sometimes getting change back is a challenge!

Clothing:
What to bring in terms of wardrobe is often a point of confusion. Costa Rica is well known as a tropical – and hot – country, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t drastic changes in weather patterns. In fact, Costa Rica has 12 separate climate zones, which is impressive given the small size of the country. While coastal areas are generally always hot and humid, climactic conditions in central areas can change drastically within a window of only a few kilometers.

Costa Rica has mountain ranges, volcanoes, beaches, vast rainforests and even severe dry areas – some resembling deserts. On top of its tallest volcano, Irazú, temperatures can drop to as low as the freezing mark. Couple this with a very distinct rainy and dry seasons and life in Costa Rica definitely requires a diverse wardrobe.

Costa Rica has high import taxes and this extends to clothing as well. So clothing in Costa Rica is very expensive.

Medicines:
Antibiotics and prescriptions are much easier to acquire in Costa Rica than is seen in the first world. Often times what requires a prescription elsewhere does not here. Pretty much anything, outside of medication for extreme cases, can be found at local pharmacies. Prices range from inexpensive to expensive depending on what you’re looking for. Generally speaking, prices are much lower than in the United States.

In addition, most pharmacies have a physician on-site that will examine you for minor illnesses free of charge. Private clinics are also available and consultation rates range anywhere from USD$40 to $100.

Contraceptives:
The topic of sex is still a little on the taboo side in Costa Rica. Being a very religious country – at least on the surface – with a rate of roughly 96% being Roman Catholic, sex, and especially pre-marital sex, is not something that’s talked about publically. This is changing in the younger generation, but the country is still behind in terms of education and progressive thinking in these respects – and this can be seen with high teen pregnancy rates.

Condoms are readily available at almost any supermarket or convenience store. The Pill is available through doctors, but is hard to acquire. The morning after pill is illegal as is abortion. As with anything, if you feel more comfortable bringing your own supply, you should do that.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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Internet

Unless you are living in the remotest of places in Costa Rica, you will have internet access. Most places offer high speed internet, with wifi options, and with speeds comparable to those in the first world. The quality of that internet can vary dramatically, however. Based on things such as the weather, what your neighbours are streaming and the general mood of the connection, the consistency of a strong connection isn’t always the same. The important thing to remember is that it is Central America.


The ELT News guide to living and teaching English in Costa Rica was compiled by Andrew Woodbury.

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  • Introduction
  • About Costa Rica
  • Cost of living
  • Language
  • Costa Rican customs and etiquette
  • Transportation
  • Health
  • What to bring
  • Internet

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