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Why Expats Prefer Costa Rica to North America/Europe

Having recently returned to my Canadian homeland after over 6 years away, there were many differences I noticed: about my home and native land, as well as what’s changed in me.  The noises and the congestion were the same, for instance, but my reactions to them were surprisingly different.

I loved living in Canada in the past; and there are beautiful places to live found all around the world, with myriad reasons for why they are favored over others.  I don’t want to speak to the reasons why any one place is better than another.  Instead, I’d like to share with you the reasons why expats like me prefer living in the land of pura vida over our first-world past.  Spoiler alert: it comes down to a preference for cultivating experiences over collecting material things.

Environment

A hot issue in our world today, caring for our environment is a top reason to move to Costa Rica.  This is a country that uses more renewable resources to power its national electric grid than anywhere else in the world and is at the forefront of global public image for sustainable living. The government of Costa Rica’s continuous mandate is the protection of the number one resource in the nation: the environment.

This is also a land that does not value convenience highly.  You do not have a Walmart or McDonald’s on every corner and you will also find that people here don’t drive to the store every day.  We plan our weekly route so that it is the most efficient, not only because we care about the environment and our pocket books, but also because we care about maximizing our ‘enjoyment time’.  We try not to ask for more than we need, favouring reusing materials when we can because we’ve come here to escape heavy traffic, humongous landfills and smog-filled skies.

Society

Smiling people making eye contact with you as you move past is a common occurrence in our small communities, as with most any small community around the world.  By the very nature of having smaller numbers, it is easier to recognize the people we see on a daily basis – as opposed to being lost in a sea of faces.

What I noticed while visiting my sister in her suburban Canadian community was that people were startled when I said hello or asked for help, as though they were not accustomed to being confronted in public spaces.  What I felt from them was a fear of the other, as though letting people into our personal space is an invitation to helping someone out (heaven forbid!)  In Costa Rica, I feel like I’m being observed everywhere I go by people who know or recognize me.  This makes me a much more conscious person, more inclined to say hello and to care about what’s happening around me.

Children are better behaved in Costa Rica, part and parcel of not being mainly surrounded by materialism, unhealthy foods and busy lifestyles.  Kids just seemed a bit meaner and on edge in Canada, with a strong dependence on technology for entertainment and imbibing more sugar in one sitting than I would in a month.

On the other hand, dinner conversation in Costa Rica tends to extend beyond the newest tv show and cellphones at the table are considered rude.  Play is still a natural and intuitive process for children here, who are not inundated with the newest toys being bragged about in school and instead, the kids here enjoy swinging from trees and jumping in clean mountain rivers in the year-round warm weather, and only a few steps away from home.

Lifestyle

Driving everywhere is very much a reality for most North Americans and Europeans: to work, lunch, meetings, shopping, dinner, movies, etc.  When we work hard to be able to afford this kind of lifestyle, we want to take advantage of our free time and enjoy it to the fullest!  But from what I noticed, first world living is about making money to spend money.  In first world living, we are consumed by consumption and it becomes normal for us to drive an hour to Ikea 2 or 3 times a week because we saw something on sale or forgot to make a purchase.

For those who live and work in Costa Rica, we tend to make the minimum amount of money to pay for our everyday necessities like food, water, utilities, housing and transportation.  Our items of enjoyment are largely free and they include beaches, scenic views, and lounging around the pool with drink in hand.  Those of us in the South Pacific who like to go out for dinner or to see friends will always be going to places with beautiful jungle ambiance, fresh and delicious food, and amazing sunset views.  And those of us who prefer to stay home can feel free from all of the overwhelming noise and electrical ambiance of what it’s like to live in a city, or even a suburb.  There was one night I spent in an apartment block in Toronto that I couldn’t sleep for one second because I felt the strong electrical current buzzing around me.  I am glad to have left it behind, looking ahead to quiet nights with only the sounds of crickets and glass frogs to lull me to sleep.

Prices

We have heard a few complaints about the selection and prices of food items in Costa Rica.  What I noticed in Canada was that the supermarkets are far bigger with more selection, but they are filled with so many empty calories and the quality of produce is far inferior to what I can buy at my local market in Costa Rica.  And maybe Doritos are $5 a bag, but the local-equivalent snack foods are similar in price to what we expect to see back home and honestly just as good, if not better.

People who work in Costa Rica may not make the same wages as those who work the same jobs in North America or Europe.  True enough.   But another fact is that people spend more on average in the first world, meaning that working their jobs is often not enough to support the average first world lifestyle and side-incomes are becoming increasingly necessary.

When the choice is boiled down to being a number in a sea of unrecognizable faces or being a part of a vibrant community, the choice for us is simple.  Pair that with an inspirational natural environment and a relaxed cultural ethos, pass me that smaller pay check and watch me sit in my hammock for two hours instead of my luxury sedan during my daily trek home.

 By Alex Swift