Part 1: Comparing The Land, Culture, and Ethics
Mexico used to be the favored place for Americans to expatriate. It was the 1980s, the peso was significantly devalued, and the cost of living was cheap. The language, culture, and food were familiar to Americans who migrated in droves and it was just a short direct flight or a few hours’ drive over the border to get there and back. A lot has changed since this heyday that lasted well into the 1990s. The cost of living is not what it used to be for Americans living south of the border and crime in Mexico has skyrocketed in the last two decades. So why do people choose to remain or even continue to migrate to Mexico? And how does expat life in Mexico compare to a country like Costa Rica?
The following four-part series will cover many of the topics that potential expats consider when deciding on where to retire or move the family. Part one will compare the land, culture, and ethics of the two Central American nations. Part two will focus on everyday needs like healthcare, services, and utilities and how they differ between nations. Part three will be about the differences in the quality and costs of living in either country. And part four will detail the differences in the process between moving to Costa Rica or Mexico. We encourage you to have a read and share with other potential expat friends to see if you feel reaffirmed in your choice for moving to Costa Rica.
Landscape and Climate
Costa Rica and Mexico are located on the same stretch of land, grazing both the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts. Costa Rica is a micro-version of Mexico’s vast expanse that still features stunning Caribbean white-sand beaches, warm ocean waters, crystal clear tropical lakes, fertile farmlands, active and dormant volcanic mountain ranges, deserts, small villages, and sophisticated cities. And in our South Pacific region of Costa Rica, where the mountains meet the sea, hundreds of miles of coastline are dotted with pristine beaches that can be seen from high-altitude homes surrounded by pristine forests. Cool mountain springs feature majestic waterfalls at seemingly regular intervals. And fresh mountain breezes add to the characteristic qualities that make this land a dream to live in. In this lush and lively landscape, you don’t have to go to a wildlife reserve to see animals in the world. There is nowhere else in the world where you can live so comfortably so close to nature.
Twelve microclimates are packed into Costa Rica’s tiny landmass. This allows for a diversity of weather patterns depending on where you choose to reside. The moist tropical forest in our mountainous coastal region produces a mild temperature year-round that gets many degrees cooler as you ascend to a higher elevation. There is a dry season and a wet season, both of which last for about 6 months. Our dry season (December – May) gets occasional rainfalls. And the rainy season features dry, sunny mornings almost every day until the mid-afternoon. As a whole, Costa Rica has only experienced the full force of one hurricane in the last 200 years.
Mexico’s diverse landscape features nine different ecosystems. Tropical forests, deep cenotes, dry deserts, and sprawling canyons are just some of the different types of terrain on this giant landmass. The highland central plateau is Mexico’s dominant geographic feature. Two mountain ranges surround this region, which houses the majority of Mexico’s population, including the capital, Mexico City. But most of all, Mexico is world-renown for its exquisite beaches. Turquoise water and white sand are the features that make Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula one of the most popular resort destinations in the world.
Mexico is known to be hot and humid throughout most of the country, largely due to its topography. It is blazing hot throughout most of the country from June until September and the rainy season falls during the typical winter season in the Tropic of Cancer.
The History, People, and Culture
As one of the youngest landmasses on the planet, Costa Rica’s culture is very young and does not have many of the features that tourists come to expect from Mesoamerican or Andean native cultures. This small strip of land was traditionally a meeting place for trade between the two ancient hemispheres until Columbus made landfall and incorporated Costa Rica as a province of New Spain. But because of its lack of traditional riches like gold and silver, and for its lack of architectural relics, Costa Rica was dubbed the poorest of Spain’s colonies and left to develop largely on its own. This belief that Costa Rica lacked a rich history persisted until the 1940s and the arrival of the United Fruit Company, which uncovered the Stone Spheres of Diquis. These 700-year old near-perfect spheres weigh up to a tonne and thousands of them are mysteriously scattered across the South Pacific landscape of Costa Rica. There is so much more to culture in Costa Rica that can be found in the heart of its people, which is expressed through art, literature, and performance. And it can be found in its nine indigenous tribes who mostly continue to subsist in their traditional land in Costa Rica.
Today’s Costa Ricans, affectionately termed Ticos, are non-confrontational people who continue to embody the traditional tranquil and familial way of life. Ticos who live in the city can be as cosmopolitan as almost anywhere else in the world. But as soon as they get to the beach or into nature, Ticos fall right back into their roots of joy, play, and wonder. Costa Ricans can be conservative in their dress and their social politics but they are warm and caring people who enjoy good company and have a healthy appreciation for life. “Pura vida” is their unofficial national motto and it means any number of things, most of which reflect their deep gratitude.
Expat communities in Costa Rica are typically excellent at helping newcomers acclimate. Most of us move to Costa Rica not knowing anyone and almost everyone is in the same boat of wanting to meet new friends, regardless of their background. This is a small country with lots of expats and plenty of opportunities to make friends and not feel isolated.
A typical goal shared by both locals and expats in Costa Rica is to make time to observe nature and to be grateful for peace, tranquility, health and vitality. This is a big reason why many come for a week and end up staying for years. There is no prevalent anti-American sentiment in Costa Rica as long as everyone is willing to share space peacefully. This can largely be attributed to the growing middle class in Costa Rica and the historical government policy of donating property all over the country to farmers willing to work the land. This policy allowed for the families to eventually capitalize on foreigners looking to buy land in Costa Rica. These families have gone on to start flourishing businesses in popular expat communities.
The ancient ruins of the Maya, Aztecs, and Olmecs are scattered across Mexico and they are a big draw for the millions of tourists who visit the country every year. Many of the major cities like Mexico City and Guadalajara are world-class cities where centuries’ old tradition is blended with contemporary lifestyles. Several indigenous populations in Mexico continue to exist and flourish today despite the huge influence of the Spanish conquistadors.
Expats move to Mexico to enjoy a laid back culture that features afternoon siestas, unpretentious ambiance and celebrates the many layers of life, including death. Many of the more popular expat destinations feature a burgeoning middle class and gentrified communities, filled with modern services and amenities. However, the rest of the country is very poor and can be unkind to foreigners. Young people in Mexico still find it hard to feel inspired by success, with very little opportunity available for their advancement. Lack of education in poorer areas leads to bad treatment of domestic animals, wildlife, and marginalized people, including women. Mexicans are said to continue to resent Americans and will be nice to your face when they want something from you and rude behind your back. Gringo is not a pleasant term in Mexico, whereas in Costa Rica it is equivalent to meaning ‘foreigner,’ without any resentment.
Food in Costa Rica is not exactly what people imagine when they think of Latin American cuisine’s flavorful dishes. Costa Rican cuisine features lots of plantains, rice and beans, grilled meats and fish, and fresh fruit. Food is simple and homey rather than spicy and extravagantly layered with flavor. Many who visit Costa Rica are disappointed at first with the so-called “blandness” of typical dishes. But those who value their health and enjoy proper nourishment will find that the staples of Costa Rican cuisine are great for the body, making many expats look and feel better over time.
For those who simply cannot resist (and who could blame you!) American-style dishes are plentifully available as are many other signature cooking styles from all over the world. Various types of international cuisine are represented in our Southern Zone’s many world-class restaurants and all over the country. Combined with the freshness of the ingredients grown locally, you are surely in for some delectable treats when you visit Costa Ballena—the culinary capital of Costa Rica.
Mexico is probably best known for the unique flavors in its cuisine. True gastronomists will tell you that Mexico does not have one type of cuisine. In fact, every region of Mexico has its own take on flavors, combinations, and consistencies of the so-called traditional Mexican dishes. Regardless of where you travel in Mexico, one thing you will find in common is a passionate love for cooking and pride in their generational recipes. Tacos, quesadillas, pozole, mole, atole, and tequila are just a few of the many reasons that expats love living in Mexico and we can’t say we blame them… it’s just not the be-all and end-all for every expat looking to live in the tropics.
Ethics, Politics, and Economics
One of Costa Rica’s most notable features is its stable democracy. Costa Rica has the second oldest democracy in the western hemisphere and is recognized as the most democratic nation in Latin America and one of the world’s top twenty democracies. Sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Central America, this is a peace-loving culture that abolished its army in 1948 and pledged their military budget to education and healthcare indefinitely. This has resulted in a 96.1% literacy rate, one of the highest in the world. And the most recently elected governments have been progressive with LGBT rights.
The ethics of Costa Rica largely revolve around the protection of nature, thereby protecting its number one industry, tourism. Every square meter of beach belongs to the public and cannot be developed. And over 50% of Costa Rica’s landmass is protected and will never be developed, either.
Politicians and police are said to be very corrupt in Mexico. The public education system is mediocre to poor and wages continue to be one of the lowest in the region. The quality of life suffers when Mexicans cannot trust their government to consistently improve upon their laws and social conditions. Business owners have had their assets seized by successive governments who change laws and implement new penalties with a heavy hand.
Stay tuned for part two next week where we will go over the quality and availability of the everyday services you will surely need in your life as an expat. Learn about banking, healthcare, shopping, and utilities in Costa Rica and Mexico and what differs between the two.