There is a shift in priorities and opportunities happening in our world and people are spending more time considering where they would love to call home. With more options to work from home as well as changes in politics or simply growing tired of “the weather,” relaxed tropical locations with stable politics and infrastructure are fast becoming the easy targets for relocation. There are a number of these locations, each with their unique pluses and minuses. For the purposes of this article, we will be comparing two of the most popular expat destinations today: Costa Rica and Hawaii. We know which one is our preference but it’s time for you to find yours.
Hawaii has been on the relocation radar for many types of expats for a long time. Whether you’re a mainland American looking for an easy transition to somewhere more tropical or you’re from a more international home looking for fun in the sun amidst lots of first world amenities, Hawaii checks a lot of boxes. But Costa Rica is an up-and-comer on the expat scene and it’s worth considering for a number of reasons. Read on to hear our case for why Costa Rica as the better option over all.
The Way of Life
The tropics are all about a casual approach to work and life. Because it is very warm and very beautiful in both Hawaii and Costa Rica, the locals in both locations are more about enjoying life than focusing on work. Hawaiian and Costa Rican culture are equally home much the same type of laid back attitude. Things take a bit longer, people run a bit late, and appointments are made far in advance. It takes patience to live peacefully in this way, which can be a challenge for some to master but well worth the zen-like results.
Costa Rica and Hawaii both have their iconic sayings that represent the attitude of the place and the people. Aloha is most often associated with being a greeting in Hawaii. But for those who have lived in Hawaii for a length of time, they will say that it means something deeper. It is the essence of being love, peace, compassion, and mutual respect. It is the theory of living in harmony with others and with the land. The direct translation is the presence of divine breath. It is not simply something that is spoken — it is something that must be experienced.
More than just a saying, Costa Rica’s mantra, pura vida, is also a way of life. The term is used as a simple greeting or to say that everything’s cool. Costa Ricans choose not to stress about things that other nationalities would. They have a relaxed way of looking at life with gratitude and not dwelling on the negative. People come to Costa Rica to get to know what pura vida feels like and it quickly becomes a part of their philosophy in support of tranquility. It is a happy attitude that comes from being in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, filled with people who feel happy in the same way.
One of the main reasons that people choose to visit or move to Hawaii is because they speak English as the main language. There are thousands of tropical destinations to visit but very few if not any that are as easy for Americans to travel to. These expats are happy to know that they are still in the USA but with a chance to live in a new way.
Costa Rica, on the other hand, is a predominantly Spanish-speaking nation. However, you will be pleasantly surprised with how many people can communicate in English on at least a basic level. Most restaurants and businesses in the popular tourist destinations will have English-speaking staff. Otherwise, Ticos (Costa Ricans) are generally helpful by speaking slowly in Spanish and encouraging foreigners to learn the language.
Hawaii is rich with a history and culture that ties it to the other Polynesian islands as well as Asia and mainland U.S. This blend results in an interesting melange of influences in food, performance, music and attitude. Some say, though, that restaurants in Hawaii are lacking in diversity, placing a strong focus on Hawaiian and Asian cuisine. But Costa Rica’s cuisine is similarly criticized for being bland and centered around rice and beans.
The real difference between the two locations is the freshness of the produce and the diversity of ingredients readily available to create more varieties of cuisine. Costa Rica’s varied landscapes provide space to grow a wide range of foods making this a haven for chefs from all over the world. Our Costa Ballena region is home to incredible restaurants featuring expertly-crafted cuisine from all over the world because chefs who come here easily feel inspired by the fruits of this rich land.
Hawaii is known to be an easy place to make friends with expats. It is one of the most social places in the world, with thousands of options for expat communities and clubs. Hawaiians, although very friendly and family oriented, are dubious about newcomers and are known to take a while to warm up to foreigners. The Hawaiians have a word for newcomers — Malihini — which is a concept that reflects their lack of faith in new arrivals staying until they last at least one year. Newcomers are treated with higher prices, less opportunities and all around less friendliness that locals have for one another.
Ticos are known to be some of the friendliest and warmest people in the world. They are happy to have foreigners in their country, bringing work and opportunity to the locals. Ticos love to talk about life and are easy to get to know if you take the time to learn their language, which is a special dialect of Spanish that is unique to this country. Expats also have many opportunities to meet other newcomers, congregating on social media and in person within expat hubs like our region of Costa Ballena.
Lifestyle for Families in Costa Rica and Hawaii
Family, called Ohana in Hawaiian, is a deeply important pillar of the culture. It is a very welcoming place for kids of all ages, with snorkeling, sandcastle building, and exploring nature all making the whole of Hawaii a playground that is rarely outgrown. The laid-back lifestyle, phenomenal outdoor activities, and enchanting culture make Hawaii a great choice for families. Plus, Oahu is home to a Disney resort and Maui has tons of kid-friendly resorts.
What makes Hawaii a challenging place for families is that the public school system ranks near the bottom of the national rankings and private schools are very expensive (averaging around $17,000 per student per year or $28,600 for a top-notch school.
Although Costa Rica doesn’t have any flashy theme parks for families to enjoy, it is growing in popularity with those looking for the tranquil vibes of this land of pura vida. It has a very low rate of violent crimes and plenty of opportunity to share in wholesome activities as a family. Private schools are nearly three times less expensive and public schools are popular options for expat families who want their children to grow up with the Costa Rican language and culture.
Lifestyle for Retirees
Relocating to Hawaii has been a dream shared by countless people from around the globe for many decades since the Beach Boys sang to the world about its sandy beaches. The strip of islands ranks at the top of many lists of which state to choose for retirement. It is an idyllic retirement destination except that it doesn’t fit the budget of every retiree.
Costa Rica offers a simple path for retirees with a pension to gain their residency visa. Resident status in Costa Rica entitles them to universal health care that is incredibly affordable. A couple required a combined $2000 USD pension to apply for this status, which happens to be a comfortable amount to be able to live a full life in our Costa Ballena region.
Both Hawaii and Costa Rica are relatively low tax rates, including for foreign investors. Hawaii’s property tax rate is only 0.28%, but with the highest median home value in the U.S., the median annual tax payment is still far higher than Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s property tax rate is 0.25% and most people only pay a few hundred dollars a year for their beautiful, modern ocean view homes.
Owning Rental Homes in Hawaii and Costa Rica
The Hawaiian real estate market has a proven history of stability and security, featuring significant growth in prices over time. Because of its popularity with tourists, quality rentals can be hard to find in Hawaii. But the sheer amount of rental properties located around the tourism hotspots means that the investment-to-income ratio is low. Rental prices vary from island to island but you can expect to earn $2-3000 per month in the typical tourism destinations… except you will be paying a far higher initial investment than you would in Costa Rica while earning more money.
Both Costa Rica and Hawaii have the same tourism high season from November to February and again in June and July. While Costa Rica hit its tourism peak in 2019 with a little over 3 million visitors, Hawaii received 10 million in the same year, offering more opportunity for filling vacancies. However, property managers in Costa Rica have been reporting record low available inventory this year creating a boom in our local home rental market, providing for great ROI to recent investors in modern luxury homes in Uvita, Dominical, and Ojochal.
Investors willing to spend around $1 million on a luxury rental in a tourism hot spot in either Costa Rica or Hawaii can expect to receive $500 per night in rental income in Costa Ballena or around $200 per night in Honolulu for the same initial investment value.
In 2019, the median price of a single family home on Oahu was $812,500 and the median prive for a condo was $429,000. For $800,000, you can buy a 3 bedroom, single level home in a suburb of Maui with a 2 car garage, large driveway, and mountain views. These types of suburban Hawaiian homes are close to schools, banks and restaurants. They are typically modern, new, and with small bedrooms on a tiny parcel.
In Costa Rica, $800,000 will buy you an extravagant Spanish Colonial estate with a 3 bedroom home on a large acreage with a big terrace and a private pool. Or it can buy you a modern luxury home with impeccable ocean and mountain views.
Environment and Activities
Costa Rica is known primary for its iconic and endemic wildlife. There are hundreds of species of birds throughout the country, many of which are unique to their region. The magical, life-filled forests that cover more than half of this country (25% of which are nationally protected forests) house 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity on 0.1% of the world’s territory. People dream about coming here and seeing sloths, monkeys and turtles in their natural, wild habitats and many of us move here to live amidst this wondrous wildlife.
Hawaii is also known for its wilderness, although it is less a part of the main tourism destinations. There are many trails in Hawaii that offer epic hikes across gorgeous, pristine landscapes but these are more off the beaten path. Costa Rica offers opportunities around almost every corner to interact with nature.
Hawaii’s beautiful beaches are all public and owners of land that border the beach must provide access. The world-class white sand beaches and crystal blue waters of Hawaii offer the best snorkeling and diving on the planet with warm water, plentiful reefs, fish, turtles, whales, and more, plus year-round perfect weather and temperatures. Even when it rains, it gets sunny again after a few minutes. It cools only a few degrees over the short winter.
Costa Rica’s beaches are all public also, with the added benefit of being far less populated, largely undeveloped, and there being many more of them. It shares many of the usually tropical outdoor activity possibilities like surfing, boating, diving, fishing, hiking, biking, and more. One thing that Hawaii definitely has a lot more of is golfing. It has possibly the most courses per capita and some of the game’s favorites. The state has a number of championship-caliber course designs and attracts golfers of every level from around the world.
Mobility and Distance to Travel
When moving to either Hawaii or Costa Rica, you’re going to have to make some choices about location. Hawaii, for instance, is an archipelago made up of four inhabitable islands plus more that are uninhabitable for a variety of reasons. There is a lot of congestion around the inhabitable islands, which are all relatively small and with minimal highways connecting cities within the same island. Traffic is extremely bad at times, especially on Oahu.
Living on an island means it’s harder to get and do some of the things you like, and a few things are just impossible. Almost everything is more expensive to ship to Hawaii and slower to arrive by courier. Even Amazon doesn’t ship everything to Hawaii, especially heavy items. And you can’t just drive a few hours to another city to get something that isn’t available. “On island” is an important designation when describing if something is readily available or if you will be waiting an unknown length of time for it to arrive.
It is a good idea to ship a car to Hawaii, which costs around $1000-$1500 per vehicle. Public transportation is virtually non-existent in Hawaii, whereas you can get almost anywhere in Costa Rica by bus, including to Panama, where shopping selections are far expanded and at even better prices.
Shipping items to Costa Rica also means an added cost because it is a small nation with high taxes on certain items. But more couriers are opening around the country and it is possible to order something on Amazon and get it to Costa Ballena within a week.
Cost of living
High real estate prices affect warehouse and retail costs, which feeds a cycle of high inflation. High taxes, low competition, and higher than normal shippings costs is referred to as the “paradise tax” for living in Hawaii. Because of its isolation, Hawaii ranks as one of the states with the highest costs of living. It also ranks as the third wealthiest state, meaning that those who can afford it enjoy living there. On the other hand, those who work remotely and make a decent wage will find that they have to make major adjustments to their budget after moving to Hawaii, where above average income doesn’t stretch very far.
Groceries, insurance, health care, etc, are higher than most other parts of the United States. One of the most inflated necessities is food, the vast majority of which is imported. It naturally costs much more to have produce, meats, dairy, etc transported in refrigerated containers at quick speed to maintain freshness. This means that dining out is also a significant cost that eats budgets in a hurry.
A quick cost comparison between similar experiences in Costa Rica versus Hawaii (for a more detailed breakdown, click here):
- Flights to Hawaii are more expensive than to Costa Rica at $600 from Los Angeles and $900 from New York, compared to a $250 round trip between LAX and San Jose Airport.
- The average cost of electricity in Hawaii is about $170/month — $50/month higher than the national average. Gas prices are between $3-$3.23 per gallon.
- From groceries to gasoline, everything is more expensive in Hawaii. Meals at restaurants are at least twice as pricey, even when comparing the quality of the establishment and the cuisine. Some produce items are at least 4x the prices you will pay in a comparable tourist-laden location in Costa Rica, while others, like onions, are up to 14x more expensive. Utilities in Hawaii are up to 5x more than you will pay in Costa Rica and schooling is almost 3x the price.
- In Hawaii, you are paying big prices on real estate for less ambiance and much smaller acreages. $840,000 will buy you a bland looking 3 bedroom home on 0.14 acres of land, versus a stunning ocean view home on a large, verdant green acreage in Costa Rica.