We’ve been here for a month. Costa Rica doesn’t feel like just another place to live yet, but I can see how it will end up that way. Warning, this is a long post, TL;DR – we’re doing great, living here is super fun, and we’ve learned a lot. Get hooked with the best beach we’ve been to, Playa Conchal, made entirely of crushed, tumbled-soft-by-the-ocean sea shells.
Living in Tamarindo isn’t all that much different from living in the U.S. cities we’ve spent years in. It is much smaller than Austin, let alone Houston – it’s like one little enclave/neighborhood of a metropolitan area. And actually it is part of a group of small surrounding towns away from the beach where most of the locals live, eat and shop. Learning how to navigate around to the neighboring communities without a car was one of our first priorities because that’s where the best (and cheapest) grocery stores are.
Fortunately the public bus and taxi system makes it quick and easy to visit Villareal, 10 minutes away, which has an amazing open-air produce market and two supermarkets with everything we need. It’s not that we can’t find what we need in Tamarindo, it’s that the stores here charge tourist/gringo prices and all the produce is a few days older. You should see the feria (farmer’s market) on Saturdays – it’s just as overpriced and yuppie as the one in your town. But hey it’s a great place to meet other expats.
Anyway, good grocery shopping is one of the basics. Other essentials were also easy to figure out. We put a Claro SIM card in Virginia’s phone, which gave her a local phone number and data connection. We also have a Skype account that provides a U.S. phone number. If you’re reading this in the states and you want to call us, that number rings to both of our phones simultaneously.
Of course most of the time we’re just using wifi at home for data. Since all the cellular companies here charge by the minute and MB, most people who have wifi use WhatsApp for phone calls and texting. That’s a free and easy way to reach us too – if you have WhatsApp installed on your phone, you can use it to call or text our old U.S. phone numbers. (This is the only way to reach those old numbers.)
That being said, here’s one of the best decisions I’ve made so far: I didn’t put a new SIM card in my phone. With no data/voice connection absent wifi, it’s nothing but a fancy timepiece away from home. Which is brillante. My phone doesn’t live in my pocket anymore since I don’t need to take it anywhere. That has led to the novel idea that I don’t really need to check it much at all. It stays on my dresser for days on end. If I’m out at the beach, you’ll just have to wait until I get home to reach me. Imagine that! I work at home and we spend most of our time here, so I am still very much connected, but the mental freedom is pretty sweet. No more digital tether. I highly recommend it.
Speaking of where we spend time, right, housing. I booked an apartment for our first month here via AirBnb, but that time is just about up. So as soon as we landed, we started looking for a place to stay for the next two months until it’s time to go home for the holidays. Craigslist does exist here but it’s not well-used. Vacation rentals are expensive. We walked around town looking for the ever-present “alquilar” signs, many of which were dead ends, just like you’re used to.
But there’s another way many Ticos do things you might use Craigslist for – Facebook groups. We found the local real estate group and joined. I published a simple “looking for a place to rent” post, and within a couple days Jennifer responded. She manages a handful of properties around town and she happens to be our next-door neighbor. She took us to see a terrific apartment in a perfect location that we could rent for not just these next two months, but also five more months after our holiday trip. It’s more expensive than we were hoping for, but it’s also perfecto. And with Virginia picking up yoga work left and right we decided to go for it. At least until the end of May, we’ve got a great place. By the way, here’s our favorite non-human next-door neighbor.
Now in case you’re wondering, our new temporary home does not have a mailing address. That’s because almost nobody has a mailing address here. They just don’t use that system. Here is the actual address for our new apartment: Despues del Diria Casino, en la esquina del Restaurante Patagonia, 200 metros al este. Mano izquierda edeficio color vino, Balcones del Pacifico Aparatmento #11. Catch that? “After Diria Casino, at the corner of Patagonia Restaurant, 200 meters east. Left-hand red building, Balcones del Pacifico Apt #11.” No, I didn’t just make it up, that’s how they designate addresses here.
So most people receive mail here via a personal P.O. box at the nearest post office in Villareal. I looked into that – it costs something like $100/year, and I don’t think that we will receive enough regular mail to make it worthwhile. (Are you going to send us a letter? Didn’t think so.) I was resigned to simply not being able to receive letters, but then Virginia went to a cool little book store in town and met the owner, Jim. He runs his own makeshift expat post office right there in the store. He scribbled down a mailing address and said we can tell friends and family to send letters there; he’ll drop us a quick FB message when we’ve got mail. He doesn’t even charge for this, because what he gets in return is fast and reliable service from the post office. They are happy to deliver mail right to his doorstep because he brings in so much money and business for them. Win-win.
And then there’s online shopping, a staple of existence in the U.S. Amazon.com doesn’t ship many products to Costa Rica. If we wanted to have something delivered to a friend and then ask them to send it to our little bookstore here, not only would that be annoying, but it may fall into a black hole at customs. Yes, all goods and products shipped here must be processed through aduana, which can be difficult and time-consuming.
Of course there’s a state-sanctioned solution for this as well. I registered for a nationalized service called BoxCorreos that provides a shipping address in Miami. We order from our favorite websites and use that as the shipping address. The order is delivered to Miami and then BoxCorreos sends it along to the Villareal post office after taking care of customs for us. We email the commercial invoice and they email us when the package arrives. One last hitch – we have to pay the import taxes when we pick it up, which can be 15-50% of the cost of the product. We’ve only tried this one time so far and our package hasn’t arrived yet, so we’ll see how it goes. Fingers crossed.
As you can see, logistics like this have taken much of our initial time here. Our social life so far includes people like Virginia’s yoga crowd and our neighbor/property manager. One thing missing at the moment is playmates for Dario. We’ve met a handful of people with toddlers, but everyone is busy with life and we haven’t gotten the kids together. So we’re taking a walk one day and we see a playground tucked in a little shopping center – it’s a daycare run by two women from France, as in Bringing up Bebe. Score.
We’ve arranged our work schedules so we don’t need a babysitter, but it would also be good for Dario to learn some social skills and see that his parents aren’t the entire world. We look into it and find out that daycare here costs a tiny fraction of what it does in the states, so muy bien, we enroll him for a few hours twice a week. This is the first time in his life we’ve handed him off to strangers. The first day he just went to sleep there as a defense mechanism. The second day he did fine. Everyone tells us it won’t be long before he’s asking to go all day, every day. From the number of other kids there, I don’t doubt it.
It’s been fun to figure this place out one task or need at a time. Life’s an adventure. Some things are different – each day is 12 hours long, sunrise and sunset both at 5:30, which won’t change much – while others are just like home. We still have Netflix. The biggest remaining question is whether we will be staying in Tamarindo past May or whether we will try living in another city. “Tamagringo” is great but very tourist-oriented, even in low season. I think it will be a zoo when rainy season ends next month. As the grass is always greener, I’ve heard nothing but good things about Samara… If that’s our next adventure, we’ll have lots more to learn.
Told you it was going to be long.