Misconceptions of Costa Rica

Costa Rica was our home for 5 years and we all had nothing but wonderful experiences there. While we were there and even now I am constantly running into questions that just seem flat out ridiculous. So, I feel it is my duty, as someone pretty knowledgeable about this small country, to set things straight.  Below are the most common misconceptions and why they are just that!

Costa Rica is an island

A quick google search will show you know that Costa Rica is most definitely NOT an island! It is a small country nestled between Nicaragua and Panama with the Pacific Ocean along the West coast and the Caribbean sea along its East coast. It is situated in Central America, which is considered part of the North American continent.

I'll admit that before we started thinking about moving to Costa Rica I was also unaware of its exact location. So much for that great public education, huh?!

Costa Rica is a third world country

Do we even really use these terms anymore? Costa Rica is not a third world country. It may not be up to the same standards as America, but Costa Rica is listed as a high developing country.

They have wonderful healthcare, 96% literacy rate, affordable higher education, and its #1 industry is tourism. So put aside any thoughts of driving around on dirt roads as you feel sad for the locals suffering inside their small huts. You may get some dirt roads, but the poverty and lack of development are much more scarce than one would imagine and are only found in the extremely rural areas.

Costa Rica is dangerous and people get kidnapped ALL the time

Before we moved there a friend asked us "what about the guerrillas there?" We said there's only gorillas in Africa, clearly not getting his meaning.  People think that blonde-haired children get kidnapped all the time in Latin America which must mean Costa Rica is dangerous.  Too many made-for-TV-movies I guess.

I traveled all around Costa Rica with my 3 young children and never encountered a single problem. We were constantly greeted by kind faces, sweet words, and generous actions. I never for a moment felt unsafe. I haven’t heard of anyone getting kidnapped.  Although petty crime does occur, especially in the more tourist filled areas, violent crime is practically unheard of.

Please do not scratch Costa Rica off your bucket list because of some crime list you’ve heard about. It is a peaceful (no army for decades) and friendly country that adores children, so put it at the top of your list and head there before it gets too expensive.

All there is to Costa Rica is beaches

Costa Rica does offer some pretty amazing and secluded beaches but that is certainly not all this small country has to offer. There are small mountain towns with perfect climates, volcanoes, beautiful rivers and lakes, rain forests, cloud forests, a diverse selection of animals, beautiful national parks, and so much more.

If beaches are not your thing, Costa Rica still has something for everyone. From adventure sports, to lazing in a hammock watching monkeys frolic around you deep in the rainforest!

The healthcare is not good, certainly not as good as in the US

Costa Rica’s healthcare system, in my opinion, is actually better than in the US. They provide a socialized benefit to all its citizens as well as free care to any child in the country even if they are foreign born and do not have residency. The thing that sets it apart though is the fact that there is also a private care system which remains quite affordable due to the low-cost and better-than-adequate public system. This allows the public system to be freed up a bit so the common complaint of waiting for care is minimized. The doctors swap between both systems so the actual level of care tends to be the same.

As a nurse in the US, I was quite worried about this before we moved to Costa Rica. But after 5 years there I gave birth to my last son in the private system, one son broke his arm and we used private heath care, one son had a concussion and we used the public system, and another son cut his head a couple times at which point we also used the public system for care. What I found set my mind at ease. In each setting the care was amazing, there was always someone available to speak English and, in truth, I was never taken better care of in any US hospital. The public treatment was all entirely free while the private sector cost was a fraction of U.S. prices.

You can't drink the water and the roads are horrible

My children, husband and I are living proof that the water is indeed potable.  I drink about 3-4 liters myself in a day and did so for the entire duration of living in Costa Rica.  Nothing about it is unsafe, makes you sick, or leads to any health issues.  It is nearly potable throughout the entire country.  However, the water sources and treatment vary from one micro-municipality to the next, so check with locals.  In the few instances that it is not potable there will usually be a sign letting you know.

Now the roads I had heard were just awful before I moved there and truth be told some of them are treacherous, full of potholes, lacking guardrails, and downright death defying BUT, that is not the norm for main roads and they're improving them slowly but surely.   It was definitely not nearly as bad as the picture I had painted in my head!

Costa Rica is super cheap

Finally, the money question. Why is it always about money??  Well, most North Americans will find that Costa Rica is substantially cheaper than their home country but it is also probably one of the more expensive countries in Central America.  With the added safety, stability of government, focus on tourism, and provision of basic social systems, naturally a higher cost of living will coincide.

Many people expect to live on even less than they are able to in North America, and if one wishes to live like a local and minimize their needs, then Costa Rica can be a very inexpensive place to retire or lay down roots. But if you are not willing to make small sacrifices of certain comforts and expect to maintain the "American" lifestyle, you will find the cost is very comparable.

In closing, I think the best advice when considering a trip or a move to any foreign country is to do as much research as you can. Also, connect via Facebook or chat rooms with people that are actually living there now.    In my opinion it is usually best to get a real insiders view rather than a media portrayal or the opinion of someone that spent just a week there.

What do you think?  Are there any misconceptions about Costa Rica that I missed??

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  1. Great assessment. Having lived there for almost two years, I can concur with everything you said. Our time in Costa Rica changed our lives for the better and I'm so glad we decided to make the move abroad.

  2. Having been a missionary there 10 years ago I agree entirely (though can't say much about health care - never saw that part thankfully).

    As far as crime, there are bad parts, just as there are anywhere. Still, they're easy to avoid and, unless you're a missionary or participating in a humanitarian project, you probably wouldn't have any reason to go there anyway. (Leon XIII, Finca San Juan de Pavas, etc.)

    Love that country and its people. Hope to move there with my family in a number of years.

  3. Ok..I like your point of view and I agree. I've been living in CR during the last 6 years: when you decide to do something like that you have to assume that you are going to lose something and to earn something else at the same time. CR is more dangerous than Europe and EEUU but you have to pay attention (you can't walk with your iPhone or Mac as you usually did, the risk to be robbed exists) BTW at the end of the day if I check all the items, I smile here in CR

    1. I don't think CR is any more dangerous than any other country. I live in Hawaii at the moment and petty theft is huge at the beaches. It is common worldwide. Always smart to be aware and take precautions but certainly not dangerous enough to avoid the country!

  4. Yes! I so totally agree that most, if not everyone thinks we'd get kidnapped or something ridiculous like that living here. Playing it safe and obviously being smart and mindful of your surroundings is key anywhere you go but CR is not dangerous!

    We haven't had an experience with healthcare and Im actually surprised I haven't pulled a stunt and get hospitalized for something really stupid, having been here for a year.. lol but thank you for the info… will come in handy!

    and the water IS totally drinkable.. it just took us a while to figure out!

    1. Good luck with not needing the healthcare but at least know its pretty excellent if you do eed it!

  5. Maybe I'm negative, BUT if you do business in Costa Rica--Watch-Out! Fraud and deception is endemic. Threats and extortion not off the table. Further, I was hospitalized in Nicoya and my life was saved (This is good) BUT I did witness many in my (near dead) ward sit in their own excrement for hours before being cleaned (This is not good). Moreover, most tourists do not know that Tamarindo bay is awash in human turds. Likely due to massive development. I say this because, in my hospital ward there was a French tourist that lost an eye from infection (merely for swimming in the waves) and 2 not counting myself in that same ward paralyzed from Guillian Barre Syndrome. Not something you read about in the travel brochures. Suggestion--be careful where you eat, drink or swim wherever you are--including CR

    1. There certainly are some negatives. I agree the ocean can be gross but Tamarindo and Jaco are the worst and simply not places I would get in the water! Pretty awful really. I think the 2 biggest things that keep a country from being fully developed is its water and sewage practices. CR definitely needs to work on those 2!