What is the cost of living in Costa Rica?
This might be the most common question that I see asked on social media by people who are considering a move to Costa Rica, and for good reason.
Most of us aren’t independently wealthy or have a money tree growing in the yard.
Like anywhere, the sky is the limit when it comes to spending if you have the means. For those who are budget minded or working with limited income, here are a some key considerations*:
You can find furnished and unfurnished rentals at a wide range of monthly rates, depending on how simple or luxurious the accommodation. Rental rates are considerably lower than Canada for a comparable home.
In Costa Rica you can find very simple Tico-style rentals for as low as $400 US per month. Being on the coast will generally be higher than inland areas, especially if you want something close to the beach.
I am currently renting a small, modern 2 bedroom single-story home in a gated community in Grecia (a town in the Central Valley) with 24 hour security patrol and many amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball and volleyball courts, a gym etc., for $750 US a month plus utilities.
Real estate is also reasonably priced and plentiful – it is a buyer’s market and properties can remain on the market for a very long time so keep that in mind if you’re looking to buy. Take your time. It’s a good idea to rent in different areas that you’re interested in to become familiar with the people, climate and amenities before buying a home.
The cost of electricity is relatively high compared to both Canada and the United States, at $0.159/kWh US (as of December 2019; includes cost, distribution and taxes) but as an expense it can be much lower than back home based on usage. In Central Valley, like where I am in Grecia, there is no need for heat or air conditioning so it helps to keep the cost low.
My electricity usage runs around $26 US per month from ICE (Instituto Costarricence de Electricidad). There are other providers in different parts of the country.
Water is provided by the Costa Rican Water and Sanitation Institute (AyA) for the majority of the urban population, which is a centralized public institution reporting to the Minister of Health. There are also rural water and sanitation associations that serve some rural communities and a public services company that provides water, sewer and electricity services to Heredia (north of San José). Some rural properties may have water coming from a well or water tank.
My water bill from Aya for a single person household (with 3 dogs) is approximately $7.50 US per month.
The cost and quality of internet service will vary widely based on provider and area. Fiber optic availability is now widespread in urban areas and continues to be rolled out across the country. ICE, Cabletica and other companies provide internet, TV and phone packages.
I have 30 Mbps fiber optic service from ICE and pay $45 US per month.
You must be a resident to obtain postpaid cellular service in Costa Rica, so as a tourist or non-resident you will need to pick up a prepaid SIM card. There are several providers including Claro and Movistar but kölbi is a division of ICE and has the widest coverage in the country. You can pick up a kölbi SIM card at any ICE or kölbi office for 1,000 colones (about $1.70 US) and add a plan or credit as needed. There are also many dealers, such as grocery and convenience stores identified with a sign in the window, where you can refill your SIM or buy cards that already include a plan. You must have an unlocked phone to use a SIM card from a Costa Rican provider.
I currently put about 4,000 colones ($9 Cdn) per month on my Kolbi SIM card.
I rarely watch television and ditched my cable TV back home over a decade ago, opting for Netflix and the internet instead, but for those who need their sports and HBO (I do miss watching sports!) you can get SKY satellite from $23 US per month or basic cable from Cabletica for $40 USD per month (depending on location).
Food is an area where cost can vary widely, depending on how you choose to eat.
Imported brands and products are very expensive due to the high duty cost, running about the same or more than Canada (again depending on where you live and shop). There are certain items where I’m willing to pay more and others where I have walked away. Adapting to local brands and products will help the budget but be prepared to pay a premium for things you just can’t live without.
Fresh local fruits and vegetables and staples like rice, beans and legumes are cheap. Every community will have a local ‘feria’ which is a weekly farmer’s markets where fresh produce is affordable and plentiful. It’s a wonderful way to practice your Spanish, support local farmers and save some money.
As a vegan I can eat very affordably here because my staples are similar to the foundation of the local diet – beans and legumes, rice and other grains, vegetables and fruit. It’s even possible to find processed plant-based products from brands like Follow Your Heart, Daiya, Tofurky and Beyond Meat in higher end grocery stores but they are expensive – higher than what I paid in Canada – so they are a rare treat. A whole food, plant based diet is good for the environment, your health and of course the animals.
Public transportation is the most affordable way to travel but is very time consuming, so it’s a trade off between cost and convenience. You can travel by bus between communities in the local area for around 210 colones ($0.50 Cdn) and the 165 km from San José to Manuel Antonio/Quepos for 4,675 colones ($10.30 Cdn).
There are several other ways to get around for those who don’t want the expense of owning a vehicle. They include taxis or Uber to get around locally, private transfers, domestic airlines and even train travel.
Buying a vehicle in Costa Rica is nothing short of sticker shock. The import duty on a 3 year old vehicle is over 50% and 6 years or older is over 70%, so be prepared for a much different price than you would pay back home.
You can import your own vehicle but may have trouble finding parts. Asian makes are common but American and European are not, and you will want to make sure it is suitable for the road conditions here. There are people who have imported their vehicle and are happy with the decision but others choose to buy a vehicle after they arrive.
I bought a 2004 Mitsubishi Montero Sport for $10,000 US and have invested a few thousand more in repairs since. I have a horrible history with vehicles – I swear it’s a curse that has followed me here – but it was my first real lesson in this country and has resulted in good advice to share with others!
The upside is that the cost of maintaining a vehicle in Costa Rica is much more reasonable, in part because there are plenty of skilled mechanics and labor costs are much less.
If you own a vehicle there are 2 primary expenses that must be paid annually, known as riteve and marchamo.
The marchamo is a mandatory insurance and vehicle tax that must be paid to INS, the National Insurance Institute, every year between November 15th and December 31st. This insurance is basic coverage that provides medical care, medication, rehabilitation and even funeral expenses in case of an accident up to 6 million colones (about $13,300 Cdn). It does not cover third party property damage so additional insurance is required. The amount of the marchamo is based on the standard market value for the vehicle. The marchamo for my 2004 Mitsubishi Montero Sport this year is 94,958 colones (about $200 Cdn).
Riteve or RTV (revisión técnica vehicular) is a safety inspection that must be done by appointment at specific locations around the country. Vehicles less than 5 years old must be inspected every 2 years and every year for older vehicles. The riteve is due on the month corresponding to the last digit of your license plate – mine ends in 2 so my riteve is due in February.
The inspection itself costs 10,000 colones (about $23 Cdn) and if it doesn’t pass the first time the second inspection is 5,000 colones (about $11 Cdn). Your local mechanic can also do a pre-inspection to determine if repairs will be needed and take care of them in advance, and even take your vehicle to the inspection for a minimal charge.
Additional liability insurance is recommended to cover personal liability and 3rd party property damage and is relatively affordable, in the range of a couple hundred US a year for half a million in coverage and a $500 deductible. You can also choose to add collision and theft, although they will greatly increase your premium, and other coverages like family medical, additional risks (natural disasters) and roadside assistance coverage.
Gas prices are high and currently* running a little higher than Canadian prices, at an average of 580 colones per liter ($1.30 Cdn), and diesel slightly less at 495 colones per liter ($1.10 Cdn).
An often overlooked factor when considering the cost of living is healthcare.
Much like Canada, Costa Rica has a universal healthcare system called Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS), simply referred to as the “Caja.” It provides citizens and residents with 100% coverage for all medical procedures and prescription drugs through the public hospital and clinic system. The program is funded through a mandatory monthly fee charged to citizens and residents based on income (approximately 7 – 11%).
Private healthcare is also available, which is affordable and high quality. Many expats choose to utilize both systems to avoid the wait times that can occur with the sometimes overburdened public system. According to International Living, private healthcare costs in Costa Rica are 30% to 70% cheaper than U.S. or Canadian prices.
International travel insurance plans for expats provide coverage that includes emergency medical treatment, evacuation and repatriation but are usually available for up to 12 months with the option to extend a further 12 months. Health care insurance plans that cover most expenses incurred in the local private health care system (with worldwide coverage) are available through INS (Instituto Nacional de Seguros) or BlueCross BlueShield.
There is also a discount program called Medismart available in association with Hospital Metropolitano in San José that provides members with discounted prices on various medical services (and even includes some veterinary locations) for a small monthly fee. It is restricted to specific providers so be sure to confirm that there are locations in your area.
If you are bringing your pet to Costa Rica you will be happy to know that veterinary care is excellent and the cost is much less than in Canada or the U.S.
Food cost will vary slightly depending on your location in the country. As an example, the following are what I pay for my 3 pooches:
- Ascan (a local brand available at grocery stores like Walmart, PriceSmart, Pali and MaxiPali etc) 39.7 lb bag – 23,250 colones ($52 Cdn)
- NutraSource Senior (available at veterinarians and pet stores) 30 lb bag – 30,000 colones ($67 Cdn)
- Hills Urinary Care c/d (available at veterinarians and pet stores) 8.5 lb bag – 15,500 colones ($36 Cdn)
The cost of veterinary services is relatively low but the quality of care is very good. My little 10 lb Chihuahua cross had an ear infection and also had surgery to remove 2 sebaceous cysts that were in a bad location:
- Vet consult – 15,000 colones ($35 Cdn)
- Ear swab test – 7,080 colones ($16 Cdn)
- Ear drops – 3,800 colones ($9 Cdn)
- Cyst removal surgery – 44,250 colones + 19,000 colones for anesthesia ($146 Cdn)
Tick and heartworm treatment
Expect treatments for flea/tick and heartworm to be similar to Canadian prices. Unlike living in the great white north, these treatments must be given year round in this tropical climate so you will want to budget accordingly (prices are approximate and vary by source and location):
- Bravecto (cost of 1 tablet, given every 3 months) for flea & tick treatment
- 2 to 4.5 kg – 23,500 colones ($53 Cdn)
- 4.5 to 10 kg – 25,000 colones ($56 Cdn)
- 10 to 20 kg – 27,000 colones ($60 Cdn)
- 20 to 40 kg – 28,500 colones ($64 Cdn)
- 40 to 56 kg – 30,000 colones ($67 Cdn)
- Heartgard (cost of 1 tablet, given every 3 months in Central Valley but monthly if you are at the coast) for heartworm treatment
- 1 to 11 kg – 2,500 colones ($6 Cdn)
- 12 to 22 kg – 4,000 colones ($9 Cdn)
- 23 to 45 kg – 5,500 colones ($12 Cdn)
A good source to get a sense of the cost of food, toys and accessories for your pet is MiVete.com
Eating out at most restaurants, especially in the tourist areas, will cost close to what you would pay for a similar meal back home. For example, a vegan lunch entrée and fruit drink is between 7,000 and 10,000 colones ($16 – $22 Cdn). Alcohol is also similarly priced.
If you’re looking for an affordable, simple but solid meal with sustenance look no further than the Costa Rican casado. This is a traditional meal in the country that can be found in any “soda” (small family-run business, much like a diner). Its traditional form would contain some type of meat but it can easily be ordered as a vegetarian or vegan meal. In a soda the casado will cost between $5 – 8 US, or higher in an upscale restaurant.
Many natural outdoor wonders have a nominal (or no) fee for entry but the large, popular and more heavily staffed attractions will of course come at a higher price. There are often lower entry fees for locals and residents, with a higher charge for tourists.
As an example:
- Manuel Antonio National Park: Adult $16 US, children 12 & under free
- La Paz Waterfall Gardens:
- Tourist – Adult $48 US + tax, children 3-12 years $32 US + tax
- Local or resident – Adult $28 US + tx, children 3-12 years $19 US + tax
- Poás volcano:
- Tourist – Adult $15 US, children 2-12 years $5 US
- Local or resident – Adult 1,000 colones ($1.70 US, $2.25 Cdn), children 2-12 years 500 colones ($0.85 US, $1.10 Cdn)
*All costs are based on costs and estimated currency conversion as of September 2020.
Feature photo credit: Micheile Henderson via Unsplash