13 September 2016

Marilyn Stevens - Expat in Costa Rica

Marilyn Stevens - Expat in Costa Rica

We’ve had the chance to talk to Marilyn Stevens, 64, an American expat who has moved to Costa Rica with her husband. Mrs Stevens who has been living there for two and half years, now works as a writer, editor, and teacher.

Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: US – Delaware native, moved from Arizona where we were teaching ESL for eight years.


Q: What made you move out of USA?

A: With only social security and very small pensions, we felt it would be difficult to retire comfortably in the states. We also wanted a new “life adventure” and started researching different countries.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: We live in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, in the hills above the small town of Grecia.


Q: How long have you been living in Costa Rica?

A: Two and a half years.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: I live with my husband. We feel very “adjusted” to Expat life.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Our married son and our grandkids are in Delaware, and our single son is in California. Because we’d lived 3,000 miles away from our grands for eight years before moving to Costa Rica, we had already adjusted to missing our family and friends. We keep up with everyone mostly through Facebook as well as on Skype and FaceTime. And it’s just as easy to hop on a plane from here as it was from Arizona!


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: We love the Tico culture and have gotten to know folks by doing some volunteer English tutoring, getting to know our favorite vendors at the farmer’s market, our beloved yoga teacher (and dear friend), our doctors, hairdressers, etc. All the kids in the neighborhood love to come and give treats to our horse Julia (and get treats from me!). They call me Senora Gringa. We appreciate the deep family connections, the patience and the lack of conspicuous consumption that we see with most of our Tico friends and neighbors.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Costa Rica? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: Our Spanish is still elementary, which is a barrier to connecting deeply with many of the Ticos we know. We strongly believe that one should learn and use the language of one’s guest country, so we’re working on it daily. We are very connected to the expat community in our area, and most of our socialization is still primarily with expats. I belong to a women’s group that meets at a different home each month, which is how I met many of the folks we now hang out with. There are a lot of expats in and around Grecia so you can always find folks with similar interests. For example, my husband just left to hike with a friend, and he gets together to play music with some other friends. I have a group of friends who take cultural day trips to San Jose, and I’m getting together with some of my artist friends tomorrow to work on some mosaic tables for a local school.


Q: How does the cost of living in Costa Rica compared to your home?

A: Mostly less expensive – for one thing, we don’t have to pay for heat OR air conditioning which saves a bundle. I usually cook at home with local ingredients, although once a month I go to the big box store PriceSmart to stock up on things we can’t get locally (or that are less expensive in bulk). However, we do have a car and gas is much cheaper now in the states than in Costa Rica. Our mechanic is extremely reasonable, but then again, we haven’t had to have any major repairs (yet), and we’re pretty sure that parts would be more costly here.

  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: I don’t get coffee out, so I’m not sure – maybe $2 USD?

  • Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: The local restaurants (called sodas) serve mostly typical Costa Rican fare – rice, beans, meat, plantains, salad for about $4 USD. Restaurants with more expansive menus (pizzas, ribs, etc.) run about $8 USD. There are a 13% tax and a 10% tip included in the price, so you don’t tip at the table.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: We rarely eat out, so that’s hard to say … closer into San Jose or at the tourist areas, prices can get pretty up there – I’ve only heard of, say, $50 steak dinners … but we’re not going to eat at a restaurant like that anyway.

  • Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: Many of our friends swear by the decent boxed wines that you can get for about $4 USD … but since I’ve been using wine bottles for borders in my garden, I’ve been opting for traditional bottled wine – we usually get decent Chilean or Argentinean wine for between $6 and $10 a bottle. Our wine connoisseur friends probably spend double that or more. Cigarettes – I have no idea although I’ve heard that they’re much cheaper than in the states. 


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in Costa Rica?

A: Laws change all the time so I wouldn’t want to speculate. I was under the impression that you couldn’t open up an account until you were a resident, but when we went for our residency, we needed to prove that we had a bank account – you can see the irony here. So the day before our residency appointment I went to the bank and with help from a friend who was a long-time customer, I was able to get an account in about four hours. This was at one of the national banks. Apparently, it’s easier to open an account at one of the private banks if you’re not a resident.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: Our Visa application went very smoothly, thanks to our wonderful attorney. It took about 18 months from start to finish, but part of that delay was that we hadn’t gotten any of our documents apostilled in the states beforehand, and so we had to do everything long distance – having paperwork sent to our son, who then had to send to the appropriate offices and get them returned and sent down here to our attorney. Since we are retired, we don’t have to concern ourselves with work permits, although it is my understanding that until one has a permanent residency, one can’t legally work here unless you’re brought here by your company or have a specialty that can’t be filled by a local.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in Costa Rica is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: As residents, we pay into the national health insurance, the CAJA. I have had experiences with getting lab work done, going to my local clinic, seeing a specialist and having several tests as well as having prescriptions filled. In every instance so far, I have been very pleased with the quality of care I’ve received. There can be long waits for things that aren’t emergencies, however. In January, my specialist gave me a prescription for Xrays and my appointment is at the end of August. A friend is scheduled for an ultrasound two years from now! So, often even with the CAJA, folks opt for private care, which is really wonderful. I still see my private GP for some issues. Recently my husband opted to get lab work down at the private lab because he needed the results quicker that he would have gotten them through the CAJA. There IS private insurance available that would cover you at one of the very high-end private hospitals, but we’ve decided not to get that. We have had friends who’ve had to be hospitalized at the local CAJA hospital. It takes some getting used to to be in a ward with not a lot of support – most people rely on their families to bring in food and extras like tissues. But apparently the care is good, and the folks I know have been pleased with it. Dental work is excellent and much less expensive than in the states. I understand that some dental practices do vacation/dental work deals with maybe half of what the work would cost in the US (and you get a Costa Rican vacation as well!)


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in your home or Costa Rica? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: Before we were residents and had the CAJA, I had purchased a policy for private care. I wasn’t thrilled with the pre-existing condition clause of five years for some things – I used to joke that the only thing that would have been covered is if I fell off our ridge into the river. My husband, who is older than I am, has elected to maintain his Part B Medicare with the idea that if he needed something serious, he’d have the option to return to the states for treatment.


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to Costa Rica? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: We used Shipping Worldwide for our personal items. We didn’t have enough for a full container, so we shipped individual boxes (85) through them. They were wonderful and responsive. I also liked that they have a freight calculator that you can use to estimate how many pallets and what the cost will be. Paul lifted each box as we packed it and stood on our bathroom scale – then we numbered the box and logged the contents and put in the weight. We were living in Arizona at the time and decided to drive our car cross country to Florida, visiting friends and family along the way.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: I guess for both of us, it’s wishing our Spanish was stronger. We have really improved as far as shopping, medical appointments, and basic conversations with our neighbors, but as I’m fond of saying, we’d love to be able to understand and respond in complete paragraphs – and also understand more of the cultural nuances that don’t often come across in translation.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Costa Rica?

A: Positives are the people – kindness, generosity of spirit, deep family connections. The weather, the easy access to delicious fresh produce, the pace of life, friends we’ve made here, the ridge we live on – these are top on the list. Living in a country that abolished its army in 1948 means no “war” metaphors – I really think that has an impact on a country’s psyche as a whole. Negatives are few – potholes and drivers – there are some crazy driving “customs” – e.g. passing on curves, passing a car that is already passing, motorcyclists that think the double-yellow line is a moto lane … Sometimes I wish I could run into town and pick up something that would have been easy to get in the states – could be a favorite spice or a pair of jeans that fit my long legs – but these are minor inconveniences. We have a network of folks who pass along info, or who will help you track down something you need. And there’s always someone heading back to the states for a visit or having visitors who can “mule” down an item for you. The other negative for me is not having family and lifelong friends in the same town – until we moved to Arizona, we’d lived within shouting distance of most of my family and childhood friends. I wish they’d all up and move to Costa Rica.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: There are TONS of touristy things within an hour or two from where we live – beaches, hot springs, zip lines, nature preserves, boat tours, hiking, horseback riding. In our town of Grecia, there are often festivals in various neighborhoods – the local coffee/sugar coop is currently holding a 10-day long fiesta to mark the end of the sugar harvest – parades, musical entertainment, topes (horse parades), Costa Rican bullfighting (bull doesn’t get injured – just the guys who chase it). A few venues have dancing and karaoke; several gringo musicians play at different restaurants. There are public swimming pools, tennis courts, gyms. Since my husband and I turn in relatively early, we don’t know much about the nightlife. Closer to San Jose and also at many of the beaches, there are all-inclusive resorts and casinos too.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: We are basically living in the present, and we both agree that we will be in Costa Rica until we decide we don’t want to be here any longer – but at this point, we can’t see that happening. Every morning when we sit out on our porch with the breeze rustling the banana leaves, having our excellent Costa Rican coffee and enjoying the sounds of the birds in the trees, we have to pinch ourselves and say, “wow, we really LIVE here!”


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?

A: As one of my dear philosopher friends always says, “wherever you go, there you are.” It’s something to think about when moving to any different environment. If you resist the culture, you will be unhappy. I don’t understand why anyone would move here voluntarily only to complain and criticize because it’s not like _________ (fill in the blank with where you came from). So my tips are 1) learn Spanish – even if you suck at it, you will be appreciated for trying – Spanish, is, after all, the language of this country. I have been embarrassed more than once by overhearing a gringo whine (loudly) in a store or restaurant “Doesn’t anybody speak English around here?!” Sheesh! 2) Relax. Whether it’s lined at the bank or traffic, or not being able to find something you want – don’t let it spoil your day. Remember how lucky you are to live in this beautiful country. 3) Accept the pace of life here. It’s probably different than what you’re used to, but it’s the way things work here. You are the guest in this country – remember that. 4) On the other hand, don’t let “gringo guilt” blind you to folks who might try to take advantage of you because they think you must be rich. Ticos as a whole are sweet people, but human nature being what it is, every country has its rotten apples.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Costa Rica?

A: retireforlessincostarica.com




… and there are numerous facebook pages – two of my favorites are gardening in Costa Rica and cooking in Costa Rica.