James Kaiser had written four bestselling books on US National Parks when a friend invited him to Costa Rica on holiday. James fell in love with the place. When he returned home he began researching how he could write a national park guide for his newly discovered paradise. In 2008 he moved there and has been living in Costa Rica’s capitol ever since.
Here is a bit of his story.
What do you find are some of your favorite differences between US and Costa Rican culture?
There are different expectations for just about everything. Things that would take five minutes in the US will take five days here. Sometimes it is incredibly charming and sometimes it is incredibly frustrating.
Here they are also so intensely into the family. The idea of someone leaving the city or country to go to college is a very extreme idea which is very contrary to US cultural norms.
Why did you select San Jose, the capitol, as the place you would live in Costa Rica?
It is a balmy springtime climate here. It never gets too hot or too cold. It is a great climate in the mountains. It is the only urban area in Costa Rica. For someone who is running their own business I need the day to day amenities of running a business. I needed a stable Internet connection. If I run out of printer ink I do not have to drive three hours through the jungle to get more. San Jose is centrally located. Nothing is more than a four hour drive, so for what I am doing which is driving around everywhere – it is a great central location.
How did you work out the Costa Rican visa?
Technically the way the system works is if you come as a tourist you are given 90 days and after 90 days you have to leave the country for at least three days, but then you can come back and you can do that for as long as you want. I know expats who have done this for eight or nine years. It is not the most efficient way to do things, but a lot of things down here are not the most efficient way to do things.
But it works.
It has worked for me. I think after, maybe, ten years they start hassling you but [until then] they want your tourist dollars.
How is your Spanish?
I did not know a lick of Spanish before I came down. I hesitate to use the word fluent, but I can hold extended multi-hour conversations. I went to language classes. I am still working on it.
What is the cost of living in San Jose, Costa Rica?
Anything imported is expensive. Cars are double what they cost in the US. Gas is 50 to 75 percent more than it is in the US. If you want the US lifestyle it is going to be expensive, but if you are talking about rent and fruits and vegetables at a farmers market or getting a maid it is really cheap. It all depends on your lifestyle choices. If you want to live like a Costa Rican it can be incredibly cheap.
How cheap is ‘incredibly cheap’?
You can get an apartment for 300 dollars a month. You can ride the buses for a dollar or two. A long distance bus would cost 15 dollars. If you go to the farmers market you can fill up big bags of fruits and vegetables for 25 bucks, but a lot of people do not want to live like that. People want a house with a roof that does not leak and high speed Internet.
How much does the roof that does not leak and the reliable Internet cost?
I would say that is 600 to 800 dollars a month.
I have heard that Costa Rica’s Internet is fairly unreliable in many parts of the country; have you found this to be true?
Costa Rica’s Internet can be unreliable in remote parts of the country, but it’s getting better all the time. And these days 3G is very widespread, so if you buy a prepaid chip for your smartphone you can get Internet just about anywhere.
Do you have any thoughts on how foreigners can or do secure jobs in Costa Rica?
I do not look for work because I work for myself. I am a writer and a publisher. There is a great newspaper The Tico Times that would be a great resource for expats. I know a lot of people that work in non-profits. Others do English teaching. There are a lot of technology companies. San Jose, Costa Rica is kind of a little San Jose, California. Most of the people that earn a good salary here have their own businesses.
What recommendations do you have for expats in socializing?
I have not gone any organized routes but they have groups that are just for expats.
Is there a big expat community there? Is there any risk that Costa Rica is becoming the US-lite?
It depends on where you are. The expats are not just from the US. There are a lot of expats from Europe and there are a lot from Latin America. Because it is a peaceful thriving economy it has attracted people from around the world. There are a couple of beach towns which are mostly US expats, but that is really just a handful of places and it is really easy to get off that path and find the more local customs and lifestyles, but most of the tourists do not get on that path.
I went to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. I thought it was amazing. I always had avoided Costa Rica because I thought it would be tourist hell, but it was fantastic.
The Caribbean culture is totally different. It is an Afro-Caribbean culture. They brought a lot of their music and food with them. For a long time that side of Costa Rica was more English speaking, but now it is a bit more Spanish speaking. That is what is amazing about Costa Rica. You can drive for a few hours and be in a totally different environment.
For such a small country, that is really amazing.
To be this small it is really extraordinary the diversity in landscape and culture.
How do you handle health insurance?
I have US health insurance which covers me if anything catastrophic happens.The private health care in Costa Rica is fantastic. You can get things done for a quarter of the cost of what it would be in the US. For the catastrophic stuff I would go back to the US for, but for the minor stuff I would just pay cash here.
How do you communicate with people from home?
Skype is by far the best way to communicate with people back home. Or anywhere in the world.
Are there any books, websites or other resources you recommend in helping people prepare to move to and live in Costa Rica?
Two of the best resources for people thinking about moving to Costa Rica are the Tico Times, www.ticotimes.net, the country’s top English-language news source, and the book, Living Abroad in Costa Rica.
You have been there for four years. What keeps you there?
When the project is over will you leave?
I will stay for a little while longer and I will be coming back regularly to keep things updated and visit friends, but I am definitely excited to check out something else. I would love to go back to the States and take advantage of some of the things I miss there.
What are those things you miss about the US?
Great restaurants. Whole Foods. Skiing. Not being stuck in ridiculous bureaucratic situations. I know those situations are possible in the US, but here they are so much worse.
It is amazing how frustrating it can be in the US to get a driver’s license or something but then you try and do it in another country and you realize just how frustrating it could be.
The reason it is a little better in the US is because people get so frustrated with the system and it spurs people to action. People do not stand for dilly dallying in the US. If people are not doing their job we get very frustrated. In Costa Rica it is not the same. No one gets upset when the line is not moving and therefore it does not really spur anyone to do anything about the wait.
Is Costa Rica safe?
For the most part Costa Rica is very safe. I have never had a problem in four years. Once I went to a big concert and someone stole some money from me. If you look at it in comparison to the rest of Central America it pales in comparison in regards to safety issues.
How would people find an apartment in Costa Rica?
Among expats Craigslist.com is popular.
What would your advice be for someone who is thinking about moving to Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is fantastic. People come on vacation and fall in love with it, but you need to remember that when you are on vacation — you are on vacation. I would recommend that someone rents a place for a year and see how they like it. There are people who sell everything they have and about six or eight months later they are pulling their hair out because it is not what they thought it was cracked up to be and they want to move back. People should stay for one full year – through sunny and rainy season and see how they like it.
Do you think the frustrations people experience in Costa Rica are related to the inconveniences we do not have to deal with in the US or a person’s home country?
Those are some of them. There are also cultural differences and language differences. Culture shock is a real psychological effect. It takes time to work through it. There are a whole bunch of reasons why people get frustrated. They get ripped off. There is a lot more corruption here than there is in the US. It requires street smarts and for some people that is a big shift.
Tell me about your books.
How do you sell them?
They started out as physical books. I am starting to dip my toes into ebooks. You can buy them on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, in a lot of independent bookstores and in the national parks.
I am assuming you had an agent for this process.
Not an agent. I work with a distributor who handles the distribution around the US.
What book distributor do you work with?
What do you attribute to your books being bestsellers?
It is two things. First and foremost I am a photographer and these books are filled with beautiful photography. If you are planning a trip you want to see what various places look like. If you are trying to plan which part of the park to go to you want to see photos.
I also focus on the natural history – the wildlife, the geology, the ecology and that is overlooked by a lot of guidebooks.
Anything else you would like to add?
It has been an incredible experience. It has not been 100% stress free, but all in all it has been an amazing experience and if you are daring enough — I highly recommend it.
Learn more about James at http://jameskaiser.com/