Monday, March 31, 2008

Financial Advice for moving to Costa Rica from Patrick

For those of you thinking of moving to Costa Rica, be advised that financially it is getting harder to live here. First, the US dollar is falling as a currency across most other currencies including the Costa Rican Colon. Since the Costa Rican’s tie their money to the US dollar in hopes of keeping the Colon stable, they are buying the excess US dollars in circulation causing inflation here. The government is reporting about 11-12% annual inflation but on some items it is closer to 20%. Last but not least, if your invested money is in the US, which should offer more stability, you have seen a fall in your portfolio value or you are locked in at 2.5%. So there are three things working against you on your potential move: the falling US dollar, inflation in Costa Rica, and a lower return on your investment. All of these might affect your standard of living in Costa Rica. These things may eventually change, but in the short term it could be a big concern.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Grocery store concierge

Something I find funny here in Costa Rica is when you’re grocery shopping and women stand in the aisles and try to sell you certain products. Patrick used to always be convinced they were there as a form of theft prevention.

One day in December while in the Escazu Hipermas, I wanted to try some different coffee and two women were in the aisle pushing different brands. I had one brand in my hand but it seemed more expensive than other brands even though it was on sale. The woman trying to sell it only spoke Spanish and I didn’t care enough to try to translate so I politely ignored her. Another woman pushing a different brand spoke some English. She was more aggressive and eventually convinced me to buy the brand she was selling. I put back the original bag of the sale brand I had in my hand and grabbed two of the other brand.

When we left the coffee aisle, Patrick said the woman that couldn’t speak English was so upset I didn’t buy her brand of coffee that she was nearly in tears. I thought he was kidding but when we got home that afternoon he was snickering as he put the coffee away. I asked him what was so funny and he said he didn’t know why I didn’t just get that more expensive coffee so the woman wouldn’t be so upset. I was furious and feeling horrible because I really thought he was joking while we were at the store. If I knew I had made that woman cry, I would have at least bought one of each coffee.

I guess they must work on commission? Did I mention they sometimes give samples of alcohol in the middle of the weekday?

As a side note, after Patrick read this post he pointed out that he still thinks the women are there to prevent theft.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Patrick and I always try to coax Azure outside to play. She usually complains that it’s too hot (at 95 degrees this week I hardly blame her). But some days we are lucky enough to find something outside to interest her. Yesterday happened to be one of those happy days.

I noticed two walking sticks on the side of the guest house and knew immediately that Azure would love them. As soon as she arrived home, she rushed to grab them. I made her pose for a few photos and then she let them crawl all over her. I took a few more shots but they were quick devils! I hope the pictures give you an idea how large these things are here. I have seen walking sticks before but the one we found yesterday was gigantic. Plus, I’ve never seen a green one before. Azure said the green one was cooler because it felt squishy like a baggie full of Jell-O.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sliding Gate Installed - New Gate Part Five (finally the conclusion!)

We felt pretty silly (and even more unsecured!) having a new cement wall in front of our property for two weeks but still having a huge gap where anyone could walk or even drive right up to our home. After the crew finished the wall after the first week of work, we thought for sure our gate would be up quickly. We were dead wrong.

On the following Monday (the beginning of work week two), only two of the three men crew arrived. They spent the entire week building the side walls and then covering the cement block in a second cement coating for texture. The men kind of stalled toward the end of the week but we knew the money was coming out of our contractor’s pocket not ours since we were paying by the project not the hour. Friday around noon Enrique came by and inspected the work. He paid the two men and said he would be back on Sunday to install the actual gate which was fine by us since we had a school picnic to attend on Saturday. Please note that we had not paid Enrique a penny yet (we did pay for the supplies) although he paid his crew for two weeks worth of work!

Sunday went by with a no show from Enrique and finally Monday evening he arrived around 6PM with two of his sons. This surprised me since it gets dark here in Costa Rica by 6PM but I knew we had a streetlight right above our driveway which provided pretty good light. Around 9PM we started to become nervous that they were still out there welding and making various grinder noises since most of our neighbors (and even us) go to bed early on weeknights! Finally at 10PM, Patrick discreetly asked them to leave.

Enrique said he didn’t have much left to finish and he would return the next day by 2PM. Around 4PM Patrick told Enrique we really needed to leave so we could pick up Azure from soccer. He had mostly finished and actually gave us a set of keys for the gate. When we returned, Enrique was gone and I opened our new gate for the first time! How sweet and well worth the wait!

The following day Enrique arrived to pick up some of his tools and receive payment. I thought for sure he would change the amount due to him based on the length and added hassle of the project but Patrick said he paid him exactly the amount agreed upon. So, after four months of hoping to have a new wall and gate, the project was completed without too much stress –yeah right!

Oh, by the way, after the crew left and the project was “completed”. We spent a day cleaning up the mess. Supposedly their plan included throwing all the debris including old boards and left over cement into the river! Patrick told them we would handle the clean up “thank you”. We still don’t know where to take some of the refuse and looking at other homes that have been remodeling lately the common practice is to leave everything next to their home until “someone” takes it away.?

Notice in the photo that Patrick even sanded and painted the mailbox so it looks like new-thanks, sweetie!

Next step is painting the wall but we’re still indecisive about the color since typically the wall matches the house but we really don’t want pink!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Construction begins – New Gate Part Four

Thursday afternoon before construction was scheduled to begin, Patrick and I haphazardly found our way to the correct “hardware store” to purchase the supplies for our new wall and gate. After we paid for everything, we needed to explain that we wanted everything delivered. We drew a map to our home and gave the cashier our contractor’s phone number. As we departed, the owner of the establishment approached us for more details about the delivery. After much discussion, I think I made it clear to him that he should call our contractor, Enrique, whom he assured us he knew. I guess everything worked out ok because Friday afternoon the hardware store dumped a load of rocks –one pile of small rocks and one pile of crushed rocks- in front of our driveway (as seen in photo). We heard the next load of supplies would be delivered Monday morning.

Bright and early Monday morning (7AM) Enrique arrived with his crew of three men! I expected two but maybe three meant the gate would be completed sooner. Patrick and I had spent a few hours on both Saturday and Sunday cutting back the garden and transplanting a few of the larger nicer plants. I guess we didn’t quite grasp the scope of the project because within a few hours of working on Monday the small crew had the entire garden ripped up and trenches dug so they could begin pouring cement. Oh well, I think roses are somewhat over-rated anyway (both photos show the pile of leaves that had once been in a nice garden).

The supplies were actually delivered by 8:30AM Monday morning (seemed unusual to me for an on time delivery!) and the guys made a ton of progress. The crew of three men (Enrique still had his other project to work on) worked daily from 7AM to approximately 5PM with an hour lunch and a couple short breaks in between. They had the entire wall built by the end of the week but no mention of the gate going up.

The only problem so far with the construction happened to be the destruction of the natural fence that already existed. We originally only asked Enrique’s crew to build a front wall since we had plenty of trees and flowers and barb wire fence on the sides. BUT because in the hacking of plants to build the wall the crew destroyed the natural fence and now we had six feet gaps on both sides of our property. This was not the security we were looking for at all! So, we spoke to Enrique and ended up purchasing more supplies and requiring his crew to build sides to the wall. In the end with the sides to the walls and repositioning of some plants and trees all worked out almost better than originally planned.

We still needed a front gate, though, so one last installment to this long story should provide my Mom with THE photo of the finished wall and gate she has been waiting so patiently to see!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Squirrel Shenanigans

I’m interrupting my story about our new wall and gate (which I know must be killing my Mom since she’s dying to see photos – sorry Mom!) to wish everyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

As many of you know, we have dozens of banana trees in our yard. We continue to cut bunches down but mostly the bunches of bananas on our trees tend to be too heavy for the trees and eventually the entire bunch falls or the tree tumbles (we’re talking at least 50 bananas per bunch). This tends to happen before the bananas are ripe so we have taken to leaving the unripe bananas under our car port to ripen. We hose down the bunch to ensure there are no spiders then cut the large bunch into smaller bunches of 5 or 6 bananas.

Several times we have been overwhelmed with too many ripe bananas at once so I would leave some out for the birds to enjoy. Eventually, the squirrels noticed all the bananas sitting around under the car port ready for the taking. We would wake in the morning to find an entire bunch of five or six bananas missing! At first we found this hilarious but as our banana supply would dwindle we decided we should hang some from the car port to keep the squirrels out. Besides, it’s not like we’re starving the squirrels since I watch them eat green bananas right from the tree all day long. They don’t really need to take our ripe bananas too!

Of course, being squirrels, they can’t be satisfied until they eat everything. In other words, the squirrels have figured out how to get into the hanging bags of bananas under the car port. Patrick and I have observed all their acrobatics from hanging upside down and grabbing from the top of the bag to jumping from a cross beam onto the bag in order to rip it and enjoy the entire bag’s contents!

Even though the squirrels can very entertaining - one day they even employed a diversion tactic! I watched one squirrel jump around from branch to branch while another swooped in from the other direction to jump at the bag of bananas! – I find I must often scare them to discourage them from eating my “special hoard”.

Darn squirrels! They have even started to fight back! One day they dropped an orange on Patrick’s head when he walked under a tree. Saturday they pelted the roof of the carport with pits from some unknown fruit. Patrick said next they’ll learn to use tools and then we’re really in trouble!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Paperwork - New Gate Part Three

If you recall from the last post, an unknown man sauntered up our driveway and scared the bejeebers out of me. He seemed friendly enough with a huge smile on his face but I still didn’t appreciate the fact that he didn’t wait by the “gate” for us to walk down and meet him. So, who would do such a thing? The guy our friend, Rafael, sent by in early December to build our gate. It was now the beginning of February and he thought he would stop by with some other ideas for our wall and gate. How nice of him to think of us finally! Patrick told him we still weren’t interested in an electric gate and to please get us an estimate of costs.

By Friday of that week, Enrique (the contractor referred to us by our contact at Azure’s school, Bob) had gotten us an estimate which seemed reasonable. He said work could begin the following Monday and the work would take one week. We agreed to the terms and requested that we pay for the materials with our credit card and the balance in cash.

On Tuesday we realized the work on the gate would begin the following week because our contractor, Enrique, needed to file paperwork with the city of San Rafael to get a permit. Originally Enrique asked Patrick to fill out the paperwork and file everything himself. After discussing this with Bob, he agreed Enrique should file the paperwork since he understood the requirements more than us. Especially since we can’t read Spanish easily. Although, we were expected to come up with several official government papers we supposedly received after purchasing the house. It took us a while to sort everything out and we still aren’t positive we gave Enrique the correct papers since everyone we spoke to had a difference of opinion on what was mandatory, but we made several copies and handed them over. We did go to the local municipal building to try to get some of the official documents we needed but they handed us another pile of forms to fill out. Plus, on top of everything else, we needed a signature from an engineer. I thought that meant Enrique our contractor but Bob just laughed at the mention of that and said “engineers in this country don’t work. It is very hard to find an engineer.” Bob made some calls and informed us that his engineer would sign the paperwork for us and that Enrique would handle that for us also. Of course the engineer never had to see the project.

WHEW! What a hassle! After more conversations with Bob, he admitted that Enrique probably wouldn’t even submit the paperwork to get the permit. Bob told us that here in Costa Rica they don’t worry so much about permits. He said the municipality would probably never even notice and if they did all they could do was warn us the permit needed to be posted. He said that if that happens we should just say that the paperwork is already filed and everything was “in process”. If it came down to a fine, it would be no higher than 1% of the cost of getting the permit (in other words 50 cents!). Okay we can handle that so what’s the point of getting the permit?

Well, our gate is done and we still have no idea if Enrique ever did get the permit. BUT we did have an inspector stop by during the project and give us a five day notice. Again, Bob and Enrique told us not to worry because once work is completed here in Costa Rica the municipality can’t fine you for never filing for a permit. How ridiculous! No wonder this country has no money!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Finding a contractor -New Gate Part Two

In late September we started discussing the necessity of a stronger gate but didn’t know how to go about the process of hiring someone. By late October we felt ready to invest in the gate so by early November we actually started talking to people about getting the right crew to build the wall and gate.

We don’t know that many people and our Spanish isn’t strong enough to fully understand everyone so this whole idea was easier said then done. We did ask our neighbors if they knew anyone to help but with no results. We asked a local Tico we met at Azure’s school, Rafael, and he said he knew a few good men and would send them over to discuss the project.

After 2 weeks and no show from the recommended Tico, Patrick again asked Rafael for a suggestion. Rafael assured us he knew another guy and would bring him by since he didn’t own a car. Another week went by and when quizzed, Rafael claimed he brought his friend by 3 times and we were never home. What? We are ALWAYS home unless taking Azure to and from school or picking up groceries. So, we made a definite plan for a date and time to meet his friend about the gate.

This time his friend showed up and actually took measurements. He said he would return the following day with an estimate. Of course he never showed. Later the next week we questioned Rafael and he said it was too close to Christmas and his friend would come by again after the holidays. Note that this was mid-December already –six weeks had past since we started looking for someone to build the wall and gate. We joked about it with our contact at Azure’s school (let’s call him Bob). Bob confirmed that no one ever wanted to work in December and probably someone would be able to help us in mid-January since that’s when bills were due again.

January 15th came and went with no one accepting our proposal to build a wall and gate. Finally in February, Bob said he knew a contractor that would probably agree to build our wall and gate. Bob knew this contractor could do the job right and would charge us fairly but he was already involved in a project. Bob would ask this contractor, Enrique, to see if he was interested. The next day, Bob told us Enrique would stop by at 6pm to discuss the logistics and costs.

Wow! Enrique really did show. He measured and discussed what we were interested in with Patrick. He said he would give us a quote the next day. The next day Patrick and I were sitting in the house enjoying a salad for lunch when a man walked up to the house and scared the heck out of me! Usually we hear when someone is by the gate at the lower house because they will holler up “UPE!” (anyone home?). This guy just hopped the gate and strolled right up the driveway!

Stay tuned for the next post to find out who our visitor turned out to be.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Choosing our new home - new gate part one

I know those of you reading this post that knows anything about living in Costa Rica will find my next statement absurd. When choosing our home here in CR, I mostly declined to look at homes that were part of a gated community. I didn’t want to live in one of the new cookie cutter complexes and I didn’t (and possibly still don’t) see an advantage to having a guard shack only to allow every Tom, Dick, and Harry to drive through. It seems like a false sense of security when truly these neighborhoods seem to be the first ones targeted for theft. All Ticos know if you can afford to live behind a wall with a guard you obviously have something that would be worth stealing.

But the real reason I didn’t want to live in a gated community like most gringos and rich Ticos related to small yards and no privacy. I wanted a large yard with fruit trees and a sense of ownership. I wasn’t looking for a spectacularly large yard which would need to be maintained by gardeners or a tiny plot surrounded by a brick wall. I wanted something that I could fumble around in trying to learn how take care of the plants since I’ve never had a real garden before and I find fruit trees fascinating. I wanted a tropical feel to the yard not a manicured niceness. That’s just not me.

I spent hours and hours searching the internet and narrowing down our choices. We were looking for something “special” but yet affordable. Plus, all the schools we chose for Azure were in the Central Valley. I thought this task would be easy but it turned out I was wrong for several reasons. One reason being that most Ticos don’t list their home with a gringo therefore their home could not be found on the internet. Another reason related to one of our realtors not grasping our requirements for a home and he insisted on showing us homes in gated communities or ones with walls around a small yard. I’m sure he thought we were crazy (and maybe we are!). One last problem seemed to be timing. The real estate market here was/is on the upswing and people selling to gringos know they can ask more for their home than the gringos would pay (this is nothing new) but more gringos are moving here and prices were moving higher (that seems to be different again depending on the location of the home). So, a lot of the homes fitting our requirements were now out of our price bracket.

What is my point here? I found a home that would work (it’s not perfect so we’re already planning some remodeling) but our security factors are lacking. Our plot of land is literally wedged between two coffee plantations. It seems someone “dug” out a triangle which has high slopes on both sides. Our western plot line actually has a deep ditch which flows with water during rainy season while our eastern plot line is not so pronounced. But it does mean trying to access our property from the back or sides is not easy and even trickier during rainy season when the ground is slick. But the access from the front of the house at the driveway was hilarious. The previous owner had a small white fence (desperately in need of paint) with a tiny metal gate connecting the two sides with a chain and no lock. All you needed to do to access the house was step over the chain or if you wanted to drive up, unhook the clasp. Needless to say, after moving in we did not feel very safe. We would wake at all hours of the night to check noises certain someone wanted to rob us. The good part of the scenario is that we do not live near enough to town to make us a huge target since most gringos in our area live up a different hill altogether and they have target written all over them since there is even a country club up that way. BUT we know everyone is a target and determined to build a stronger gate to make us feel more secure.

See my next post for a follow up on the gate.

By the way, I LOVE my yard! Patrick doesn’t like the fact that it’s on a hill which makes it difficult to mow and not much flat area so we can’t play Frisbee. But boy do we have fruit trees.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spring has sprung

I admit I still don’t quite grasp this season thing here in Costa Rica. Everyone refers to the current season as summer. Now I do understand that this is the dry season as opposed to the rainy season but that still doesn’t translate for me. Let me explain why.

Last year in October I posted how it felt like fall. The weather turned a bit cooler and the leaves on the trees started turning color and falling gently to the ground. Just like Fall back in Minnesota. Now don’t get me wrong, the daytime temperature still hovered in the 70’s and at the same time some of the trees in our yard were losing their leaves others were budding (but I think that may be due to the fact that the caterpillars ate all their leaves –I’ll fill you in on that phenomena in another post).

So, on to my point. This entire week has so felt like spring I’m just a “smiley button” as Patrick puts it. We received a few light rains this week and two full inches on Wednesday afternoon. The mornings have been gorgeous. I generally sit outside and read in the mornings but this week I have been busy trying to identify the new bird songs and catching glimpses of birds mating (including owls and hummingbirds). All the trees in the yard are budding, flowering, or fruiting. Even the coffee plants flowered into a beautiful white “puffball” which made the fields around us look like it had snowed (top photo). Plus we have been noticing more/different butterflies floating around.

Spring never held the appeal for me that fall offered while in the States because I enjoyed the color of the leaves and spring always meant dirty puddles of melted snow. But this year I’d have to say that this has been my favorite spring and I am happy it’s not over yet especially given that the rainy season will be upon us soon and I can start planting more flowers in my gardens.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Uninvited visitor

Late yesterday afternoon Patrick and I heard a loud sound which seemed to have occurred right outside the living room window. Since moving here, we have become accustomed to strange sounds but we still check into the source and besides this one definitely was peculiar.

Patrick offered to do the “walkabout”. Our version of walking the yard to see what we find. Several minutes later he hollered in through the window “you have to come out here AND bring your camera”. I love hearing that familiar yell. It’s becoming a hobby in the family to find something odd or fun to watch.

At first I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then Patrick tells me to look under the chair. OMG!

I snapped some quick photos and then informed Azure she wouldn’t want to miss this one. When she ran out we told her to make sure she had her glasses on.

She begged us to hold the enormous toad. At first we figured it probably wasn’t a good idea but eventually she wore us down.

She played with her new “pet” for at least 30 minutes before we insisted she finish her homework. She begged to keep him but of course we said a firm “NO!”.

He’s no where to be seen today but he’s definitely invited back anytime!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

See what happens when I don't watch!

Patrick and I both miss watching our favorite sporting events. Those of you who don't know us have no idea the magnitude of our love for sports. I am literally a fanatic not just a fan.

I missed the entire football season which makes me feel even worse about hearing the news. Yes, I heard Brett Favre retired. I guess I shouldn't be surprised but I am VERY happy he went out on a high note.

Anyway, if you are reading this Brett (and I know you are) just a reminder that you are welcome to stay in our guest house while contemplating your next move.

Go Pack!

Monday, March 3, 2008


Since my last post related to paying our water and electric bill, Patrick felt this next post should pertain to our monthly expenses. I know we live frugally so this won’t relate to everyone living in Costa Rica but this will at least give readers another perspective.

food - $300
water and electric - $50
gasoline- $80
property taxes - $18
private school $400
car insurance $50

Our taxes are based on the last bill we paid of $106 in January and the registrar told us our next payment would be in June. Now I have to admit we are not quite clear on how taxes work here since our receipt says we paid the first trimester although everyone we speak to about taxes claim they are quarterly. While still in the States, our realtor contacted us explaining that the seller asked us to pay our portion of last years taxes which were due in June -our portion being $15 for half of May and all of June (presumably). Then when we arrived in July, both our realtor and our lawyer said our next tax payment would be in September and we should just go to the municipality and pay them. We made a payment of approximately $76 in late September and then in the beginning of October received a bill stating taxes of $60 something was owed by October 31st. After consulting our lawyer again, she stated that the bill was probably printed before we paid our taxes and she was pretty sure based on our receipt that we had paid all of 2007 property taxes. Well, we never followed up and still don’t know if the taxes we paid this year included a penalty from last year or if our taxes just increased that much more. Whatever since they are still cheap!

Back to monthly expenses, our food bill of $300 really is an accurate figure but we know most gringos spend more than us. We have a very limited diet and I am trying very hard to keep a $10 per day spending limit. Keep in mind, though, that Azure gets lunch at school everyday but Wednesday and Patrick and I generally have leftovers for lunch.
Also, we try to stick to local products and avoid most imports to keep costs low.

So there you have it, a monthly spending total of $898 which includes everything since we have no phone, cable, or internet. Is this impressive or what?