Teaching English and Living Like a Local in Small-Town Costa Rica

Like some of you, I’ve been reading International Living magazine for years, dreaming of the day I would find myself enjoying life in another country.

In September 2016, I found the courage to take that leap.

Barely one month after my 59th birthday, I traveled solo to Costa Rica. My plan was to try living there for a year…immerse myself in the culture…then decide what I would do next with my life.

Because I spoke no Spanish, I had arranged to spend the first few months living with a bi-lingual Costa Rican host family. Their home was in Barva, a small town located in the hills north of the country’s capital of San José.

From the moment I arrived—in the middle of their typical Friday evening fiesta—I felt like part of the extended family. They welcomed me to sit with them and offered me a glass of wine. A short while later, I was laughing along with them as they joked and teased each other, as families everywhere do.

The next day began my initiation into daily Costa Rican life. My host family helped me get a local sim card for my phone and explained how to use the bus system. In no time at all I was able to navigate to wherever I wanted. Buses are cheap and go everywhere in Costa Rica, so I decided to make learning each new route a mini-adventure.

My host “mom” (we were the same age) loved to cook and introduced me to all the typical Costa Rican foods. One of my favorites was gallo pinto, a flavorful breakfast dish made with rice and beans, which she happily taught me how to make. She would also invite me along on walks up the steep roads above town, where we had wonderful views of the mountains surrounding the Central Valley.

I had found my host family though a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification institute, whose four-week program I had registered to attend.

Becoming a teacher was a new experience for me. In my previous life, I had worked in IT for 25 years and spent 12 years in residential remodeling. Teaching English seemed like the best way for me to assimilate with the local culture and earn an income as well.

After finishing the program, I accepted a job teaching three English classes a week at a private school in the town of Santo Domingo de Heredia.

Santo Domingo sits on a broad plateau, making it wonderfully walkable. I discovered an elegant old hotel where I spent hours strolling the endless paths that meandered through acres of exotic gardens. The town also had a weekly farmers’ market (feria), three well-stocked grocery stores, plenty of shops, and a nice variety of local and gourmet restaurants.

When I discovered a small, fully furnished home available for rent in Santo Domingo, I decided to take it. It was located in a gated estate that was an easy 15-minute walk along a tree-lined road into town.

I loved being able to shop at the town feria on Saturday mornings, where the vendors lined up for blocks along two sides of the soccer field. My bags would overflow with the most delicious pineapple, salad greens, tomatoes, herbs, eggs, and my new favorite fruit…papaya.

My basic monthly expenses averaged $800 a month. Rent was $400, which included cable, internet, water, and trash. Electricity was $20, plus $15 for cooking-gas every other month. Groceries were about $200 a month. Dining out three to four times a week came to $120 a month. Transportation (buses, taxis, and the occasional Uber) averaged $40. And I spent another $10 a month on phone minutes.

Once a week I would take a 25-minute bus ride from Santo Domingo into San José. Walking the old neighborhoods (barrios) around the capital, with their colonial architecture and lush parks, was one of my favorite pastimes. Another was discovering eclectic coffee shops, where I could settle in to catch up on emails or work on my lesson plans.

Living in Costa Rica fulfilled my dream of immersing myself into their wonderful culture. Having dipped my toe into overseas living, it’s hard to be content staying at home for long…and I’m already planning my next adventure.

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