Teaching English in Costa Rica: Living in
ESL teachers in Costa Rica can spend their time off by hiking volcanoes, zipping through the misty canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and soaking up the sun on one of the many beaches. All this, combined with the many ESL teaching opportunities available, make Costa Rica an excellent destination of choice.
ESL Teachers in Costa Rica can enjoy the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the quiet black sand beaches of Puerto Viejo, and the exotic wildlife of the Corcovado National Park. They can enjoy the colourful markets, warm climate, and exotic food, all while teaching ESL.
The country of Costa Rica is partially made up of tropical islands and is one of the world's largest tourist destinations, including many visitors from Canada and the United States. Costa Rica may be a small country, but it is known for its biodiversity and its large portion of protected wilderness. There are many ESL teaching opportunities available which adds to making Costa Rica an excellent destination of choice.
Foreigners to Costa Rica have many housing options, including, condos, apartments, and houses on the beach in gated communities, or among local Ticos (Costa Ricans) in their communities. While there are ultra luxury homes with price tags over 2,000,000 CRC per month (US$4,000), modest small houses can be found in the range of 175,000 - 275,700 CRC per month (US$350 - 550). Much depends on proximity to large city centres. Accommodations in the heart of large city centres are higher than those 80 kilometers beyond city limits.
Utilities such as telephone, electricity and water are less expensive than they are in North America, running at approximately 15,000 - 25,000 CRC per month (US$30-50). Air conditioning is rarely required as most regions are temperate. Those living in beach areas, however, typically have the added moderate expense of air conditioning.
As is the case for most countries in Latin America, airfare is not usually included in contracts for teaching ESL in Costa Rica. Due to the high number of expatriates that travel to Costa Rica to find work in person, and due to its less than thriving economy, most schools decline including this benefit in remuneration packages.
Health care in Costa Rica is ranked among the best in Latin America. Boasting both a universal and a private system, health care in Costa Rica is affordable, of high quality, and readily available. Private insurance is more expensive than the cost of public services. Both the private and public systems are available to all citizens and legal residents.
Health care benefits are not usually included in ESL teacher contracts.
The official retirement age in Costa Rica, the age at which citizens are eligible for state pensions, is 61 for men and 59 for women. While the average age of teachers in Costa Rica is in the late 30s or early 40s, older teachers do find opportunities.
Costa Rica has a relatively modern telecommunications system; however, a number of factors prevent it from keeping up with the speed of changing technology, most notably the state-owned monopoly of the industry.
A residency permit is usually required to apply for a phone line or to purchase a cell phone; however, receiving assistance from a local Costa Rican to do so is quite common. Cell phones in Costa Rica tend to be marginally higher in cost than they are in North America, however due to the fact that proof of purchase of the phone is required to get a connection, buying a phone once there simplifies the whole process.
Internet service is available throughout Costa Rica; however, by North American standards, it is typically quite slow, expensive and less than reliable. These factors are due in part to the state-owned monopoly of Internet and other related services and a reluctance to embrace higher technology.
North American Food
For a taste of home, North American restaurants/cafés have become a common part of the urban landscape in Costa Rica, including:
- Taco Bell
- Burger King
- Church’s Chicken
- Papa John’s
- T.G.I. Friday’s
- Pizza Hut
- Tony Roma’s
- Hard Rock Café
- Outback Steakhouse
Among others, two grocery chain stores, Auto Mercado and Hipermas, carry many North American brands and items. While prices are higher than they are at local markets, these are still affordable stores at which to shop. Walmart also has stores in Costa Rica.
Taxi service in Costa Rica is widely available and reasonably priced. Most taxis are red and have the company’s insignia on top or on the door of the car.
Fares generally start around 600 CRC with an additional 600 CRC/km. ESL teachers should ensure that the taxi’s meter is in working condition. Should a driver try to negotiate a flat rate, a different taxi should be chosen, as the law requires taxis to be metered.
Tips When Travelling By Taxi:
- Ask other foreign teachers which taxi companies are safe and reliable.
- When flagging a taxi, stand at a spot on the curb where the driver can pull over.
- Choose a taxi driver that appears to be well-groomed with a well-kept car.
- Make note of, and use, the driver’s name.
- Follow your instincts. If you feel unsafe, remove yourself from the taxi and get another.
- Carry a map so that you can point to the location to which you are travelling.
Train and Subway
Travel by train in Costa Rica is not a common form of transportation. There is not an intra-city train system; however, there are some inter-city commuter lines that run, primarily to and from San José. Trains are generally fast and inexpensive. The train costs between 220 - 440 CRC, depending on the length of your trip.
Some claim that bus service in Costa Rica is the best in all of Latin America. Buses are inexpensive, comfortable, reliable, and accessible. City bus fares typically run between 130 - 360 CRC, depending on distance travelled. Cash is usually required for payment of fares.
While there are designated bus stops throughout cities in Costa Rica, buses will often stop if hailed by someone, providing there is a safe place to pull over and stop.
Bus service between cities is available and very inexpensive. Most fares between cities run under 5000 CRC. Buses are generally air-conditioned.
Other Modes of Transportation
Other modes of transportation that are available for ESL teachers include:
Airline service between cities in Costa Rica is well established. There are two main domestic airline companies with competitive pricing.
Costa Rica is in compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards. Sansa and NatureAir are the most popular airlines of choice.
Travel by boat or ferry is a great way to see the spectacular sights of Costa Rica. As most boats are open to the elements, following weather patterns would be helpful.
Cycling in Costa Rica should be done with a great deal of caution. Vehicular accidents are higher than in most industrialized countries due to road conditions, reckless driving, ignoring of traffic laws, and intoxication. Cyclists must ride defensively.
Tips When Riding a Bicycle:
- Wear a helmet!
- Take an extra shirt to school as hot temperatures will make for a sweaty ride
- Ensure that one's bicycle is well-secured when parked or stored
- Foreigners should write their name, phone number, and work address on their bicycle
Driving in Costa Rica can be a challenge. Roadways are crowded and often shared with pedestrians, cyclists, and farm animals. Potholes are an ongoing problem on roadways and traffic laws are often ignored. Visibility is impaired at times due to extreme weather systems and heavy rain. The shoulders on roads are often narrow and don’t leave much room to negotiate other traffic or road users.
Drivers from Canada or the US can use their own country’s driver’s licence or an international driver’s licence for up to three months after arriving in Costa Rica, provided that one's visa is still valid.
Foreigners seeking to obtain a Costa Rican driver’s licence must provide a current passport, valid visa, medical certificate, and current driver’s licence from one’s home country. As the driver’s blood type is recorded on the licence, knowing this information is vital. Obtaining a driver’s licence is one of the easier governmental documents to obtain. It would be prudent to verify required documents as rules and regulations change from time to time.
Some tips to keep in mind:
- Adopt a mildly aggressive and yet defensive driving demeanour.
- Be aware that failing to wear a seatbelt or exceeding the speed limit may result in being ticketed by a traffic officer.
- Doors should be kept locked when driving as robberies are quite common.
- As a pre-cautionary measure, interior car lights should not be illumined at night.
- Valuables should be kept out of sight if travelling with open windows.
- Avoid driving in bad weather as visibility can be greatly reduced and road conditions impaired.
Costa Ricans, commonly known as Ticos, are warm, gracious, and polite. They are somewhat less demonstrative and more reserved than many of their Latin American neighbours; nevertheless, are quick to engage in dialogue with foreigners. They enjoy hearing about other cultures and are eager to share their own. Costa Ricans hold a deep sense of honour and as such avoid situations and conversations which could be interpreted as disrespectful to themselves or others.
The following are some helpful guidelines for etiquette.
- Men tend to greet each other with a firm handshake. Hugging is not a common form of greeting.
- Women greet one another by gently patting the forearm of the one they are meeting. A light kiss on the cheek may be exchanged between good friends.
- Individuals should be addressed by using their professional title. For example, a teacher should be called, “Professor”. Those who do not have a professional title should be addressed as Miss (Señorita), Mrs. (Señora), or Mr. (Señor), followed by their surname.
- Boasting is not highly regarded and should be avoided.
- Being punctual is less important for social events, but expected for business and formal events. Arriving up to 30 minutes late for a social event is acceptable.
- Office attire is generally conservative and more formal than North American office attire.
- Expressions of gratitude go a long way when appropriate.
- It is considered good manners for a man to open doors and carry baggage for women.
Following are some helpful dining hints:
- Giving a hostess a gift when dining at someone’s home is common. Wine or chocolates are appropriate. Flowers are also an appropriate gift choice, however, avoid giving calla lilies as they are associated with funerals.
- As Costa Ricans tend to put an emphasis on appearance, it is best to dress somewhat formally when dining in someone’s home or in a restaurant.
- It is impolite for women to drink alcohol.
- Putting feet up on furniture while visiting in someone’s home is considered to be offensive.
- Excessive drinking is frowned upon.
- Appropriate topics of conversation include politics, family, and the beauty of Costa Rica.
- Guests are usually seated at the head of the table.
- First time guests should be careful not to overstay their welcome. Lingering up to one hour following the completion of dinner is acceptable.
- If there are no servants attending a meal eaten in someone’s home, offering to help with clean up is usually appreciated.
Spanish is the national language spoken in Costa Rica. Students in school are required to learn it along with a second language, either English or French, with English being the predominant choice because of its international influence.
Learning conversational Spanish can be a fun process when using interesting approaches such as: watching English movies with Spanish sub-titles, studying a pocket phrase-book, or striking up conversations in the marketplace. Learning to speak Spanish in order to get around and to purchase goods is extremely helpful.
Learning to speak the language, even at a very basic level, makes one’s experience in another culture much richer and is a compliment to the national people. Following is a list of common Spanish phrases:
How are you?
What is your name?
¿Cómo te llamas?
My name is
Do you speak English?
¿Habla usted inglés?
How much does this cost?
Where's the toilet?
¿Dónde está el baño?
Investing in a pocket phrasebook would be an invaluable purchase. Even if pronouncing a particular word is difficult, pointing to the word in a phrasebook could prove helpful.
Costa Rican Cuisine
Costa Rica’s staples are rice with black beans, virtually served at every meal. Of course, these two food items are used in a myriad of ways to create a delicious array of meals.
Popular food choices include:
- Gallo Pinto (served at breakfast, a mixture of beans and rice usually served with eggs, meat, and vegetables)
- Casado (served at lunch or dinner, a variation of cabbage, tomato salad, fried plantains, meat – chicken, fish, or beef)
- Picadillos (pureed vegetables and meat)
- Arreglados (meat-filled sandwiches)
- Olla de Carne (beef broth with chunks of meal, tubers, and corn)
- Spit Roasted Chicken
- Corvina (sea bass)
- Pargo (red snapper)
A good practice is to keep a notebook for food preferences after sampling various dishes at functions or good choices ordered at restaurants.
Costa Rica enjoys a diverse, yet moderate climate, with average annual temperatures between 20° – 28°C. It has two seasons: “winter” (rainy season), and “summer” (dry season). Its diverse geography and elevations create mini weather systems. The beaches are tropical and reach very hot temperatures, averaging between 28° – mid 30°s. The mountains are cooler and usually don’t exceed 16°C during the day. The rainforests are hot and humid, while cloud forests are cool and moist.
Summer – Costa Rica’s dry summer season generally lasts from December through late May. Rarely does it rain during this time.
Winter – Costa Rica’s rainy winter season generally lasts between late May or early June and November. While it typically rains one or more hours during the early afternoon, there are still many hours of sunshine to be enjoyed. This season is also called Green, as the landscape is lush due to the combination of rain and sunshine. September and October tend to be the months with the heaviest rainfall.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods are the most common natural disasters in Costa Rica.
Due to the fact that it is geologically positioned in an active land area in which tectonic plates are constantly shifting, Costa Rica experiences its share of earthquakes. The shifting of these plates also has an impact on the active volcanoes in the region.
Hurricanes and flooding combined have accounted for the greatest impact on Costa Rica in terms of natural disasters.
Costa Rica is predominately a Catholic country, and as such, most of its holidays are religious in nature. Below is a list of the primary holidays celebrated in Costa Rica:
New Years Day - January 1
St. Joseph’s Day - March 19
Commemoration of Joseph, the husband of Mary, Jesus’ mother
Easter - Thursday and Friday of Holy Week
Juan Santamaria's Day - April 11
Commemoration of the death of Juan Santamaria, national hero of Costa Rica
Labour Day - May 1
Celebration of the economic and social achievements of the working class
Guanacaste Day - July 25
Annexation of the province of Guanacaste from Nicaragua in 1824
Virgen de los Angeles Day - August 2
Commemoration of the patron saint of Costa Rica
Mother’s Day - August 15
Independence Day - September 15
Celebration of Independence from Spain
Discovery of America/Dia de la Raza - October 12
Christmas - December 24 and 25
New Year's Eve - December 31