In the fall of 2006, I sold my car and most of my furniture to move to Costa Rica. After a personal disaster involving my girlfriend getting extremely sick and the project of a retreat center falling apart, I came back to Quebec, defeated, just nine months later.
But I had not given up on this dream. A few years later, I still loved Costa Rica and wanted to go past my first experience and give it a second try. So I moved again in 2009, but this time, it was different. When I left, it was because I realized that living in Costa Rica full-time was not for me.
Many people idealize life in a postcard-perfect country with a beach and think about moving there full-time or during retirement.
The most popular destinations for vegans and raw foodists seem to be Hawaii, Costa Rica and Thailand.
Although a move to one of these places would be the right thing to do for a lot of people, it’s not one-size fits all. Based on what I’ve seen, I would say that it’s a size that doesn’t fit most. Let’s explore the pros and cons of such a move.
The Pros We’re All Familiar With
It’s not too difficult to sell the idea of moving to a country with fruits picked ripe off the tree and with 300 days of sunshine. You’re already imagining your days spent swimming in the ocean and jumping in refreshing pools under waterfalls after running on the beach and making love under palm trees.
Except Hawaii, which is a very expensive place, cost of living might also be a motivating factor. Many retirees find that they could stretch their dollars farther in Thailand or Panama than they could in the USA or Canada. That might mean a better life for less.
There are very real benefits to moving abroad that might mean a lot to some people and might justify such a move. However, it’s also worth looking at the negatives.
Many expats lack information about tropical diseases and fail to inform and protect themselves accordingly. There’s an almost naive belief that “this can’t happen to me” and that those places are perfectly safe. They keep eating raw vegetables, travel to areas with malaria and fail to recognize the signs of staph infections or get treated soon enough when symptoms show up.
In Costa Rica, there’s a risk of malaria in some (limited) areas. There are deadly snakes and scorpions and a minimal risk for the common mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and Zika. But your biggest threats in Costa Rica will be drowning, traffic accidents and crime.
Hawaii is now facing a problem with a dangerous disease transmitted by a parasite, found in rats and transmitted to slugs, who in turn can contaminate produce. The symptoms can be very severe and last for years. Over the past five years, there’s been a sharp rise of this paradise and many confirmed cases. If you travel to Hawaii and talk to the locals, you will hear about it — although it’s rarely mentioned in the travel books. Your chances of catching it are pretty low, but it’s worrisome that most tourists never hear about it. Rat lungworm disease, as it’s called, is also found in South America and SE Asia. But in Asia green vegetables are never almost eaten raw, which minimizes the risk of this disease.
Health risks in Thailand may be higher than in Central America. Depending on the area, you have to be aware of Malaria, Dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, and typhoid. It’s essential to research the prevalence of those diseases in the part of South-East Asia where you might spend time and talk to a travel physician about it.
Heat and Humidity
Living on a beach in a tropics sounds like a perfect idea, but what’s rarely mentioned in the retire abroad literature is the problems relating to heat and humidity. Some people like that kind of climate, but most find the adaptation difficult In Costa Rica, most locals live in the Central Valley, which is in elevation and where the weather is much milder. But many expats relocate to a beach town and then find it difficult to cope with tropical weather year round. It’s best not to make any assumption about a place until you’ve lived there for a while.
Did you know that Thailand has the second highest rate of road fatalities in the world — the first being the war-stricken country of Libya? In Thailand, there are 36.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year, compared to just six in Canada or 10.6 in the USA.
Depending on the country you’re moving to, it’s worth looking into road safety and the state of the infrastructures.
Costa Rica has a crime problem that few expats like to talk about. Although the homicide rate in the USA, due to gun laws and mass shootings, may be higher, there’s a level of pervasive uncertainty about security in Costa Rica that is palpable and only getting worse.
I’m not saying that Costa Rica or Thailand are necessarily dangerous places. But I’m objecting to expats who are sugar-coating the situation, denying it and claiming that living Costa Rica is “just as safe” as living in a big American city.
First, crime statistics are much more accurate in America or Canada than they are in Costa Rica, where most crimes are not reported to the police. Then, a type of offense that’s pervasive in Costa Rica: armed home invasions — is alarmingly high for a country of that size. Ticos are rather peaceful people, but due to drug trafficking through the Central America crime rates have risen tremendously in the last few years. Also, a big difference between crime in Central America and crime in North America cities is that in the latter, homicides are usually concentrated in the “bad” parts of town, whereas in Costa petty and violent crime is more well-spread and often targeted to foreigners.
Corruption prevents countries and societies from moving forward and has been identified as one of the most important factors that relate to the standard of living. If we take the top 10-list of countries in the world with the lowest levels of perceived corruption, we’ll find that those are also some of the most progressive, safest and best places to live (New Zealand is number one, by the way).
On the other hand, the places that are lowest on the Corruption Index are also some of the most dysfunctional countries and worst places in the world to live (Somalia being the most corrupt country in the world).
Transparency International updates a list every year of perceived corruption around the world. In 2017, Costa Rica was 38 on the list, Thailand 96, and Ecuador 117.
Canada is 8th, Germany 11th, and the US 16th.
This is just a factor among others but explains many of the bad experiences with the law you might experience in countries that are still battling corruption. It also explains why they can’t seem to improve their standard of living as fast as other countries.
Moving to Ecuador might have many advantages, but keep in mind that it is a country with very high levels of corruption, which is going to affect your everyday life at some point or another.
Underestimating the Importance of Family and Friends
When I moved to Costa Rica, I rationalized my move by underestimating the impact it would have on my life. I naively thought that my friends and family would “come to visit me” and that it would be as easy to have a circle of friends over there.
Most people who move abroad or even just to Hawaii realize that distance is a problem and that most of their friends will not come very often to visit them, even if it’s only a flight away.
Some people are ready for a radical move and want to start fresh somewhere else. And that’s fine!
But most people should not underestimate the impact that culture shock and isolation can have on you. When you move abroad, don’t think that you’ll maintain your relationships the same way just because there are Skype and Facetime. A relationship over the web is never going to be the same as one nurtured by time spent in person. And in many ways, the latter may be the only way to maintain friendships.
The Ethics of Moving to a “Cheap Country”
One of the primary motivations of people retiring abroad or seeking a lifestyle of leisure in Thailand or Costa Rica is the low cost of living. Costa Rica used to be a lot cheaper, but we can still say that if you make efforts to live more like the locals, you can get by on less. And Thailand can be incredibly cheap.
There is a strange degree of naivety when people claim that the reason they left their home country is that of “confiscatory taxes (of 25%) and the high cost of living.”
The reason why countries like Thailand are cheap is that wages are extremely low. And because of that, most of the population is quite poor. Low wages means that the government cannot fund itself through income or corporate tax — so it has to tax imports instead, which is a much less effective and also leads to high prices for all imported items (which in turn makes it difficult for wages to go up).
As a result of this vicious circle, the government does not have much money to spend on infrastructures, education, security, and income redistribution.
In Costa Rica, minimum wages are set by the type of occupation. For maids, it is $316 a month. For a secretary: $564.34 per month. And for someone with a bachelor’s degree: $947.75 per month.
Many people only make close to that minimum wage, which is below some of the lowest monthly budgets of expats who move there on a pension, which means that even your “modest” lifestyle is quite luxurious compared to the local average.
In Thailand, wages are even lower. Most jobs pay only the equivalent of $200-300 a month and someone making $800 a month is considered to have a well-paying job requiring a degree.
However you want to spin it when you move to Thailand or Costa Rica, you are a wealthy foreigner who lives in a completely different bubble and reality than the locals.
Is that ethical?
I think it depends how you approach it. If your primary motivation to move somewhere is the cost of living, you’re making a mistake, in my opinion. By moving to a country, even if it’s just for retirement, you become an immigrant. And you should be looking at more than stretching your dollars and live a life of indulgence in a place where locals are much poorer than you. There should be a genuine interest in the country — its culture and language — and an understanding of local politics.
Otherwise, the locals won’t think much of you — and for very good reasons.
The Cost of Living in Hawaii
So far we’ve looked at cheaper destinations. But I feel it’s also important to mention the cost of living in the most popular relocation destination for Americans: Hawaii.
No matter how you want to look at it or attempt to rationalize it, Hawaii is very expensive. Cost of living is estimated as 88% higher than the national average. I’m not going to go into the prices, but I doubt anyone could claim that living anywhere in Hawaii is affordable.
Some will say that you have to live like a local and know where to shop. And sure enough, if you live in Hawaii, you’ll figure out all the tricks to make your dollars stretch farther, buy your produce at the farmer’s market instead of the supermarket and make good use of your Costco membership.
But you can also be extra careful about how you spend your money anywhere in the world. So a careful and frugal lifestyle in Hawaii will still cost a lot more than a careful and frugal lifestyle on the mainland.
In Hawaii, you meet a lot of people that hold two jobs and for whom a trip overseas is not a possibility. They work hard to afford “life in Paradise.” Which also means that they don’t get to go to the beach every day, as one might naively think all Hawaiians do.
The “Courage” to Move or Other Feelings of Superiority
I’ve noticed that some — but not all people who move abroad develop a sort of sense of superiority, a story about their following their instincts and doing something that their friends back home did not have the “guts” to do. You often hear that it requires a lot of “courage” to sell your belongings and move abroad.
Moving abroad is an adventure and requires work and commitment. But to be taken seriously, that commitment must include a genuine attempt of becoming part of your new country or state of adoption. This might mean learning the language — which requires some serious hard work, and becoming involved in local issues outside of a restricted bubble of expats.
In Hawaii, there seems to be a sort of ranking system used by locals, who might judge whether you’re worthy of including you in their circles of friends. Low on the list, at the level of scum, are the snowbird tourists who spend several months a year in Hawaii. Then, still in the “unworthy” category are the mainlanders who have moved less than two years ago to Hawaii. The locals are suspicious that you’ll be like most people and move back to the mainland, disabused, shortly. If you pass the test and stay for several years, you are still part of this invisible ranking system. White people (haole) are low on the list, especially if they were not born in Hawaii. Those with Asian and Hawaiian roots will have an easier time to be accepted by Hawaiian society at large.
What characterizes Westerners who move to Thailand is their total obliviousness to the realities of Thai society. They do not understand or become interested in the politics, do not ever learn the Thai language and in a sense are never part of this society. Thai people don’t see those immigrants as anything other than a hippie or a tourist.
As for Latin America, if you learn Spanish fluently, then you may have a fighting chance of becoming part of that culture but for full acceptance will have most likely to marry in it.
Staying or Leaving Both Require Sacrifices
Although some people think that only those who leave have guts, I would argue that building a life anywhere requires dedicated efforts. Staying home because you have a close circle of friends and have to care for aging or dying relatives also requires commitment and a level of inner strength.
Moving somewhere just because the cost of living is low does not qualify, in my book, as a “courageous move.” It’s just a life choice, like many others.
Just Scratching the Surface
In this article, I just scratched the surface of the various complications that can arise from moving abroad. I didn’t get into real estate scams, tax avoidance, and countless other issues.
My point is not to criticize those who have made that move and are happy with it. But I wish they were more honest about all aspects related to this move, not just sugar-coating the “move to Paradise” angle.
I know some people who have moved to Bali or Costa Rica and are completely happy with their decision. But I also know people who have gone back home a little disillusioned. Both realities are possible, but I would say the latter is much more common than the former. And the reason is likely that they didn’t look at the whole picture and take into account the pros and cons of the move. They just looked at the positive aspects.
What about you? Would you consider a move to Costa Rica, Hawaii or Thailand? Leave your comments.