Costa RicaCosta Rica

Shopping: The Price of Paradise

Destination: Sarchi

The general rule for cost of living in Costa Rica is that services are inexpensive while imported goods are more costly than in the States. Just imagine: hiring a housekeeper for four hours costs the same as a package of Double Stuff Oreos (about $8)! However, residents quickly decide what's worth the splurge and what we can do without.

Many goods are expensive because Costa Rica taxes imports heavily -- anywhere from 1% to more than 55%. In fact, due to import duties and store markups, many products end up costing almost twice what they would back home. I see this in a positive light: higher prices make me contemplate each purchase -- it's a built-in way to curb impulse spending.

golfito's streets are lined with storesHowever, electronics break and supplies need replenishing. Like many expats, I travel to the U.S. twice per year to visit family and friends. For each trip, I pack lightly, but not to avoid luggage fees or skip the baggage claim: on the return trip to Costa Rica, I stuff my suitcase full of electronics, gourmet food products, and other goods that I cannot find in Costa Rica. In the last year, I've purchased two laptops, knitting needles, small electronics (premium headphones, a USB hub, a travel surge protector, etc.), lactose allergy treatment, and reference books (gardening and internet marketing). The only thing these products have in common is that they were either impossible to find in Costa Rica, or they would have cost me much more purchased locally.

U.S. and online stores typically offer a much larger selection of goods for sale than retailers in Costa Rica, so if you're in the market for specialty items -- brand names, niche products, personal goods -- you'll probably want to purchase them in the States. Basically, any imported good will likely cost less in the States, and it's up to you what you need now and what can wait until your next trip home.

That said, fabulous deals can be had in Costa Rica. The south Pacific port town of Golfito is a hub for duty-free shopping, and a large variety of electronics, liquors, and other items are available for up to 50% less than in other parts of Costa Rica (just a little more than the same item purchased in the States). Sarchi, a town made famous by its artisan woodworkers, is an incredible place to search for bargains on furniture and home decor. Here, a three-piece microfiber sofa set can be purchased for under $1300. Less than an hour from Sarchi, the town of Palmares also has a growing furniture industry, and prices are much lower than those of Sarchi, although the selection may not be quite as broad. Delivery from Golfito is equivalent to 3% of the item's value, while delivery from Sarchi and Palmares is usually free within the Central Valley.

Clothing can be a notable exception to the rule of expensive imports. Ropa Americana stores sell used clothing, but you can also find great deals on new clothing. You'll have to return often -- they usually only have one item in one size at any given time -- but I've bought brand new sweaters (with tags) for under $2 and brand name jeans for less than $5. Specialty items, like men's big & tall, women's plus sizes, exotic fabrics, or intimates, are harder to find and usually best purchased in the States.

Far from feeling deprived, I love my pared-down lifestyle. My bank account is much healthier and I no longer wish for the newest, coolest, most expensive products. I buy everything I need, and lots of things I want, but on a slower schedule. I wonder if that means I've adjusted to Tico time?

Shopping: The Price of Paradise in Pictures