Thursday, July 30, 2009

Buying a Car in Costa Rica

Buying a car is considered to be one of life’s big stresses; take this fact and add a different country with different laws and a different language, and you have the recipe for a nightmare. For the last few days, it has been truly a “growth” experience (a different adjective would be suitable but offensive to some) trying to buy a car - a used one to make it even more challenging.

Up until this point, we have been renting a car. Before we moved to Costa Rica, we even thought that renting might be a potential option for a whole year since the advertised prices from the big rental car companies list monthly rentals as low as $300 a month. Of course, once you contact them, you find out that when you factor in their exorbitant insurance, the price goes up to over $1000 a month. Clearly, renting long-term was not an option.

A small minority of people buy new cars in Costa Rica because they have a 25%-50% premium over what we would pay back in Canada. Most people end up buying used cars and therefore there’s a huge industry bringing old cars from the United States over to Costa Rica. But, even the taxes on used cars are insanely high. Vehicles from zero to 3 years old are assessed over 50% import tax. From 4 to 5 years the rate is over 65% percent. Anything over 6 years old pay a whopping 80%. In the end, even used cars are super-expensive here.

On Saturday, we packed up the kids and headed out to Grecia, a town around 20 minutes from us. Everybody who we asked about buying a car simply told us, “go to Grecia”, but with no further details or information. Nobody ever even told us about a specific dealer in Grecia. For Montrealers, that is like saying, “go to Pointe-Claire”, or for people from Victoria, BC, it is like saying, “go to Duncan”. But, nonetheless, we headed out with the kids and figured we would just find a place.

Once we got to Grecia, we understood what people were talking about. There are many used car lots for the size of the town. Someone in Grecia told us that at last count, there are as many as 21 lots in just a few kilometers. The lots range from professional establishments to others that literally look like someone dumped some cars on the front lawn of a house.

I won’t bore you with the details of the following 5 grueling hours; in the end, we did find a car that we liked and provided them with a deposit of $400 until we could transfer the remainder of the money when the banks opened on Monday.

Now, a little bit about the car that we found. It isn’t really, truly in the car category… it is more like a truck. It fits 7 passengers, and even has a diesel engine. It is a Hyundai Galloper (a popular vehicle in Costa Rica) from 1996 with only 75,000 KM.

We were very happy with our purchase until we reported our score to a friend. “I am sure that the odometer was tempered with”, he stated pretty confidently and explained that the practice of “clocking” was very prevalent in Costa Rica. This news really stung. It had never occurred to us that this would ever be the case since the practice of rolling back an odometer is a federal offense in the US and Canada.

I hit the Internet to research the fraudulent practices that are common in Costa Rica. Some in the used car business in Costa Rica appear to be feeding on the innocent. Used car lots are everywhere. This was not true several years back, so apparently it has been a profitable enterprise for many. The economics are easy enough for shady operators. Buy a salvage vehicle in the United States with gazillions of miles on it, ship it to this country, turn back the odometer, wash it up a bit and sell it to an unsuspecting buyer as almost new. Reading all these details on sites like this one just made me panic more.

We quickly called the bank to ask them to reverse the wire transfer. We didn’t even know if this would be possible once the money left the country, but somehow, they were able to pull the money back out of the bank account in Costa Rica and back into Canada. At this point, we still weren’t 100% sure if we wanted to back out of the transaction (since we weren’t certain that the claims on the car were even true) but we wanted to protect ourselves in any case.

One of our friends in Atenas recommended a mechanic that I was able to bring with me to evaluate the car. How I was able to explain the situation to him and organize the road trip is still a mystery since he doesn’t speak a word of English and my Spanish is really just a few dozen nouns at this point. Despite the language barrier, I was very relieved that the mechanic found the car to be in great shape and based on the condition, didn’t see any reason to suspect that the mileage of the car should be significantly higher.

In the end, we decided to go ahead with the purchase of the vehicle after receiving the good review from the mechanic and the lot that we purchased from, Autos Grecia, really provided amazing  service. They spent a fair number of hours with me at the lawyer’s office to deal with the paperwork and even organized the car insurance for us.

The kids are liking our big truck, especially the ladder on the back!


As some of you know, is Microsoft's search engine (to compete with Google). Today’s picture has a special place in our hearts because Mélanie and I met in Bruges, Belgium 14 years ago.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Atenas Preschool y Escuela Colina Azul

The kids started school yesterday. The school year differs from the standard North American school year; the Costa Rican school year starts in February and ends in early to mid December with two major school holiday periods during Easter (Semana Santa) and another one during July. The return to school this week is basically returning from a mid-year break (like North American kids returning after winter vacation) and therefore our kids are starting at a new school at the start of the second half of their year.

We are very sensitive to the fact that this is not only a new school for our children with all new faces but also a completely new culture and language. Heck, I still can’t figure out what the lady at the cash register in the grocery store is asking me… imagine sitting in a classroom for a whole day struggling with that kind of confusion? It must be exhausting!

We are very happy so far with the choice of school. All of the teachers seem extremely nice and the general vibe is great. In regards to the academics, the level of math for Léah is already higher than in BC (the Canadian public school system, at least in British Columbia, really has to pick it up a notch or two).

We know that there will be ups and downs for the kids over the next while but we are hoping for the best.

Here are some pictures of the kids in their school uniforms:


By the way, “Escuela Colina Azul” means “Blue Hill School” which explains the choice of color for the uniforms.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ratoncito Pérez

Gabriel lost one of his front teeth yesterday and now looks like a professional hockey player. Since we are in Costa Rica, we needed to make sure that we celebrated the event following the traditions in this part of the world.

The tooth fairy is a fun tradition in most North American households, but in many parts of the world it's the tooth mouse that leaves treats behind for kids who've lost their baby teeth. For example, in Spanish-speaking countries, this character is called Ratoncito Pérez, a little mouse with a common surname, or just "ratón de los dientes" (Tooth Mouse).

Last night, Gabriel prepared his tooth beside his bed with a note indicating that in exchange for his tooth, he would like “El Raton” to leave him $6 (we are not sure how he came up with that number). After the kids were fast asleep, we wrote up a note in English from “El Raton” and then used Google Translate to convert it to Spanish (we are pretty sure that the translation was likely not very good but we could always pass it off that the mouse has poor writing skills). When Gabriel woke up, he was ecstatic to find a little over 1600 Costa Rican Colones in coins stacked up in the spot where he had left his tooth. For those of you familiar with the current exchange rate, that’s not quite $6 but the big, heavy Costa Rican coins are more exciting for him than the familiar Toonies and Loonies.

Here is a picture of Gabriel with his missing tooth:

(An aside: maybe it is due to the fact that I grew up with the “Tooth Fairy” but I find the idea of a fairy much more comforting than a little mouse scurrying away with my tooth while I sleep.) 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Creepy Crawlies

We had just finished dinner and the kids were outside playing on the hammocks. I was washing the dishes when I heard Gabriel call to Mélanie asking, “ummm, Mummy, what is this?”. From the tone in his voice, I had a pretty good idea that I likely would need to be called to action but I let Mélanie head outside anyway (out of curiosity to see her reaction to the mystery that the children had just uncovered). A moment later, the desperate call for help came and I headed outside to witness the commotion.

The insect on the wall was big… really big.

To give you a sense of the size, here is Gabriel and Naimah proudly displaying their new friend. The thing is almost the size of Naimah’s fist!

Embarrassingly, we couldn’t even identify the species of insect, it was that big. Léah quickly raced to go get her Rain Forest book and we all thought that maybe it was a type of shield bug.

After the kids went to bed, I did some research on the Internet and came to the conclusion that it is a cockroach. Costa Rica is in the tropics which provides a wonderful environment for those critters with many, many legs (and they often grow much larger in these environments). There is an overwhelming number of insects and spiders here. Just the other day, Gabriel pointed out something attached to one of the windows in the house:


That’s a picture of a huge spider web filled with hundreds of baby spiders.

And the ants? Don’t even get us started on that topic. There are just too many of them and they are every size, every color, with wings, without wings…

All in all, kids love insects so they are in absolute heaven (except when it comes to the red fire ants; we all hate those).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fried Green Bananas

We have a fantastic weekly market of fresh produce every Friday; the last 2 weeks, this has been one of the highlights. We can purchase so many fruits and vegetables at such a low price compared to Victoria, BC. 

The experience has also been an exercise in practicing our Spanish because everybody thinks that we understand them when they speak a million miles an hour. It is especially hard when they ramble off the numbers for the prices which are in the thousands (it is around 500 Costa Rican Colones to the US dollar).

We are still just starting to get the hang of identifying certain fruits and vegetables. For example, during the first trip to the market, we decided to buy what looked like unripe bananas. After waiting around a week for them to ripen, we decided it might be an idea to Google to figure out what we are supposed to do with them (Mélanie even tried to peel one before and eat it raw, quickly discovering that it was clearly not edible this way). Yes, we had purchased a bunch of plantains instead of bananas. Two weeks later, look at how green the plantains are compared to the bananas that we had purchased just the day before:

We did find a good recipe and Léah has been great at preparing them for the whole family.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Pro Ayuda del Animal Abandonado Atenas (“To help Abandoned Animals in Atenas”)

Dear  all,
I  Gote  a   noo   jobe I will volunteer to take care of abandonned dogs . And  we    went  to    the    market.
I hope   you   like  the   pecshers  that   we   tooc.
And   i   loved   the meseges  that   you   tipet.
love   Léah

More pictures here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How and why did we choose Atenas, Costa Rica?

How we decided on Costa Rica will be a post unto itself in the future, but once we narrowed it down to Costa Rica, how did we choose Atenas of all places?

For those of you who still don’t know where we are on the planet, we are here.

Costa Rica is a small country but there were still many choices regarding where we could live. We considered for awhile to live on the West Coast by the beach but both of us had fallen in love with the Central Valley. We had stayed at Leaves and Lizards (close to the Arenal Volcano) and one of the owners, Debbie, provided us with a contact at a good school in Atenas called Colina Azul. Since finding a school for the kids was one of the top priorities, the rest just fell into place from there. (Well, “fell into place” makes light of all of the research, e-mails, and hair-pulling that went on during the year but anyway…)

Atenas, Costa Rica is a small, friendly, quiet town with an agricultural base, great climate, friendly people, a good multi-national community base and anything we don't have here in Atenas is just a short drive away (we are only a half hour from San José, the capital). Some of the things that we have here:

  • 3 major banks (Banco Nacional, Banco de Costa Rica, Banco Popular), with at least 5 ATMs
  • 4 larger sized grocery stores (all these accept debit and credit cards) and lots of smaller ones
  • 1 gas station
  • 1 gourmet food store
  • 2 health food stores
  • 4 butcher shops
  • 4 pharmacies
  • A post office
  • A library
  • 2 gyms
  • 4 doctors, a new 24-hour clinic, a private ambulance/emergency service with English speaking doctors and attendants
  • Several dentists
  • Several veterinarians
  • 3 equestrian centers
  • 3 cycle shops
  • An ice cream shop
  • Several Internet cafés

And, there is high-speed Internet available in most of Atenas and outlying areas.

The Atenas climate is world famous (at least for those who read National Geographic magazine). The temperature does not get very hot and never cold. It is the steady, even, warmth and humidity that is perfect for most people. If you like it cooler or warmer, Atenas includes several mountain ranges and you can go up or down a bit until you find an area that is perfect for you. It rains enough here to keep things green but not as much as in other areas where it can rain for days at a time. Here in the "rainy season" it usually rains for a couple hours in the afternoon and is cleared up by dinner time. During the "worst" part of the rainy season here in Atenas (usually in October), it may actually rain almost every day for several hours for a whole week.

One last thing: If you like coffee, some of the best coffee (and least expensive, I might add) is grown and processed right here in Atenas!

Anybody who knows us knows that we love coffee.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Costa Rica tops list of 'happiest' nations

On Léah’s first trip to Costa Rica in April of this year, she asked, “why are the people so happy here?” There was clearly something that struck her about the seemingly out-of-the-ordinary degree of happiness of the locals. CNN just ran a story on that very topic; you can read it here.

Indoor/outdoor living

We are quickly seeing that Costa Rica is all about indoor/outdoor living. In the house that we are currently renting, the division between the inside and outside of the house is pretty much blurred. In Victoria, the kids would always ask if they could head outdoors; here, there is no need to ask because our setup is like being outside all of the time. We just had to remind Naimah today that it is one thing to pee in nature but she shouldn’t do it on the deck. :)

Of course, whenever the outdoors is easily accessible, it is often easy for those who live outdoors to make their way indoors; hence the reason why Mélanie reminded me this morning to check my bowl when I took it out of the cupboard. I definitely wouldn’t want to be eating my cereal with this guy inside:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Villa Picaflora: Bali-style

This is the second time that we have packed up the kids and moved over 5,000 KM to another location. The first time, we sold our house in Montréal, Quebec and moved to Victoria, BC with Léah (almost 3 years old at the time) and Gabriel (merely 8 months old). This time, we packed up Léah (nearly 8 years old), Gabriel (5 years old), and Naimah (nearly 4 years old) to move to Atenas, Costa Rica – over 5,000 KM south of Victoria, BC. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, we decided to move to Atenas without ever having visited the town. Hey, if it has been voted as “best climate in the world” by National Geographic magazine, how bad can it be, right?

Since we had never been to Atenas, we needed to find a place to live by using the Internet. This required quite a bit of research and many back-and-forth e-mails with Dennis, our real estate agent in Atenas (who we found on the Internet through a post on Craigslist). In the end, we are very happy with the property that we ended up booking. Here are some pictures.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ten huge bags actually do fit in a minivan

We have finally arrived in Costa Rica. We spent 2.5 weeks in Montréal with our family and then took a direct flight from Toronto to San José.

It has been a hectic few months packing up our house in Victoria, BC and then trying to fit everything we need into only ten fifty-pound bags. You can’t take too many Barbies or Playmobil items when you are dealing with those limitations.

When trying to limit the items that we were going to take with us, ten bags doesn’t seem like very much but when you are finally lugging them through an airport, they definitely look like a lot. When we were checking in at the airport in Montréal, two young guys within earshot remarked to each other in French that, “they are going to fill the plane with their bags”.

The kids are great travelers at this point (being born into this family, they don’t really have a choice) and the flights were pretty smooth. We were only asked about twenty times, “are we there yet?”, but, you can’t blame them because we were all pretty excited to finally arrive.

We were nervous to go through customs in San José because this time we weren’t merely tourists arriving for a two week trip. However, besides having to lift up our two younger kids for the customs official to be able to match them up with their passport pictures, we weren’t even asked a question.

At the baggage claim, we were happy that nine out of the ten bags made it (a better average than we have had recently just flying within Canada). We had booked a “microbus” in advance to be able to carry five passengers plus tons of luggage but unluckily, the company that we had rented with does not honor reservations so a last minute change of plans had us renting a minivan. Fortunately, we pulled out one row of seats and everything was able to be crammed inside. (Ironically, the one box that didn’t make it allowed this to be possible.) With everyone packed in the car, we set off to drive to Atenas (more info here), a small town 30 minutes from San José that none of us had ever even been to.