Mexico vs. Costa Rica: Which One is Better for Retirees?

Mexico vs. Costa Rica: Which One is Better for Retirees?

If you are planning to retire abroad, it’s important to choose a country well before your move.

Many retirees choose to retire in Central America because they fell in love with its food, culture, weather, landscape, cost of living, and good healthcare system. 

Although there are plenty of options for where to live in Central America, the top contenders are usually Mexico and Costa Rica. 

But how do you decide which is best, and what factors do you need to consider?

Well, that’s exactly what we’ll look at here. Below is a roundup of the important factors that’ll help answer the question: Mexico vs. Costa Rica, which is better for retirees? 

It’ll look at lifestyle, healthcare, cost of living, and much more. By the end of the article, it should help you make an informed decision on the country you want to retire in. 

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Key Takeaways

  • Both Mexico and Costa Rica are popular destinations for retirees, especially for those from North America and Europe.
  • While Costa Rica has lower visa requirements than Mexico, the cost of living is higher.
  • When it comes to healthcare, Costa Rica has a very good public healthcare system for retirees. On the other hand, Mexico is closer to the USA, making it easy for retirees to fly back and use Medicare.
  • If you love spicy food, Mexico can be a good option. If not, you might find Costa Rican cuisine more pleasing.
  • Mexico is a big country. Climate, lifestyle, and safety depend on where you live. On the other hand, Costa Rica is much smaller.
  • Being a tropical country, bugs can be a major problem in Costa Rica. On the other hand, certain parts of Mexico still have common cartel scams.

Location

Winner: Mexico if you are from the US. However, for everyone else, it makes very little difference.

Let’s start with an important (and easy to overlook) factor: location and accessibility. 

Generally, being able to easily get to and from your home country is important when choosing a retirement destination. It’s going to be easy for you to visit your family in your home country and vice versa. 

In addition, moving any belongings to your new home is going to be easy as well. 

plane landing to costa rica
If you are from the US, it’s much easier to fly to Mexico. However, for other countries, the difference is negligible.

From the US, you can get direct flights to both Mexico and Costa Rica. And while you can technically drive to both countries from the US, Mexico is infinitely more convenient because it’s right next door. The US-Mexico border to Costa Rica is about 2,300 miles at best.

When we look to Europe and other continents, the difference in accessibility is negligible. Most flights will change in the US and, as mentioned, you can get non-stop flights from there.

In terms of your belongings, the easiest way to get them to both countries is usually shipping. Of course, Americans can ship to Mexico using road vehicles, but anyone shipping belongings to Costa Rica will need to do so via sea freight.

Visas

Winner: Costa Rica. Costa Rica requires much less financial requirements. However, processing time is slower than Mexico and you normally need a lawyer to help you get a visa. 

Both Mexico and Costa Rica have retirement visas, which are the most applicable here. The retirement visas from both countries can also lead to permanent residency. 

While there are many types of visas article, we’ll only focus on retirement visas for the purpose of this article.

Costa Rica’s retirement visa, the pensionado, doesn’t have a minimum age limit but it does have a minimum income requirement. It’s currently set at US$1,000 a month for the rest of your life from a “competent authority”. 

In other words, this is a state pension plan or private pension scheme.

Mexico’s retirement visa falls under the “economic solvency” bracket, which also covers freelancers and business people. As such, its income requirements are a bit higher: US$3,700 a month or a 12-month proof of US$62,000. 

An important difference is that you must have reached retirement age in your home country, too.

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The process for getting a temporary visa in Mexico is smoother than Costa Rica. You apply, submit the relevant proof, and get approved. 

In Costa Rica, it’s very challenging to apply for it yourself. Most retirees in Costa Rica get help from a lawyer to get a retirement visa. 

Also, both countries have permanent visas, which can happen after 4 years.

For visa cost alone, Costa Rica wins. However, if you have the required funds for a Mexican visa, then it makes very little difference which you choose.

Cost of Living

Winner: Mexico. As Costa Rica is getting more expensive over the years, it’s cheaper to retire in Mexico.

Next up is cost of living, which is perhaps one of the most important factors when choosing a retirement destination. After all, you’ll want to make the most of that pension income, right?

Well, the short answer is that Mexico is more affordable overall. In Mexico, you can expect to live comfortably on US$1,500 as a single person with no kids.

In Costa Rica, the same person should expect to need a minimum of US$1,800 a month. Couples would be looking at US$2,000 and US$2,800, respectively.

 fresh local veg and meat.
As it’s getting more expensive to live in Costa Rica, you may need to shop at local fresh markets and cook at home regularly.

There’s obviously a lot more to dig into when it comes to the cost of living, particularly when you balance it against factors like lifestyle, convenience, accessibility of services, and so on. 

We’ll cover some of these below, but we have dedicated articles where you can find out more about the cost of living in Mexico and the cost of living in Costa Rica.

Whatever metrics you choose to use to define cost of living, Mexico generally wins. 

The Mexican peso is generally seen as a stronger currency than the Costa Rican colon, meaning it performs better in currency conversion. However, both countries widely accept the US dollar, so it doesn’t make loads of difference.

But it’s necessary to weigh this against the visa income requirements for both countries. 

Although Costa Rica’s is lower, you’ll need more money to live comfortably. Mexico’s is much higher, but this means you’ll have a lot more disposable income. 

Arguably, this means Mexico wins on this one.

Healthcare

Winner: Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a great public healthcare system, CAJA. It’s affordable and provide great treatment quality. 

Now we have the final most important metric when choosing a retirement destination: healthcare. Both countries have a public healthcare system, which is covered by their social security programs. 

Whether you can access these (and how much you pay) depends on your residency status.

In Costa Rica, both temporary and permanent residents over the age of 65 can access public healthcare through CAJA. It’s technically free at the point of use, although you need to contribute payments to CAJA. This ranges from 7-10% of your declared monthly income.

pharmacy in Mexico
It can be easier to find a pharmacy and get medications for common illnesses in Mexico.

There’s also a private healthcare system, where you’re more likely to find English-speaking doctors. Costa Rica has a national private insurance program, too, called the INS. 

Although it’s more expensive, wait times are a lot less and you’ll be seen at hospitals used by American medical tourists.

Mexico is an interesting comparison to Costa Rica because of its thriving trade in healthcare tourism. A lot of cities near the US border have private hospitals that can offer affordable rates on medical procedures, which a lot of Americans use.

For Mexican residents, though, the INSABI is the way forward. This is the national public healthcare program, meaning it’s not the best but is available to all. Alternatively, there’s the IMSS, which is a paid enrollment program.

It’s mainly intended for workers, but you can voluntarily enroll if you’re a legal resident. The IMSS is essentially a blend of private and public healthcare. The current cost is a maximum of US$1,085 a year, and this gives you greater choice over where you’re seen and the quality of care you receive.

There’s also a good private healthcare system in Mexico, which requires you to have insurance. Although this is possible for retired expats, the costs can be prohibitive depending on the type of plan you want to take out and the conditions you want to cover.

The bottom line when it comes to healthcare is that Costa Rica wins. It’s ranked higher on international league tables and, while not the only factor, contributes to the country’s higher life expectancy rates.

However, this should be weighed against Mexico’s greater number of healthcare facilities. 

Overall, Costa Rica is better quality and value for money, but Mexico wins on available facilities, simply because it’s a bigger country.

Safety

Winner: Both Costa Rica and Mexico are equally safe. But it also heavily depends on where you live. 

Safety is an important metric when it comes to choosing a retirement destination. 

Of course, people will have different opinions about which aspect of overall safety matters the most. For example, for many retirees, things like drug use and corruption will likely matter less than burglary and personal safety.

Oaxaca buildings in Mexico
When it comes to cities, it mainly depends on where you live. For example, it’s very safe to retire in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Either way, Numbeo ranks both Mexico and Costa Rica as fairly similar in terms of overall crime level. Mexico has a slightly lower crime rate, but it’s a difference of less than half a percentage point.

Theft from cars is slightly higher in Costa Rica, but incidents of discrimination-based assault are lower. Both countries have moderate rates of theft from homes, and both are considered safe for walking alone during the day.

But when you compare these figures against the US, you won’t see significant differences there, either. As such, it’s worth thinking about crime rates and safety figures in perspective. 

Both Mexico and Costa Rica are generally safe countries to live in, provided you’re considerate about where you live and how you act.

For example, expat-focused areas will be lower for overall crime but may have higher instances of petty theft. Cities will have higher overall crime rates but better police response times. 

None of this is unique to either country – it’s the same for basically anywhere you could choose to live.

Housing

Winner: Mexico. The cost of housing in Mexico is cheaper. And you have more options. For Costa Rica, your options are mainly limited to condos or houses in gated communities. 

Housing could be considered under the bracket of cost of living, but it probably deserves its own consideration. After all, housing is as much about choice and availability as it is about cost.

Costa Rica is a much smaller and more densely populated country than Mexico, which does have an impact on housing availability. However, check any realtor’s website and you’ll find plenty of homes available to buy or rent.

house in Costa Rica backyard
If you prefer a house with a lot of space, Costa Rica might be a better option. This is what one of our Costa Rica writers’ backyards looked like.

In Costa Rica, renting is a popular option for locals and expats alike. You can rent a fairly basic (2-bedroom) property for US$1,000 or less. But for desirable expat communities near the beach, expect to pay US$3,000 or more.

Helpfully, you don’t actually need to be a resident in Costa Rica to buy or rent property. Having residency will make the process easier, though. Dealing with a realtor will be the most convenient option, especially if you don’t speak much Spanish.

Rental prices in Mexico are cheaper, which falls in line with the lower cost of living. For a long-term lease, you can find a reasonable (3-bedroom) home in the suburbs for less than US$2,000 a month. The minimum rental lease is 12 months, but you can obviously sign one that’s longer. In Costa Rica, it’s usually 3 years, but you’ll find plenty of landlords who will rent to you for shorter periods.

As for the types of housing available, your options are only as limited as your budget. Costa Rica has a big emphasis on condos and gated communities, both of which have homes with all amenities (and furniture) included. Standalone homes exist, too, but they’re often fairly small – unless you’re happy to pay for the space.

Generally speaking, in Mexico, properties are mostly standalone homes, although you’ll obviously find apartments too. Mexico has the largest home size in South America with an average of 1,400 square feet. Again, most homes will have included laundry facilities, but cheaper apartment blocks might have shared setups.

Both countries have fairly exclusive gated communities that are popular with expats. In Mexico, you’ll get more space for your money, but Costa Rican homes come with plenty of extras. Just because Mexico is cheaper doesn’t mean homes in Costa Rica aren’t good.

Lifestyle

Winner: No clear winner. For this factor, it totally depends on your personal lifestyle.

After going through the economic factors of deciding on a retirement destination, we arrive at the ones that are slightly harder to define. 

So let’s start with lifestyle. The environment in which you live, including the locals and everyday processes, is a vital consideration.

CDMX business district
If you prefer retiring in a big city, you can check out Mexico City (CDMX).

Both countries are steeped in Latin American culture, which we can define as a focus on family, deep links to food and heritage, the presence of religion, and being easygoing. 

Generally, you’ll find locals to be very friendly and welcoming in both countries because of the fundamental values that inform their cultures.

Many expats who have visited both countries will say that Costa Rica is more Americanized than Mexico. In real terms, this means you’ll find American restaurant chains there as well as American music playing in bars. 

While this isn’t a bad thing, it’s noticeable if you want to get immersed in the country’s actual culture. On the other hand, it’ll make it easier to settle in.

Of course, you could make this argument about the more tourist-focused areas of Mexico – it’s just more obvious in Costa Rica because of its size. Either way, both countries have a rich heritage of music, food, dancing, and taking it easy. 

You’ll find locals are friendly towards foreigners and, provided you make some effort, they should welcome you into their lives.

It’s fair to say, then, that there’s no clear winner in this category. While you’ll probably be able to find points for both countries if you dig deep enough, national heritage is an important thing for Mexico and Costa Rica.

Food

Winner: No clear winner. If you prefer spicy food, Mexico is better. On the other hand, Costa Rican food has more beans and rice. 

Speaking of culture and lifestyle brings us to another vital aspect: food. Sure, you’ll probably find US-focused food in both countries, but it’s worth looking at their national cuisines instead because that’s likely what you’ll be eating and buying day-to-day.

The food in Mexico should be fairly recognizable to most retirees, whether you make a point of eating it or not. However, the burritos and tacos you might have tried in your home country will be different from what you’ll find locally in Mexico.

typical food in Costa Rica
This is what kind of food you generally find in Costa Rica.

Depending on where you go in Mexico, the national dishes will have more of an American slant on them. For example, in more rural areas, you’ll find more local ingredients than you would in big cities. 

Either way, Mexican food has a big focus on chili, salsa, cilantro, and braised meat in some form or another. You’ll generally find Mexican food uses a lot of heat, albeit to varying degrees.

Costa Rican food, however, uses many of the same base ingredients but focuses on milder flavors. A lot of Costa Rican dishes use beans and rice, often combined with meat, plantain, yucca, and so on. The food is still fresh and tasty, but it doesn’t have the same kind of heat as you’d find in Mexican food.

In terms of buying food, your options are similar in both countries. Supermarkets are great for your everyday stuff, but farmers markets are the way forward for fresh local veg and meat. 

Prices are reasonable in both countries for local stuff, although Costa Rica imports a lot more than Mexico.

Another important consideration is your access to “foreign” foods in your chosen country. As much as we’d all like to immerse ourselves in a country’s food culture, sometimes you just have a craving for something from your home country.

We’ll stick with American food just for convenience. You’ll find it’s more common in Mexican supermarkets than Costa Rican ones, although you’ll find Walmart (and Denny’s) in both. 

Imported foods will be cheaper in Mexico, and you’ll have greater variety, simply because it’s closer.

Again, it’s hard to pick a winner for this category because it completely depends on your preference for food. 

Mexican cuisine is spicier and generally more varied because it’s a larger country with more regional cultures. Costa Rican food is more straightforward and consistent but no less tasty.

Community

Winner: Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a tighter community for retirees than Mexico. 

The presence of an expat community may or may not be important to you when picking a retirement destination. Either way, having a group of people to help you ease into local living can be useful, at least in the beginning. So, which country is better?

community in Costa Rica
Retiree communities in Costa Rica can be bigger than Mexico.

In Mexico, there’s an expat community of around 1.1 million people. As a percentage of the 127.5 million population, this is fairly small. In Costa Rica, it’s around 488,000 in a population of around 5 million. As such, the expat community makes up around 9% of the overall population.

Even so, you’ll find decent expat hubs in both countries. In Mexico, these include Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey. In Costa Rica, they include Guanacaste, the Central Valley, and Limon.

Unsurprisingly, the expat populations in both countries are primarily American. If nothing else, this at least means they’ll speak English and can get you started on learning the local culture.

If we were to pick a winner for this category, it’d be Costa Rica, simply because the expat community is a greater percentage of the population. But if this is the opposite of what you want, then Mexico wins!

Climate and Geography

Winner: No clear winner. It totally depends on your personal preference. Since Mexico is a big country, weather differs based on your location. On the other hand, Costa Rica is a small country. Weather can be warm and humid with occasional rainfall. 

Finally, we have climate and geography. While there’s plenty to discuss for this, we’ll narrow it down to a few important metrics: temperature, rainfall, and choice of living environments.

Unsurprisingly, Mexico has a far more varied climate than Costa Rica. You’ll find plenty of hot, arid areas as well as more temperate areas, particularly along the coast. Mexico has higher maximum temperatures but also lower nighttime temperatures. 

Expect a range of 30 degrees to 17 degrees on average.

Costa Rica has a slightly lower, but more consistent, temperature range. The average maximum temperature is around 28 degrees and its nighttime temperature is nearly 20 degrees.

Costa Rica also has a lot more rainfall thanks to its mountainous terrain and amount of coastline. It experiences an average of 159 days of rain a year, whereas Mexico has around 70. Its average humidity is higher, too, at 85% compared to Mexico’s 67%.

But this means Costa Rica has amazing tropical jungles that are some of the most beautiful in the world. It really comes down to personal preference regarding which you’d prefer. 

Mexico has more variety in temperature, climate, and landscape, while Costa Rica is pretty much warm, wet and green everywhere.

Pros and Cons of Mexico and Costa Rica

Now that we’ve been through all of the important metrics, let’s look at a brief pros and cons list of each country to help summarize things.

Mexico: Pros

  • It’s closer to the US, making it easier to reach for American expats.
  • Mexico has a greater range of places to live and better housing availability.
  • Food is spicy and there’s loads of variety.
  • The cost of living is lower than in Costa Rica.
  • Affordable access to healthcare.
  • If you are from the US, you can fly back easily and use Medicare.

Mexico: Cons

  • The financial requirements for the visa are higher.
  • Safety heavily depends on the city you are living in.
  • Government corruption is higher (and very obvious).
  • Cartels and scams all over the place.

Costa Rica: Pros

  • Visa income requirements are fairly low.
  • Expat communities are larger and easier to find.
  • Some of the world’s best healthcare options.
  • Food is less spicy (but also less varied).
  • Amazing scenery.

Costa Rica: Cons

  • Takes longer to reach from the US.
  • It is getting more expensive to live here.
  • Being a tropical country, insects and bug bites can be an issue.
  • Imported food is more expensive.

Now, on to You

So, which country is better for retiring expats: Mexico or Costa Rica? It’s basically impossible to say because it depends on what you’re looking for in a retirement destination.

Costa Rica has lower visa income requirements, but you’ll end up spending more money there. Mexico has a greater variety of places to live and its food culture is much deeper. It’s also slightly warmer and a lot less humid.

Perhaps the best way to decide is to travel to both and speak to some expats who have moved there. Similarly, find some expat communities online and ask about the points that matter to you. This way, you’ll have specific information from people living the life you’re looking for.

Jacob is a freelance writer based in Wales. After completing his master’s degree, he decided to take his passion for writing full time and now works with numerous clients across the immigration and tech sectors. All his work is fuelled by extensive research and buckets of coffee.

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