Living in the Tropics, Three Months In

Green Iguanas by pool

This is my first time living in the tropics. While Washington state has a rainforest, it’s not exactly tropical. Living in the tropics is way different from living in a cold rainy city or on a dry desert mountain with minimal summer. I have been here in the tropics for three months now. This is what I have learned.

It’s hot!

Like sweltering hot. I’m a small person and I love tropical vacations, so I just assumed that I would acclimate to the hot weather really fast. I don’t really like to drink water. No worries in Seattle. I could get most of my liquids from coffee, food, and wine. Not so in the tropics. Here I need to drink actual water. And lots of it. I’m slowly getting better at this.

Mrs. ItchyFeet with head in shark statue
It’s an adventure!

I try to do most of my long walking trips in the morning or evening. The tropical noon sun is no joke! I walk to the grocery store for supplies and jump into the pool to cool off when I get back. I would love to swim in the ocean, but there was sargassum in Belize and red tide in Costa Rica. Hopefully Mexico will be better.

Because it is so hot, I don’t wear a lot of clothes. Clothes are overrated! I have to be very careful to stick to shady areas or I will get badly sunburned. I wear a hat and full sleeve protection if I have to go out at noon or I am in the sun for a while. Long sleeves make me uncomfortably hot and sweaty, but I’ve already had skin cancer and I don’t want that again. Every restaurant I go to has to be open air with some sort of shade or cover.

Do you really need AC?

I have a friend whose nose and throat get all stuffy, irritated, and gross with air conditioning. He’s even completely lost his voice for an entire week during one particularly unpleasant trip. It’s probably just from AC units that are dirty and poorly maintained, but who knows? It’s not worth it to him to try. I’m not a huge fan of cold air. I have also found that it’s easier to go sit outside and read books by the pool when the inside and outside are about the same temperature.

Most of the places I have been to or read about in the tropics have very expensive electricity. Especially on any of the islands. Nothing sucks up electricity like trying to refrigerate the entire inside of your residence. Most places require you to pay for electricity at the end of any long stay… if you use AC. I have heard stories of people paying $300 per month extra! I save a lot of money by skipping the cold air.

I open up all the windows (and doors while awake) through the night and use fans to move the air around. Then in the morning, I close everything up, including blinds. This keeps the place relatively cool throughout the day. I also like to limit cooking during the day so I don’t bake the inside of the unit. Save that for when the windows are open.

Red sunset over Coco Beach
It’s hot in the tropics, but the sunsets are gorgeous! This is Coco Beach in Costa Rica.

Bugs… so many bugs.

Bugs love the tropics. It’s warm, they can live outside, and there is plenty to eat. Lucky for me, they don’t enjoy living indoors too much… unless you leave food out. Then all bets are off. I put all my smelly/sugary foods in the fridge and all the scraps in the freezer until trash day. This keeps the ants and cockroaches out. I only had one cockroach come inside and that was while making a delicious smelling paella. I took the little guy back outside, and it seemed happy enough to go. Humans are scary.

I ignore most of the spiders that visit inside our apartment because they kill the bugs I really don’t like… eat the mosquitos please. I really like the bouncy spiders that pounce on the bugs. So fun to watch. I also tolerate the spiders with long legs that build a web in a corner and just sit there. Those buggers won’t be crawling over my face while I’m sleeping.

It is good to stay in places that have window and/or door screens. There is nothing worse than a mosquito buzzing in your ear all night. I have this Buff with bug repellent that I can drape over my face as needed. Sometimes bug spray hurts me more than bug bites because of my asthma. I have heard that after living in the tropics for a while, you just get used to all the mosquito and no-see-‘em bites. I’m hoping that happens soon!

Giant iguana in a tree
This giant iguana was clearly trying to get its photo taken. So pretty!

But I want it now!

I grew up in the tiny mountain town of Gunnison, Colorado. That town was a lot like an island in that it took a lot of effort to get food up there. We didn’t always have the same food selection as the bigger cities. A lot of the fruit and veggies were seasonal or prohibitively expensive. You had to anticipate when something would be available. It made you appreciate the food more. I still miss artichoke and corn seasons!

After moving to Seattle, I got very used to having any food I wanted, whenever I wanted it. It was rare for the grocery stores to run out of anything (ignoring during the height of the COVID pandemic). You might get a discount during artichoke season, but you could still get artichokes in the middle of winter.

The tropics have similar transport issues to that tiny town I grew up in. You can’t get everything all the time. However, they grow a lot more food here. If you eat fresh, that food is not only really delicious, it is also very inexpensive! Pineapples. Bananas. Mangas. Green beans. Corn tortillas. Chicken. Chilis. Really fresh and really tasty. I sometimes have to go to a few different stores to find something specific. If you want name-brand pre-made food imported from the States, you might be out of luck.

Power outages

There haven’t been too many issues with power outages, but the lights do occasionally flicker. Countries are constantly improving upon their power grid, but you should still prepare for a potential outage. I keep a headlamp charged by the bed. I also try not to keep too many food items in the freezer. If the power goes out, don’t open the fridge or freezer and hope it comes back before anything important melts.

Power out at night? Head outside to check out the stars! The elimination of light pollution allows you to see all kinds of constellations. Did you know the waxing/waning moon is up and down versus side to side in the tropics!?! Like every childhood book with a crescent moon in it shows the moon on its side. In the tropics, the moon is like a bowl… or the letters ‘n’ or ‘u’ depending on what phase it’s in and if it’s setting or rising. So weird.

LOL. Power literally just went out. A palm frond fell, taking out some wires, causing the transformer to blow with a load bang. Started on fire just outside the apartment! Very exciting! They rerouted the power, so I am back in business just two hours later. No worries. See… they got this!

Building codes and safety

Let’s talk about building codes and personal liability. The States have so many rules and regulations and general fear of people being sued if someone gets hurt. There isn’t a lot of that in the tropics. You really have to pay attention to what’s around you for your own safety. When walking along the sidewalk, there might literally be rebar poking out of the concrete to stab you in the shin. Or the sidewalk will suddenly end or curve or change heights for no reason.

When walking upstairs, there is nothing to say that some piece of concrete can’t project out over the stairs at a height of three feet. You go walking up with your eyes on your feet so you don’t trip and your head slams into the projection. It’s a challenge. “Watch your head!” is for real here. It makes life a lot more interesting.

Coconuts falling from trees kill more people than sharks! No joke! The fancy resorts cut all the coconuts down so they don’t kill the tourists. That is not true around town. Other things you have to watch out for falling on your head are mangos and giant palm fronds. Oh… and monkey piss. My neighbor got peed on while walking to the beach. So gross… but still hilarious!

Protect your stuff

Every animal in the animal kingdom steals. This includes humans. Every place I have ever lived has had thieves. Even in that tiny mountain town of my youth, where my bike kept getting stolen. Stupid drunk college students! Sometimes it is easier to take than to earn… and sometimes there is just no possibility of earning a living, so you do what you can to survive.

It’s no different in the tropics. Lots of cell phones go missing here. Our neighbor had his bag containing his phone ripped from his grasp on the beach. Luckily, his passport wasn’t in it, but it was a pain making travel arrangements back home without his cell phone. Especially with all the travel and entry requirements and QR codes required for international travel right now. I tried to help as much as possible, but it was definitely hard for him.

All the big city rules apply in the tropics. Leave absolutely nothing, no matter how little value it has, in your car. It’s little solace that thieves took nothing when they had to break your window to discover your reusable tote was empty. Leave nothing of even small value on the beach. Watch your pockets and your purse. Don’t walk around with flashy jewelry or clothes. Keep your passport in the safe in your room. Don’t get drunk and pass out on the beach or on a park bench. Chat with people to find out where it’s safe to walk and what areas you should avoid. You know… the usual.

The ocean might be at the tipping point.

I’ve have had the worst luck with the oceans in the last three months. Belize (and the rest of the Caribbean) was dealing with this horrible plight of sargassum. No ocean swimming there. Costa Rica is now suffering through some pretty awful red tide. They usually get a bit of algae overgrowth off and on for about a month each year. This year it has been going for the last three months. Crazy!

I have seen an untold number of dead critters washed up on the beach, three of which were large sea turtles (one tangled in fishing crap). I have seen so many dead puffer fish, sea stars, parrotfish, trumpetfish, eels… it’s unbelievably sad. Today I saw billions of dead baby shrimp (maybe krill?). WTF.

You read about horrible things happening in the oceans all over the world. I’m starting to think that we might be nearing a tipping point. The oceans are all “screw you and the horse you rode in on” and vomiting out all the crap we have force fed it. I’m hoping it holds off for a while because I really do like all things ocean related. Maybe the Mexican Caribbean will be better. Sigh.

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