A Fresh Look at Costa Rica – Central America

For many years, Costa Rica has been touted as one of the top retirement havens in the world. With a stable democracy, growing economy, government friendly to foreigners and tropical climate, as well as incredible natural beauty, it rightly earned the phrase, "the Switzerland of Latin America". Is this still true today? Is it as expensive as Switzerland? Are retirees coming here? Should they consider Costa Rica?

For many people, there appears to be less expensive retirement destinations such as Panama or Nicaragua. For others, Costa Rica has become too touristy. Still others believe Costa Rica is overrun with "gringos".

I want to debunk these notions and others. I suggest that Costa Rica is still a terrific place to retire, or to start new life if you are not yet retired, particularly if you choose your location and activities carefully.

Costa Rica is too expensive
I have been living in Costa Rica for about a year and a half. I have been in and out of the country frequently since 1989. I have based my extensive travel throughout the country in conjunction with my "Boomers in Costa Rica Retirement Tours". I've found there are still inexpensive areas in which to live, particularly if you stay away from the close-in suburbs of San Jose.

Take, for example, the wonderful city of San Ramon in Alajuela Province; an agricultural town of 70,000, situated on the northwest edge of the Central Valley – home to three former presidents including "Don Pepe", who abolished the army in 1948 and set in motion the basis for today's robust democracy. San Ramon offers a peaceful environment in which to live, yet it has all the services of a larger city, including numerous supermarkets, a mall with a three-screen movie theater, several outstanding restaurants and warm, welcoming locals. It is only 40 minutes to the international airport in Alajuela, one hour to San Jose and 40 minutes to the Pacific Coast.

Can I afford Costa Rica
San Ramon also offers a wide variety of lots for building one's retirement dream home, either in the mountains which the Tico Times called "the Tuscany or Provence of Central America", or stunning ocean view properties in which one can see the Nicoya Peninsula, the Pacific Ocean and the bustling port city of Puntarenas. Prices for land remain low with some lots as inexpensive as $15,000 for a one-quarter to one-half acre lot, to $75,000 for an incredible ocean-view lot on 2.25 acres. With another $60,000 to $75,000, you can have an ocean view lot and house, complete with all the services you need, for under $200,000. Of course, there is more expensive property. If you decide you don't want ocean views, you'll pay even less, perhaps around $100,000 or so for a nice lot and home.

Property taxes are very low, only .25% of the registered value of your property. I paid $66.00 in property taxes for an entire year! The local government office even asked me if I wanted to pay my taxes quarterly!

If renting is more your style, you can find nice two-bedroom, modest homes for under $200.00 a month. Low housing costs combined with very low prices on food and utilities makes San Ramon an excellent bargain. The towns of Grecia, Sarchi, Atenas and Puriscal offer great value also; you just need to know where to look and with whom to link up – an experienced and knowledgeable local or gringo to help you out.

I eat inexpensively, perhaps $1.50 for breakfast, $2.00 for lunch; I splurge for dinner, maybe $4.00 to $6.00, and this is if I go out to eat! Of course, if you visit some of this country's wonderful outdoor markets, you'll find the freshest meats, fruits and vegetables; you can cook for yourself and spend even less.

I need good and convenient medical care
Some foreigners living in Costa Rica complain that the medical system is overcrowded; often takes hours to see a doctor. Yes, in some areas there are less doctors per capita than in the United States, but not everywhere. Often it relates to people who have elected to get on the "CAJA" system, the most basic health insurance program, run by the government, to which the majority of Ticos belong. Once you leave the San Jose area, even if you are on the CAJA, the lines lessen and more often than not, you'll form a great relationship with an English-speaking doctor who is well-trained, and in some cases, will even make house calls. There are also other privately-run programs that allow you to see any doctor; these programs are much less expensive than insurance programs in the states.

Costa Rica has several outstanding hospitals that provide the same level and quality of service that you would find in the United States. CIMA Hospital San Jose, which is affiliated with Baylor Medical Center in Houston, is a brand new facility with all the latest technology you would find in any top hospital in the United States. In fact, my doctor at CIMA has more advanced technology in his office than my doctor in New York City. Clinica Biblica, also near San Jose, is another top hospital, with the same quality of service you would find at CIMA.

There are too many tourists
Costa Rica certainly is a well-traveled tourist destination. It sees over one million holiday makers a year. If you visit the beaches at Manuel Antonio, the rain forest of Monteverde or Arenal Volcano during the dry season, yes, you will see many North Americans and Europeans. However, living here, particularly in towns such as San Ramon or Grecia, you would hardly know it is the tourist season. These towns, and others, see few tourists and move at their own consistent pace year round. Actually, visiting tourist destinations during the off season is a great benefit of living here, particularly given that prices are significantly less than during the high season.

Costa Rica does count among its residents some 40,000 North Americans, mostly from the United States. They come for a variety of reasons: from wanting to leave their corporate careers for more meaningful work to just wanting to retire and enjoy a slower, relaxed pace of life that Costa Rica offers.

While these expatriates are scattered throughout Costa Rica, most of them live in the suburbs surrounding San Jose such as Escazu, Santa Ana and Cuidad Colon. Quite a few ex-pats live in beach communities up and down the Pacific Coast, while a smaller number of people live on the Caribbean coast. However, many people are beginning to take note of the smaller towns in the Central Valley such as Grecia, Sarchi, Naranjo, Palmares and San Ramon, even the smaller pueblos surrounding these towns. These towns and pueblos offer a relaxed pace of life, reasonable property prices and an overall lower cost of living. You can live in Costa Rica and not feel overrun by gringos or the high prices in other parts of the country. However, if you want to live among "your own kind", you can do that too!

Historically, Costa Rica was a country primarily attractive to retirees; those people in their late 50s or early 60s (and in some cases much older) who wanted a small house, and could live much less inexpensively than in North America or Europe. However, Costa Rica is also beginning to attract a fair number of Baby Boomers, particularly those not yet ready to retire. They may own businesses they can run from virtually anywhere. They may also be writers or artists. Still others are coming here to invest their time and money in new businesses. Many people have made the successful transition from a corporate career in the states to running a bed and breakfast, managing a surf shop, offering tours, investing in real estate and more much. Costa Rica is a very business-friendly country; the opportunities are endless.

The roads are terrible
Like any developing country, particularly one with a rainy season for part of the year, and with trucks and cars sharing the same, often two-lane road, it can be hard to maintain the roads in perfect condition all the time. Fortunately, under the new administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Oscar Arias, significant steps are being taken to address these concerns. Millions of dollars have been allocated to new road construction and repairs. Costa Rica has come a long way in infrastructure improvements, and it is only getting better.

No hablo espanol
While one can get by without knowing much Spanish, you'll have a better experience if you try to learn at least some key words, phrases and sentences. In addition, befriending a Tico (hopefully a bilingual one!) will go a long way in helping you get things done here. On our retirement tours, for example, we provide a post-tour relocation service where we link up our clients with a Tico to help with some critical "post-move" tasks such as getting a driver's license, hooking up electricity, phone, and internet services, and a variety of other things. I couldn't get by without my "Tico connections" and my Spanish is getting better all the time.

But Costa Rica is in Central America
Central America does have a reputation for being very poor; historically, a region chock full of political chaos, dictators, communists, and meddling by foreign countries. Costa Rica, however, has had a continuous and stable democracy since 1948; the transition to new administrations has been as peaceful as they are in the United States. Yes, there are poor people, but it is nothing like the abject poverty found in Nicaragua or Honduras. Costa Rica does not experience the gang warfare that is rampant in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. It remains somewhat dangerous in these countries and the political systems are still not completely stable. Housing and land may be much cheaper there, but is it worth paying less to live if you experience power cuts for six to eight hours each day (as is the case in Nicaragua lately), or more importantly, live in fear?

I've found that the people are much more welcoming to us gringos than in other countries in the region; they don't just befriend us for our money. They are very hard working, genuinely interested in learning about North Americans, and for us, it is not hard to integrate into Costa Rica's society. I cannot tell you how many parties and dinners I've been invited to in Tico homes since moving here. They are friendly people indeed!

With millions of Baby Boomers in North America – over 70 million of them – retiring now and over the next 20 years, living longer than previous generations, it will take a lot of money to live well in retirement, particularly in the United States. Is Costa Rica still a good alternative? Yes! Will you do well here and enjoy yourself? Absolutely! Come visit and introduce yourself to the wonderful people and natural environment that we still call paradise. We're here, living our dreams, and happy to help you!

Andrew Mastrandonas is an American living in Costa Rica. He owns a relocation tour company designed to provide an introduction to Costa Rica for retirees considering moving there. He also owns a bed & breakfast and writes about travel, community issues, and culture for a variety of publications, including the Tico Times. For more information, see Angel Valley Farm Bed & Breakfast.

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