My wife Suzan and I breathed a sigh of relief and toasted our good fortune.
The lights here were just as low, the ocean breeze just as gentle, the spaghetti carbonara just as peppery and fresh in the little restaurant on Playa Samara as they were during our honeymoon 14 years ago.
We’d been warned that this sheltered scallop of white sandy beach and its tiny town of dirt-floored eateries and cubbyhole B&Bs had boomed beyond recognition since we got married here in 1997.
In fact, we’d been warned that, since our road-trip honeymoon, Costa Rica had all but priced itself out of the market as a value-oriented destination for retirees and expats.
But as we drove around last month on our latest reconnaissance trip, we were happy to find that Costa Rica still offers great value as an affordable retirement and second-home destination…along with some of the most beautiful scenery and forward-looking ecological policies anywhere on earth.
Some of the highest concentrations of expats in Costa Rica are found in the suburbs of San José in the Central Valley, so that’s where we started this most recent trip.
The valley weather remains moderate and pleasant year-round, in the 70s F and low 80s F—much cooler than the coasts—and here you’re near the services, shopping and entertainment of the capital.
But for many potential expats, the well-known valley towns like Escazú, Santa Ana, San Pedro, Rohrmoser and Curridabat have become too upscale, pricey and westernized.
These neighborhoods are popular with government officials, foreign embassy staff and foreign business people stationed in Costa Rica who need to be close to the capital. But it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially if you’re looking for a simple and affordable place to retire where your money will go further.
That’s why we were excited on this trip to see Puriscal, one of the cantons of San José Province, a region of vast vistas of rolling green hills, rushing streams and a laid-back, country lifestyle. We’d heard from several contacts that it was a great alternative to the high-priced suburbs.
True enough, we reached it in an easy one-hour drive from the city. Yet the traffic and congestion of the capital felt a world away as we drove along the mountain ridges, looking down on lush fields and small towns and villages sprinkled throughout the countryside.
Puriscal used to be coffee country, and there are still coffee fields everywhere. But when the coffee market dropped drastically, many of the farmers switched to another cash crop: Tobacco. When that market bottomed out as well, some farmers turned to ranching, but many simply sold their land to get what they could out of it.
There are large lots and parcels of land for sale throughout the area, and almost all of them have dramatic views of the Central Valley. A few even boast views of the Pacific coast on a clear day.
The other draw of the Central Valley is the major hospitals…three of them, and all with world-class care.
In fact, when you add up everything that Costa Rica has to offer, this little Central American gem still provides one of the most compelling value propositions for a retirement or second home destination in the Americas.
As part of its “green” or ecological stance, Costa Rica puts a premium on imported goods, making cars, appliances and luxury items expensive. But if you’re not into cars, new appliances and luxury items, you can live as cheaply as in most other Latin American countries. And don’t forget to factor in tropical weather that makes heating and, in some areas like Arenal and the Central Valley, air conditioning, unnecessary.
Now some expats we’ve talked to say they actually spend more money in Costa Rica than they did in the U.S. But this is due to their lifestyle and buying choices. Expats who really want to save money can live on much less than they did back home by buying Costa Rican products and adapting to the Costa Rican lifestyle.
Remember that the average Costa Rican family lives on $4,800 a year, and they’re not living in poverty. They have plenty to eat, wear decent clothing and maintain a healthy and clean appearance. They also have TV and own their own home. Considering that the average Costa Rican earns only $250 to $350 a month, you should be able to live very well.
This means that an expat who buys locally and doesn’t need to be surrounded with luxury items should be able to live very well in typical Costa Rican terms on $1,200 to $1,500 per month.
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