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Best Places to Live in Costa Rica: Five Top Expat Havens

Expat havens in Costa Rica

Sandy beaches with tumbling surf, peaceful lakeside living, bio-diverse tropical jungles, cool highland areas with modern cities. . . Little Costa Rica offers plenty to choose from. And for decades, expats like me have flocked here, making it one of the world’s most popular locales for good living abroad.

First off, there’s the climate. You can take your pick. Sunny and tropical or temperate and lush. Temperatures average 70 F to 90 F. Then there’s the affordable cost of living; the excellent, affordable health care; a stable government; and a thriving economy.

But it’s the friendly and welcoming people, the natural beauty, and the tropical lifestyle that will really steal your heart. “Costa Ricans are a gracious people,” says Rene Aoki, who has lived in the Arenal region for 19 years. “It’s an easy place to live where you can make close friends.”

New expats find well-trodden ground and benefit from the experience of those who came before them. It makes integrating into a new life here that much easier, no matter where you go.

But it makes picking your perfect spot in Costa Rica that much harder. So to help you, here—in no particular order—are the country’s five most popular and comfortable havens.

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1. The Central Valley—Ideal Climate and Convenience

Expats have been flocking to the Central Valley for decades. Known in Spanish as the Steins Control, it is actually a high-altitude plateau—above 3,000 feet—that is surrounded by tall mountains. In the middle you have Costa Rica’s capital, San José.

Several towns have become expat centers over the years. San Ramon, Grecia, Alajuela, and Atenas, to the west of the metro area, are well-established.  There’s Heredia to the north. Moravia to the east. And Escazu, Santa Ana, and up-and-coming hot-spots Puriscal and Giudad Colón to the southwest.

What makes this region so attractive? For one, thanks to the altitude, it has the ideal climate. Despite being firmly in the tropics, the year-round average temperature is the mid-70s F, with some areas at higher altitudes even cooler. Another is that, because foreigners have been coming to live here for so long, there’s a built-in expat “infrastructure,” like social clubs, theater groups, poker and bridge nights…plenty to keep you busy.

Plus, it’s centrally-located. The big city and all its conveniences are close by. You can be in San José and its suburbs within an hour to an hour-and-a-half at most from just about anywhere in the Valley. There you’ll find the best shopping in the country, including North American-style malls and warehouse shopping clubs (similar to Sam’s Club). It’s quite common for expats living in the Central Valley to pop in to San José for shopping, dinner, and a movie (new releases in English). If you want to hit the beach, it’s an hour or so to the Pacific.

It’s also the center of culture. Opera, classical music, jazz clubs, big-name concerts (Elton John and Bob Dylan were here in 2012), art festivals and museums, and other high-profile events…there’s something to do every weekend.

About three-quarters of the native Costa Rican population live in this region, as well. The Gran Area Metropolitana, as the capital San José and its suburbs are called, can be crowded and noisy. But get out of the city and you’ll find charming villages, bustling market towns, and plenty of quiet rural areas throughout the Central Valley. It’s also an agricultural center, with plenty of natural areas in between. Rolling hills covered with sugar cane fields, cow pastures, and hillside coffee plantations are interspersed with lush river valleys and forests.

Roberta Laidman, 70 and Harry Raabe, 68, have lived full time in Atenas, a town of about 5,000 for two years.

One reason they chose the Central Valley is echoed by most retiree—age expats here: quick access to the country’s top public and private medical care in San José, including the top hospitals and most specialists.

“When you reach a certain age, you have to be within spitting distance of an angioplasty,” says Roberta.

The quiet pace of life and the beautiful surroundings were also an attraction. “We’re just thrilled to be here. It’s like waking up in paradise,” says Roberta.  “We eat breakfast on the balcony, and we don’t jump up when we’re done to do something else. The view is mesmerizing. The environment calms the spirit.”

The Central Valley is full of affordable real estate. A mountain-view home outside Atenas, a 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, furnished, North American-style home is listed at $219,000. A furnished two-bedroom cabin with views of Grecia and the Poés Volcano is $89,000.

2. The Gold Coast—Sunshine, Surf, and Beautiful Sunsets

Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, near the border with Nicaragua, is popular for those seeking a beach lifestyle and warm climate. Known as the Gold Coast, this region receives the least rainfall and has more sunny days than anywhere else in the country.

It’s about five hours from San José. But no worries; there are plenty of amenities and modern conveniences.

If you’re looking for a mix of Tico culture and strong, well-established expat communities, then this is your place.

Years ago, this coast was dotted with small fishing villages. Vestiges of this remain: Freshly-caught seafood is abundant and cheap. But you have easy access to plenty of home comforts, too, such as imported foods, sports bars, and sushi restaurants. You’ll also find boutique clothing stores, golf courses, and tennis clubs (thanks to large resorts and residential developments like Hacienda Pinilla, the Four Season, and the JW Marriott).

Tamarindo, first discovered by surfers in the 1970s, retains a funky, laid-back charm despite its growth over the years. Going out to dinner in your swimsuit is perfectly acceptable. And buying groceries barefoot doesn’t warrant a second glance. Playa Langosta to the south is higher-end, with plenty of million-dollar mansions fronting the beach.

Valerie Townley, 57, and her husband Gaylord, 60, have a long history with Costa Rica. They moved to Tamarindo in 1982, just after an in-country stint in the Peace Corps. As Gaylord was an avid surfer, Tamarindo’s consistent waves were a major factor.

“Costa Rica has a lot to offer for such a small country, and the Costa Ricans are such a great people,” says Valerie, a mixed-media artist who works with driftwood.

“We walk every day with the dogs, whether it’s to the beach or the mountains. And we watch the sunset almost every day,” she says.

About a half-hour north is Playa Flamingo and the adjoining town of Potrero. Flamingo fronts a beautiful beach, with many of the homes and condos here clinging to a small, rocky peninsula jutting into the Pacific. It’s more residential community than full-fledged town. Potrero, about 20 minutes north, has expat developments next to a working-class Tico village.

Further up the coast, Playas del Coco is a sport-fishing and scuba-diving center with a thriving expat community. It also tends to be quieter than Tamarindo, which has a reputation for a bustling nightlife scene.

The growing international airport in Liberia, the capital of the Guanacaste province, makes getting there easy, with several flights to and from the United States and Canada every day. Ticket prices can be a bit higher than the main airport in San José. But factor in a five-hour drive before your flight, and you may join the many who choose to fly out of Liberia.

This area was on the forefront of the housing boom in the early and mid-2000s. As in the States and elsewhere in the world, real estate got a bit out of control. But now things have leveled off.

A walk-to-the-beach, two-bedroom condo in Tamarindo’s center is available for $77,000. If you want beachfront, there’s a three-bedroom, 2,475-square-foot home in Potrero for $210,000.

3. Arenal—Peace, Quiet, and Rural Living

Thousands of tourists visit Arenal every year. For them, it’s all about the volcano, which gives its name to the region. The hub of La Fortuna de San Carlos sits at the volcano’s base on the eastern side. Admittedly, the volcano is a spectacular sight, a cone rising 5,479 feet out of forest and farmland. But most visitors miss the best part of the area: the 33-square-mile lake, also called Arenal.

This is where the majority of expats live in this region. The shoreline is unspoiled. And the green field and forest on the hills that drop to the lake are dotted with homes. Along the lake road you’ll find eco-lodges, B&Bs, and boutique hotels. There are only a few villages, settlements, and developments that bring together more than a few structures in one place.

It gives the area a rural feel. And it’s almost eerily quiet, too. In North America, a lake this beautiful would be overrun with jet skis and powerboats, the shore lined with homes and docks out into the water. Not here. Boat traffic consists of ferries talking tourists from one end to the other, some sailboats, kayakers, and a few fishermen and pleasure cruisers. Every time I’ve driven the lake shore I’ve seen at most five boats on the water at one time.

Nuevo Arenal is on the north shore, about midway. It’s a tidy village with a gas station, bank, pharmacy, grocery stores. . . most everything  you  need  for daily living.  (Check out Rumors Bar and Grill at happy hour to meet locals and expats alike.) The majority of expats in Arenal are clustered in small gated communities and individual homes on either side of town. Tronadora and San Luis are small villages on the opposite shore with simple but very affordable homes. Church, soccer field, and tidy, spotless houses–not much else. Tilarán is about 20 minutes inland from Tronadora. It’s bigger, with larger stores and more medical care.

“Going to town reminds me of where I grew up in Missouri,” says Rene Aoki, 60. “You have to go to one store for this, another store for that. It’s refreshing. ”

Rene and her husband Jim, 72, moved here 19 years ago from Alaska. Back then there seemed to be hardly any foreigners on the lake. They had a core group of 12 to 15 friends. In 1999, they put up signs around the lake road inviting everyone to a Fourth of July party—130 showed up. The expat population has multiplied since then but…“you don’t know it traffic-wise or construction-wise,” says Jim, who explains that the lake region remains a quiet and calm place.

Lake-view homes are surprisingly cheap. A recent listing featured a two-bedroom home for $59,000—and it has a lake view. A North American-style home set on the mountains above the lake in Aguacate is going for $179,000.

4. The Southern Zone—Classic Costa Rica

The southern Pacific coast, known as the Southern Zone, is what most people picture when they think of Costa Rica. It’s steamy rain forest. Jungle-clad mountains drop dramatically to deserted beaches.

There are no large resorts. No high-rises blocking the ocean view. You get the feeling that if humans left the area, the jungle would soon grow over everything they left behind.

And it’s the most bio-diverse region in an incredibly wildlife-filled country. On my recent visit I experienced this first-hand. Toucans flying past the back patio, as I had coffee in the morning.

More toucans on the trees outside the restaurant where we ate that night. Howler monkeys sleeping in branches above the beach. Sloths moving slowly in the trees, next to the road. It’s like stepping into a nature documentary—and, that’s without even visiting a national park.

The nice part about the Southern Zone is that it’s probably always going to stay this way. The paving of the two—lane coast road from Quepos to Dominical in 2010 made access easier—it’s a three-hour journey now, versus the file it used to take. Still, this area gets far fewer visitors than other regions and any development is low impact. Hit the beach and you’ll see the result: You often have the whole place to yourself.

Dominical, a lazy beach town and surfer’s paradise at the far north end of the Zone, looks much as it did when I first visited in 2005. A few restaurants and bars line the beach road. I like nothing more than to relax with a michelada (beer and lime juice on ice, with salt on the rim of the glass) and a bowl of ceviche, watching the water—a simple pleasure for $5.

Uvita, about 30 minutes south, has grown into a regional hub. It’s a collection of commercial centers on the coastal and is where most people do their shopping and other errands. Ojochal, another 15 minutes down the road is not a town per se. Rather, it’s more like buildings scattered in the jungle, crisscrossed with dirt roads. It’s an unlikely place to find a collection of top-notch gourmet restaurants, featuring everything from French to Italian to Indonesian to Mediterranean cuisine. Yet it’s happened, thanks to an international cast of expats—who can cook—and a community that embraces its unique culinary benefits.

Shelagh and Bruce Duncan have lived in Ojochal for five years. The couple originally from England but living in Canada for 32 years, had been visiting the area for years. They had even built a vacation rental for income and to use themselves. They never intended to move down permanently.

“Little by little, it was more like home, and it was harder to go back to Toronto and the grind,” says Shelagh, 65.

Shelagh, an interior designer, opened her own furniture shop, Royal Palm Interiors, soon after their move. “It’s been very fulfilling and a great way to meet people,” says Shelagh, who says there’s a common bond among all those who leave their home country. “There’s a good mix of people here, and they’ve become like a second family. They’re adventurous and think outside the box.”

Most homes in the Southern Zone are set up on the mountains to catch the cool sea breezes. And there’s certainly no clear-cutting for gated communities. Houses are built within the jungle or on former cattle pasture that is being reclaimed by trees. The terrain pretty much rules out developments laid out on a ruler-straight grid.

5. Central Pacific—A Comfortable Beach Lifestyle

I have mixed feelings about the Central Pacific coast. Jaco, arguably the best-known town in the region, is not my cup of tea. Too much concrete. Too many souvenir shops. Of course, plenty of people love that bushing resort—town atmosphere.

Playa Herradura just to the north is much quieter, a sheltered bay with cozy seafood restaurants. And south of Jaco you have several very low-key communities like Esterillos, Bejuco, and Hermosa, where surfers mix with retirees enjoying sunset cocktails on the beach.

Manuel Antonio, the town just outside the national park of the same name, is again not my favorite spot. The park  is the  most-visited  in  Costa Rica,  so  there’s  no  shortage  of hotels,  restaurants,  and t-shirt shops. But the thing is, the beach, especially in the national park itself, is unbeatable—one of the most beautiful in the country, in my opinion. Protected coves, bordered by hills covered in lush green vegetation, aqua-blue water, and white sand—it doesn’t get better than that.

I can see the appeal of the Central Pacific coast. You can live on the beach and enjoy a “toes-in-the-sand” lifestyle. Plenty of expats do. And San José, and all the medical care, great shopping, the airport, and cultural activities are just a little over an hour away.

“I came here on a surf vacation. And it’s been the longest two-week vacation ever,” says Marc Hauser, 55, who’s been in Jaco for 20 years. “I bought a lot with a house under construction on my third day here and called my wife Ingrid and told her to put our house in Melbourne, Florida, up for sale.”

Marc and his family keep busy with their restaurant (with another under construction), vacation-rental management, and the construction of a private resort. But there’s plenty of time for fun.

“I get to surf one or two hours a day if the waves are good. And I play golf from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. almost every day,” says Marc.

“There have been a lot of changes over the years, but it’s nothing compared to LA, Miami or New York City. I’m living in paradise. When you live in the Garden of Eden, would you ever leave?”

As far as real estate, beach living is affordable. A two-bedroom home within walking distance of the Pacific in Esterillios is $125,000. In Manuel Antonio, a three-bedroom villa with a view of the ocean is $149,000.

Try Before You Buy: Renting in Costa Rica 

There are plenty of stories in Costa Rica of vacationers who bought property or a home within days of landing and ended up living happily ever after. But, while it may have worked out for them, I don’t think even they would recommend this approach. A much better idea is a low-risk trial run.

If you rent a place for a few months, you can see how you like daily life there. You can even try a few different regions on for size before deciding.

Long-term rentals, usually furnished, are abundant in the Central Valley and Arenal. But they can be harder to come by in the beach areas, where home and condo owners do a brisk trade in vacation rentals. One gentleman I met in Tamarindo can make up to $3,000 renting out his place the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Still, many owners and management companies on the coast are interested in taking on responsible long-term tenants.

When looking for a rental—and this goes for all regions in Costa Rica—check out the local real-estate websites. You’ll see long-term rentals listed, but many more vacation rentals and homes for sale. If you see any you like, just contact the office and ask if they’d be interested in renting the property long-term instead. If it’s empty, with no leads on the horizon, they’re usually game as long as you sign a lease of at least six months to a year.

To give you an idea of what’s on offer, a town-home is available in Ciudad Colén, in the Central Valley, for $1,000 a month (see here). Walk to the beach in Tamarindo from a two-bedroom condo for $600 (see here).

Affordable Living in Costa Rica

Living on a budget of $1,500 for a couple is possible in Costa Rica. Ticos, after all, live on an average annual income of around $11,000.

The key is to do what locals do.

First, avoid the fancy grocery store full of imported and gourmet items, where prices are at U.S. levels or higher. But you don’t have to go without all your favorites from home. Myself, I’m partial to sriracha Asian chili sauce and Sam Adams beer, and my wife loves hummus, none of which is available in regular stores.

We get all our fruits and vegetables at the weekly feria, or famers’ market. Every sizable town in Costa Rica has one. In villages or rural areas it may be smaller, but it’s always there. In season, mangoes are $2 for 6 pounds. Pineapples are $1 .30 year-round. Foot-long papayas cost 75 cents. Tomatoes, 50 cents per pound. Lettuce, 50 cents a head. Big bunches of herbs like basil, cilantro, and mint—about a quarter each.

When you live near the coast, you buy fish from roadside stands or beachfront fish camps where the boats come in. It’s all fresh catch of the day. Snapper for $12 for a huge two-pound filet. Sushi-grade tuna and mahi-mahi, $15 for two pounds.

Going local for dinners out is key, too. Our trips to the U.S.- style sports bar—with chicken wings—are  limited to select college football-game days. Most of the time we frequent our local soda, the Costa-Rican equivalent of the diner. Rice, beans, plantains, and your choice of meat—chicken, pork—or fish is $4 to $5.

Check out our Costa Rica infographic: A Low Cost of Living, Excellent Health Care, and a Great Climate: Why Expats Choose Costa Rica.

See a slideshow of photos of the 5 top expat havens here.

Free Costa Rica Report

Learn more about Costa Rica and other countries in IL’s daily postcard e-letter. Simply enter your email address below and we’ll send you a FREE REPORT - Why Are Americans Still Flocking to Costa Rica.

This special guide covers real estate, retirement and more in Costa Rica and is yours free when you sign up for our IL postcards below.

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