Costa Rica’s Last Boom Towns Could Make You Rich
Costa Rica is a beautiful country, with long stretches of deserted and undeveloped beaches…dense jungles teeming with exotic wildlife…towering volcanoes, lush green valleys, and hundreds of crystal-clear lakes and rivers…
Not only that, but the country offers a great climate year-round, neighborly atmosphere, no-hassle residence programs, excellent healthcare, a stable democracy, and safety and security. It doesn’t hurt that many retired couples report living well on $2,000 a month—that includes all their costs.
For these reasons, as well as the welcoming locals who are warm and friendly to new foreign neighbors, Costa Rica has been an expat haven for more than 30 years.
That’s another bonus: you don’t have to be a pioneer in Costa Rica. There are well-established expat communities throughout the country. Things are “set up” so to speak, when it comes to shipping your household goods, using the healthcare system, buying property, and more. And by following this well-trodden path, your transition to your new life is much easier.
It’s small, about the size of West Virginia. But the variety of landscapes, climates, and lifestyles in Costa Rica is amazing. You have the rainforests, wild beaches, and charming seaside villages of the southern Pacific coast, also known as the Southern Zone.
A Landscape and Lifestyle for Every Taste
There are the bustling market towns surrounded by sugar cane fields and coffee plantations of the Central Valley. Around the pristine 33-square-mile Lake Arenal, expats have taken up residence on the verdant hills rising from the shore, with vast lake views from their homes. On the Caribbean coast, life is laidback and moves to the rhythm of reggae. And that’s just a small taste of all Costa Rica has to offer as far as places to live.
With all these different climates and landscapes, it’s no wonder that this Central American jewel is also one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. With just 0.03% of the earth’s surface within its borders, the country has an estimated 5% of the world’s species. In Costa Rica, this natural world surrounds you, putting the country on the forefront of eco-tourism and eco-living. Sloths, capuchin monkeys, toucans, and scarlet macaws will be your new neighbors.
And no matter which location you choose, you can benefit from bargain real estate, whether you buy or rent. Three-bedroom homes in the Central Valley start at $109,000 to buy and $300 a month to rent. And two-bedroom condos a five-minute walk to the beach on the central Pacific coast in a booming resort town are $500 a month, the same units selling for under $70,000. Deals like this can be found throughout the country.
Another big bonus is the high-quality, low-cost healthcare. There are two systems: private, for which you can pay cash or use insurance, and the government-run public system which you join when become a legal resident. Overall, expats in Costa Rica pay a fraction of what they did back home for medical care.
All these advantages make Costa Rica a premier destination for those looking for a secure, fun, and active retirement surrounded by new friends in a beautiful setting.
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- Population: 4,695,942
- Capital City: San Jose
- Climate: Tropical and subtropical; dry season (December to April); rainy season (May to November); cooler in highlands
- Time Zone: GMT-6
- Language: Spanish (official), English
- Country Code: 506
- Coastline: 1,290km
Weeks with the temperatures below zero. Snow, snow, and more snow. It was a particularly brutal winter two years ago that convinced Jim, 67, and Barb Kohlmetz, 62, that it was time for a change after living in Wisconsin all their lives. Now they jet down to Costa Rica after the Christmas holidays and stay in their home in a quiet beach community on the central Pacific coast until after the spring thaw. As retirees—they were in education for a combined 73 years—they have the flexible schedule perfect for part-time residents.
Long walks along the gently curving beach. Beers beneath brilliant sunsets, as music radiates from energetic beach bars. It’s easy to see the appeal of Tamarindo, on Costa Rica’s Gold Coast. I mean, that’s why I chose it as my home. And this vibrant beach town continues to attract growing number of expats and tourists in search of great waves and a laidback beach lifestyle.
“We have dropped an incredible amount of weight,” says expat Armand Brodeur, who lives with his wife Joyclyn in Las Tablas, Panama. “And we’re not even eating as healthy as we ought to.” The Brodeur’s story is not unique. They’re just two of the many expats who come to Panama and lose weight without even trying. “I didn’t realize I was losing weight” is a constant refrain here. The outdoors beckon…there are produce stalls, fish markets, pristine beaches, and rainforest parks to visit. In much of the country, walking is the preferred method of transportation. So much so, that many expats here don’t even have cars. Imagine the effect on your waistline…
Some places around the world really stand out in terms of the healthy lifestyle they have to offer. So much so, that National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner has even discovered special spots—Blue Zones—renowned for the longevity of their populations. In these Blue Zones you’ll ﬁnd plenty of people living past 100. What is their secret to long life?
Costa Rica is a relatively small country, but it boasts one of the most diverse varieties of landscapes and climate in the world. It’s got the perfect harmony between the lush, green jungle teeming with wildlife and unadulterated beaches.
I’ve enjoyed hammocks all over Central America. It’s a way of life in this region, standard home furnishing, and a pastime enjoyed by all. Truck drivers stuck at customs checkpoints string them under their tractor-trailers. Families on front porches take quick naps—nothing puts a baby (or anyone for that matter) to sleep faster than a gently swinging hammock.
Year after year Costa Rica, the land of Pura Vida (pure life), still proves to be an attractive destination where expats typically are able to find a high quality of living for less than they would in Canada or the U.S., for example. Costa Rica has been a popular destination for North American expats for decades.
Sitting in a valley at an elevation of about 2,000 feet in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, San Isidro de El General enjoys consistent temperature lows of 65 F and highs of 85 F year round. It’s not just the weather that fulfills the vision of a perfect town, the beaches are close by as well. And with real estate options from as low as $114,000, it’s hard not to like this location.
Costa Rica cuisine may not be well-known outside its borders. But those who visit or live there soon develop a craving for certain dishes. With a reliance on fresh ingredients and savory seasonings, it’s no wonder. There are nearly 1,000 miles of Pacific and Caribbean coastline, so seafood is a favorite. And the rich volcanic soil means that fruits and vegetables thrive, including tropical varieties like guanabana or chayote not found much outside the region.
When I talk to International Living readers, I usually focus on sharing how you can minimize your U.S. taxes and stay out of trouble with the IRS. But today, I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to share with you what I do. I live part of the year in Jaco, Costa Rica. When I bought my condo, I kept the owning and renting of this foreign real estate simple: I bought it in my own name. That’s pretty unusual; Jaco is one of the few remaining areas that allow Americans to own beachfront property in their own name. This keeps my U.S. tax reporting of the rental income reportable—just like a U.S. property—and I do not have to make a foreign corporation disclosure.
Before moving to Tamarindo, on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, my husband and I lived in Chicago. We were accustomed to brunch as the key to socializing with friends. If you set a weekly date with someone or made plans to catch up with an old friend, oftentimes you would do it over a weekend brunch. We had to re-learn some of the “rules” to socializing when we moved to our little beach town. When we began to meet people, it struck us as odd that the common invite for social gatherings was to go and watch the sunset together…but we quickly learned why.
When you move overseas, you don’t just benefit from the better weather, lower cost of living, and the affordable healthcare…you also open up a world of travel possibilities. During our working lives, we’d take those one- or two-week trips, and were lucky enough to see a few highlights.
But when you live in a foreign country, you have the opportunity to use this new location to travel to other countries as well as to explore the place you’ve chosen to live. This happened to me when I moved to Nicaragua.
In another life, I worked as a charge nurse on a hospital unit. It was a nice hospital, and I was reasonably fond of my co-workers and patients. But 12-hour shifts are long and somewhere around 3 a.m. I would find myself wondering about other options.
There are several categories of residence for those seeking to live and/or retire in Costa Rica. Although it can seem quite bureaucratic, the process to obtain your cedula (the Costa Rican “green card”) is actually pretty straightforward. As long as you have the correct documentation and follow the rules, you’re all set.
Most expats who retire to Costa Rica and live here full time choose pensionado (retiree) status. All you need is $1,000 coming in per month from Social Security or a government guaranteed pension. That’s per couple, with one spouse as the applicant and the other as the dependent.
Part of the joy of living in Costa Rica is a slower pace of life. An inherent part of that slower pace is dirt roads. While Costa Rica does have modern paved roads in the cities and on the highways, in many smaller towns off the beaten track, you’re likely to see dirt roads. These roads can be quite dusty during the dry season (December through April). So to combat the dust, many communities in Costa Rica have come up with an unlikely solution: They pour molasses all over the roads.
The hills are cut with steep, tree-filled river valleys, and peninsulas, capes, and coves mark the lakeshore. At 18 miles long and three miles across at its widest, the blue expanse of Lake Arenal, in Costa Rica’s northern highlands, anchors a region known for its laidback lifestyle. Here, in a place of perennial warm weather and volcanic soils perfect for gardening, you can find the small-town U.S. vibe of yesteryear. And at a highly affordable cost.
“I love that our life is so different than I ever thought it would be,” says Pokey Sherman, 65. “I grew up in Pittsburgh. And my parents retired to Florida. I thought, ‘Is that all there is?’ I think the idea of retirement should be to change your lifestyle.”
“It’s a real joy to wake up and come out here and realize what we’ve done,” she adds, referring to their fifth-floor balcony. Their condo is set on a hill overlooking a low-key beach town, verdant forest, the glittering Pacific, surfer-filled waves, and river to the north.
Time and again, we hear back from readers looking for a healthier lifestyle overseas. So in this year’s Annual Global Retirement Index, we’ve added a Healthy Lifestyle category. Finding a healthier retirement abroad is a key consideration for many expats. And while many countries on our beat scored strongly in this regard, Costa Rica earned top marks.
When most people think of Costa Rica, they picture white-sand beaches, rainforests, monkeys frolicking in the trees, and clear-blue ocean. And that’s all true. This little tropical country is full of natural beauty.
Imagine a life where you get to travel, earn enough to live, and enjoy doing what you love. Samantha Wei and Yeison Kim are based in Costa Rica and earn a living from blogging about their adventures. Their blog now generates a healthy income averaging more than $5,000 each month in revenue.
Perched atop a hill formed from volcanic rock, with a panoramic view of the fiery orange sunset over the Pacific Ocean is Kristen Brown’s “office
“My favorite thing about my new life is the kindness of the people,” says Carol Blair Vaughn, 63, of her rustic retirement in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone. “I have never been treated so warmly and generously by anyone. They are gems.” For Carol, the people may be the main benefit of life in the small town of Quebradas, but they’re certainly not the only one. Here she has found her perfect spot for a peaceful, rural retirement.
When you ask Jeanetta Owens what’s the best thing about her work and life in Costa Rica, it’s definitely the location. “I love it,” she says of the peaceful and beautiful town she calls home. “I love the people. They’re so giving, so caring, and so helpful. The people and the mild climate is what drew me to Grecia, and hands down is why I stay. Grecia offers a very tight-knit community where you will not find yourself alone for long.”
In the U.S. today, a “real” retirement is slipping out of the hands of millions of Americans. But look overseas…and your options expand. Despite all the talk of recovery—and yes, the economy is in better shape than it was seven years ago—it’s fair to say that the news you get on TV and in the papers remains pretty grim.
It’s that time of year again—the birds are singing, love is in the air, and hopeless husbands are trawling gas stations for that last bunch of flowers. It must be Valentine’s Day—that special day when you spoil the one you love, devote your attention to one another, and escape momentarily from the humdrum of everyday routine. It can be a wonderful time, no matter where you are, but it’s undeniable that some locations have a certain je ne sais quoi that adds that something special to the occasion.
With 912 miles of coastline on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica has plenty of beaches. And you get a wide variety of looks, too. Some of these beaches are all natural, Robison Crusoe-style tropical escapes that you’ll have all to yourself. You can sit in the shade as you watch clear water lap against the shore on a lazy afternoon. Others are places to enjoy a cold drink in hand, toes in the sand, listening to music and people-watching. There are even large resorts and bustling beach towns with plenty of nightlife.
Many factors come into play when considering a retirement abroad. Cost of living, prices of rents and real estate, and healthcare options are main concerns. But quality of life for retirees moving abroad also depends in large part on being able to fit in quickly, learn the ropes, and mix well with the locals in their adapted communities. Language, culture, and community support from locals and other expats all can have a dramatic effect on the quality of the expat retiree experience.
I’m looking out over the deep blue Pacific. Fisherman with nets wade out into the shallows, flinging them periodically to catch bait fish. There’s not a cloud in the sky, and the water, with the high midday sun, glitters with light.
When planning your retirement overseas, many factors come into play. Low costs, real estate, and healthcare are some of the main concerns…but what about being able to mix well with the community or make friends with the locals? Being able to integrate well will help ensure that you feel at home in your new home. Do the locals speak English or do you speak the local language? Is the community welcoming to expats? Are there groups and clubs available to join?
Costa Rica is known for its lush, wildlife-filled jungles lining deserted white-sand beaches. It’s a favorite photo for the tourism board. The whole country appears wild…untamed. There is a lot of that out there. And having the whole beach to yourself while capuchin monkeys scamper in the trees above is quite a thrill.
“Think globally, act locally.” I’ve always liked that saying, because it sums up so well the attitude of many of the expats I know living abroad. They are obviously thinking globally to get the big picture on issues that most affect their quality of life.
A surf trip…that’s what brought me and my husband, Chuck, to Costa Rica. After landing in the capital of San Jose with my sister and her husband, we drove first to the beach town of Tamarindo, and then a couple of hours farther south to Nosara. There we found surf, beautiful beaches, and great restaurants…and the place that would become our retirement home.
The Lake Arenal area of Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s paradise, boasting 2,000 species of plants, mammals including monkeys and sloths, and birds such as toucans and scarlet macaws.
In the northern highlands of Costa Rica, the lake is the country’s largest landlocked body of water, covering about 33 square miles. It sits at the base of Volcan Arenal, which dominates the horizon at nearly 5,500 feet.
When most people consider moving to a tropical country, they have one thing on their mind: the beach. But while Costa Rica is a tropical country and has some beautiful beaches, not everyone wants to live a sand-filled life in shorts and flip-flops. Luckily, there’s a solution…the Central Valley.
As healthcare costs and complexity in the U.S. continue to spiral upward, more and more retirees are asking, “Can I get high-quality healthcare for less if I move overseas?” The simple answer is yes. The Healthcare category of the 2016 International Living Global Retirement Index ranks the healthcare systems of the 23 most popular retirement locations abroad.
Away from the beach, Tamarindo has great food and a fantastic social scene. We gather at sunset every evening. Because we’re near the equator, it’s always between 5:15 and 6:15 p.m. Groups of friends chat and watch their kids play. Dog walkers nod as they walk past. Surfers pop into the water for one last wave. Bottles are raised as the sun disappears over the horizon.
As healthcare costs in the U.S. continue to spiral upward, one of the main questions any aspiring expat asks is, “Can I get great healthcare when I move overseas?” The simple answer is yes…and without breaking the bank, either.
For such a small country, Costa Rica is amazingly diverse as far as landscapes, climates, and lifestyle. There are bustling beach towns, big modern cities, and lush jungles. But throughout the country you will also find unspoiled rural areas of farmland, forest, and charming villages. Life is lived much as it has for generations. If you’re looking for a quiet place with small town values to set up home, you might consider the Costa Rican countryside.
Just about every town and village in Costa Rica holds a fiesta every year. It’s fun for the whole family, with carnival rides, food, music, dancing, and a rodeo. The celebration lasts for two or three days and gets going in late afternoon and goes well into the evening. In this video you’ll get a taste of the fiesta in Villarreal, a small town on the northern Pacific coast.
Although Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast is popular with tourists, there are plenty of small and low-key beach towns where expats live. They enjoy a close-knit circle of friends, boating and beach-combing, great restaurants and beach bars, and quiet, mostly residential, communities. In this video, International Living Costa Rica Editor Jason Holland explores Playa Flamingo…