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
In this latest Debrief—exclusive to you as an International Living VIP member—IL Costa Rica Editor Jason Holland tells Dan Prescher all about his recent editorial trip to Costa Rica’s magnificent Central Pacific coast.
Right now I live in Tamarindo. It’s a lively but manageable resort town on the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Here I enjoy long days at the beach, fresh—and cheap—seafood dinners, sunset happy hours, and mingling with the vibrant expat community made up of Americans and Canadians in big numbers but also Argentinians, Italians, Israelis, French, and a dozen other nationalities. Everywhere I’ve gone in Costa Rica I’ve met a lot of expats who own and run businesses—surf schools, tour operators, B&Bs, beach bars, art galleries, petsitting, microbreweries, catering, food trucks…and more. But despite their varied niches, all these business owners have something in common.
“We could be at the office,” my friend shouts from across the water. It’s 8.30 a.m. on a Tuesday and here we are out surfing on a glorious Costa Rican morning. The sun is shining and the turquoise blue water sparkles as it catches the rays of the morning sun. This is my paradise and also my home. In fact, I only have a 220-yard walk back to the house after my morning session.
Located on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast, Jacó is a popular beach resort town that plays host to many international and local tourists throughout the year. It’s also home to a sizeable expat population. It’s known for great restaurants and vibrant nightlife, a wide beach perfect for long walks, and consistent surf. Sport fishing, kayaking, and hiking in the surrounding jungle are also popular. Local expats are active in community churches, volunteering in the community, and simply hanging out with friends.
As a 5-year-old Canadian spending Christmas holidays in Southern California, I had a lightbulb moment—there were countries that didn’t have snow! Ever since, I harbored a desire to live in one. So when my husband, Tim, and I came to Costa Rica on our honeymoon—and fell in love with it—we decided to move here. With such friendly people, a large expat community, and many English speakers in the area, we felt it would be an easy place for us to transition.
La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is the heart of life in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. This street is Playa (as locals call the town) in a nutshell: cosmopolitan, chic yet casual, and lively from early morning to late at night, with expats and visitors from the U.S., Canada, Europe, other parts of Mexico, and all of Latin America. What used to be a tiny town, a ferry stop for tourists heading to Cozumel, has boomed. The talk around town is that it’s the fastest-growing city in Mexico. But the town’s guiding spirit of “fun in the sun” remains strong.
Lance and Mary Miller spend their time doing things they want to do…for the ﬁrst time in their lives. Sometimes that’s something as simple as enjoying coffee and fresh-baked coffee cake and cookies on their porch with friends. They can afford everything they need to live a comfortable retirement. And when they want it, the beach is just down the road. “We came to Costa Rica with the attitude that it’s an adventure. It’s fun! We want to be part of the community. We always knew we wanted to retire overseas. We did a lot of research, and Costa Rica kept coming up,” says Mary, 60.
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Mike and Alice Olson were born, raised, and married in Fargo, North Dakota. They raised their children there. But there came a time when they’d had enough and wanted to leave the harsh North Dakota winters behind. “We wanted to live in a place that was warm…and peaceful,” they say.
As we approached our retirement, my wife Cindy and I decided we wanted a new and challenging adventure. I was president of an engineering company and Cindy a registered nurse who had advanced her career from oncology nursing into medical research, but we wanted something different. Moving overseas was high on our list.
Paul Hastings and Marilyn Stevens landed in Grecia, a small town in Costa Rica’s Central Valley region, in October 2013. After a group tour and taking some time to explore other areas of the country on their own, they decided they wanted to live in the mountainous interior of the country with its temperate year-round weather.
Two years ago, after leaving our careers and selling most of everything we owned, my wife and I retired early to Costa Rica. Our life in Dallas, Texas was busy and stressful. After looking at our options, we chose to move to a foreign country, to live more simply and have time to pursue our passions. We found Costa Rica had many benefits that made it stand out. Those benefits that brought us here are the same reasons we’ve stayed…
Costa Rica can feel like a dream at times…especially the mornings that I wake up to the deep aroma of fresh-roasted coffee, harvested just a few miles from my house…or the days when my weekly errands are put on hold for a stroll on a white-sand beach. Finding adventure is easy here. My boyfriend, Pablo, and I have climbed a volcano in the morning only to be at the beach by afternoon. We’ve dined on world-class seafood prepared by European-trained chefs, but our favorite are meals with the locals where the stars are black beans broiled over an open fire and ripe plantains fried until they’re caramelized.
When we lived in the U.S. my husband, Paul, and I both worked 40+ hour weeks and, like most folks, were busy after work and on weekends doing all the “stuff” of life—laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, and running errands. Now that we are retired and living in Costa Rica, we are only as busy as we choose to be. We’re still busy, but in a different way. First off, we can do those things anytime, usually during daylight hours. And secondly, things usually take longer here than it would in the U.S.—there isn’t such a thing as one-stop-shopping. But that’s okay. Part of the fun is the hunt for what we need. We weren’t necessarily looking for easier…we wanted different.
Retiring to Lake Arenal in Costa Rica almost four years ago was one of the best decisions my wife Beaty and I ever made. We lived in the little East Texas town of Crockett and the kids were all graduated from college. After practicing dentistry for 38 years, I was hitting the point where I was ready to get out. Beaty had already retired from her physician’s assistant job.
When I wake up in the morning to the sounds of green parrots squawking and howler monkeys growling, I know it’s going to be a hot day. There’s no need to look up the forecast: Living on the North Pacific coast in Costa Rica means a longer dry season with persistent sunny days. It’s been over six months since it has rained here in our little town of Playas del Coco so everyone is waiting for it to come to get some relief from the heat.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Texas. I like the people, their independent attitude, and friendliness. But when I left for the Marines in the late ’60s, I never planned on returning. Not because of the task at hand—I was just ready to experience what the world had to offer. My eventual return was strictly out of commitment to responsibilities and an available career. When I reached 60, in a moment of clarity, I became acutely aware of how fast time was passing.
We’re sitting on our upstairs deck, overlooking San Jose, Costa Rica, and I turn and say to my wife, “This is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.” Since moving here from Colorado last year, we’ve developed a typical morning routine. We grind organic coffee beans together with a couple of organic cacao beans. Then we steep the blended grounds in our French press. Our chocolate-infused java brew pairs well with the cool Central Valley morning temperatures. Drinking our custom creation is a great excuse to enjoy each other’s company.
Before we moved to Costa Rica, my family and I lived in Colorado. While Colorado is gorgeous, for three to six months of the year, we were covered in snow; we found ourselves snowed in more often than not at our house in the mountains. We were also spending nearly $600 each winter month just to stay warm. We had fires in the fireplace, heaters running, and we still had a tough time getting our home to climb over 65 degrees during the cold winter days.
On a quiet stretch of Costa Rica’s Central Pacific you’ll find a low-key beach community. It’s been a fishing village for decades—the fishermen still go out every morning. It’s called Esterillos and if you’re looking for laidback life with a rural feel, it could be your perfect spot.
Ever wonder what it would be like to work with elephants for a day in the jungles of northern Thailand? At the Patara Elephant Camp, you can. Not all elephant camps are created equal but this is one of the highest on the list when it comes to ethics and dedicated mahouts (elephant handlers).
From bustling beach towns to small ﬁshing communities, stunning stretches of sand to lush rainforests teeming with life, Costa Rica’s Central Paciﬁc coast has a huge variety of lifestyle choices to offer expats. And thankfully, it has the real estate to match. The name of the game in the Central Paciﬁc is good value. Beachfront and walk to-the-beach properties are bargain-priced compared to anything you’d ﬁnd in popular resort areas of the U.S. And there truly is something for everybody, whether you’re into the vibrant atmosphere of a resort or the peace of a ﬁshing village.
Coming from Tyler, Texas, Harold and Lisa Beasley brought more than clothes and household items when they moved to the village of Atenas, in Costa Rica’s Central Valley region. They also brought with them a touch of Southern hospitality. That and home-style cooking is on offer at Kay’s Gringo Postres, a restaurant with a long history in the expat community, which they bought from its original expat owners.
When it comes to a perfect retirement haven close to home, the small Latin American country of Costa Rica ticks all the boxes. Less than three hours from Miami by plane, it’s easy to access, with numerous direct flights connecting Costa Rica to the U.S. and Canada. The weather is excellent throughout, and despite its small size, there’s a climate in Costa Rica for everyone. It’s the happiest place in the world, according to the Happy Planet Index, and also one of the healthiest, with plentiful clean water and fresh air. The World Healthcare Organization lavishes praise on Costa Rica’s healthcare system, which it ranks higher than that of the U.S.
The Lord of the Rings’ soaring mountains… Roman Holiday’s famous monuments and historic sites… and the tropical locales of Pirates of the Caribbean…it’s doubtful these blockbuster films would have had such an impact without those dramatic backdrops to the action. Even as CGI and green screens become more widespread, there is something about a real, physical landscape that can’t be replicated by bits and bytes.
The landscape is bucolic and peaceful, with tremendous views of forested river valleys, green-covered hills and mountains, with the red rooftops of villages in the distance. It’s not a bad place to retire…to reinvent yourself in a new country.
Set in the mountains and valleys of the interior of the country, Costa Rica’s Central Valley region surrounds the capital, San Jose. And it’s one of the most popular areas for expats in Costa Rica for several reasons. Thanks to an elevation starting at 2,500 feet, the climate is mild year-round even though it’s in the tropics, with temperatures ranging from 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Valley and mountains views are another bonus, as are the charming villages and bustling towns full of friendly people. And, being so close to the capital means that Central Valley residents enjoy the best medical care in the country, as well as top shopping and proximity to the main international airport.
Ryan Bickle, 33, was exploring the hills around the town of Montezuma in Costa Rica 10 years ago…and it changed the direction of his life. Montezuma is a fishing village turned bohemian hangout on the tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, which juts out into the Pacific in the north of the country. There is no large-scale development, no big hotels, no chain restaurants. It’s a simple place, quiet, with a laidback lifestyle that attracts expats seeking a home without resorts or the crowds that come with that level of development.
You wake up each morning for your daily walk on the beach. It’s flat, a long curve that runs for two-and-a-half miles, ending on either end in tree-covered cliffs. Your condo is just two blocks or so away. You’re renting, trying out the community before you commit to buying a property. It’s a one-bedroom condo in a gated complex, a nice mix of friendly expats and locals who congregate in the pool. You pay $500 a month during “low” season December through February and $700 the rest of the year. It’s fully furnished. A similar unit to this one with two bedrooms—in another part of the community—is listed for sale at $62,000.
Bruce Walker has a simple life. Most days you can see him riding along the golden-sand beaches and jungle paths of Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast…with guests in tow. He has lived in Playa Chiquita, a small beach community for the past four years and his Playa Chiquita Riding Adventures is one of the most popular activities for visitors to this area, which is untouched by major development or tourism. No big resorts, no big towns. It’s a rural area full of nature. Rain forest borders a turquoise ocean.
Something strange happens when you’re buying property overseas. It happens to cautious folks, wary folks, even savvy folks that are seasoned pros when it comes to buying real estate. It’s something you need to watch out for. It’s getting caught up in the fine details of your contract…and, in doing so, losing sight of the forest for the trees.
I get a couple of emails a month like this from International Living readers: “I’ve been doing my research as you suggest. I know I want to make my move abroad, but no matter how many likely destinations I cross off my list, I still have too many to choose from. Where should I go?”
On the Nicoya Peninsula, on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, is the community of Nosara. Known for its consistent waves, yoga studios, and somewhat remote location, this collection of beaches (Guiones, Pelada, Nosara, and Ostional) has virtually no shoreline development thanks to a large wildlife refuge designed to protect nesting sea turtles. As a result there are no large resorts or condo or hotel towers looming over the sand. And most expats live in homes in the forest just inland from the water. Nosara is popular with retirees, young couples, and families…just about anyone seeking a laid-back life on the beach.
Being self-employed in Costa Rica means Charlotte Viehauser can choose her own hours and spend plenty of time with her family. “Because I’ve chosen to raise my boys in Costa Rica instead of the States, I can have so much more time with them. I make my own schedule, so I can work during their school hours. In our free time, we like to get together with the other American families, play soccer, and travel within the country when we have the chance.”
As a long-time eco-tourism destination, Costa Rica is well-known for its wide variety of spectacular natural environments. There are volcanoes, rainforests, tropical beaches, waterfalls, looming mountains, rushing rivers, and more in this little country the size of West Virginia.
Joseph Mucaria fell in love with Costa Rica on a short visit. “I was only supposed to come for three months and then return to the States, but I fell in love with the culture and the environment, plus I always wanted to learn another language,” he says. That was 12 years ago. Now, he lives in an ocean-view condo just 45 minutes away from the city of Liberia.
Ryan Gast couldn’t be happier. “At 30 years old, I found a way to semi-retire,” he says. “I’m healthier, happier, and surfing better than ever. I make enough to live here. I live a simpler lifestyle. I work. I surf. I go home. And that’s exactly what I wanted. I love being around like-minded people. I’m where I’m supposed to be.” A typical day sees him sitting in front of his small surf shop. Friends riding by on bikes shout greetings…customers pop by regularly to ask about renting a board or taking surfing lessons…the vibe of this little community has a soothing effect.
Located on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific coast, Playa Hermosa (not to be confused with the beach of the same name near the border with Nicaragua) is a haven for beachgoers looking for a low-key and largely undeveloped destination. The beach is known for its consistent surf, making it a world-renowned surf spot. And there are long-term residents as well, who live in beachfront homes and in a luxury gated community just off the water.
“The environment here is beautiful,” says Lisa Vanderhaak of her new life along Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast. “You can hike just out the back door. We were looking for a slower and better pace of life and we found it.” Lisa and her husband Pete are much like many expats on the central Pacific coast. They’ve found a place where life has slowed down…where warm weather year-round means you can enjoy the natural beauty around you every day…and you can find a community that’s a good fit for you. Plus, the cost of living is very reasonable for such a beautiful, tropical beach area. Cost of living has a lot to do with the lifestyle you want. But you can live comfortably as a couple for under $3,000 a month, including housing, transportation, healthcare—everything.
Sun, sand, and surfing. These are the three main draws enticing visitors to Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast. And these have also created a ready market for businesses that can cater to the massive influx of tourists to the region, as California expat Danny Clark can attest. Danny first came to the central Pacific coast more than 20 years ago for a surf trip, and it changed his life. Today, the 42-yearold owns and manages a pair of successful restaurants in the bustling resort town of Jacó. And he says he lives a better lifestyle than he could in the States. His Side Street Bistro is a gourmet sandwich shop with an on-site microbrewery. And Graffiti is an upscale restaurant and wine bar.