Just south of the busy beach resort town of Jaco on the coastal highway is one of Costa Rica’s hidden gems. Esterillos is a quiet community (there are actually three sections: Esterillos Este, Esterillos Centro, and Esterillos Oeste) that a small but significant group of expats have come to call home. Laid-back beach living is the name of the game. No big hotels, no tall condos…not much development at all, although it is a popular weekend destination for Costa Ricans who live inland. You can walk the beach for miles and not see many other people. During the week, your only companions will likely be surfers and fisherman.
Her hands move in a rhythmic, soothing motion across my back, releasing any tension or stress, and loosening tight muscles. I lay face down on the massage table in a deep state of relaxation. “Ahh, this is the life.” After our massages, my husband, Fred, and I stroll through Nosara, a coastal town on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, and stop off to eat some fresh fruit from a local stand and a hearty meal of local fare—chicken, rice, and beans—at a small street-side restaurant. Our feet take us in the direction of the beach. Shoes come off, toes dig into warm, soft sand. They continue moving until bathed in the bath-water warm waves of the Pacific Ocean.
My husband Michael and I have come to realize that we are not really city folks, even though we lived for years in the suburbs of one of Canada’s biggest cities. But when we found a luxurious home in the hills above the Costa Rican capital San José, where we could stay for free we were happy to make an exception. We were house-sitting a villa perched high in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, near enough to admire San José and access all its amenities, but also far enough away from the busy center. We were in Escazú, home to foreign embassies, diplomats, and wealthy business owners and one of San José’s more upmarket neighborhoods.
It’s that time of year again, when International Living calls on its extensive and ever-growing network of correspondents the world over to help us assemble our Annual Global Retirement Index. This is the most comprehensive list of retirement havens around the world. These are places where the weather’s good, the costs are low, and the life you’ll have is comfortable and full of adventure. Each year we require more and more information from our editors and contributors in order to put together these rankings. We draw on data from across the world, we plunder the stats of international organizations, and we bring it all together to crunch and mull over in-house.
When I first started planning my move to Costa Rica years ago, I got some interesting feedback from more than one acquaintance. “Aren’t you worried about safety? They love to rob gringos there, you know.” I guess they pictured “banditos” crouched in the bushes ready for ambush around every bend in the road. It’s worth mentioning this seemed to be their view of all of Latin America, Asia, and most of Europe.
Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia. Overall, you’ll find a low cost of living (many retired expat couples I meet live well on around $2,000 a month)…top-notch, low-cost medical care…friendly people—the national motto is Pura Vida, which translates to “life is good”…and bargain real estate—you can rent from $300 a month and up and find North America-style homes for $150,000 or less. But tiny Costa Rica has a tremendous variety of climates, lifestyles, and landscapes within its borders: bustling beach resorts, quiet fishing villages, high mountain towns, vast farmlands, looming volcanoes, lush rainforests, isolated rural areas…
When Harry and Barbara Jones were planning their retirement abroad, they had several countries in mind based on their research: Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, and Ecuador. They scouted Costa Rica first because they had been years ago on a cruise and were impressed with the country. After that first trip, they never made it anywhere else. The warm and friendly people, the low cost of living, and the natural beauty sold them. The couple, from Charlotte, North Carolina, at first looked at property on the beach but weren’t fans of the heat and humidity. So they headed inland and up into the mountains of the Central Valley, specifically the town of Grecia.
Costa Rica is one of the most popular and well-known vacation, second-home, and retirement destinations for North Americans. Though a small country, Costa Rica’s regions offer a wide variety of climate, lifestyle, and landscape. And renting in Costa Rica is a great way to experience day-to-day life while looking for your own place under the tropical sun. Much of Costa Rica’s lush tropical forests and sun-splashed shoreline has been designated as national parkland or reserve. Costa Rica is rapidly approaching carbon-neutral status in energy production and emissions, and its health care system is one of the most affordable and highly rated in the world.
The Feria Verde, or Green Farmers’ Market, is held every Saturday in the Aranjuez neighborhood of San José, Costa Rica’s capital. Founded in 2008, it’s one of the original organic and gourmet markets in the country, offering everything from produce to goat cheese to gluten-free pasta and a score of other unique products usually not available in most Costa Rican stores. The items are crafted or grown by small local producers.
A view, good-value real estate, low cost of living, friendly locals…they’re all important as you search for a new community to settle in abroad. But if you have a green thumb, you may have some special requirements for your dream home. You’ll need good soil and the right light. Maybe you want multiple growing seasons, which is possible in some tropical areas.
After working in the U.S. for more than two decades, I love the freedom I now enjoy from making an income in one of the most beautiful parts of Costa Rica. I wake each morning, excited to see what the day will bring. That first cup of coffee on the patio—watching whatever may be in the jungle—is awesome. Monkeys and their antics…perhaps an exotic bird I’ve never seen before…a new bloom on an exotic plant…all these things give me great pleasure.
I’ve never seen so much green…and in so many shades and variations. The tall, jungle-covered mountains of Costa Rica’s Southern Zone dominate the landscape. And many locals and long-time expats say they enjoy these mountain views even more than the ocean, thanks to the lush vegetation that covers them. This region, on the southern Pacific coast, is a land of empty beaches, wild Pacific waters, those tall mountains dropping to brief lowlands before turning to a strip of sand, and then blue ocean.
For seven years, I commuted 90 miles a day to my job in a Fortune 200 company. It was a great company, with great co-workers, and a really great salary to boot. There was just one problem. I was miserable. But with a mortgage and a car payment…well, you know how it is. Then July 31, 1993 I got the worst news of my life. That’s the day my mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack. She was only 61 and just five months shy of her much-awaited retirement.
I’ve never seen so much green…and in so many shades and variations. The tall, jungle-covered mountains of Costa Rica’s Southern Zone dominate the landscape. And many locals and long-time expats say they enjoy these mountain views even more than the ocean, thanks to the lush vegetation that covers them. This region, on the southern Pacific coast, is a land of extremes. Empty beaches, wild Pacific waters, those tall mountains dropping to brief lowlands before turning to a strip of sand, and then blue ocean.
I discovered the potential of ecommerce 14 years ago when I started my online maternity store…from my kitchen table. At the time, I was searching for a business that offered me the freedom to work from anywhere and the flexibility I needed to care for my young children after my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I found it in ecommerce. In its first month, my first site brought in $7,000. I was ecstatic. And it grew from there. I turned my online business into a multi-million-dollar business in a short amount of time.
The classic vision of Costa Rica that you find on postcards and tourism board posters is of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The white sand beaches…blue ocean…and the wildlife-filled rain forest as a backdrop.
Our balcony in Costa Rica looks out at the tops of the trees, giving us a perfect view of the forest. Toucans, tanagers, and tropical birds I’ve never seen before gather there every morning. Three-toed sloths graze in nearby branches, while the Pacific Ocean laps in the distance. As my husband and I sip coffee and watch the show each morning, I can’t help but be thankful for my good fortune.
In many ways, the Central American country of Costa Rica is a pioneer of the concept of eco-tourism and adventure sports. The idea is that instead of lounging on the beach or going on a sightseeing bus tour, participants venture out into the wild and natural areas for a variety of activities, like bird watching and trekking…or they get an adrenaline rush from engaging in safe but thrilling activities like zip-lining. Whatever your activity, you get to see wildlife up close and enjoy being out in a beautiful natural setting. And there are plenty of things for people of all ages, including U.S. retirees in Costa Rica, can do safely—and it’s a lot of fun, too.
Conventional wisdom says that you have to get the travel bug out of your system early; that once you have children you have to abandon your overseas dreams—or at least shelve them until the kids grow up and leave the nest. But it’s just not true…and an increasing number of American families are proving it. Folks from all over the U.S. are bucking tradition and traveling the world with their kids—for a summer, a year, and longer.
Last year I traveled to nine countries. I stayed in Costa Rica for six months and Mediterranean Malta for three months. This year, I am once again dividing my time between Costa Rica and the Mediterranean…as well as visiting seven other countries. Right now, I’m in London, taking a break from the tropics and the glorious island life. My days are filled with visiting attractions like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the London Eye…while stopping off at quaint English pubs for lunch and perhaps a beer or two. By night, I’m enjoying the buzz around Piccadilly Circus.
It wasn’t the practical reasons, like lower cost of living, great—and cheap—medical care, and friendly people, that convinced Dave Scott to move to San Ramón, a town on the western edge of Costa Rica’s Central Valley region. Though the country has all those advantages and more, and while those were factors in the decision, it was something else that drew him. “It was like an invisible string around my neck pulling me here,” says Dave. “It’s more of a heart thing than a head thing. It’s hard to explain. It was just the feeling I had.”
Check any list of the world’s best retirement destinations, including International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index, and you’ll find Costa Rica near the top. And it’s not a new trend; this little Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama has attracted North American expats for more than 30 years due to many diverse factors. Here are four reasons why many retirees think it’s a great place to live. One of the biggest attractions of Costa Rica is the weather. For those seeking relief from frigid winters, the warm temperatures year-round are quite welcome.
To some folks, home is a place on a map or a house filled with memories and possessions. But for Ellen and Hank Barone, “home, it turns out, is something internal and portable. We’ve traveled to all 50 states and six continents and are curious and comfortable in the world,” says Ellen. “So in 2011, when we began looking for a new place to live—it wasn’t restricted to the U.S.”
The first time I saw Chiriquí Province I was enchanted. It felt familiar and was just so green! Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, I’m a country girl at heart and Chiriquí felt like home. My husband Al and I had rented a car to tour Panama in our quest for a new place to live. Having traveled throughout Central America, Panama was our pick due to its warm climate, low cost of living, developed infrastructure and economic and political stability. We came back to stay in 2009, made our home in Chiriquí and I’m still awed by the stunning scenery.
Jutting out into the Pacific on the country’s northwest corner, the Nicoya Peninsula is set apart geographically from mainland Costa Rica. It’s more than an hour’s drive to the nearest sizable city, Nicoya. And from the capital, San José, and the main international airport there, it will take the better part of a day and include a mix of rough dirt roads and pavement winding through forest, farmland, and mountains. One route, to the southern tip of the peninsula, even includes a ferry crossing.
More and more baby boomers are taking their retirements overseas, report experts at InternationalLiving.com, who say they’re seeing a significant increase in demand for their research and services. Today more than half-a-million retirees receive their Social Security benefits abroad. According to International Living editor Dan Prescher, that likely under-represents the actual number of Americans retired overseas.
Vikki Gold is delighted with her move to Costa Rica. “I love it here. I’m at peace. There’s beautiful scenery, a great climate, and so much wildlife. It’s our little paradise,” she says. She came here just over a year ago after she and her daughter, Hollee, bought and renovated a boutique hotel in the jungle, which they renamed Villas de Oros (Villas of Golds in Spanish—a play on their last name).
Sarah Booth was only 23 when she bought her first vacation rental. It was a tiny studio in a ski resort village in Canada, but it was the beginning of a portfolio that now includes properties in Panama, Colombia, and Mexico…and an income that allows Sarah to enjoy a wonderful lifestyle from her home in Coronado, Panama. “Ultimately, my rentals have funded my lifestyle and my travels,” says Sarah. “I live for free and enjoy awesome rental yields.”
Until a few days ago my knowledge of coffee was as follows: buy a bag at the store once in a while and drink a couple of cups to get me going each day. I’ve just returned from an extremely interesting tour, organized by the owner of a local coffee shop here in Cuenca, Ecuador, with a new-found appreciation for my morning beverage.
After researching Costa Rica in the pages of International Living and seeing the country featured in real estate TV shows, Victoria, 67, and Larry Torley, 65, were ready to check it out for themselves.
And it didn’t take long for them to find a new home. “On that trip we checked out Jaco,” says Victoria, referring to a popular Central Pacific coast resort town. “But the beach areas are too hot and humid. So we drove up here to Arenal on a Saturday morning. By 5 p.m. we had made an offer on a house.”
There are thousands of foreigners dotted about Guatemala quietly doing their thing. Lorenzo Gottschamer is one of them. “I was only supposed to be here for three days,” says Lorenzo. “Yet I’m still here over 30 years later.” Originally from Redwood River, California, the 68-year-old Lorenzo first decided to make the move overseas after an accident ended his career as a professional firefighter.
“Won’t you miss your family and friends if you move overseas?” That’s a question we at IL get asked a lot, and the answer is… “Of course you will.” It’s something my husband Dan and I have experience of. We didn’t think about it too much when we moved to Ecuador back in 2001. With the exception of Dan’s mother, none of our family—my parents and our siblings—lived in the same city as we did.
The expats who’ve decided to make their home in Costa Rica have the right idea. This is a really great country. The beaches are fabulous…the jungle is amazing…and you can eat the healthiest, freshest food imaginable. Plus it’s full of opportunity for creating an income. Internet services are good…tourism is booming…and there’s a need for all manner of services.
As Corey Coates finishes his morning stroll along Jaco beach he can’t help but feel grateful to have such balance and peace in his life. Every day he wakes up with the sun, meditates, enjoys Costa Rica’s superb fruits and coffee for breakfast, then visits the ocean from his beachfront luxury condo. “The satisfaction I feel each day doing what I love is immeasurable. Some days are harder than others, but at the end of the day I’ve done exactly what I want when I want.”
Silence…the morning air is fresh and pure. Sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, doing some morning reading, I hear a rustling in the mango trees nearby. Then there’s a thud, a mango hitting the ground. But it didn’t fall coincidentally. It was intentionally dropped. Suddenly the silence is broken by the culprit—the deep bellow of a howler monkey. It is mango season in Costa Rica, and the capuchins and howlers have set up camp in the mango grove on the property where we’re currently living on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Located about three hours northwest of San José, Costa Rica’s capital, the Arenal region has been drawing eco-minded travelers in search of opportunities in wildlife watching, jungle hiking, water sports, and other activities for decades. But in recent years it’s become much more than a tourist destination, attracting an increasing number of expats interested in making permanent homes here. The area is dominated by the 33-square-mile Lake Arenal. Also, looming above the landscape at the east end of the lake, is the 5,479-foot Volcan Arenal, a cone-shaped volcano that is active but not dangerous
I still remember the first time I went to the feria, or farmers’ market, in Grecia, the Central Valley town I call home here in Costa Rica. It was a bit embarrassing. I was buying some carrots and potatoes and had dutifully handed over my filled-to-the-brim bags to be weighed. The vendor read out the total, and I handed over a 10,000 colones note (about $20). Still adjusting to the exchange rate, it took me a second to realize I owed him only about $1.50—and I was taking all his change for the day! I quickly counted out some coins and handed those over to the grateful vendor instead.
Skip ahead a year and a half, and we find ourselves still gazing with eyes wide open at the land where we began. Costa Rica completely captured this whimsical family, much to our surprise, with its total package. As nature lovers, we experience an ever-present awe for our intense surroundings—the tropical birds, countless waterfalls, incredible beaches, and stunning mountain views…so much diversity in such a small country.
“I love the stimulation. Every time I take someone on a tour I learn something new about places I’ve seen hundreds of times before.” So says Helene Kahn who has loved Mexico since she was 10 years old. Now she lives in the artistic hub of San Miguel de Allende and gets paid for something she loves doing: showing people around her adopted country.
In many ways, the Nicoya Peninsula is off the radar of most tourists and expats who make their way to Costa Rica. A large landmass jutting out into the Pacific, it’s harder to get to and travel around than most areas of the country, due to lack of quality roads. Some spots are best reached by ferry from the mainland.