Chris Day positively bounces with energy and enthusiasm as she describes her expat life on the shores of Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. Physically, she's just bursting with passion for the place, and for the very idea of relocation overseas.
If you ever thought that retirement means slowing down, lazing around on the porch, and generally just waiting for life to wind its way to a close, Chris and her husband, Steve, are proof that it's actually the exact opposite.
"My morning starts with the dogs," Steve says. "We have five of them. We take about an hour walk, and when we get back, I do my Spanish lessons. After that, I teach English online, about eight to 15 hours a week. That's more something I do in the evenings. In the meantime, we have about an acre of land with around 30 fruit trees that I take care of, and then I write. I've finished one book, and a couple of short stories."
Chris is no slouch either. At 58, she's not technically retired yet, but these days, she chooses what she wants to do. After a career in sales and marketing in the U.S., she's applying her skillset to something much closer to her heart—running a small vegan business that includes a shop, cooking classes, and running a local Facebook group on the subject.
"We do the things that we want to do," Chris says. "I mean, there are certain things that you have to do, of course—house maintenance and cleaning and all, but for the most part, once you're retired, you can do whatever you want. And you define that however you want, too. Some people would say ‘Well, you're not retired if you're teaching classes,' but, to me, that's what I've always wanted to do. And Steve enjoys it, too. So, we just do what we want."
It's an approach to life that would be much harder to manage in the U.S., mainly because of the sheer cost of living in North America. "You can save not only on obvious things, like the cost of groceries or the price of a meal at a restaurant," Steve says. "We go out for a meal at a nice restaurant, and it's a similar price to the U.S. Maybe $50 for a meal for two, with a glass of wine each. But we're paying only $400 a year in property taxes. When we lived in Syracuse, New York, we were paying 10 times that amount."
Chris and Steve didn't choose Costa Rica on a whim—they travelled all over Latin America, determined to find exactly the right place to settle. "Ecuador was a strong possibility," Chris admits. "We actually attended an International Living conference in Quito, Ecuador, and took some trips to some of the other cities like Cuenca while we were there. We looked at Peru, too. But when we came to Costa Rica, and we went on a trip to Arenal, I saw the lake and the volcano…and fell in love with it. I just had to live here."
Do your research, but follow your heart—Steve and Chris could be writing the book on successful expat living. When they moved full-time in 2018, there were no half-measures. "We bought one-and-a-half acres of land overlooking the lake," Steve says. "We couldn't find a house that was exactly what we wanted, so we looked into building. I found that we could build here for a finished price of $85 per square foot, and that's very competitive compared to the U.S. We knew we wanted something of about 2,000 square feet, so that's exactly what we built."
Their home is bright, custom-built to their needs, and because of the microclimate on the north section of Lake Arenal where it's situated, they never need any sort of central heating or air conditioning thanks to the constant 65 F to 85 F temperatures. That means they can throw the windows and doors open to the breeze.
"We wanted something with lots of outdoor space," Steve explains. One-third of the house is covered porch space, for sitting out and watching the volcano. It's got three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large kitchen. That was important, because we knew that Chris would be using that for teaching cooking classes. Lately, we've turned one of the bedrooms into an office, but we still have a nice guest room for when people visit."
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Outdoor living and a healthy diet help keep Steve and Chris topped up with the energy they need for their packed-full lifestyle, but we all get wear and tear. Healthcare in Costa Rica, though, is another of those stealthy savings that Steve was talking about.
"The CAJA healthcare system here is based on a percentage of your declared income. Ours is calculated on my Social Security payment, and works out to $48 per month. That's for both of us. Do the math on that—I had Medicare in the U.S., so that doesn't count the same, but back there, Chris was paying $500 a month just for her insurance, with a really high co-pay."
Even when they supplement their socialized healthcare with private options, it's a savings. "We go to a dermatologist every six months," Chris says. "That costs $100 per appointment, but that's for both of us. And we go to the dentist twice-yearly too, for cleaning and checkup. That works out about $100 a time, too. That's very competitive. But we pay nothing at all for blood tests and diagnostics at the CAJA clinic every six months, and all our meds are paid for on the CAJA system."
Ultimately, for Steve and Chris, the benefits of moving to Costa Rica are more to do with the heart than the head. "It's the sunny days," Steve says. "We're surrounded by rainforest, it's always green and warm. I got so sick of the winters in New York."
For Chris, it's the wildlife that stands out. "We had 14 toucans at our bird feeder in November. It's just incredible. Some people come here and get upset that they can't find exactly the same items in the supermarket as they do in the U.S., for example. It irritates them that things aren't the same as they were at home. But that's the joy of it. It's not like home, and it never will be. You have to acknowledge that…and enjoy it!"