By Lou Kritz
When you consider all that Alajuela, Costa Rica’s second-largest city, has to offer, one word comes to the fore, “options.” This beautiful country offers all types of environments, from very rural mountain areas, broad farming areas, beautiful beaches on the coasts of two oceans, to vibrant urban areas. Often the new resident has a difficult time choosing just where they want to settle. Alajuela often solves the dilemma.
This city is part of the Greater Metropolitan Area that includes San José, the country’s capital, along with Cartago. Alajuela straddles the Pan American Highway, route 1, that stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the north, and south to Patagonia, Chile. The city borders San José to the south and the more rural mountainous areas to the north. It’s a central location that allows easy, quick access to the capital in a short 12-mile drive to the capital’s Central Pedestrian Mall. Or, you can go north through foothills up the mountain to Poás Volcano, a 13-mile trip. If you have flown into the main airport, Juan Santamaria Airport, you’ve landed on Alajuela’s south side, 1.2 miles from the downtown area.
Retire in Alajuela, Costa Rica
The elevation of the area averages 3,123 feet above sea level, maintaining a year-round daytime temperature in the upper 70s F, and nights in the mid-60s F. Costa Rica’s two seasons are winter from May to November, the rainy season. Summer is the dry season from December to April. Both of these reversed definitions will confuse you until about the third day of the dry season and you walk out to the veranda and experience the gloriously clear blue sky, lush greenery that glows in the bright sunlight, and the sweet gentle breeze that sweeps down from the mountains.
Housing options in the area range from modern apartment rentals, a wide selection of individual houses from simple to elegant, with rentals available as well as purchase choices. Because of Alajuela’s diversity, you can choose very urban housing close to activity sights and many shopping venues, or move a little further out of town and into suburban barrios. Go a little further, especially to the north and west, into rural farming areas or cool mountain digs.
Medical care is excellent in Costa Rica, consistently rated as one of the top five countries in world-wide quality. There are top-quality medical schools and universities here that are part of the national system, turning out well-prepared doctors in all specialties.
The care options include Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, which is the government system of clinics, hospitals, and total healthcare. Membership in this system is mandatory for those who become legal residents, but the cost of excellent care is strikingly low. There is also an active independent system of doctors, dentists, hospitals, and clinics providing excellent care at 15% to 20% of U.S. rates. Private health insurance is available to those desiring it.
Retirees must be aware of several regulations when thinking of retiring to Alajuela, or Costa Rica in general. If you receive Social Security payments, you must submit your address to the Social Security Administration every two years. Penalties are severe if you fail to do so. Costa Rica also requires that one retirement benefit of at least $1,000 per couple be deposited in one of the three national banking systems. My wife and I have complied for almost six years of residency with absolutely no problems with either of these rules. In fact, the country’s banking system is much more secure than what we were used to back home.
Lifestyle in Alajuela, Costa Rica
Just about any of the lifestyle options that you prefer can be found in Alajuela. City living with a myriad of shopping options is quite evident. Housing can be a city apartment or a comfortable home in a defined neighborhood, and the neighborhood can be an all tico barrio or a community that is largely expats. The most interesting communities are a mix of the two, allowing you to experience the real Costa Rican culture while sharing with others like you who have made the big move.
Expect to pay $800 to $900 per month for basic, good quality rental housing, with the option of going as high as $3,000 to $4,000 per month in a luxury home in a gated community. Purchase prices range from $60,000 for a comfortable, clean home in a quiet in-town section and go up as size and quality rise. Luxury homes can reach $400,000 or more. Because of the many decisions to make to secure a permanent residence, most retirees rent for a year or more before they decide what to do long-term.
Once one has made the housing decisions, daily living decisions take over. Because of its size, there is a mix of traditional tico shopping venues, as well as a growing influx of more North American types of stores. Downtown Alajuela is a shopping experience, almost like no other. Specialty shops abound, most in the tico style. On a day trip, we found a store specializing in replacement coffee pots and blender pitchers for just about any model of the appliances. Next door was an upholsterers’ store filled with materials and tools to build or repair your favorite easy chair. There is a very large Central Mercado, or Central Market, where we bought hard to find fresh spices, a white dress hat trimmed in the colors of the country’s flag, a box of fresh moras, or blackberries, and a delicious lunch of casados, the country’s signature dish. It featured salad, rice-and-beans, baked plantain, fried potatoes, a tortilla, a fried egg, cheese, a piece of local fruit, all topped with slices of chicken, beef, pork, or fish.
There is also a relatively new, five-story mall that caters to expats, a PriceSmart, which is part of the Latin American division of Costco, a Walmart, and grocery stores that are similar to the U.S. standbys. Or one can shop at the local pulperia. These are small, very small, corner groceries located in every residential area and on every street corner. If you stop in often for a bag of beans, or a dozen of eggs, you will make one or more new friends, as the store is family-owned and your business is very appreciated.
Restaurant choices abound with local sodas, which are small eateries, often on the front porch of a house, where Mom does the cooking. Menus vary but always include the previously-mentioned casados. You can have a casado and a drink; coffee, iced tea, or a fruit smoothie for about $5.00 to $7.00, all served by a lady who cooks better than Grandma.
For traditional settings, there are all types of ethnic venues from Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and American styles. Fast food has been making an appearance, along with several chains, like Chiles. The real treats, however, are the locally owned offerings from every style and price and quality range, including some gourmet, top-flight specialty houses.
Social activities include many types of clubs, from card playing to yoga, to gardening, or just about anything else that you fancy. A particular favorite is the touring groups who gather together for day tours, or often a two or three-day excursion. They are heavily advertised and easy to find.
Cost of Living in Alajuela, Costa Rica
The cost of living can be affected by so many variables, all based on your personal choices. Consider this example:
|Item||Cost in USD|
|Rent for two-bedroom apartment or house||$900|
|Utilities: electric, water, cable/internet, phone||$125|
|Household Help & Incidentals||$150|
Notes: Groceries can be affected by where you shop. Buying locally is the key. Buy at the feria, the central market, and local grocers and you will do well.
Medical through Caja is about 8% of a retiree’s monthly income. But, that is per couple. One spouse is the primary and one is the dependent. Only one has to show a monthly income of at least $1,000. My wife is the principal, as her Social Security is lower than mine. For medical purposes, I am her dependent, and we pay $96 to $98 per month.
Dining/Entertainment at $160 is based on one top-cost meal per week for two. Locally-owned restaurants and neighborhood dining sites could lower that cost.
Transportation is highly variable. The $150 a month above is low—reasonable, based on your usage. Eschewing a car, and even taking two bus trips and two taxi rides a week would bring that figure to less than $100.
Things to Do in Alajuela, Costa Rica
Enjoy the City Parks
Most towns have one. Alajuela has three, and all are in close proximity to each other. General Tomás Guardia Park commemorates a progressive president who carried out many works of benefit for the country. Parque Calián Vargas commemorates the social activist who worked to improve the lot of the average Costa Rican. Juan Santanamária Park honors the national hero of Costa Rica who gave his life to defeat William Walker, a U.S. confederate who was trying to subdue Latin America and make it part of the U.S. Confederacy. The parks are beautiful and peaceful, and surrounded by coffee shops, restaurants, and stores for browsing.
Wander the City and Shop Until You Drop
The downtown of Alajuela has some of the most interesting stores, all within walking distance. From grocers to auto parts to pharmacies, it’s all found here. Bookstores and health food stores abound. The Mercado Central, open all the time, contains every food choice you could make, along with dry goods, hardware, and much more. At the end of the week on Friday and Saturday, attention turns to the feria, or weekly farmers market. Offered are just-picked local fruits and vegetables, local meats and seafood, baked goods, plus many other side items, all at bargain-basement prices. It is also the social event of the week, and a chance to catch up on the latest over a cup of Costa Rica’s finest coffee.
Be Astonished at the Cathedral of Alajuela
The extraordinary Cathedral is next to Alajuela’s General Tomás Guardia Park. It began as a small chapel in 1782 and grew to be a cathedral in 1921. Since that time, it has been renowned for its neoclassical style and elegant artwork and architecture.
Learn About the Animals of Costa Rica at the Rescate Wildlife Center
Just a short drive, or a quick bus ride, is the Rescate (Rescue) Wildlife Center in La Garita. It is both a rescue and release program for native Costa Rican animals and a residential safe haven for injured or handicapped animals that would not survive in the wild. You will see over 800 rescued animals living in veterinary supervised surroundings. Also, enjoy the botanical gardens, refreshments, and a full-service restaurant.
Visit Everything Horticultural in La Garita
Tie this in with your visit to Rescate Wildlife Center, or make a day of visiting a plethora of viveros, or garden centers. Begin at Vivero Central at the intersection of route 3 and route 1, where you’ll see thousands of plants, trees, shrubs, planting containers of every type, and more. Continue on th way back to Alajuela and visit smaller, but no fewer interesting sales lots. Many specialize, like the one where we bought our citrus trees.
Enjoy the Shopping Options at the Malls and Big-Box Stores
Within the urban environs of Alajuela is a large (for Costa Rica) Walmart, a PriceSmart store, a division of Costco, the City Mall, a five-story modern facility, for when you need a touch of back-home shopping, and Plaza Real.
Plaza Real is somewhat smaller, and with smaller shops, than the big guys. It has seven banks, 28 shops, and the best part, 19 restaurants providing everything from ice cream, coffee shops to full-service options all the way up to Peruvian gourmet dining.
Enjoy a Restful Day Learning the History of Your New Home
The Juan Santamaría Historical Cultural Museum, located beside the Tomas Guardia Park, commemorates the National Campaign to defeat efforts to overtake the country. Santamaria was, and is, the hero of the effort, giving his life to his country. He was a native of Alajuela. The buildings are examples of neoclassical architecture and house a rich collection of Costa Rican historical artifacts. You’ll be visiting the 200-year-old Barracks of Arms and the old Alajuela Jail, much quieter and more peaceful than they were back in their day.
Explore, Explore, Explore!
After soaking up all this culture and history, it’s time to jump on the excellent busses or drive and explore so much more that Costa Rica has to offer. It’s a short 30-minute trip to the center city of San José. Southern options are the Pacific coast resorts of Jaco and Manual Antonio. Go east to Cartago, the first capital of the country. Or, try a northern route to Poás Volcano and the town of Fraijanes, where you can dine in style and purchase the strawberries and blackberries that have made this mountain town famous.
The list goes on: La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano hot springs will soothe your aching back. The resorts of the Nicoya Peninsula and Guanacaste will amaze you with their natural beauty, peaceful locations, and pleasant days spent with pleasant people.