"I'm a birdwatcher," Debbie Crowley tells me, "so I'm in heaven here."
We're sitting at outdoor tables on the pale sand of Tamarindo beach, Costa Rica, so close to the Pacific Ocean waves that our conversation is punctuated by their rhythmic crash. Debbie has been out for a morning walk along the water's edge, looking out for birds (or anything else) that will make for a good photograph. She always carries her DSLR camera with her, ready for those impromptu moments when nature provides a spectacle.
Morning walks are the time to meet and greet Tamarindo's expat population. While the vacationers sleep off the evening's excesses, the long-term expats know that it's the golden hours just after dawn that are most rewarding. At 7 a.m., the air is still, the temperature hovers around 70 F, and the wide expanse of soft blonde sand is an oasis of calm.
One way to identify the long-term expats here is to look out for dog walkers. Vacationers don't tend to bring their pets with them on short visits, so when you see people out walking their dogs, there's a good chance that they're long-termers. And once the walk is done, a long-established gathering place is at the brightly-painted tables of Tamarindo's oldest bar—Nogui's.
The mango trees and coconut palms which shade the al fresco dining area of Nogui's bar/restaurant are welcome protection from the morning sun (daytime temperatures can hit the high 80s F here, but mornings are fresh and mild until 10 or so). It's there that I first meet Debbie, sitting at the table next to mine. It's a relaxed ambience, and we soon get chatting. Debbie identifies the birds that flit between the trees as we eat.
The breakfast menu at Nogui's is extensive these days—you can choose classics from bacon and eggs, to pancakes and syrup, or opt for the more local option of scrambled eggs with rice, beans, and fried plantain.
It wasn't always the case. Nogui's has been here on the beach at Tamarindo since 1974, back before the village had phone lines, reliable electricity, or refrigeration (Nogui used to have ice delivered once a week. After a couple of days, it would melt. Long-term expats still talk about "Warm beer Wednesday".)
These days, Tamarindo has come a long way from its village origins. It's now a booming beach destination that's established itself firmly on the vacation map for North Americans.
It's also one of Costa Rica's most popular expat destinations. U.S.-style sports bars, food courts, cafés, boutique stores, and well-stocked supermarkets line its streets. International schools and co-working spaces cater to long-term visitors (Costa Rica is now issuing 180-day tourist visas as standard, so the part-time expat option is now more viable than ever).
Debbie is here for the long haul, though. In August 2021, newly divorced, she sold her home in New Hampshire. With the proceeds, she was able to buy a one-bedroom condo in Tamarindo for $210,000. As soon as the deal was done, she moved in, and has been here ever since. Retired now, she has all the time she needs for birdwatching, ocean-side strolls, and lazy breakfasts on the sand.
"I can walk to the beach in five minutes," she tells me. "I've made lots of friends since coming here," she says. "It's been easy. People just talk to me, and I talk back. I always have my big camera with me, my birdwatching camera, and it's a conversation starter. People want to know what I'm doing, and we get to talking."
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With the nearby international airport in Liberia (90 minutes' drive away) now extended and connecting to more destinations than ever, Debbie doesn't feel isolated from friends and family in the States. "My kids live in Tampa, Florida," she explains. "They come out here for Thanksgiving, and I visit them three or four times a year."
Regular trips to the U.S. give Debbie a chance to catch up, but also to gain perspective on her move, and compare lifestyles between there and Costa Rica. She reports big savings in her property taxes, but also in her day-to-day outgoings. "Groceries are no more expensive than they are in the United States. I think the United States may be more expensive than it is here now," she says. "I mean, prices have gone up here, but prices have gone up in the States, too."
Other things are much more affordable. "Healthcare, for example, costs a fraction of what it does in America. And it's very good care. I was really impressed with the service. I had an MRI scan at a private hospital, and it cost me just $187. I was shocked!"
Debbie points out that the scan was performed in Liberia, the closest city (around 90 minutes' drive away). Being a small seaside town, Tamarindo doesn't have its own hospital, although it does have several doctor's clinics and a medical center. Nevertheless, Debbie was delighted with the service she received.
"I didn't have to go onto a waiting list—they took me for the scan within minutes of making the appointment. The doctor read me my results and explained them, then gave me a printout with all the details. I hand-delivered that to my own doctor here in Tamarindo. They involve you in every step of the process, and treat you like a person, not a number."
When I ask Debbie what it is that she finds here in Costa Rica that she didn't have in New Hampshire, her answer is short, but significant. "Peace," she says, and falls silent for a moment as if to illustrate what she means. Birdsong and the sound of waves breaking on shore fill the gap in conversation. No engine noises, no sirens, no construction sounds. Yes, I see her point.