The southern Pacific coast, officially known as the country’s Southern Zone, is the Costa Rica of postcards and guidebook covers. Palm tree lined, virtually vacant beaches. The wild sea with rocky islands just offshore. Deep, thick jungle surrounds you inland. One of the most biodiverse regions of one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, it’s home to howler monkeys, toucans, and sloths and hundreds of other animals, as well as lush plant life from towering tropical hardwood trees to delicate orchids and sturdy bromeliads sprouting from branches.
“Life has slowed down a lot for me,” says Jerry Thomas, 62, who lives in Ojochal, a small village surrounded by jungle, with his wife Susanne. “A year seems like a year again, not three months.”
All in all, it’s a place to relax. To enjoy that hammock hanging on your front porch. But how much should you be ready to spend for that front porch and the house that goes with it?
Despite interest from investors and well-heeled vacation home owners, you can still find good-value real estate. Prices start at $150,000 for simple digs, going up to multi-millions for the luxury palaces favored by wealthy vacation home owners. So it may not be dirt cheap. But with ocean-view (measured in degrees here—180 means no trees or hills block any of your view) homes starting at the low $200,000s, prices are a quarter of what you’d pay for similar property on the southern California coast, for example.
And there are alternatives. You can go inland—about 20 minutes from the beach—and forgo the ocean view in favor of a mountain and jungle landscape—which many long-term residents here actually prefer. You’ll get more house for your money and enjoy the cooler weather that comes with life at 1,000 feet.
The Southern Zone extends to the border with Panama and into the Osa Peninsula, site of the huge Corcovado National Park. Expats do live there—there’s good surfing and sport fishing around the peninsula. But the majority of expat residents are concentrated around the towns of Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal…and the land in between, with dirt roads (four-wheel drive recommended, especially during rainy season) branching off from the paved coastal highway into the hills above.
Dominical is a world-famous surf spot—a small funky beach town. Uvita, 30 minutes south, is the commercial center, where the big grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, and banks are found. Ojochal, another 15 minutes down the road, is a village in the jungle, well-known for its gourmet restaurants, including Italian, Mediterranean, Indonesian, and French cuisine. The region has received increased attention in recent years thanks to the completion of the coastal highway in 2010, which cut drive time from the capital, San José, and the international airport there to three hours. That has spurred development.
This part of Costa Rica will never be home to fast-paced beach resorts. There’s a cap of three stories on buildings—so no condo towers or big hotels. There’s a large national park, Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, that covers much of the shoreline here—so no communities or resorts or cookie-cutter subdivisions near the ocean. The park, which protects migrating humpback whales that congregate just offshore during mating season, December to April, gives the region its other name: Costa Ballena, or Whale Coast.
The great thing is that the terrain here prevents flat, grid-like developments except for a few places in the lowlands. That means privacy and space.
On my last trip I discovered that ocean views won’t break the bank. On a just over one acre lot, is a 1,900-square-foot, one-bedroom home with large terrace, fully furnished. Located in the mountains above Uvita, it offers a full view of the ocean, including the Whale’s Tail, a sandbar and rocky outcropping that when viewed from above looks like just that. There’s plenty of room to build on the property, which is listed at $289,000.
Another three-bedroom home with a more limited ocean-view on just under an acre, is available for $219,000. Set at 700 feet, it’s in prime position to take advantage of cooling sea breezes.
In the village of Platanillo, at about 1,000 feet in altitude, you’ll find mountain views—which many expats actually prefer. A two-bedroom, two-bath home with a view of the mountains and farms surrounding it is for sale for $239,000. Just down the road was a small cabin, outfitted with eco-friendly features, for $125,000. If you like to live simply, it would be more than enough. But the property’s four acres offer ample space to build a larger home or maybe cottages you could rent out for income as vacation rentals. At $100 to $120 a square foot for quality construction, it’s not a bad proposition.
There are plenty of other lots as well. A recent listing featured 3.2 acres of raw land 10 minutes south of Ojochal in the Tres Rios area. It’s in the jungle, two waterfalls on site, priced at $29,000. A ready-to-build homesite in the hills with infrastructure in place, the most popular option for most, is available for $89,000.
If you’re building a home, there are several things to consider. Make sure the land is zoned for residential development. And double-check that you have or can get access to water and electric—ask the utility provider, not the seller. As far as a builder, often developers will have relationships in place. But if you go on your own, take your time and get referrals from fellow expats before picking someone. And before one shovel hits the ground take out insurance so that if the builder goes bust, your investment is protected.
If you want to live within a walk of the beach, that’s possible, too. But be warned, it can be much warmer at sea level, with more biting insects, especially at dusk and dawn. A newly-built 1,700-square-foot townhome— two minutes to the beach and five minutes from Dominical—is available now for $249,000. It’s the closest you can get to beach legally—right outside the maritime zone where development is restricted by law.
Truthfully, it can be hot, muggy, and buggy when you’re in the lowlands near the ocean. That’s why most expats here find homes or lots set back on the mountains that drop dramatically to the sea or further inland with jungle and mountain views. Many are set in former cattle pasture slowly turning back to nature or in small spaces carved out of the jungle.
And, of course, you don’t have to buy. There are plenty of rentals (usually with a three- to six-month minimum stay) so you can explore and find your dream home on your schedule. An 1,800-square-foot oceanview home in Uvita with a pool is available for $1,200 a month. If you’re willing to go without the view but still walk to the beach, there’s a three-bedroom home for $625.
A big consideration if you’re looking at the Southern Zone is the rainy season. There are showers in the afternoons from late April to November. Mornings are usually clear. The height of the season, with heavy rainfall, is September and October, and it’s recommended you visit then to see if you can live with it. Many long-term expats prefer the rainy season because it really brings out the many shades of green in the vegetation.
It may be on the radar of retirees and real estate agents. But the Southern Zone is far from crowded or overrun. And the pace of life there remains little changed at its core. Sure, you have more and more modern conveniences, top-notch restaurants, imported items at the grocery store, hospitals, fitness centers, and all those comforts from home. But you’re still worlds apart from North America. It’s destined to remain a quiet area of lush natural beauty.