Small Town Life in Atenas, Costa Rica’s Central Valley

“I knew when it was time to retire we’d move to the tropics. I was bored with the predictability of life in the U.S….the politics…the franchises,” says 70-year-old Roberta Laidman.

Along with her husband, Harry Raabe (68), Roberta planned a visit to Panama to scout out the highland town of Boquete. They were attracted to the green mountain views and year-round temperate climate (made possible by the altitude—3,600 feet).

But during a layover in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, their connecting flight was canceled.

Facing a $700 fee to get on the next flight, they decided instead to rent a car and explore Costa Rica. The small town of Atenas, which they’d heard about during their retirement research, was about 30 minutes west of the airport.

“We ended up in a cafe. We told the owner our story, and he asked, ‘Why not retire here?'” recalls Roberta of that fateful trip six years ago. “He pointed to a real estate agent in the café and said, ‘He’ll help you find a place to live.'”

And he did. The friendly, small-town atmosphere, beautiful scenery, slow pace of life, and access to good medical care sold them on Atenas. “We liked the look of the town,” says Roberta. They had found their retirement destination.

Just one week after first arriving, the couple bought a home. These days—having bought two more homes in Atenas—they live in a gated community about two miles outside town. It’s far enough out to have a rural feel…and great Central Valley views…but close enough to all the modern amenities in town.

But retirement was still a ways out during that first trip. They returned home to Los Angeles, visiting Atenas three or four times a year, surviving the stress of a city where money and status are all-important. While Harry worked at his IT job, Roberta cared for her mother.

In the meantime, they rented their homes in Atenas. Then, in 2011, they finally moved full-time to Costa Rica. In their new home, Roberta continues to work as a sculptor, specializing in fanciful depictions of dogs in bronze, resin, and ceramic. She also paints and draws. Harry continues to work remotely for the same company he did in the U.S. He also volunteers his time to privately tutor Costa Rican students in English as a Second Language, studies Spanish, and puts in time on his spin bike.

Atenas itself continues to surprise and delight them. They treasure running into friends and acquaintances wherever they go. They’re regulars at the farmers’ market. And they love the community celebrations, too.

“There are horse parades, called topes, which might have more than 2,000 horses trotting through the town, and oxcart parades with giant oxen. On Independence Day, small children carry little torches in an early-evening parade just for them,” says Roberta. “They honor San Rafael, the patron saint of Atenas, with festive community events, including the performance of ‘payasos’—clowns with awesome papier mâché masks.”

Overall, the way of life in Costa Rica is what most attracts Roberta and Harry. “We felt a cohesion with the community. It’s a healthy community. There’s a growing middle class. People send their kids to university. I like that,” says Roberta. “In the U.S. they talk about family values. But here in Costa Rica you really see family values at work.”

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