Starting Over at 35 in Costa Rica

I checked out of the traditional career path—the “rat race”—about 10 years ago at the age of 35.

On the surface, life in Texas was great for me. I’d graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in journalism and worked in the advertising business as an account executive (a “suit”) for about 10 years.

The ad biz can be a very rewarding career: fast-paced, glamorous, filled with interesting people and projects…travel…dining… and a lot of high-pressure deadlines.

Things weren’t as rewarding as they looked. My doctor had prescribed me high-blood pressure meds and I found myself constantly answering questions like, “how many square foot is your house?” and “what type of car do you drive?” “Do you have the latest hand-held gadgets… the big screen TV… electronics…the latest fashion…?”

It seemed like everyone wanted something fancy, shiny, bigger, faster—things that are not important. Consumerism and materialism had taken over.

And all around me, young people with good jobs were in debt, and worried about the stock market, 401k, the dot-com bust.

I started thinking about a career transition—something that would be truly rewarding, that involved working with people, and that was less stress.

So I sold everything and moved to Esterillos Oeste, Costa Rica, a tropical paradise where I could surf every day in warm water, slow things down and enjoy life.

A sleepy beach town just south of Jaco and Playa Hermosa on the central Pacific Coast, about 2 hours from the capital city of San Jose, it’s truly stunning. The terrain is mountain that drops down to miles of empty beach, with estuaries on both sides and rainforest that meets the beach to the west. The coastline is rocky reef to the west and all sandy beach to the east.

On paper this did not look like a good career move…but selling all your material possessions and getting out of debt is very liberating. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The fear of the unknown and that feeling of “now what?” were similarly freeing.

Though living in paradise is like living in a dream, I was still quite young and needed to make a living. I started a surf school, the Lagarto Surf Company, with just two longboards. In the early days, I did any kind of work imaginable to get things going: waiting tables, bartending, electrician, painting, power washing and property management.

When I sold my house in Texas, I was able to buy a place in the middle of the town—just 100 meters from the ocean—for $60,000 living among the Ticos. (Though these places are no longer available at that price, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home in a nearby gated community starts at $130,000.)

I was also able to invest in four cabinas close to the beach, which I rent out to surfers for $10 per night.

I have now done more than 3,000 surf lessons and really enjoy meeting new people every day.

The most rewarding part of my life now has been getting involved with the community—beach clean-ups, coordinating the lifeguard program, and being a leader in the Pura Vida Church. Everyone is welcome at the church and services are bilingual. Some folks call us “the surfer church” and the description fits. You are welcome on Sunday wearing sandals and board shorts—but a shirt is nice! You can leave your surfboard in the back.

I get by on less and work within my means—the tourism business is seasonal so you have to plan well for the low season—but it’s entirely possible given Costa Rica’s relative inexpensive cost of living.

Food is cheap, if you’re wise in your choices. Imported brands are twice as expensive but tasty, fresh foods are incredibly reasonable. Eggs right from the egg truck are just 13 cents each; fish from the fishermen in town and veggies from the vegetable truck are also very cheap.

My diet is a lot like the locals’: I eat a lot of rice and beans, fish, mangos. I also have an avocado tree in my front yard, next to a coconut tree that I planted.

Internet is about $60 per month, which includes cable—but I’m happy to live without a TV here.

I try to go for a surf session just about every day, which is great exercise.

I really enjoy my life here: the slower pace of life, a less urgent lifestyle, in a place where “mañana” doesn’t really mean tomorrow.

No pressure. No commute to work.

It’s paradise.

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