We Swapped the American Dream for a Dream Life in Costa Rica

I grew up poor. I was the first person in the family to ever graduate college. I went on to become a physician and then returned to my hometown, a Dallas suburb, where I had a successful career. You know—The American Dream.

But somewhere along the way, The American Dream turned into An American Nightmare. Striving to achieve and maintain all that "success" created consequences that demanded more and more of me. Life was in control of me instead of the other way around. I was living in order to work…instead of working in order to live.

That successful American dream was killing me.

So, my partner Michael and I decided to look elsewhere for our dream. A dream that would let us slow down and enjoy life.

When our friends learned of our intent to retire early, outside the U.S., they looked at us askance and wanted to know why we would ever want to leave a life of success in the "good ol' US of A."

But I realized I could retire early and live easily in a less expensive country. We were tired of keeping up with the Joneses. We were ready for some adventure.

So we began to search out our country of choice. After considering many options, Costa Rica bubbled to the top for us. Then it was just a matter of finding the right spot within this tropical jewel. So many people vacation here for two weeks and think living here will be just like that. The majority are disappointed, frustrated, and move back "home." We were determined to look before we leapt. (We have since learned that everyone we know who is happy and who has made a successful transition did the same thing.)

Far and away the best thing we did in preparation—after a good basic understanding of things we gained by reading all we could and attending the International Living conferences—was to make extended exploratory visits. It's impossible to get a feel for the whole country during a short vacation. The differences in climate, vistas, character, the je ne sais quoi vary so much that I often liken it to visiting EPCOT—turn a corner and you are suddenly in a place completely unlike the one you just left.

We made several two week trips, each one to a different region of the country, in order to get a better grasp of that area. You learn surprising things. For example, most Americans think of Costa Rica as a giant beach. While each side of the country, Pacific and Caribbean, boasts amazing beach options, 90 percent of the population lives in the mountains! It was there we also found our Goldilocks spot—you know, it was "just right."

We live in an almost-secret valley at 4,000 feet elevation. Here we have no need of air conditioning or heating as our days average in the mid to upper 70s F. All the things that I wanted to do, but never had time or leftover energy to do back in the States, now fill my day with joy. I can read, or cook, or garden, or design some new outlandish project. I have time for the piano again, or I can start some new hobby.

The fertile, volcanic soils allow me to grow wonderful gardens of all kinds. We have about 20 different fruit trees—bananas, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, lemons, and limes, but also more unusual things like guava, passion fruit, and starfruit. We even grow some delicious fruit I'll bet you've never heard of before—guanabana, zapote, cas, and jaboticaba. (I've started making all kinds of tropical fruit wines from this bounty.)

Our chickens keep us supplied with an abundance of fresh eggs. I even took up raising a small herd of goats! Now I make artisan cheeses. And with any leftover eggs and milk, there's always homemade ice cream in the freezer. Don't worry. Between leaving the stress behind, walking much more, and living a generally more healthy lifestyle, I don't need to take blood pressure or cholesterol medicines anymore, so these treats are guilt-free.

John Michael Arthur (left) and Michael (right) swapped their stressful lives in the U.S. for a calm life in Costa Rica. Now they have time to do things they enjoy—like raising goats.
John Michael Arthur (left) and Michael (right) swapped their stressful lives in the U.S. for a calm life in Costa Rica. Now they have time to do things they enjoy—like raising goats.

Because there are so many natural wonders to experience in this tiny country, we can take mini-vacations on a whim. And we have also taken several world vacations we would never have been able to do before due to time and money.

Why? Because now we have extra of both. While Costa Rica is more expensive than other Central American countries, you get what you pay for. And for us it is still significantly less expensive than our life was in the U.S. Some things are more costly here (basically anything imported) but overall general living costs much less. Property taxes are almost nothing. Private medical and dental care is about 1/4 to 1/3 of what it costs in the States. We live on about 1/3 of what we spent before we moved. Plus, now we have a maid twice a week, a full-time gardener, and a full-time handyman.

We have plenty of time to socialize with friends again. Oh, what an amazing assortment they are! The other day I looked about our living room, and there we all sat, laughing and drinking that world-famous Costa Rican coffee—a Japanese magician, a German ship captain, an AirBus executive who spent her life working in France, a Mexican businessman, a full-blood Native American, and some Ticos (the endearing nickname Costa Ricans call themselves), Texans, and Canadians. Unfortunately, the ambassador from Barbados and the Peruvian chef couldn't make it that day.

And speaking of friends, those who visit us from the States—the ones who thought we were nuts for moving—always comment on how happy, relaxed, and healthy we are. So closing that door on an old life and starting a new one here has been the best decision we ever made.

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