A Fresh Look at Costa Rica as a Retirement Community
By Andrew Mastrandonas
For many years, Costa Rica has been touted as one of the top retirement havens in the world. With a stable democracy, growing economy, government friendly to foreigners and tropical climate, as well as incredible natural beauty, it rightly earned the phrase, “the Switzerland of Latin America.” Is this still true today? Is it as expensive as Switzerland? Are retirees still coming here? Should they still consider Costa Rica?
To many people, there appear to be less expensive retirement destinations such as Panama or Nicaragua. To others, Costa Rica has become too touristy. Still others believe Costa Rica is overrun with “gringos.” I want to debunk these notions, and others, and suggest that Costa Rica is still a terrific place to retire, or to start new life in if you are not yet retired, particularly if you choose your location and activities carefully.
Costa Rica is too expensive!
I have been living in Costa Rica for about a year and a half but have been in and out the country frequently since 1989 and based my extensive travel throughout the country in conjunction with my “Boomers in Costa Rica Retirement Tours,” I’ve found that there are still inexpensive areas in which to live, particularly if you stay away from the close-in suburbs of San Jose. Take, for example, the wonderful city of San Ramon in Alajuela province, an agricultural town of 70,000, situated on the northwest edge of the Central Valley. (see separate review of San Ramon, which will soon be posted under Caribbean in "Find a Community")
Property taxes are very low, only .25% of the registered value of your property. I paid $66 in property taxes for an entire year! The local government office even asked me if I wanted to pay my taxes quarterly!
Housing in Costa Rica
If renting is more your style, you can still find nice two-bedroom, modest homes for rent for under $200/month. Low housing costs combined with very low prices on food and utilities makes San Ramon an excellent bargain. The towns of Grecia, Sarchi, Atenas and Puriscal offer excellet value as well; you just need to know where to look or link up with an experienced and knowledgeable local or gringo to help you out.
I also eat inexpensively, perhaps a $1.50 for breakfast, $2.00 for lunch, and then I splurge for dinner, perhaps $4-6, and this is if I go out to eat! Of course, if you visit some of this country’s wonderful outdoor markets, you’ll find the freshest meats, fruits and vegetables, and can cook for yourself and spend even less.
Is the Medical Care any good?
Costa Rica also has several outstanding hospitals that provide the same level and quality of service that you would find in the United States. CIMA Hospital San Jose, which is affiliated with Baylor Medical Center in Houston, is a brand new facility with all of the new technologies you would find in any top hospital in the United States. In fact, my doctor at CIMA has more advanced technology in his office than my doctor in New York City. Clinica Biblica, also near San Jose, is also another top hospital, with the same quality of service you would find at CIMA. There are too many tourists!
Costa Rica certainly is a well-traveled tourist destination and sees over 1 million holiday makers a year. If you visit the beaches at Manuel Antonio, the rain forest of Monteverde or Arenal Volcano during the dry season, yes, you will see many North Americans and Europeans. However, living here, particularly in towns such as San Ramon or Grecia, you would hardly know it is the tourist season. These towns, and others, see few tourists and move at their own consistent pace year round. Actually, visiting tourist destinations during the off season is a significant benefit of living here, particularly given that prices are significantly less than during the high season.
Where do North Americans tend to live?
American expatriates are scattered throughout Costa Rica, most of them live in the suburbs surrounding San Jose such as Escazu, Santa Ana and Cuidad Colon. Quite a few ex-pats live in beach communities up and down the Pacific Coast while a smaller number of people live on the Caribbean coast. However, many people are beginning to take note of the smaller towns in the Central Valley such as Grecia, Sarchi, Naranjo, Palmares and San Ramon, and even smaller pueblos surrounding these towns. These towns and pueblos offer a relaxed pace of life, reasonable property prices and an overall lower cost of living. So, you can live in Costa Rica and not feel overrun by gringos or the high prices in other parts of the country. However, if you want to live among “your own kind,” you can do that too!
What kinds of people choose to retire here?
Historically, Costa Rica was a country primarily attractive to retirees; those people in their late 50s or early 60s (and in some cases much older) who wanted a small house, and could live much less inexpensively than in North America or Europe. However, Costa Rica is also beginning to attract a fair number of baby boomers, particularly those people not yet ready to retire. They may own businesses they can run from virtually anywhere. They may also be writers or artists. Still others are coming here to invest their time and money in new businesses. Many people have made the successful transition from a corporate career in the states to running a bed and breakfast, managing a surf shop, offering tours, investing in real estate, and more much. Costa Rica is a very business-friendly country and the opportunities here are still endless.
The roads are terrible!
Like any developing country, particularly one with a rainy season for part of the year, and with trucks and cars sharing the same, often two-lane road, it can be hard to maintain the roads in perfect condition all the time. Fortunately, under the new administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Oscar Arias, significant steps are being taken to address these concerns. Millions of dollars have been allocated to new road construction and repairs. Costa Rica has come a long way in infrastructure improvements, and it is only getting better.
No hablo espanol!
While one can get by without knowing much Spanish, you’ll have a better experience if you try to learn at least some key words, phrases and sentences. In addition, befriending a Tico (hopefully a bilingual one!) will go a long way in helping you get things done here. On our retirement tours, for example, we provide a post-tour relocation service where we link up our clients with a Tico to help with some critical “post-move” tasks such as getting a driver’s license, hooking up electricity, phone, and Internet services, and a variety of other things. I couldn’t get by without my “Tico connections” and my Spanish is getting better all the time.
But Costa Rica is in Central America!
Central America does have a reputation for being very poor, and historically, a region chock full political chaos, dictators, communists, and meddling by foreign countries. Costa Rica, however, has had a continuous and stable democracy since 1948 and the transition to new administrations have been as peaceful as they are in the United States. Yes, there are poor people here but it is nothing like the abject poverty found in Nicaragua or Honduras. Costa Rica also has not experienced the gang warfare that is rampant in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. It remains somewhat dangerous in these countries and the political systems are still not completely stable. Housing and land may be much cheaper in these countries, but is it worth paying less to live if you experience power cuts for six to eight hours each day (as is the case in Nicaragua lately) or more importantly, live in fear? I’ve also found that the people are much more welcoming to us gringos than in other countries in the region, and don’t just befriend us for our money. They are very hard working, genuinely interested in learning about North Americans, and for us, it is not hard to integrate into Costa Rica society. I cannot tell you just how many parties and dinners I’ve been invited to in Tico homes since moving here. They are friendly people indeed!
Come on Down
With millions of baby boomers in North America—over 70 million of them—retiring now and over the next 20 years, and living longer than previous generations, it will take a lot of money to live well in retirement, particularly in the United States. Is Costa Rica still a good alternative? Yes! Will you do well here and enjoy yourself? Absolutely! Come visit and introduce yourself to the wonderful people and natural environment that we still call paradise. We’re here, living our dreams, and happy to help you! You can even email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Andrew Mastrandonas is an American living in Costa Rica where he owns a relocation tour company designed to provide an introduction to Costa Rica for retirees considering moving here. He also owns a bed & breakfast and writes about travel, community issues, and culture for a variety of publications, including the Tico Times.
For Further Reference:
11 Things You Should Know Before You Retire Abroad
For a list of the various types of retirement communities, from co-hosting to nursing homes, visit the Communities page at Topretirements