Community and Culture in Cool San Ramón

The day started out cloudy—I suppose it’s bound to happen from time to time, even in paradise. But by mid-morning the mist has cleared, revealing a crisp Central American sun. The light transforms the scene before me, brightening myriad shades of green and giving the white church a soft glow.

I’m in the central park of San Ramón, Costa Rica. It’s prettily laid out…wide brick walkways cutting through grass-carpeted medians, tree trunks painted white…and punctuated with benches, a stage, and a stately bust of pioneering local ecologist Alberto Manuel Brenes Mora. Multiple sets of bins serve as reminders to keep the park immaculate. Just one more symbol of a national preoccupation with ecology.

Known as San Ramón Nonato, the church here is one of Costa Rica’s most handsome buildings. The 1920s neo-Gothic design harks back to the Europe of the conquistadors. The interior is grandly proportioned, with vaulted ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and floors of intricately patterned Spanish tile.

The town of San Ramón is a perfect little grid, its church spires towering above the surrounding buildings. It has many of the amenities you’d expect from a proper city, including a cultural center and a few small museums and galleries. There are events a-plenty, including concerts, exhibits, plays, and festivals.

Nearly 11,000 people live in town, with a total of over 86,000 in the greater San Ramón region, or cantón. I like that it’s something of a college town, as there’s a University of Costa Rica campus here. All those eager young minds help enliven the place.

There are Pacific beaches 45 to 60 minutes from here by car. Weekends at Caribbean beaches are viable, too—there are more than a few to choose from if you’re willing to drive three to five hours. The nation’s capital, San José, is about an hour’s drive southeast. The international airport is even closer…you’ll hit Juan Santamaría Airport about 15 minutes before the San José city center.

The mountain views took my breath away.

There’s plenty to do right in San Ramón, though. Nancy Sperry, 68, and husband Andy Robinson, 69, are the epitome of the San Ramón expat—active, engaged, and never bored. They were on a tour when they heard about the Community Action Alliance, a local organization helping to foster business and community service initiatives.

Andy says, “That answered the question we didn’t know we had: What the heck are we gonna do when we retire?” The CAA got them off to a running start, and they even set up their own fundraising initiative, called Friends of Hacienda Vivace. Their days are filled with charity fundraisers, cooking and painting classes, derbies, expat gatherings, concert series…and the list goes on.

Do you long to be more involved in your community? If so, that’s a powerful reason to put San Ramón on your shortlist. Volunteering is big here, and it’s a free and easy way to socialize. You can help teach English to locals or raise funds for musical instruments for kids—there are plenty of options.

Sure, Costa Rica’s Central Valley is home to a slew of expat communities, many of them equally appealing. Atenas is aesthetically pleasing, but it can get too warm for folks who prefer weather under 80 F. There’s Grecia, which enjoys springlike weather year-round…but life there can be a bit more expensive than in San Ramón.

San Ramón is one of Costa Rica’s coolest expat destinations—for most of the expats that live here, this fact is the clincher. With altitudes of 3,400 to 4,000 feet, it’s lush and breezy. Daytime temperatures are usually around 75 F, with evenings in the 60s F.

And though it’s a hub for surrounding communities, San Ramón remains relatively inexpensive. A couple can live here for $2,000 a month, including rent and requisite payments for membership in the Caja, the national healthcare system.

There are excellent doctors and facilities in San Ramón, and the capital’s larger, more advanced facilities are close by. I’ve had numerous positive accounts of both public and private healthcare here. Caja payments for most expat couples run $60 to $100 a month, total.

Private healthcare is inexpensive, too. A knee replacement surgery that would cost $35,000 to $50,000 in the U.S. is about $7,000 at Hospital Metropolitano, a small private facility with competitive prices. As for housing, furnished places rent for just $550 to $1,000 a month here. The town is just over six square miles, about as long as it is wide. But expats live all over the greater San Ramón area, anywhere from two to four miles from the main park.

I liked what I saw in Santiago and the neighborhood of Magallanes. In the latter, surrounded by gardens and coffee fields, the mountain views took my breath away. If you’re on your first scouting trip, you can stay here. Vacation rentals in Hacienda Vivace run from about $35 a night.

Santiago is a little hub with lots to do, and many a hilltop home enjoys distant views of the Gulf of Nicoya. Here you’ll find the gated community of La Torre, and an activities center/sports court that provides ample opportunities for networking, as well as recreation. If you decide to move to San Ramón, chances are you’ll want to rent here or within striking distance. After all, who wants to live without pickleball?

No place is perfect, and even San Ramón has its challenges. Its expats are welcoming to one and all, but there are a lot of couples, so I’m not sure I’d be comfortable here as a single.

Also, if you plan to explore the region or join in lots of activities, you may find you need a car. There are expats here who manage without, however. Laura and Terry Handler, both of whom are cellists, were attracted to San Ramón’s music scene— particularly the opportunities to support locals in their studies.

They live in San Isidro, just a 10-minute drive from the town center—walking, it’s about 45 minutes. They travel frequently to San José and back to the States. “But we manage just fine with buses and taxis,” says Laura. She rises early each day for long walks with her dog and usually turns in by 8:30 p.m.

Many expats living in San Ramón go to San José periodically to stock up on goodies at large supermarkets and big-box stores. There are several “supermarkets” in San Ramón, but some are so small they remind me of Old West general stores.

That said, I was able to find everything I needed right in town—even a USB car charger and portable power bank for my cellphone. I found them at an ice-cream/ electronic accessories shop. Total cost: $29. How’s that for small-town pricing?

So is San Ramón right for you? The mastermind behind La Torre park and gated community, John Buford, sums it up best. He has been living in San Ramón with wife Caryl for seven years. They’re passionate about social outreach and music, and in San Ramón, they found numerous outlets for their creative energy.

They spearheaded TubaChristmas, an annual event that brought brass-infused Christmas carols to town starting in 2011. And they got involved in local theater, participating in reader events and comedic dinner theater.

“High on our wish list was an organized expat presence that was integrated with the Costa Rican community. We wanted a social setting where we could immediately plug in and begin our ‘pure life’ adventure,” says John, referencing the Costa Rican catchall phrase pura vida.

It’s a phrase that’s used in many ways… as a greeting, for example, or as a response to a “how are you?” Most of all, it represents a culture and a way of life. One that involves less complaining and consumerism…and more community service and sunsets over cool green valleys. Pure life.


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