Costa Rica’s Many Faces: Find the One That’s Right for You

Pristine, palm-fringed beaches where the sand sparkles in the midday sun, the water so clear and warm that it’s hard to tell if you’re in up to your ankles or knees. Rainforests, waterfalls, mountains, pretty villages, colonial cityscapes, mercados stacked with just-picked tropical fruits, humpbacks breaching on the horizon, raucous fiestas, bright breakfast bars, the chirp of cicadas greeting the sunset of another warm, golden evening…

We’ve written a lot about Costa Rica over the last four decades, but it’s still the country we get asked about most at International Living. Whether it’s face-to-face at one of our retirement conferences, or via email, this small slice of Central America just seems to hold an eternal appeal.

And rather than walking you through the basics of Costa Rica we thought we’d focus on you. Your personality type. Your preferences. Your dreams.

It’s not just that a couple can live comfortably from just $1,900 a month.

The benefits go beyond finances. You see, Costa Rica has so much to offer, that there’s a little of something for everyone. If you fancy nurturing your creative side, there’s a place for that. If you long for the independence of self-sufficiency, living your own life your own way right down to growing the very food you eat, then Costa Rica’s got you covered. Or maybe you want to relax by the beach—the right beach—for the foreseeable future. Perhaps you have a business project you’ve always dreamed of making real, your chance to be your own boss on a schedule that suits you. Expats are doing these things right now. They’ve found their niche, and filled it. All that remains is that you find yours.

If You Have a Business Idea

By Jason Holland

Since the 1980s Costa Rica has been a pioneer in the concept of ecotourism. The idea being that you experience nature instead of soaking up the sun on the beach. It’s ideal for a country covered in rainforests, soaring mountains, whitesand beaches, and volcanoes. Some of Costa Rica’s best-known animals are toucans, howler monkeys, two-toed sloths, poison dart frogs, and more. They’re best enjoyed with a professional guide who can help you spot these sometimes shy creatures. Fun fact: Costa Rica has just 0.03% of the world’s landmass, but is home to 5% of its plants and animals.

But there are also plenty of busy beach resort towns where the name of the game is more relaxation than trekking in the jungle. And adventure sports abound, including whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and, most of all, surfing. Surfers have been seeking out the reliably perfect waves on both the Pacific and the Caribbean for decades.

This all adds up to tourism being one of the primary drivers of the Costa Rican economy. And the number of visitors is steadily increasing. In 2008, the number of visitors was 2 million. By 2018 it was a little over 3 million.

For many expats who come to call Costa Rica home, this means opportunity to make an income by starting a dream business serving the tourist market. Surf shops, smoothie places, farmers’ market stands, yoga studios, tour companies, organic farms, food trucks, restaurants, cafes, B&Bs, arts and crafts galleries… name a type of business and there are expats in Costa Rica running one.

The ideal place to start a thriving business is in one of the small beach towns along the Pacific coast, which is where the vast majority of visitors go. One of them is Tamarindo. On the northern Pacific coast, it’s one of the most popular destinations in the country thanks to its expansive beach, great surf, and fun nightlife. That provides John Marrero, who with partner Melissa Smith runs The Swell Dealer, an events calendar and entertainment and dining guide, with a big and constantly changing audience to cater to.

“We do very well. It easily pays for my expenses like HOA fees and utilities, and I can even save some money,” says John, who owns his condo. “All the revenue comes from businesses paying for ads. It’s free to the people.

“I like that Tamarindo is a big small town. It’s not too sleepy. There’s always something going on…golf, tennis, surfing… you can go out on a sailboat. I get up and I do what I want. And the people here are great—there’s no shortage of people to hang out with.”

Nosara is another popular beach town, located on the Pacific Coast on the Nicoya Peninsula, one known for its focus on yoga and natural healing…surfing, too. Expats here tend to be the bohemian type. People are into organic, healthy foods. And Nick Fairman’s food truck, Go Juice, which specializes in fresh fruit smoothies, acai berry bowls, and more, is the perfect fit.

“The truck itself is only about 60 square feet and because we only specialize in raw juices and smoothies with a few simple food items, we don’t need a full kitchen,” says Nick. “My initial startup cost was about $10,000. Food trucks have a viral element about them. We don’t spend any money on advertising. I’d say one out of every 10 customers who visits us comes because they interacted with us on Instagram first.”

If you prefer more of a mountain lifestyle and climate, there is an alternative in Costa Rica. At the high elevations of the Central Valley it’s t-shirt weather during the day and time for a light jacket at night. There is less tourism here, but opportunity to run tours, B&Bs, coffee farms, and businesses that cater to tourists seeking a more “authentic” experience.

It’s not sleepy. There’s always something going on.

With growing tourism, there is plenty of room for new businesses. With low startup costs, low rents, and a relatively easy-to-navigate bureaucracy (if you hire a lawyer), the process is easier than you think to get started. And because of the lower cost of living, you won’t have to make as much money to live well in this tropical paradise.

Even better, you have a chance to profit from your passion. You can have a business that doesn’t feel like work.

If You Crave the Natural Life

By John Michael Arthur

Are you a country boy at heart, but you’ve been trapped by city life? Does your inner tomboy ache to get back to her roots?

Perhaps you’ve only ever known the urban lifestyle, but low-impact living is a summons you’re looking to answer. Do you find the idea of homesteading and self-sufficiency appealing? Then Cartago province may be just what you’re looking for.

Homesteading—or just finding whatever level of self-sufficiency you want—is easy to do. Let me tell you about some of us who have re-captured lost horizons in our special haven, the Orosi Valley, which is the middle of the country, to the east of the capital, San José.

You could be a “gentleman farmer” like me. My partner, Michael, and I have goats. And from their daily milkings I make tons of artisan cheeses, yogurts, and homemade ice creams. Our chickens provide us all the eggs we can use and more. I make all kinds of jams and jellies and pickles and sauces from the hundreds of fruit trees and vegetables at hand.

Fruit wines and mead? You bet. We have ducks and geese and turkeys and guinea fowl. And don’t forget the rabbits. In between, we’ve remodeled and rebuilt the house. There’s more, but you get the idea.

Now don’t think you have to go whole-hog like that—I’ve always been an overachiever. You could be like my friend John who finally has time to make all the homemade breads he loves. No bakery around can compete. And he serves them up in the jaw-dropping tropical hardwood bowls he turns on his lathe.

You could fill your time like my buddy Ray does. He taught himself to weld and now he makes all kinds of spectacular structures—including the grills and smokers he uses to produce sumptuous, mouthwatering ribs. His wife, Michele, keeps the guests they entertain in their rental cottage happy with goodies straight from her garden. And her cheeses—her brie and chèvre—are the best this side of France.

Or you could do like my friend Nancy, a retired schoolteacher, who whiles away her days happily cultivating hundreds of the most amazing orchids you’ve ever seen. Or my other schoolteacher pal, Angela. She swims every day, hikes the mountains, and reads, and reads. You know…all those books you wanted to finish but never could.

If farming is your bag, outside the valley up in the foothills of Volcán Irazú, you’ll find the richest soil in the country. Just shove a stick in the ground and it will grow—no lie. My amigo Al does just that.

If any of that sounds like the sirens’ call, then the mountain life around Cartago may be just what you’re looking for. The weather is great. The people are great. The views are great. The opportunities are great.

I know. I rediscovered myself in the Orosi Valley.

If You Miss the Small-Town Feeling

By Jessica Ramesch

If you’re looking for an attractive small town—one where the standard of living is high—then look closely at Atenas. In this meandering mountain town, there are nice restaurants and cute cafés…yoga and Spanish classes…an outstanding grocery store/cooperative and a lively farmers’ market. About 27,000 people call Atenas home, of whom about 1,500 hail from international destinations. Three-quarters of those came here to retire.

This town ain’t just for grown-ups though…there are also dance lessons, fútbol (soccer), and martial arts for kids, if you have them. It’s a place where the kids… and you…can get plenty of sunshine and spend lots of time outdoors.

Atenas does get its fair share of rain… on average about 70 inches a year, much of it falling from August through October. Still, for many, the pleasant, mild weather hits that “just right” sweet spot. It’s not as cool and misty as other popular Central Valley locations, such as San Ramón or even Grecia. Nor is it as sultry as beach destinations like Tamarindo. It’s comfortable in shorts or jeans, sleeves or no sleeves… never sweaty, never cold. (As I write this, it’s a perfect “summer” evening…about 71 F in Atenas, compared to 67 F in Grecia and 81 F in Tamarindo.)

It’s also a conveniently located town, just 16 miles from Juan Santamaría International Airport, or 20 to San José. You can drive to the beach at Puntarenas in about an hour. But expats here will tell you they can’t quite put their finger on what made Atenas feel more like home than any other town in the Central Valley. As someone who likes things to look nice, I suspect it has a lot to do with aesthetics.

Walking and driving around Atenas, it’s just a little bit prettier. Perhaps there are more nicely painted houses and flowering hedges lining the roads. And there’s certainly plenty of sunshine to show it all to its greatest advantage. The effect is mood-lifting. Plus, it’s a place where I feel instantly welcome. There are lots of friendly people and enough activities that “there’s always something to do” is a common refrain.

Atenas may not be for you if you’re looking for Costa Rica’s least expensive destination. And if you want to start your own business, you may want to be somewhere with a larger population of potential buyers or customers. But if you’re looking for the prettiest “sweet spot” in Costa Rica…Atenas may well be it.

If You Feel the Urge to Create

By Stephen Day

In Nuevo Arenal there is an essence that seems to highlight the innermost talents and personalities of the people who live here. Locals claim that James Cameron visited the 500-year-old ceiba tree that sits above the lake, and used his experience there to envision the “mother tree” in the movie Avatar. There is a sign on the road to La Fortuna that invites you to walk up a steep incline to touch the tree and feel the power of this compelling matrix of land, water, and humanity.

The picturesque village of some 2,600 inhabitants attracts creative individuals for more reasons than the constant 65 F to 85 F temperatures and relaxed pace. It could be that the consistent sunrise at 5:30 a.m., and the sunset every evening at 6 p.m. intensifies the waking hours and creates a dependable daily rhythm. You certainly get a good night’s sleep here.

Another attractive feature is the social meshing of people who have lived here all their lives with those who have settled as expats. Influences intermingle, and seem to encourage people in the area to uncover what they truly find most rewarding.

First, there are the ticos, the people native to the country who work from dawn until after dark and complete some of the most intricate work with furniture, landscaping, traditional cooking, and more. Rice and beans are the staple, but each individual soda, or small restaurant, has its own approach to making this dish unforgettably delicious. Just stop in and chat with Berta at Las Delicias. It is a food journey like no other.

As I write this, it’s a perfect ‘summer’ evening.

Then meet the expats. Jim, a former radiologist, always loved to watch birds as a hobby. Now it’s his passion, and not only does he photograph what he sees, but he is now painting watercolors of the birds. The results are splendid. Chris, my lovely wife, has also found warm acceptance, partly due to her passion for vegan cooking and adapting her recipes to the Costa Rican cuisine.

For backwoods adventures, you can join the local hiking club with founders Becky and Denise and up to eight others. They hike six to eight miles every Saturday to explore the paths and roads around the lake. Some of these members have been in Nuevo Arenal for more than 20 years. They know the countryside and how the roads and trails interact.

The list of people finding creative outlet here is lengthy. Nuevo Arenal is a focal point for those with an artistic, holistic approach to their (often reinvented) lives. But they’re not holed up like hermits, suffering for their art. Nuevo Arenal’s social whirl includes monthly book clubs, writers’ groups, plant enthusiasts, snake lovers, pickleball clubs, visual artists, and many, many others. The defining aspect of those who live here is that, eventually, the environment and the essence of the lifestyle leads them to find and nurture that one thing that makes them as individual as their surroundings.

Many expats arrange potluck dinners or relaxing nature tours. Others organize fundraising events for schools or local charities. Nuevo Arenal is where the desire for independence coexists with a strong and supportive community. Perhaps this is the tico way. Or perhaps it is simply the energy of the lake and its surroundings that speaks to anyone who will listen carefully.

If You Need to Be By (or in) the Sea

By Kathleen Evans

Costa Rica’s beach life conjures up as many images as the number of people who envision them. Perhaps you dream of a tropical setting with beach bars and music. Or strolling deserted swathes of soft volcanic sand for miles with chattering monkeys as your only companions. Or snorkeling around never-seen-before sea creatures in azure waters. Not all beaches are equal. Take your pick.

Uvita: Where the Wildlife Frolics

If you like being close to nature, the Pacific beach of Uvita in the Southern Zone is for you. Uvita is a two-mile tan sand beach with moderate waves and clear blue waters. Marino Ballena National Park is where the largest coral reef on Central America’s Pacific side grows in the form of a giant whale’s tail. Oddly enough, it is located in the exact place where hundreds of humpback whales breach each year. This national park consists of 13,200 acres of preserved ocean along with 270 protected land acres. The ecosystems include mangroves, coral reefs, and whale-breeding grounds.

There is never a bad time to visit, due to the constant parade of marine life. Dolphin populations can be seen year-round. Turtle watching and nesting on the beaches occurs from July to December. There are two humpback whale watching seasons: Southern migration, August to November, and Northern migration from December to March. Plus, on land you can experience year-round creature sightings of tapirs, spider monkeys, pumas, and sloths.

Expats love living on this part of the coast because they feel like it is the “real” Costa Rica.

Manzanillo: For the Diver

Often overlooked due to its remote location, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica has many undiscovered gems to offer adventurers. If you like snorkeling or diving, look no further than Manzanillo (located just 25 minutes south of the popular expat town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca). This laidback fishing village offers a quiet, breathtaking white sand beach lined with palm trees overhanging the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea.

The Gondoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is arguably one of the best snorkeling and dive spots on the Caribbean coast. Its shallow coral reefs, protected bays, and tiny islands are ideal for snorkeling and host a seemingly endless assortment of colorful tropical fish and coral. Manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles also often visit this stunning refuge.

The town itself, named after an ancient manzanillo tree that stood in the center of town back in the 1940s, has several colorful local markets and numerous local sodas (family owned restaurants) serving some of the best seafood in the entire country. Although there are few tourists, you can find a variety of small ecolodges there.

Jacó: The Town that Proves Costa Rica Knows How to Party

The town of Jacó, on the central Pacific coast, boasts an atmosphere like no other beach town in the country. “Metropolitan culture meets beach chill,” the local expats will tell you. Vegas-style casinos and a variety of bars provide entertainment for night-owls. Just over an hour’s drive from the bustling capital city of San José, Jacó has become a playground for tropical beach fun.

If a pub crawl is your style, you may want to start at Jacó Blu. This beach club, bar, and restaurant is located at the north end of town. Los Amigos, a longtime favorite sports bar and restaurant in the center of Jacó, has a colossal beer selection; you won’t have time to sample them all. They also have air conditioning with indoor seating— a bonus in the tropics. It is a great early evening bar.

Manatees, dolphins, and sea turtles also visit.

The Green Room is a popular bar and restaurant near Los Amigos featuring live music, a cozy atmosphere, and a great selection of local craft brews. Le Loft is a trendy bar and lounge just steps from the aforementioned clubs with late-night music and VIP service of a similar vibe to clubs in South Beach, Miami. Crocs Casino and Hotel is a luxury hotel and condominium tower. If you enjoy Vegas-style gambling, this is the place.

But Jacó is not only about partying. You’ll also find a thriving community of locals and expats enjoying the arts and excellent restaurants, as well as a gorgeous beach hosting many events such as surfing competitions, 5K runs, and concerts.

If You Need to Make a Difference

By Greg Goodmacher

Retirement should be meaningful as well as relaxing. For me, meaningful means helping others, enjoying and conserving nature, and protecting animals in need. My wife and I are already looking for the right spot. Last summer, we checked out Costa Rica.

Unexpectedly, we found a wonderful opportunity for us to volunteer to help abandoned animals while enjoying nature in the Alajuela Province. At a café, we met an Israeli woman who said she was one of 30 expats who had purchased land to build a hotel, resort, and animal-rescue center. They named their project Lands in Love. Volunteers can receive discounts at the hotel or stay for free in a dormitory.

We decided to have a look-see, which turned into a rewarding experience. A winding jungle-rimmed road brought us into a hidden valley surrounded by lush mountains. Geese and ducks honked at us to slow down as we drew near a pond. A man with five dogs of various sizes strolled on the road toward the pond.

Lands of Love is an eco/adventure resort and animal rescue center in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Located between Arenal National Park and Juan Castro Banco Nacional Park, you can drive there in just an hour and a half from San José, the capital city. If we lived nearby, we could help out at our leisure.

Homes in Alajuela with acres of greenery and expansive views sell for around $250,000. I recently saw one with its own small coffee plantation. Drinking coffee grown in my own garden would be a stunning way to start the day. A comparable property in my home state of California would be at least six times as expensive.

Costa Rica could fit into the state of West Virginia with room to spare. Vast areas are protected parks. So if you’re into nature conservation, volunteer opportunities are as abundant as the butterflies you will see all over the country.

The Cloudbridge Nature Reserve in the south of San José Province appreciates the skills that seniors offer. Reserve director Tom Gode, an expat from Minnesota, explains: “Cloudbridge has a number of active retired volunteers who have contributed as research assistants, guest greeters, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, and trail-maintenance workers. English is the primary language. But at potluck dinners it is not unusual to have three languages going around the table. Volunteers can be very social or more reserved and find their niche at Cloudbridge.”

Cloudbridge volunteer Brent Grant is enthusiastic about his experiences: “How many people can say they’ve participated in reforesting a Costa Rican mountainside? And watching a meteor shower from a mountaintop? I can now say I’ve done all that, and then some.”

What do you want to do in your retirement? Protect sea turtles laying eggs on the Caribbean Coast? Help children with their studies? Whatever it is, there is a place and a community in Costa Rica awaiting you.

Editor’s Note: You could be living in paradise right now…for a lot less than it costs you to stay home. If Costa Rica is calling you because of its tropical climate, modern cities, beautiful coastline, and diverse landscape—then you need to look at Escape to Costa Rica: Everything You Need to Know to Retire Better, Invest Well, and Enjoy the Good Life for Less. We’ve done all of the on-the-ground legwork to help you find exactly what you’re looking for in Costa Rica…and you’ll find all that research in one resource.

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