Immerse Yourself in Nature in the Southern Zone
By Jason Holland
Tom and Christine Canton, from St. Petersburg, Florida, live in a home 1,000 feet up jungle-covered slopes, overlooking the Pacific. “We get up at sunrise and have coffee outside. It’s so peaceful and quiet,” says Tom. “There are no neighbors around us. But we do see toucans, macaws, parrots, and monkeys.”
This is the serene life you’ll find along Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, which is known as the Southern Zone. As recently as 2009, the roads on the southern Pacific coast were in bad shape, the bridges scarily rickety, and even the coastal highway was unpaved for a bone-jarring stretch. But it’s not the frontier any more. The highway is smooth all the way down from San José to the border with Panama—and it takes about 35 minutes to get from Manuel Antonio to Dominical, the first town in the region. This improved access has made this coast increasingly popular with expats.
But even as homes, towns, and, more recently, condos are developed, and creature comforts like reliable electricity and internet, shops full of imported items, and a great restaurant scene take off…the natural, wild feel hasn’t been lost. Except for the beach town of Dominical, which is very small, there is no development on the sand here as there is elsewhere on the Pacific coast. Many beaches are in a national park, so you have nothing but jungle and sand. That same national park restricts shoreline development by law. And the hilly, jungle-covered terrain prevents large-scale development, anyway.
The Southern Zone is best for people who want to enjoy healthy living, with fresh air, plenty of organic fruits and vegetables, and with fresh-caught seafood ($5 a pound for snapper, for example, at local markets). My favorite snack is ceviche (fish, shrimp, and/or clams “cooked” in lime juice) bought at roadside stands for $3 a cup.
Here you won’t get the thriving beach towns of the Central Pacific region. You can walk for miles on the beach and not see another soul. Just the sand, palms, jungle, and the mountains looming above all. You can look at the hills, covered with dozens of homes, and only see one or two rooftops. Development melds into the scenery here. Relax on your terrace with your neighbors—like the howler monkeys who come around each morning.
Canadian Pennie Styan, 69, has found her ideal retirement spot in the small town of Ojochal.
“I love this little community. We have a great mix of Costa Ricans and expats,” says Pennie. “It’s the mix of ocean and jungle. The hills. The farming community. This is my home, my neighborhood, my community. It’s a very welcoming place. The Ticos are kind and helpful.
“Although I don’t live at the beach, I am close enough that I can go whenever the mood takes me. Just knowing it’s always there is amazing. I love the surf, as long as it isn’t too rough. Getting past the breakers and watching the waves roll in…so peaceful.”
And at night, there’s plenty to do. Take in live music (with an emphasis on blues and jazz) at the Bamboo Room in Ojochal or Wednesday Ladies’ Night (half-off drinks) at El Castillo Hotel. Or check out football at the Jolly Roger in Dominical. During the day, it’s all about savoring the outdoors, including deep-sea fishing, surfing, jungle trekking, bird-watching, and scuba diving.
The Southern Zone is home to small villages like Dominical (a funky seaside surfer hangout), Uvita (the commercial center), and Ojochal (a foodie haven in the jungle). They’re spread out—it’s about 30 minutes’ drive between Dominical and Ojochal. For the most part, expats live in communities in between towns, up in the hills, inland from the coastal highway. There aren’t many condos here. And homes for rent can be hard to find. A three-bedroom in the jungle near Dominical will run you $825 a month, furnished. That’s a typical price. If you want to buy, a three-bedroom home on a half-acre, just outside Uvita, for $229,000 is typical, although you will pay more for an ocean view. See: Dominicalrealty.com.
Access can be an issue if you have a hillside home. You may need a four-wheel-drive to navigate steep gravel roads, especially in rainy season, due to intense rains in September and October. Most of the year, it is warm and humid.
Tom and Christine Canton have designed their home to align with the cooling breezes. The result: They cut down on their use of air conditioning—a great way to save when you live here.
“We get sea breezes all day long, and then at around 5 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. the wind turns, and it comes down the mountains,” says Tom.
Some folks live a bit inland, among farms and small villages 20 minutes from the coast, such as Platanillo and Tinamaste. If you want a rural existence, with the beach just down the road, it’s perfect. Retiree Michael Lilley has a home and piece of land in the countryside near Platanillo. He keeps it lushly landscaped—everything grows here. Like many expats here, he was drawn to the Southern Zone by the consistently good waves.
“My life revolves around the ocean. I’m living the surfer’s dream. It’s pure pleasure,” says Michael. “And there are a lot of us greybeards out there.”
For healthcare, you do have small clinics on the southern coast. But for serious issues, you have to head north to Manuel Antonio or Jacó…south to Cortés…or inland to San Isidro de El General, the regional capital. Here you have major hospitals in the public healthcare system, as well as private facilities. For visits with a private doctor, expect to pay $50 to $80, and $100 for a specialist. That’s paying cash; you can also use insurance. Legal residents, in the Pensionado program, for example, can also use the government-run medical system, called the Caja, and receive any care they need for a low monthly fee based on income.
To meet up with fellow expats in the region, check out the Costa Ballena Bulletin Board and Costa Rica Southern Zone Expats and Friends Facebook groups.
Northern Pacific: Golden Sands, Sun, and an Easy Transition to Expat Life
By Jackie Minchillo
“Gold Coast” is synonymous with an idyllic beach paradise. Among the few stretches of coastline on the planet that share this nickname is Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast. And deservedly so. For me—and the thousands of expats who call this region home—this is beach living at its best.
A drive between towns will take you through mountains and valleys covered in tropical dry forest and pastures dotted with grazing animals. But the pristine Nicoya Peninsula beaches are a point of pride for the nearly 400,000 people who live here.
The country’s driest region, the northern Pacific enjoys sunshine nearly every day; temperatures are consistent, between 80 F and 90 F all year, and the varied landscape lures outdoor enthusiasts. “I couldn’t pick a better place for my family,” says expat Terry Anderson. “We like to go outside and play—surf, fish, mountain bike, run, hike—and we can do it wearing shorts and t-shirts 365 days a year.” The dry climate also makes this region much less humid than the central Pacific or Southern Zone.
Some of the most popular expat communities, like Playa del Coco, Tamarindo, and Nosara, offer conveniences for daily living. This region attracts more tourists than anywhere else on the Pacific coast, making it a hub of infrastructure and activity.
This stretch of coast is also famously transition-friendly for foreigners. New Yorker Sarah Kahi-Goitz says that living in the popular beach town of Tamarindo offers the experience of a foreign country and culture, but also plenty of comforts. “Within the first two months, I met more people here than anywhere else I’ve lived,” she says. She attended a “ladies’ night” for expat women during her first week in town. The organized group mirrors many you’ll find within expat communities on the north Pacific coast.
Damon and Cristina Mitchell also live in Tamarindo. “There’s a great sense of community here, and we like to go out and enjoy it. We spend between $1,200 and $1,400 a month, the biggest variable being entertainment.”
Their 500-square-foot apartment in Tamarindo is within walking distance of the gold-sand beach. At $650 a month, it’s much more affordable than the $1,500 they once paid in Los Angeles.
The region offers several one-of-a-kind treasures to offset the buzz of busy beach towns; roads that, on the whole, are well-maintained make them accessible. Playa Conchal is reminiscent of a Caribbean, white-sand beach, but a closer look reveals a shore of crushed seashells. The water is crystal-clear, perfect for snorkeling. Las Catalinas, Playa Hermosa, or Playa Pavones will leave you with a new appreciation for black-sand beaches; they sparkle in the sun as if someone has sprinkled glitter beneath your feet. It’s common to have the beach to yourself: just you and the calm lapping of the waves, enveloped by tropical vegetation. My favorites include Playa Mina and Playa Dantita. They’re both located in their own cove, so you’re surrounded by towering rocks and vegetation. You can go to either one, spend an entire day, and you may not see a single other person. Because there are no established businesses along either beach, you’re truly able to enjoy the sound of the waves in front of you and the sound of birds in the woods behind you.
While beaches bring people to the Gold Coast, what keeps them here is something different. Easy access via a paved coastal highway to Liberia, the regional capital, helps foster a healthy mix of relaxation and convenience. Because of increased tourist traffic through the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (set to undergo a $10-million expansion/renovation this year), the city and surrounding region are steadily seeing infrastructure development.
Access to Costa Rica’s excellent healthcare is important for many retirees. And in 2012, CIMA Hospital opened a location in Liberia. Donna Sherwood, who splits the year between Tamarindo and Canada with her husband, says that they have twice experienced CIMA’s quality firsthand: once when she spent five nights in the hospital with dengue fever, and again when her husband had chest pains and was transported to the hospital in San José.
“During both these experiences, we felt that we were in extremely capable, educated hands,” she says. “We were treated with compassion by professionals who instilled great confidence in their abilities. Both hospitals were immaculate and equipped with every piece of modern medical equipment needed to treat us. And if all that wasn’t enough, every doctor spoke to us in English.”
Construction of a new Walmart store has begun, located directly off the Cañas-Liberia route that runs from the airport down the Gold Coast. Walmart may not sound exotic, but New Jersey natives Dave and Cathy Weed, who found their retirement oasis in Playa Langosta, offer some perspective. “We like that there are dirt roads and no giant shopping centers,” says Cathy. “But when we can’t find something in town, we can make a day of it and go get it—we feel relaxed, but not isolated.”
The Weeds rent a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, ocean-view condo for just under $1,000 a month. “We spend our free time mostly enjoying our space together; we sit on our balcony absorbing the gorgeous view, and our building has a refreshing pool we use often.”
Towns closer to the southern tip of the peninsula are farther from some of these amenities. Floridian Nick Fairman says he spent 12 years making trips to Nosara before deciding to move there. “Ultimately, I wasn’t looking for convenience. I knew I wanted to end up somewhere I could surf. I love it, but it’s not for everyone.”
Eternally popular with retirees, the Gold Coast attracts expat families, too. Gary and Rachel Burchett landed in the village of Potrero after road-tripping from Mexico to Costa Rica. Gary admits that, compared to its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is not the cheapest. But despite this, his family intends to stay. “Electricity can be expensive, for example, but I’d say it’s the distinct tradeoff of a country that produces 98% of its power from renewable sources.
“This community is special because most of us have traveled here with similar ideals and desires: to live life to the fullest and revel in a simple, peaceful, happy existence.”
When you first arrive in the northern Pacific region, be sure to look up the Expats in Guanacaste Facebook groups to make contact with fellow expats in the area.
Editor’s Note: This August, we’ll be holding our only Costa Rica event of the year, where you can meet all our experts, speak to them about your live-overseas plans, and get all their insider advice and tips for living in this peaceful, affordable, friendly country. Join us in San José for our Fast Track Costa Rica: Lifestyle and Opportunity Conference and find out why Costa Rica is among the most popular destination for U.S. and Canadian retirees.