Living Abroad in Costa Rica
Prime Living Locations
© Erin Van Rheenen, from Living Abroad in Costa Rica, 1st Used by permission of Erin Van Rheenen and Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
Maps © Avalon Publishing Group, Inc.
The areas profiled are by no means the only desirable ones, but they are places where a number of expatriates have decided to make their homes. For such a small country, Costa Rica has an astonishingly varied terrain. Guanacaste in late April (the end of the Costa Rican summer) will be hot and dry, its fields and rolling hills blanketed in deep yellows and browns. Just a few hours away, mountain towns like Monteverde—or La Fortuna, in the shadow of Arenal Volcano—are still wet and green. Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean coast, will be its usual humid and rainy self, while the weather near peaks south of the Central Valley will be downright frosty.
Deciding where to live is a very personal exercise, a process of self-discovery and of getting to know your adopted country. You may love to vacation at the beach, for instance, but find that after two months there you’re bored stiff. You may think you want to be far from other expats, but then realize how much you need an occasional dose of your own kind. Or the opposite may occur—you begin in an expat-heavy area and then, as your Spanish gets better and you feel more at home in the culture, decide you want to move farther afield, into a more truly Costa Rican environment. As I suggest elsewhere in this book, the best approach is to rent houses or apartments in a variety of locales, seeing which place suits you best, before settling in.
It’s worth thinking for a moment about the privileged position of being able to choose where you want to live. Most movement from country to country, from region to region, is spurred by war, political strife, natural disaster, or economic hardship. You are probably not thinking of relocating to Costa Rica for any of these reasons, so relax and know that you have time to find the right place to begin your new life. And as you review the basics, like real estate prices and climate, also ask yourself how you might contribute to the towns that make it on to your shortlist. What will you do there; who will you be there? The owner of a thriving business that employs a dozen locals? The founder of the new town library? Or the sour-faced gringo on the hill who complains about the roads and starts drinking before breakfast? Such considerations are not solely altruistic—it’s well-known that to successfully relocate, a person must forge new roles and new relationships. You’ll be a happier camper if you not only make friends with the locals (both Tico and expat), but also if you become an integral and valuable part of your adopted community.
The Central Valley and Beyond
Seventy percent of Costa Rica’s population lives in the beautiful and fertile basin called the Valle Central. At the heart of this highland plain (1,150 meters/3,773 feet) lies the capital city of San José, the nation’s undisputed political, economic, and cultural center. Here is where you’ll find the museums, the theaters, the government buildings, and the University of Costa Rica, the country’s largest and most important institution of higher learning. Costa Ricans from outlying areas are drawn to San José for better job opportunities, and many expats are sent here to work at branches of multinational corporations.
Temperate weather is one of the area’s main draws. For those who don’t do well with heat or humidity, the Central Valley’s mild and dry climate is a godsend. It never gets very cold or very hot here—temperatures average in the mid-20s Celsius/mid-70s Fahrenheit.
Some of the most popular expat areas around San José include Escazú, where the American ambassador makes his home; nearby Santa Ana, with its lovely old stone church and upscale restaurants; Alajuela, a reasonably priced town near the international airport; and Heredia, larger and more congested but still worth a look. Further afield you’ll find Grecia, 30 minutes from San José but a world apart—it was voted “cleanest town in Latin America” and boasts an interesting sheet-metal church in its quiet main plaza; Cartago, the original capital of the country and home to Costa Rica’s most stunning church; and Sarchí, a center for arts and crafts.
North of the Central Valley and over the mountains of the Cordillera Central lies the highland plain of San Carlos, home to Arenal Volcano and a series of pristine villages such as Zarcero, centered around a topiary-filled town square and part of an area cool and misty enough to grow lettuce and strawberries. Northwest of San José are the mountain towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde, the latter founded by Alabama Quakers in the 1950s and now an interesting mix of long-term expats and native Costa Ricans, many of whom have intermarried and speak both Spanish and English at home.
South of the Central Valley is the Valle de la General, an oft-overlooked zone that includes the pleasant inland towns of San Isidro de General, Buenos Aires, and San Vito, settled by Italian homesteaders and now the center of one of Costa Rica’s most fertile coffee-producing areas.
Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula
With Guanacaste’s dependable dry season (December–April) and seemingly endless supply of beaches, it is the preferred choice for lovers of sand and surf who want to escape the rain and snow back home.
Most of the beaches are on the Nicoya Peninsula, which is 150 kilometers (93 mi.) long, averages 50 kilometers (31 mi.) wide, and lies almost entirely within the province of Guanacaste (the southernmost tip, where you’ll find offbeat Montezuma and the surfer haven of Malpaís, is part of Puntarenas Province). But provincial boundaries don’t mean much here; the Nicoya Peninsula is all of a piece, with most of the fun to be found along the coast, and the practical stuff—banks, supermarkets, etc.—available in a series of inland towns strung along Highway 21.
Driving Guanacaste’s potholed back roads (almost all the area’s roads qualify as back roads), you’ll see barbed wire looped around gnarled and crooked tree trunks, improvised fences that keep the pale, hump-backed Brahmin cattle from wandering off. In the dry season, trees blaze with bright yellow and orange blossoms made even more dramatic because they grace bare branches, before the trees leaf out. The evergreen Guanacaste tree has a full, spreading, often perfectly symmetrical crown that provides welcome shade during hot afternoons. The tree’s long dark pods curl like ears, which is why the original inhabitants of the area called it quauhnacaztli, from the Nahuatl words quauitl, for tree, and nacaztli, for ear.
As you move toward the Pacific you’ll catch glimpses of the sea through branches or across scrubby fields. Arrival at the westernmost edge of the country is an inspiring experience, and Guanacaste’s beaches seduce even non–beach lovers. From white-sand Playa Hermosa up north to rocky Cabo Blanco down south, there’s something for everyone. Most expats in Guanacaste live (or try to live) off the tourist trade, running hotels, restaurants, Internet cafés, or real estate offices. Land prices around the most popular resorts are high, but then again, there’s an entire coastline to be discovered—you needn’t limit yourself to developed area such as Tamarindo and Playas del Coco. Long-term expats warn of a lack of health care facilities and a dearth of culture—most go to San José for more serious medical problems and might drive hours just to see a movie. Still, most agree they wouldn’t have it any other way—they didn’t move to the beach for state-of-the-art medical care or to be able to see the new James Bond movie the day it debuts in New York.
The Central and South Pacific Coast
The grouping together of the central and south Pacific coasts makes sense geographically, but the two areas couldn’t be more different in terms of ambience and density of settlement. The central Pacific coast, located between the Nicoya Peninsula to the north and the Osa Peninsula to the south, is one of the most visited and most developed parts of the country. It is anchored by the resort towns of Jacó and Quepos/Manuel Antonio, the first famous for surfing (international contests are held on Jacó’s long, palm-shaded beach); the second a sportfishing mecca and home to Manuel Antonio National Park, where sloths and monkeys hang out in trees that border some of the country’s prettiest white-sand beaches.
As in most areas outside of the Central Valley, expats who come to this area (and need to make a living) tend to work in the tourist trade. In fact, the majority of hotels and restaurants in Jacó and Manuel Antonio are owned and operated by non-Ticos. Industries not based on tourism include vast plantations of oil-producing African palms, which line the road from Jacó to Quepos, extending inland and often planted where bananas used to grow before that industry was destroyed by blight in the 1950s.
The central Pacific coast has a wet season and a dry season (May–November, and December–April, respectively), but this area’s dry season is not nearly as dry as that of Guanacaste, where virtually no rain falls. The further south you go, the wetter it becomes. Temperatures hover around 30°C/86°F in the dry season, a little lower in the wet season.
Traveling south along the coast road from Quepos, you won’t see much for about 40 kilometers (24.9 mi.), at which point you’ll hit Matapalo, a tiny beachside settlement gaining ground as a place foreigners like to hide themselves away. A little further along is the bigger town (all of a few hundred people) of Dominical, known for its surfing and, even more than Matapalo, increasingly popular with foreigners looking to buy property on the coast but away from big resorts. Even further south, Uvita and Punta Dominical also have their share of foreign-owned property, but settlement is sparser and services fewer and further between.
The southern Pacific coast is dominated by the hook-shaped Osa Peninsula and the vast, tranquil Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf), which borders the Osa’s eastern shore. Termed Costa Rica’s Amazon, this area is wetter, hotter, and more lushly verdant than the central coast. It’s also wilder—less populated and less developed. Up until the early 1980s, the area had a lawless, Wild West feel, with gold prospectors making and losing fortunes daily. Old-timers say everyone carried a gun and prostitutes were paid in gold nuggets. The Osa Peninsula’s Corcovado National Park was formed partly in response to mining that was destroying the country’s biggest and best example of coastal rain forest. Now the park—almost 42,000 hectares (103,784 acres)—protects 139 species of mammals and 400 species of birds, including the brilliantly plumed scarlet macaw.
Bigger towns in the area include Puerto Jimenez (where a good number of expats have settled) and Golfito, a port that was United Fruit’s company town until the banana producer pulled out in 1985 after a series of labor strikes. Golfito today is most famous for the Deposito Libre, a duty-free shopping compound where Ticos can buy appliances and other goods without paying the duties that can tack 50 percent onto purchase prices.
The southern Pacific coast is also known for excellent surf spots, including Pavones, home to what some call the longest wave in the world.
The Caribbean Coast
In a country where each new province seems a world apart, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica might just qualify as another universe. Nearly all of the country’s blacks, most of its Chinese, and a good part of its indigenous population can be found in the Zona Caribe, as it’s known in Spanish. Though these minorities make up only a few percentage points of the total national population (Afro-Caribbeans and indigenous peoples with about 2 percent each, and the Chinese population weighing in at barely .25 percent), the fact that most live in the sparsely populated Caribbean province of Limón means that this area is the most ethnically diverse in the country.
The Caribbean coast is where the colonizing Spaniards first arrived, but it is the Jamaicans, more recent arrivals, who have had perhaps the biggest impact. They (along with people from other Caribbean islands, and a number of Chinese) migrated here in the late 19th century to work on the railroad and in the banana fields, and their culture now dominates the area. What this means is that reggae overtakes salsa, spicy island-inspired concoctions offer welcome relief from bland casados, and a lilting Caribbean English is heard as often as Spanish.
Puerto Limón (often simply called Limón, which is also the name of the entire province) is the biggest city in the area, a bustling port that has more economic than aesthetic appeal. North of Puerto Limón, swamps and rivers dominate the area. Waterways are the zone’s roads, and boats outnumber cars. In the little town of Tortuguero, at the entrance to the famed Tortuguero National Park, there are no roads. Sand paths connect the wood-frame houses built on stilts to guard against flooding, and almost everyone has a dock and a boat or two in their front yard. South of Limón there is one decent coastal road linking the beach towns of Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, and Manzanillo, where most expats tend to settle. Inland, the heavily forested Talamanca mountains are home to several large indigenous reserves, among them the BriBrí and the Talamanca.
It rains more here than in other parts of the country, and the humidity is higher. The beaches south of Limón look like a South Seas fantasy, the water tending toward turquoise when the seas are calm, coconut palms arcing out over coral-protected coves. Limón also looks more like your stereotypical third-world country than other parts of Costa Rica—it’s the poorest province, and you won’t see upscale shopping malls or luxurious resorts here. What you will see are charming ramshackle villages, wildlife-rich jungles, and beautiful beaches. Fans of the area say they wouldn’t trade their little piece of Limón, with its rain and its rough edges, for a dozen more developed beach towns on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. “Life is a little harder here,” one expat told me, “but it’s also more rewarding, somehow. It’s a real place.”