Great weather, easy life, low cost of living and healthcare: Why so many Americans visit Costa Rica and never leave.
Lisa Farrell dropped by the tiny beach town of Playas del Coco to become a dive master on her way to California from New York City, while Shelley Huff wanted to check out the famous Costa Rican surf. Bobbi Jo Barton? Her husband wanted to try owning a dive shop. (She was terrified on her first dive, but put on her game face in front of her daughters).
Different stories, same ending: “And she never left.”
Costa Rica, often dubbed the “happiest place on earth,” has long beckoned expats from North America and elsewhere who long for a more laidback lifestyle and warm tropical breezes. For a time, I was one of those runaways. The recession had left me jobless and in more debt than I’d like to remember. So when two friends planned a trip to Costa Rica, I cashed in my last airline miles and headed south. My only plan was to return home in two months, during which I would pray that some sort of a long-term plan would present itself.
As it turned out, only my two friends followed that timeline. By the time they were packing their bags to return to California, I had somehow figured out that a friend of mine from years ago in Manhattan was living in the next town over. A teensy tiny one-room house in her barrio was empty and looking for a tenant. I moved in within the hour.
Unlike Farrell, Huff and Barton, I didn’t stay forever. Exactly one year later, after starting a small business and paying off that debt, I was contacted about a job that I couldn’t pass up. Just as dramatically as I had moved into my little casita, I was back in Las Vegas, fretting about morphing my beach attire into a glamorous wardrobe.
It was a sad good-bye, but one that was made without hesitation. Costa Rica would be there; the job would not.
After all, I was in my mid-30s; the majority of my friends and neighbors hadn’t moved to paradise until retirement
Oh what a retirement that would be: Life at the beach, but with cheaper food and more adventure than Florida. Costa Rica is known for its stellar healthcare system, which costs only about $100/month. And it’s relatively easy to qualify for residency, especially for anyone with more than $1,000 coming in from any kind of pension or social security. But those are the practical reasons to make the move, much as a new dating prospect might have good credit or perfect teeth. Living in Costa Rica isn’t really about that; it’s about falling in love with the way of life.
“The most appealing thing about living in CR is the slower pace, for sure, and the possibility of having a much simpler life,” says Huff, who now runs the stand-up paddle board company Pacific Coast Paddle & Surf. “Most people you will meet here don’t have much, but they’re perfectly happy with what they do have. We have amazing weather all year round, warm water, great waves, mangos falling from the sky, happy people, bright colors–I could go on and on. I wanted a mellow ‘island style’ life. Even though this isn’t an island, it still has that energy and vibe. There’s way less stress and no need to move so fast.”
I can certainly vouch for that. I had been in a cutthroat business before I was unceremoniously let go in 2008. After seemingly endless months waiting for my apartment’s lease to run out so I could move, I arrived in the tropics a stressed-out mess. There, for the first time in my life, I had nothing but time. I read books, studied Spanish, met friends for drinks. Nothing was scheduled ahead of time, I wasn’t checking my phone every minute and the dense humid air had a way of relaxing me. A lifetime insomniac, I started to sleep well without aid for the first time in memory.
I’m not alone. Heading to Central America (Panama is also popular, and I think Nicaragua will pick up soon) has grown increasingly common post recession. People lost their jobs or didn’t end up with as much money as they wanted to for retirement—or just want to get away from the stress that these hard financial times put on a lot of us.
“I love my life here,” says Farrell, who sells real estate with RE/MAX when not working with her husband on their business, North Pacific Tours. “I enjoy the healthy living, the ocean, its magical smells—I wish I could produce a scratch and sniff photo. I was never as comfortable with myself living in New York City as I am now in Costa Rica. I don’t worry about shootings, which I see on the news. Here, that’s never an issue. If I hear an ambulance, I get nervous; if I hear a siren, I’m panicking, because I know something isn’t right. We just don’t have those sounds here! Instead, we have the sights and sounds of nature, of wildlife. Yesterday, driving to work, I passed an oxen cart with two farmers and they were transporting a freshly cut tree. At my office, I have a chicken that comes inside to visit. I can sit outside and work under the trees, and hope that the monkeys overhead don’t poop on me. Sometimes I can’t sit outside due to that—isn’t that terrible?!”
Not that a life in the tropics is for everyone. A country that prides itself on an “it’s all good” mentality—they call it pura vida—isn’t going to be as efficient as what you might be used to at home. Tim Lytle, who runs the blog therealcostarica.com, recommends not buying any real estate until you’ve been there for a year, in case you realize you’re not cut out for Central America. The laidback lifestyle can take some getting used to, especially if you’re wound up to begin with like I was.
If you do arrive and become overwhelmed because it seems that every little errand takes ten times as long to complete, take a deep breath and wait it out for as long as possible. Costa Rica has a strange way of solving its own problems. For example, at my new house, I had a 45-minute walk to the grocery store that got old fast. But eventually a new friend got me a local cell phone (long story, but you can’t just go buy one at the store), and another friend knew a reliable cab driver who would come pick me up whenever I called. When rainy season started, nothing was more appreciated than those $2 cab rides.
“If you don’t have patience, you will not last long here,” Huff says. “The biggest mistake that people make when they move here is to constantly compare everything to ‘back home’. Things work and run very differently here and if you expect it to be anything other than what it is, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointing experience. You have to go with the flow and be willing to adapt to Costa Rica, not expect it to adapt to you. You can go to the Municipality to get some paperwork you need for this, that or the other, and they will tell you what you need. So you go get it and return the next day. But now they tell you that you need something different. So now you go get that and return the next day, and that person will say, ‘No, you don’t need that, you need this!’ It’s kind of funny actually. Everything is much easier here if you have a local to help you out, and it takes times to make those friends. Even they aren’t 100 percent sure about how things work, but somehow they always seem to make it smoother and less stressful.”
You have to be fairly tenacious to start a small business in Costa Rica, where many dream of opening a modest restaurant or beachside bar. To begin with, the country is so environmentally friendly that it’s rare to be given permission to open any kind of business close to the beach. There are also tricky laws regarding employees—and you really need to learn some Spanish. In fact, even if you have no intention of working there, I implore you to take some Spanish before you go, no matter how frustrating or awkward it might be.
“Learning to dive, operating a dive shop and running a business in Costa Rica, plus being a Mom and not speaking Spanish—moving here was a big challenge,” Barton says. “The financial part is the most difficult. Trying to get a small business loan without collateral is impossible. And everyone thinks Costa Rica is cheap, so we have a difficult time charging accordingly for the tours.”
No matter how long you decide to visit for, from a week’s vacation to indefinitely, there’s plenty to do. Costa Rica is such a popular retirement spot that visitors of all ages will feel comfortable diving in and trying new activities. The once trigger-shy Barton, now divorced from the husband whose idea it was to dive in the first place, now takes people diving with her company, Diving Safaris. “Our average customer is between 45 and 65 years old,” she says. “Many haven’t dived in a while due to raising children or being busy with their careers.”
It’s also hard for some people to be in a different country than their family, although it’s just a few hours south of Texas by plane. And then there are the critters—and rainy season. I recommend staying through a complete one before making any permanent decisions. I loved the coziness of the constant warm rain, but others spend those months back home, and are always on the lookout for a house sitter to watch their place during that time.
“In the ten years I’ve lived here,” Farrell says, “I’ve become used to the tarantulas on my screen doors or the side of the house, a scorpion waiting to greet me inside my door (which happened tonight) and the stray dogs that become best friends with mine and stop in for play dates and hikes. I love the weather, six months of dry season mixed in with some windy months and then the green season. It’s similar to South Florida’s weather.” In fact, the flight to Miami is less than three hours and a common trip for those who long for some American amenities.
Farrell’s husband, Mauricio Barrera, is born and raised in Coco and is an avid fisherman and dive master. Their fishing business, North Pacific Tours, gets people outside for snorkeling, a tour, surfing or fishing. “Any day on the water is a good day,” Farrell says. “We get the best clients—a lot of families, which is so nice to see. We’ve had clients from the age of three and up to the age of 80. Who doesn’t love to fish or spend time out on the water with someone you love?”
As for Huff’s stand-up paddleboard (SUP) tours, there’s a first time for everything! “You might be surprised by how many of the people who paddle out with us are over 50—at least half,” says Huff who, like Farrell, married a local. “It’s a great way to exercise without risking too much injury or strain, and the worst that happens is you fall in the water. When the water is 80-something degrees, you definitely don’t mind falling in! There’s even a local group of expats who have started a SUP club in this area, and nearly all of them are over 50.”
That’s something I miss about spending time in Costa Rica—people of all ages seamlessly hanging out, in yoga class, at a book club or having a late afternoon beer. “It just seems that the 50+ crowd has more fun here,” Huff says. “They’re totally over the trying to impress anyone stage, and they usually have a better appreciation for things in general. They’re ready to enjoy themselves, and it’s awesome to be around.”
If the pura vida lifestyle is for you, I’ll see you there.