My wife and I are spending five weeks cycling around Costa Rica on our tandem. To my mind, it’s one of best ways of seeing and learning about a country. Tandems are social magnets. We’ve met plenty of locals who are curious about our bike and our journey. We’ve also met several Americans who chose to retire in Costa Rica. That might sound exotic, even crazy to some. But if you’re looking for adventure and a relatively low cost of living, Costa Rica makes sense.
For starters, it’s safe and clean. It offers private and nationalized, low-cost medical plans. It’s also a peaceful place, so much so, that it hasn’t had a military since 1948.
Costa Rica redirected defense spending towards education, medical facilities and infrastructure. That doesn’t make it perfect. The typical Costa Rican earns far less than the average American. But Costa Rica has made a lot of progress. It boasts a literacy rate of about 96 percent. You can safely drink water from the taps and its citizens have the second-longest life expectancy in the Americas (only Canadians live longer).
I’ve written about several low-cost retirement destinations. Some of my favorites include Mexico, Malaysia,Vietnam and Thailand. But Costa Rica is my current favorite. The country sits between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. At just 19,700 square miles, it’s slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia. It’s bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west coast and the Caribbean Sea on the east. Costa Rica has beautiful beaches, tropical rainforests and cool mountain towns, many of which are in the shadows of the country’s 67 volcanoes (six of them are active). Costa Rica’s biodiversity is among the highest in the world. It’s home to more than 500,000 species of animals; 300,000 of them are insects.
I’m a huge fan of retiring in Mexico. But if you can afford the higher cost of living in Costa Rica, it offers a level of comfort that Mexico might not. For starters, it’s cleaner…a lot cleaner. In 2018, my wife and I spent 10 months driving around Mexico in a camper van. When sleeping on the side of roads or cycling along them, it’s easy to see whether a country is generally clean or not. Outside the capital city of San Jose, Costa Rica appears to be about as clean as Canada. It’s one of reasons it’s often called the Switzerland of Central America.
Costa Rican, Ivette Lopez, lives and works in the town of La Fortuna. “Our schools teach us to look after the environment,” she says. “We learn not to litter and we learn about recycling.”
Costa Rica’s president, 39-year old Carlos Alvarado Quesada, says the climate crisis is, “The greatest task of our generation.” And they’ve made some strong conservation efforts. Costa Rica is one of the world’s only countries to have more tree and plant life today than it did 30 years ago. It has doubled its tree coverage over just three decades. Environment minister, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, says the country’s long-term goal is to be emission-free by 2050. Some people say that’s overly ambitious. But as the country’s president says, “We have to inspire people…we can be that example.”
While riding our tandem, we’ve seen signs that read (in Spanish) “Garbage doesn’t go away on its own.” And the locals have an expression that seems to combine their happy-go-lucky culture with their care for their environment: pura vida. It means, “simple life,” or “pure life.”
“We say ‘pura vida’ for so many things,” says Ivette Lopez. “If people ask us how we’re feeling or how our family is doing, we say ‘pura vida.’ When we see somebody on the street or when we say goodbye, we say ‘pura vida.’” With a laugh and a twinkle in her eye, she adds, “We say it so often that, even to us, pura vida is a mystery.”
According to the World’s Happiness Index, Costa Ricans are among the happiest people on the planet. I looked this up, after noting how cheerful and helpful the people seem to be. Two days ago, my wife’s jacket had fallen off the back of the bike. But we didn’t know it, until a young man caught up to us on his motorcycle. He had seen the jacket fall as we went by his home. He climbed on his motorcycle, returned the jacket and then went back home.
We’ve toured on our tandem in several countries. But we’ve never been invited so many times to camp in people’s yards.
In 1948, the Costa Rican government decided to disband their military. They haven’t had armed forces since. That’s one of the things Fran Teaster finds so appealing. She and her husband, Chuck Gleason, are from Portland, Oregon. But they moved to Costa Rica seven years ago. The couple now lives in the Costa Rican town of San Rafael de Heredia.
Fran Teaster loves the locals’ friendliness and helpfulness. She also likes her town's low crime rate. “In 7 years, we have had only one incident. Someone stole an extension ladder from our yard when we were on vacation one year.”
According to WorldBank figures compiled by Statistica.com, Costa Rica is twice as safe as Mexico. Over the five-year period ending 2018, Mexico’s homicide rate averaged 21.8 homicides per 100,000 people. Over the same time period, Costa Rica averaged 11.3. That’s higher than the 5 murders per 100,000 each year in the United States. But it’s far lower than any other Central American country.
That’s one of the reasons sixty-year old Mark Richardson and his 56-year old wife, Sylvia, chose to retire in Costa Rica. The couple lived and worked in Texas until last year. After visiting Costa Rica more than a dozen times, they decided to move to the town of La Fortuna. “There aren’t many expats in this town,” he says, “but we love it.” Mark, a geologist, volunteers his time to train local guides about the volcanoes, one of which looms behind his home. Sylvia, who’s fluent in Spanish, also volunteers in the local community.
“We aim to spend about $30,000 a year here,” Mark says. “In our first year, we spent about $50,000. But that included set-up costs, such as renovating the home we bought, improving its landscaping and increasing its security.”
In The International Living, Guide to Retiring Overseas on a Budget, authors Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher say most expatriate retirees in Costa Rica spend between $2000 to $3000 a month. They say some budget-conscious retirees live on just $1,500 a month. But after living in Costa Rica for seven years, Fran Teaster has noticed that many of the people who choose to retire in Costa Rica for the low cost of living end up disappointed. “If you moved here from a large city on either [U.S.] coast, you may find that Costa Rica is somewhat cheaper, but if you’re coming from someplace like rural Alabama, it is not.”
If Americans move to Costa Rica, and if they expect to eat the same boxed or jarred food brands (cereals, peanut butter etc.), they might have to pay through the nose. One expat told me that a jar of Jif peanut butter, for example, costs as much as $15. But local fruits and vegetables are much cheaper in Costa Rica than they are in the United States.
You’ll only find American fast food restaurants, such as McDonald’s, in the larger cities. But you can find healthier, lower cost meals everywhere. The best values are at local family-run establishments called Sodas. You’ll pay as little as $4 for a large plate of chicken, salad, rice, beans and plantains (such as the one pictured). If you include a fresh fruit smoothie, you’ll pay about $6 for the total meal.
The healthier food choices might be one of the reasons Costa Ricans live so long. But they also have access to low-cost privatized and nationalized medical care. In their book, Haskins and Prescher say that once you acquire residency, the socialized medical program costs between 7 percent and 11 percent of your reported monthly income. Fran Teaster is impressed by the low cost of medical care. Many expats combine the services of the socialized medical plan [Caja] with out-of-pocket spending at private centers.
Fran says the socialized system meets most of her needs, but she doesn’t enjoy waiting for appointments. “I see the top rated cardiologist in Costa Rica,” she says. “My consultation with him costs about $120 and that includes an EKG, ultrasound or stress test.” She also adds that dental care costs three times more in the United States, compared to similar treatment in Costa Rica.
Plenty of Americans also live part-time in Costa Rica. They include Bob and Debbie Davis, who have spent 3 to 6 months in Costa Rica each year for the past 8 years. “We own a condo at the beach [in Samara] of about 1000 square feet,” says Debbie. “We have a 145 degree view of the ocean.” The couple got a great deal on their apartment because it was a foreclosure. But Debbie says similar units are priced between $170,000 and $220,000.
Even during the high season, some people can rent simple homes at the beach for as little as $1000 a month. But Debbie says if people want to live in luxury with a view and a pool, they’ll have to pay at least $2,800 a month. That isn’t cheap. But the country’s culture, low-cost medical and safety still attract plenty of expats.
If you would like to retire in Costa Rica, however, resident expats give several warnings. You’ll need to be patient…sometimes really patient. It’s a slower pace of life. “Sometimes it can take weeks and several appointments to get someone to fix a door,” says Mark Richardson. “It took me three visits of 2-3 hours each time, just to open a bank account.”
To maximize the experience, it’s best to relax and accept the differences in pace. Fran Teaser offers three suggestions that echo the sentiment of almost every happy expatriate. “Have patience, a sense of humor and a sense of adventure. Always remember that you are the visitor here. You are the one who needs to adapt, not the Ticos [Costa Ricans].”
If you can be like a tree, bending with the local wind, then Costa Rica might be the world’s best place to retire. It currently tops my list.
- The International Living Guide To Retiring Overseas on a Budget, by Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas