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Best Places to Retire Abroad

Costa Rica

The Central Valley's outlying towns boast temperate, dry days, natural beauty—and so much more.

Best Places to Retire Abroad (COSTA RICA)

From left: Costa Rica expats Donna & Skip Anderton on their neighbors' back porch; view of the Central Valley from Atenas. — Jason Varney

Costa Rica is where you go to live the lush life. It is lush with nature—misty rain forests, extraordinary wildlife, active volcanoes, and fabulous beaches—as well as such comforting amenities as malls, supermarkets, restaurants, museums, and social clubs. U.S. retirees have flocked here for years, drawn by its mild climate, its prosperity (relative to other Central American republics), its literacy rate, its health care, and, significantly, its stable government—with no army. Another plus: Costa Rica's commitment to a thriving natural park system that is second to none in Latin America. This is as biodiverse a country as you’ll find anywhere. 

Whereas many beach-loving expats have settled in the resort towns and villages along the Guanacaste "Gold Coast" on the Pacific, the majority opt for the Central Valley, which is home to the capital, San Jose, and 70 percent of the Costa Rican (or"Tico") population. The outlying towns and villages of the Central Valley offer temperate, dry days and natural beauty, as well as the culture, hospitals, and shopping of nearby San Jose. (Regarding the weather, expats here like to brag that they can fine-tune their micro-climates by moving up and down the hills.)

Though not the bargain it was a decade ago, Costa Rica continues to draw moderate-income retirees to affordable Central Valley expat havens such as Grecia and Atenas (which claims "the world’s most perfect weather"). In 2007 Army vet Ron Keller, 64, moved from Washington State to Atenas, where he designed and built his own house in a gated community. "I wanted a change in my lifestyle," he says. Keller reports living comfortably on his military pension and Social Security, and is happy with his move: "Would I make the same decision again? Without question."

Texas retirees Skip and Donna Anderton, 63 and 58, moved to Costa Rica in 2009, and are renting a three-bedroom house in the town of Magallenes de San Ramon while building their own home. Skip says that they do nicely on $2,000 a month and praises the "excellent and economical health care." Their one frustration? They didn't learn Spanish (but are taking lessons now). Nevertheless, he says, "There are a lot of Ticos who speak good English, and those that don't go out of their way to communicate in some way There is a lot of sign language and a lot of smiling. Everyone is most helpful."

What to Expect in
Central Valley, Atenas

Climate

Two distinct seasons, rainy (May to December) and dry (January through April); variations between mountain and lowland regions, but generally warm temperatures and tropical humidity.

Expat Community

An estimated 50,000 Americans live in Costa Rica; approximately 15,000 of them are legal residents.

Cost of Living

Higher than other Central American countries—and the government has pulled back somewhat on its once-fabled retiree benefits—but still affordable. Expats report living comfortably on $2,000 a month. Domestic and garden help: $2 to $3 per hour. Dinner for two: $30.

Housing Costs

Attractive houses can be found for $100,000; a three-bedroom, two-bath house in a gated community costs about $200,000 (prices much higher on Gold Coast). Rentals: Year-round rents can be as low as $500 per month or as much as $1,000 per month, depending on location and size.

Health Care

Excellent. Costa Rica is known for the quality of its health care. Many doctors and dentists have trained in the United States or Europe. The private hospitals Cima San José and Clinica Biblica in San José are accredited by the United States’ Joint Commission (JCAHO). Residents can belong to inexpensive CAJA, the national health service, but private insurance is widely used.

Culture and Leisure

Abundant outdoor activities, from rain-forest hiking, zip-lining, scuba diving, and fishing to golf and bird-watching. Nightlife, theater, concerts, and museums in San José.

Access to the U.S.

Excellent. There are nonstop flights from San José to major cities on the East and West Coasts.

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