Where to Live in Costa Rica
The Central Valley
The Central Valley, or Meseta Central, is the center of Costa Rica due to
its geographical location, culture and economic activities. The valley lies
at an altitude of 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level. It is surrounded by
mountains and semi-active volcanoes such as Poás and Irazú. Its fertile
volcanic soil makes it an ideal place for growing anything, including some
of the world’s best coffee. It is not surprising that more than 70 percent
of the country’s 4.5 million population lives in this region of the country
because of its almost perfect year-round spring-like climate. The capital city
of San José is located here as well.
The region covers large urban centers including San José, Cartago,
Alajuela, and Heredia; rural villages dotting the hillsides and farmland;
and medium-sized towns including Escazú, Santa Ana, Palmares, Naranjo,
Grecia, Puriscal, Ciudad Colón, and San Ramón.
The Central Valley is also one of the most popular places for
foreigners to live because of its lovely, eternal-spring-like climate and
many other factors. But The region offers the best access to services and
infrastructure in the country by far, including top-notch hospitals, an
international airport, plenty of shopping and restaurants, Internet and
cable connections, and public transportation. In addition to (or, more
likely, because of) the preceding, the Central Valley is also the country’s
business center. It has a wide range of free trade zones and office parks,
and many multinational corporations have their national or regional
headquarters in the Central Valley.
The Central Valley – or more specifically, from Cartago west and
north through San José to Santa Ana and Alajuela – is and always has
been the focus of the country’s government, business and industry. The
supreme courts, the majority of the country’s law firms, congress, the
presidential house, the seats of all the ministries, and the headquarters of
the major trade and agricultural associations are all located in San José
and its surroundings, as are the aforementioned subsidiaries of the many
multinational companies that have set up shop in free zones that offer tax
benefits to exporters.
The Central Valley offers a wide range of housing. Decent, affordable
housing ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 in tico neighborhoods, while
mid-range prices are $100,000 to $250,000. Low-end condos in the Escazú
Santa Ana area start at $150,000. Luxury apartments in Escazú can cost
between $250,000 and $750,000. To many this seems expensive but the
same housing would cost several times as much or more in some places in
the United States or Europe.
A recent boom in the construction industry has created a wide variety
of affordable new homes from which to choose. Many gated communities
have been built in Santa Ana and in the Heredia and Grecia areas. Older
homes also abound and are sometimes a better deal because they often have
larger parcels of land.
Deciding where to live in Costa Rica depends on your preferences. If
you like the stimulation of urban living and spring-like weather all year, you
will probably be happiest living in San José, Heredia or one of the adjacent
smaller towns and cities in the Central Valley, such as Alajuela, Escazú or
As mention later in this book, there are hundreds of activities for everyone
in, around and near San José. The infrastructure is excellent, and the area
offers almost all of the amenities of living in the United States.
Retirement is a big change for many people because they find themselves
with more free time than before and some people get bored. This should not
be a problem if you reside in San José or the nearby suburbs, since there is a
large North American community and it is always easy to find something to do.
San José is the capital of the country and the capitol city of the province
with the same name. Living in San José proper has a couple of drawbacks.
Like most cities, San José is crowded, noisy and suffers from pollution from
buses and cars during rush hour with commuters driving, walking, and taking
public transportation to work. There is also some crime in the downtown
area. If you own a vehicle it is hard to find a place to keep it it downtown
except for public parking lots.
Finding your way around San José can be confusing at first. Like most
of Costa Rica’s cities the streets are one-way in downtown San José. To
make matters worse most buildings don’t have addresses. The city is divided
into avenidas (avenues) which run east and west, and calles (streets) which
run north and south. This is explained later on in Chapter 10, “Getting
Despite these shortcomings, there are quite a few Americans who live in
the center of town because it is convenient and there is a lot to do to stay busy.
The downtown area boasts the National Theater (Teatro Nacional)
where the National Symphony performs, outdoor cafés, eateries, pedestrian
streets, bookstores, department stores, nightclubs, a whole slew of Gringo
hangouts like the Hotel Del Rey, Internet cafes, language schools, souvenir
stores, museums, supermarkets, a Costa Rican-style central market district,
several large casinos, historic hotels like the Gran Hotel Costa Rica and a
whole lot more.
One friend from Florida loves this area because he is right in the thick
of the action in the Gringo Gulch area. Another American we know likes
to spend all day in front of the Gran Hotel Costa Rica seated at one of the
tables talking with other expatriates and people-watching. The latter is a
favorite pastime among foreigners in the downtown area. A couple of groups
of gringos gather for coffee and conversation most days at the McDonald’s
next to the Plaza de la Cultura and the National Theater. Newcomers can
make some instant friends there.
The municipal authorities have announced plans to revamp downtown
San José in an effort to draw more people back to the city. The population
of the areas that make up the central San José area has dropped from about
70,000 people to 60,000 over the last 20 years, with many people moving
to the suburbs. Urban planners are transforming the city by building more
parks and six new pedestrian walkways, similar to the ones found on Avenidas
Central and 4. The National Water and Sewage Institute will improve the
city’s water, sewage and drainage systems, and the Ministry of Transportation
plans to improve traffic in the city by placing major transportation arteries
outside of the 53 blocks that make up the heart of the city, leaving the
34 The New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica
downtown area for pedestrians. The electricity company has already placed
electrical lines underground and a new network of “intelligent” traffic lights
has been installed.
One of the new pet projects is the creation of a Chinatown. The area
design, still on the drawing board already has several oriental supermarkets
and restaurants. The new Barrio Chino or Chinatown will be located
between Avenidas (avenues) 2 and 14 and will be about two acres or 8,300
square meters in size when completed. Plans call for a huge Chinese-style
gate with an ornate design at each entrance to the neighborhood. If you
have ever been to San Francisco’s Chinatown you can visualize one of
Another project of interest is the development of Paseo Colón. Developers
now have their eyes set on turning the western entrance to San José into a
street lined with sidewalk cafés, stores and high-rise condominiums like the
ones that are being built around Sabana Park. The Municipality of San José
backs this project and is willing to cooperate and work hand-in-hand with
the developers to beautify the Paseo Colón area.
Here is an expatriate’s take on San José: “I find San Jose’s air to be much
cleaner than 11 years ago. I go from San Antonio de Coronado to downtown
San José everyday Monday through Sunday. I have walked from Sabana
Park to the Central Market many days and then all over the downtown area
and never had a problem. Today I went to the U.S. Embassy by taking two
buses from central San José and then went back on another bus. I also did
a few errands. Then I took the bus back to my house and was home by 2
pm. I know about 20 words in Spanish. For me the city is great. You could
not pay me to return to the little town I came from in the U.S. I have been
living here less than a month and have accomplished a lot in a little time — a
Costa Rican driver’s license, a bank, a post office box and a girl friend. So if
a 66-year-old man with no Spanish can do it, anyone can.”
Here is another foreign resident’s view of the city of San José: “I can
understand every expat has a different perspective about San José. After
living in New York City so many years without a car, I have no intention
of buying one to live in the suburbs of San José. The city suits me fine.
Buses and taxis are always available if I want to travel outside the city. I
have a home just a block north of Torre Mercedes, off Paseo, Colón, and
easily walk to most things I need such as the weekend flea market in the
Cementerio district, theaters and art galleries in downtown San José and
Sabana Park. “
“A block or less from my house there’s a supermarket, several interesting
restaurants, a major bank and a few bakeries. I know the neighbors on my
little street as well as the guys who knock on the door to offer the daily
newspapers or a pushcart full of vegetables.”
Why I live in Costa Rica
By Jo Stuart
The quality of life is not measured simply by efficiency nor by material things.
For those of you who want to know why I live in Costa Rica, here are my
(1) I was originally drawn to this country because it has no army, and as
a resut has developed a peaceful mentality. Costa Ricans do not like
confrontations and are not greatly into competition. Perhaps because
of this, the minute I arrived, I felt comfortable here.
(2) I was charmed (and still am) because when ticos thank you, they don’t
say “Gracias.” They usually say”Gracias muy amable,” which means
“Thank you, you’re very kind.” Being told I am kind often enough
makes me see myself as kind and wanting to be more so.
My life here is enhanced each time a tico says, “You’re welcome.”
Here they don’t say, as they do in most other Spanish-speaking countries,
“No hay de que” or “De nada” (For nothing). They say “Con mucho
gusto” (With much pleasure or, more loosely, The pleasure is mine).
My friend Jerry has said more than once that giving and receiving are
the same thing, and ticos seem to have recognized this. I have been
trying to remember to say both Gracias, muy amable and Con mucho
gusto. Language is a powerful influence on attitude.
(3) Although I have learned that there is a downside to a peace-loving
philosophy, a trait called passive-aggressiveness, I have decided that I
can handle passive-aggressiveness better that I can the downside of a
personal freedom-loving philosophy, which seems to be aggressiveaggressiveness.
(4) I enjoy walking in downtown San José in spite of the traffic and challenging
sidewalks. When I first came here and mixed with the people on the
streets, I thought there wereas many pedestrians here as there were in
New York at Christmastime but without the hostility. Instead, I find
myself energized and uplifted.
(5) I also noticed that Costa Ricans as a rule have fine postures. It is a
pleasure to see them, and seeing them reminds me to straighten up. It
is surprising how much better you feel when you walk tall.
(6) I have on a number of occasions, experienced the health care system of
Costa Rica, both private and public . The cost here for medical care is
far less than in the United States, and I always have felt more cared for
and cared about in my experiences here. Even in the overworked and
36 The New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica
under-supplied public hospitals, I have found attention and compassion.
It outweighs the lack of Kleenex. The last time I was in the Hospital
Calderón Guardia emergency section, they passed out lunches at noon
and coffee and snacks in the late afternoon to the waiting patients.
(7) Although business transactions are not always speedy here, how can you
not like a country where it is the law that every public building must
have a public bathroom? (That doesn’t mean they must supply paper.)
It is true one spends considerable time waiting in lines. This is where
I get a lot of my reading done. I’ve waited in lines in many countries,
and I’ll take an orderly, friendly queue of ticos any day.
(8) There is a custom here that many North Americans have picked up
and that is the custom of brushing cheeks when seeing a friend or
acquaintance. In the States, after an initial handshake following an
introduction, I seldom touch that person again, certainly not my travel
agent, my doctor or my landlord. Here, I do. Touching cheeks makes
me feel a connectedness to others, and when you think about it, is
much more sanitary than a handshake.
(9) On the comfort front, it is hard to beat the climate in the Central Valley
of Costa Rica. I have lived where there were 15-foot snowdrifts and
where I became accustomed to perspiration dripping down my neck
all the time. Living where I need neither air conditioning nor a heater
is such a pleasure, and I am sure, far healthier.
(10) Something that is changing here that I regret are the window displays
in the stores. Once there was nothing that caught my attention, and I
had no desire to buy. I was not lured into being a consumer. Now they
are getting both more artistic and more products, and I have found
myself stopping and thinking I would like something.
(11) Because the growing season is so rapid, fresh vegetables and fruits are
available most of the year. If one were a vegetarian, one could live very
(12) And finally, what clinched my love affair with Costa Rica was discovering
that their national bird is the yigüirro. The yigüirro (which I can’t even
pronounce) is very similar to the U.S. robin but smaller, and even less
colorful. The yigüirro neither threatens no one’s existence It is certainly
not a bird of prey nor is it a rare or endangered bird. It is a common little
dun-colored bird, an Every bird, if you will. I think people who choose
the yigüirro as a national bird have something to say to the rest of the
world about peaceful coexistence, humanity, self-esteem and equality.
* Jo Stuart is a regular columnist for the online daily Am Costa Rica. See
www.amcostarica.com for more details.
La Sabana and Rohrmoser
Many North Americans who do not want to live too far from San José reside
around Sabana Park. Most of them live in nearby Sabana Norte and Sabana
Sur. Restaurants, gyms, two Más x Menos supermarkets and a variety of stores
and services are all found in this area.
Located at the west end of Paseo Colón, the sprawling Sabana Park
with its forest of eucalyptus trees, is the largest of Costa Rica’s urban parks
and is within walking distance of San José and neighboring Rohrmoser. The
park is right on the outskirts of the center of the city and has nice upscale
neighborhoods on the north, south and west. La Sabana was originally the
site of the country’s international airport. The old control tower is the present
art museum. The park is now covered with tall trees and features a museum,
a lake, jogging trails, an Olympic-size pool, soccer fields, recreational facilities
and many more attractions for the general public.
China donated the workers and materials to build a new world-class, stateof-
the-art soccer stadium at the north-west corner of Sabana Park. It will be
finished in 2010 and will take the place of the old decrepit National Stadium.
The fashionable suburb of Rohrmoser, on the northwest side of Sabana
Park, is very popular with people who want to live in a suburban area close to
San José. Living in Rohrmoser is much like having a home near New York’s
Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This is especially true now
since high-rise condos are being built around the perimeter of Sabana Park
and in Rohrmoser. The area around Sabana Park is undergoing something
of a building boom. Some say this area will become the Manhattan of Central
America. Overnight, it seems, about a half dozen developers began building
towers with as many as 12 stories on all sides of the park to take advantage of
the views. The condos in the mixed-use developments are pricey: $350,000
and up, for the most part, with penthouses selling for more than $1 million.
The new developments are sure to attract more builders and homeowners,
and of course, the new highway will place any La Sabana homeowner only
about a one-hour drive from the coast.
Sabana and Rohrmoser are middle-class Costa Rican neighborhoods,
which are generally pretty safe. Its residents are predominantly tico families,
along with a few expatriates. Several embassies are located there, as is the
house of President Oscar Arias. The light traffic and the area’s multiple
parks make it safe for children to play outside.
The main tree-lined street called Rohrmoser Boulevard runs right
through the center of this neighborhood, virtually bisecting it in half.
Rohrmoser is bordered on the south by the Pavas Highway. Just about any
type of store you might need is found along this busy thoroughfare as well
as the U.S. Embassy to the west.
The neighborhood is made up of homes, apartments, condos, a few
businesses and has some lovely neighborhood parks. Rohrmoser has many
upscale homes owned by wealthy Costa Ricans and is considered very safe,
since a large number of well-guarded foreign embassies are found here. Home
prices start at about $100,000 on the low end, from $100,000 to $250,000
for a mid-range home and $350,000 to $750,000 or more for an upper-end
home. Rent begins at $700.
At one time my family and I lived in Rohrmoser and paid $600 for a
three-bedroom, three-bath penthouse apartment with a panoramic view
of the mountains and indoor parking. We found living there to be very
convenient since it is close to everything.
Excellent supermarkets, boutiques, international restaurants, the Cemaco
department store, several small strip malls, an English-language bookstore,
fast-food restaurants, upper-end eateries, Más por Menos and Automercado
supermarkets, pharmacies, bars, discos, doctor’s and dentists, offices, health
clubs, beauty parlors, cafés with pastry shops, movie theaters, the Plaza
Mayor and Plaza Rohrmoser shopping centers are located in and around
this upscale neighborhood.
For you nighthawks there is even a 24-hour mini-market at the Shell
gas station. The only thing bad about Rohrmoser is that bus service to
downtown San José is not good, but you can always take a taxi since they
are so affordable.
East of San José – Los Yoses, Barrio Escalante,
San Pedro, Curridabat and Tres Ríos
These eastern suburbs have a surprisingly wide variety of large shopping
malls, supermarkets and other stores. There are three major shopping malls,
including Terramall in Tres Ríos (a few kilometers east of Curridabat);
Multiplaza del Este in Curridabat/Zapote; and Mall San Pedro in San Pedro.
There are also plenty of appliance stores, interior design stores and cinemas
on that side of town.
About five minutes east of downtown San José sits the residential
neighborhood of Los Yoses. Like all areas east of downtown San José,
Los Yoses features a mixture of new and old homes and businesses. Many
foreigners live in this area because it is only a short walk to downtown San
José. The Centro Cultural Costarricense-Norteamericano (Costa Rican-North
American Cultural Center) is located in this area (there is also a smaller branch
in Sabana Norte next to the American Chamber of Commerce). Los Yoses
boasts a bowling alley, a supermarket complex, a bookstore and many bars and
restaurants. The gigantic San Pedro Mall is found on the eastern edge of this
neighborhood. So, there are interesting activities to keep a person occupied.
Barrio Escalante, slightly to the north of Los Yoses, has many older
homes and stately mansions. The area provides a glimpse of how the upper
crust used to live in Costa Rica. Many foreigners prefer this area since it
is so close to downtown and some reasonably priced housing is available.
Prices range from about $100,000 on up. Rent starts at about $500 for a
Just east of Los Yoses is San Pedro — the home of the University of
Costa Rica (UCR) or “La U” as it is affectionately referred to by Costa
Rica’s youth. The campus and surrounding area resemble many U.S. college
towns with numerous student hangouts, restaurants, pizzerias, bookstores,
nightspots, boutiques and two large shopping malls.
You can spend the day sitting at a table at one of the many sidewalk cafés
along the Calle de La Amargura and check out the students as they pass by. A
distinctly Bohemian ambience fills the air. Some interesting event or cultural
activity is always happening in or around the university. During April, the
annual University Week celebration takes place. This spectacle includes floats
and a carnival-like atmosphere. Low-priced student apartments are available
within walking distance of the university.
Curridabat or “Curri” as it is called by the locals is just east of San
Pedro. There are some gated communities and condominiums going up on
the extreme eastern edge of Curridabat – entering into Tres Ríos – where
some inexpensive land is still available. Most of San Pedro and Curridabat
are made up of medium, large, or very large single family homes, as well as
a few gated communities. In a few places, lots are available, but expensive.
The main four-lane road that passes through San Pedro and
Curridabat toward Cartago is certainly nothing to write home about, with its
aging strip malls, plentiful fast food eateries, and terrible traffic. The charm
of these areas, however, is found off the main drag. The neighborhoods
that branch off the main street feature big houses, some good views, quiet
streets, and even a few parks.
If you do decide to live on this side of town, you’ll have a more tico
experience than in Escazú. Not many foreigners live on this side of town,
and the ones who do tend to blend in to the local scene – speak Spanish,
eat at tico places, live in a stand-alone house – rather than cluster and create
their own communities.
Property and houses in San Pedro and Curridabat are generally
cheaper than in Escazú, but that has been changing. Quite a few expensive
restaurants have been popping up, though there is still a wide range of
good, cheaper restaurants to choose from. In terms of shopping, the area
leaves little to be desired, though it’s more spaced out than what you find
Just to the east and north of Curridabat is the community of Tres Ríos.
This sprawling and winding town is seeing quite a few gated communities
being built and marketed to the Costa Rican middle class. Otherwise, Tres
Ríos is basically a bedroom community similar to San Pedro or Sabanilla.
Lomas de Ayarco is an upper-scale area east of Curridabat a few
minutes from the TerraMall shopping area and on the way to Cartago.
There is an Hipermás and there are other good services in this area. Some
people refer to Lomas as the “Escazú of the east.” The author’s good friend
Ray Hagist lives in this area with his family.
Farther East of San José – Cartago and Vicinity
Another neighboring city, Cartago, is “just over the hill” from San José,
and was the first capital of Costa Rica during the colonial period. San José
became the country’s capital when an earthquake destroyed old Cartago.
Cartago is home to the largest and most beautiful cathedral in the
country, known as La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles;.The
cathedral is the destination of the annual pilgrimage in honor of the
Virgin of los Angeles. The pilgrimage takes place every August. Literally
millions of people make the journey every year, usually starting from San
José, although there are always a few devotees that walk all the way from
Guanacaste or the Southern Zone.
Cartago is at a higher elevation than San José, and therefore a little
more chilly and rainy. Perhaps the cooler year-round temperatures explain
why fewer North Americans reside here. The air, however, is clean, and the
views are spectacular. There is plenty of space to build, which is usually what
foreigners choose to do in that part of the country. Quite a few services are
still available, but they are further away. The style of living for expats who
choose Cartago and its environs is relatively more sedate. Many Costa Ricans
live in Cartago and work in San José, since bus service between the two cities
is excellent. Plans call for a commuter train linking Cartago and San José.
The nicest thing about Cartago is its proximity to the beautiful Orosi
Valley, which lies about 60 minutes east of San José. Viewed from above,
this Shangrila-esque valley is breathtaking. The spring-like temperatures on
the valley floor stay the same all year. At one end of the valley is a large manmade
lake, Cachí, and a park where one can participate in many recreational
activities, from picnicking to water sports. The lake is fed by the famous
Reventazón white-water river that runs through the Orosi Valley The area’s
other main attractions are waterfalls, nature reserves and several hot springs.
I consider the Orosí Valley one of the most beautiful spots in the country and
am surprised that more foreigners don’t choose to live here.
The Route of the Saints is an area near Cartago where some foreigners
reside. This part of Costa Rica is one of the few places where you can find
dairy farms, coffee plantations, log cabins, country inns, pine trees and fresh
mountain air. Surrounded by mountains, the towns in this area are all named
after different saints, which is how it became known as La Ruta de los Santos.
Some of the towns are perched precariously on mountainsides while others
are found at the bottom of valleys. Tarbarca, San Ignacio de Acosta, San
Cristóbal Sur, San Marcos de Tarrazú and Santa María de Dota are the
major towns along this scenic route.
West of San José – Escazú, Santa Ana,
Ciudad Colón, Puriscal and Orotina
Another place you might consider living is Escazú — a popular suburb where
many North Americans reside. At one time Escazú was known as the town
of the witches, not because there are a lot of women in a bad mood there,
but because at one time there were many indigenous women who were
curanderas or female witchdoctors.
Escazú is sometimes referred to as the Beverly Hills of Costa Rica because
of its upscale cosmopolitan atmosphere. In the words of one American who
lives there, “Escazú is an odd modern conglomeration of micro niches and
little islands of green, stitched together by pot-holed roads and pocked with
condo complexes, great mansions behind ominous gates and little tin barrios
where the wash bakes in the noonday sun.”
The town is about five miles west of San José, 10 to 15 minutes driving
time on the old two-lane road or newly revamped autopista (highway).
Since most of this suburb is located on hilly terrain, it is especially appealing
to those people who like cooler temperatures. In fact, Escazú is one of the
most popular places for English-speaking foreigners to live. Bus service is
excellent to and from San José. You can catch either a mini-bus or regular
bus in the park behind the church in downtown Escazú.
The old village center retains some of its quaint traditional feel, despite
the condominiums and strip malls going up all around it. In some places
adobe buildings still line the narrow roads, and the whitewashed church,
the park, and the soccer field still dominate the center. Often farmers can be
seen trotting their horses up the lanes to and from their farms, a reminder
that not everything in Escazú has been quick to change.
Despite being quaint and country-like, Escazú has all the amenities
of any North American suburb including the best shopping and dining in
The recognized center of Escazú is called the “Golden Mile,” where
fast food restaurants and pricey clubs and cafés line a four-lane road jammed
with traffic. In Escazú you can find just about anything including: small
strip malls and commercial centers filled with clothing stores, beauty salons,
pharmacies, English-speaking private schools, Hipermás (Walmart), trendy
shops with name-brand clothing, doctors, dentists, two private mail services
One advantage to living in Escazú is that you are near Hospital Cima,
one of the country’s best private medical facilities. I personally see two
specialists in Cima’s medical building, have had a surgical procedure there
and am very pleased with the quality of care he received.
The largest shopping complex is Multiplaza Escazú, a shopping
mall full of U.S.- and European-brand chain stores, several restaurants, a
multiplex cinema and an Automercado supermarket. Several large furniture
and interior stores, PriceSmart and Office Depot, the Real Intercontinental
Hotel, and the Plaza Roble office complex can be found in the same area.
More office and condo complexes start construction in that part of town
Plaza Izcazu on the north side of the highway, offers trendy dining for
the Costa Rican yuppie set. Gentlemen will be happy to know that there is
even a Hooters restaurant found here.
The new Avenida Ezcazú project, next to Cima Hospital, is Costa
Rica’s version of Rodeo Drive. It features a Marriott Courtyard hotel, a
block of buildings to house business on the ground floor with offices on
upper floors, movie theaters, upscale restaurants and apartment-type houses
with one or two bedrooms. There is a multitude of shops, including brand
name designer stores.
The main road in Escazú has so many U.S. franchises, you may find it
hard to believe you’re not in the States. If you reside here you won’t have
to go to San José for basic services unless you want to. There is even a
beautiful private country club and golf course.
Escazú has a variety of residential areas, from pricey Trejos
Montealegre, just off the highway, to San Antonio, which is up in the
hills and has cheaper land. Hillside properties in Escazú have fantastic
views of the twinkling lights of the Central Valley. Housing is plentiful
but expensive, as Escazú is popular with wealthy Costa Ricans and wellto-
do foreigners. You can find simple tico-style single-family homes,
condos, high-rise penthouses and even country estates scattered around
An up-and-coming area is Guachipelín. Though growth in land value
in much of Escazú has paused, Guachipelín is still experiencing appreciation
in value. As far as style, you can get pretty much anything in Escazú, from
low-, mid-, and high-rise condominiums to houses in gated communities
to traditional tico-style houses up in the hills. A few lots are still available as
well, though not many, and they’re very pricey.
Trejos Montealegre, has many condos and apartments from which
to choose. Some upper-end homes in Escazú cost a couple of hundred
thousand to a million dollars. However, if you are living on a budget or
small pension, you can find more affordable housing in San Antonio de
Escazú. Many affordable tico-style homes are scattered around this area.
Escazú’s upper-crust lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Here is one local’s
critical view of present-day Escazú which appeared in the Escazú News.
It summarizes how some expatriates feel in a nutshell: “There is no way
around it: Escazú has become the Costa Rican Miami. Along the main
highway to the west of Escazú, PriceSmart, Office Depot, Payless Shoes
and Liz Claiborne can be seen to your left and the Marriott Courtyard
Hotel, Outback Steakhouse and Comfort Suizo can be seen on your right.
The new highway passes by the mall. This is the Dadeland of Costa Rica,
the glamour capital where people from all walks of life converge.”
“If you enter Escazú from the old road, it looks the same, with Tony
Roma’s and T.G.I.F. on the right and Häagen-Daz, Bagelmen’s, U.S.
Laundry and Big Dog’s on the left. As you continue on, just like on tropical
Flagler Boulevard, you will see on both sides of the street, KFC, McDonald’s,
Hollywood Video, TCBY and Hugo Boss.”
“It seems that the only thing missing in Escazú to make it exactly like
Miami is the ocean.”
“Continuing on, there exists another constellation of luxury shopping
centers within Escazú with such chic names as Delights Gourmet, Mommy
Basics, Underwear Options and Dry Clean USA. There are sales and
clearances every week as well as coffee shops where Perrier is the drink of
It isn’t any coincidence, though, that in Escazú you will find upper-crust
North Americans, with the Ambassador’s residence leading the group, and
where, just like in Miami, there are Venezuelans, Colombians and even a
‘Little Havana,’ which is headed by well known-local Cubans.
“The schools have names such as Country Day, Blue Valley, Saint Mary
and Lighthouse. There is even a Spanish School. “
“The former forest of Guachipelín and yellow barks has been turned
into condominium complexes that offer a more secure, yet more boring,
lifestyle. Nowadays, you can’t even plant a garden in your backyard, much
less have hens to lay fresh eggs every day.”
“But what really stands out in the center of this big Floridian landscape,
erect and upright, the great pioneer of this colony, is the Costa Rica Country
“Most of the girls are blondes; they go to the gym and they wear tight,
attention-getting clothes. They carry Louis Vuitton or Burberry purses, wear
Chopard watches, styled hair and sun visors. The guys drive only the coolest
cars, wear only the coolest sunglasses, aerodynamic and galactic, and talk
only about business, parties and their trips outside the country.”
“And to finish off, the Escazu newspaper, as the Miami Herald, has
an English name.”
Santa Ana, nestled in the “Valley of the Sun,” is slightly more rural than Escazú.
This fast-growing village is about four miles west of Escazú, and a good mix of
Costa Ricans and foreigners resides here. Santa Ana’s warm climate makes it
an almost perfect place to live. At one time Santa Ana was a popular weekend
retreat and summer destination for well-to-do Costa Ricans. Some of their
large estates still exist today. Many foreigners and ordinary Costa Ricans reside
in this town of 30,000 inhabitants now. Lately the town has become very
popular with upper-class Costa Ricans and gringos. You can get to Santa Ana
by taking the old scenic road from Escazú through the hills or by the new
toll-highway that goes through Ciudad Colón to the Pacific Coast.
I recommend checking out this town. Downtown Santa Ana retains a
small-town flavor. It is more rural and less developed than Escazú but offers
good supermarkets and some shopping. You don’t have to go to San José
for your essential products.
Lately there has been a building boom in the area. Every day it more
closely resembles the suburban sprawl found outside U.S. cities. There are new
high-end strip malls in the Lindora area with restaurants, spas, supermarkets
and fast-food chains like Taco Bell, Wendy’s and McDonald’s. However,
this area is not as densely populated or developed as Escazú – yet.
Builders there are focusing on gated communities rather than towers.
The Lindora, Pozos and Río Oro neighborhoods have really experienced a
lot of growth. Tico-style homes in the older areas are more reasonably priced
than in Escazú. Luxury homes in a secure gated community are a popular
choice for middle-to-high-income budgets. An upscale four-bedroom home
in a gated community will cost from $250,000 on up. Valley de Sol is a
gated-golf course community with upper end homes. When this development
was opened over ten years ago lots cost around $50,000. Today there are
homes that cost over $1,000,000.
Ciudad Colón, Puriscal and Orotina
Ciudad Colón, about 20 minutes or six miles beyond Santa Ana, is the farthest
western suburb or bedroom community of San José. There is a small expat
community including an art colony there. The new highway from Ciudad
Colón to the town of Orotina has opened and has reduced driving time to
the beach from Ciudad Colón in half.
Ciudad Colón retains its small-town feel and is still very much a working
service town, with small Costa Rican stores and the inevitable fried chicken
– pollo frito – joints. Every year the city (it recently became a city from a
town, and thus changed its name from Villa Colón to Ciudad Colón) hosts
a horse parade, or tope, and everyone gathers along the streets to watch the
horses prance through town, owners dressed in their best riding gear.
The city is the home of the University for Peace where students from
many countries study in order to make the world a better place.
As Escazú and Santa Ana become more and more expensive and
crowded, tico and expatriate builders look further west, towards the fastgrowing
Ciudad Colón. Property owners in this town have seen the value
of their land shoot up along with the construction of gated communities
and new single-family homes in what used to be cattle pasture and coffee
fields. Cerro Colón which overlooks Ciudad Colón from a steep mountain
side, is an example of one of the new communities that is being built there.
Santiago de Puriscal (called Puriscal or just Puri by the locals) is about 17
miles west of Ciudad Colón in the mountains. The word Puriscal comes from
the word purisco which is the flower stage of a bean plant. The cool mountain
climate with its clean air, magnificent views and relaxed rural character are
the main appeal of this area.
Foreigners also choose Puriscal for both convenience and ambiance.
While the beaches are beautiful, most people feel that the perpetual springlike
climate of this area is more comfortable to live in than the increased
heat and humidity at the beach.
This town is perfect for people seeking affordable housing, more land
for their money and rural living. A few properties offer panoramic views of
the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Nicoya and the Central Valley. There is even a
back road from Puriscal to just before Quepos. The road is mostly unpaved,
so be prepared for a rough trip. There is also a scenic paved country road
that goes from Puriscal to Orotina.
This picturesque area is within easy reach of the most modern conveniences
and services in Costa Rica. Many who live in Puriscal commute daily to San
50 The New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica
José since bus service is good. Thirty minutes away is the Escazú/Santa
Ana area where you’ll find a state-of-the-art, USA- affiliated medical center,
the largest mall in Costa Rica, and lots of quality restaurants. There are new
homes for sale in the area but the only real development is Orchid Point
Estates in San Antonio de Puriscal. It offers breathtaking views of the Central
Valley and prices of the home sites are very attractive.
Orotina, located over the hill and west of Atenas, is a nice-size little tico town.
Fruit and nuts is what they do best, but there are plenty of horse farms and
cattle ranches around. This area is gradually developing and there is a lot of
land for sale including nice country estates or quintas and a couple of new
projects. My Costa Rican friend Fernando, has a new project just west of
Orotina. If you want a quiet Costa Rican town, Orotina could be for you.
Few North Americans live here, but there is a bilingual school where some
people send kids from as far away as Jacó Beach.
Things are about to change in the Orotina area. The town lies right in
the path of western growth and improved infrastructure. The new highway
is going to make Orotina more accessible and within 30-35 minutes by car
from Santa Ana and Escazú. This will turn the whole area into a bedroom
community for San José and its western suburbs.
Belén, Cariari and Alajuela
A bout five miles northwest of San José and just south of Juan Sanatamaría
International Airport is the town of San Antonio de Belén. It is a laid-back
town with a middle-class neighborhood. It is located behind the airport,
just a couple of miles off the main highway west of Cariari on the way to
Santa Ana. It is another good spot to live. This town has experienced a great
deal of growth since Intel’s mammoth plant opened and Marriott built a
five-star hotel in the area. There is an upscale shopping center called Centro
Comercial La Rivera in this small town as well as basic services.
A couple of nice gated communities can be found here like La Joya.
Home prices, rent and land cost less than in Escazú, Santa Ana and Cariari.
The popular Ojo de Agua recreational complex is also in this area.
Ciudad Cariari, about five miles northwest of San José and five minutes
before the airport, is an upscale neighborhood of mostly newer homes and
condos. It was originally developed two decades ago with foreign residents in
mind. The area has plenty of security and areas for children to play. Housing
in this semi-gated community ranges between $170,000 for a small condo
to $750,000or more for a palatial home.
This area is perfect for those interested in country-club living. Within this
area are the Cariari Hotel and Costa Rica’s oldest golf course, the Cariari
Country Club, plus a small shopping center with a restaurant and 24-hour
AM/PM mini-market, the Los Arcos neighborhood and the American
International School — one of the best English-language schools in the
country. A couple of golfer friends of mine live in this area and enjoy living
next to the golf course. Right across the main General Cañas highway from
Cariari sits the Real Cariari Mall with shops, restaurants and movie theaters.
Alajuela and La Garita.
If you wish to combine an urban life and warmer weather, you can reside in
San José’s neighboring city Alajuela, Costa Rica’s second largest city located
almost next to the airport. The country’s main airport is not in San José as
most people believe but in Alajuela. The city is also known as the “City of
the Mangos” for the mango trees which dot the main square.This quiet city
is about 30 minutes by bus from downtown San José and has everything you
want in a city without the city feeling. The bus service is excellent during
the day, so it is easy to commute to San José if necessary.
Because of the warm climate, many Americans live in Alajuela, so
you can easily make new acquaintances. The city’s shady Central Park is
a perfect place to sit and relax or socialize with the many locals or fellow
expatriates who gather there in the afternoon. The park is impressive with
a lot of tall, ancient trees that are a testament to the city’s grandeur. There
are other nice parks, movie theaters, restaurants, doctors, supermarkets
and more in this city.
The Jalapeño Tex Mex Restaurant and Café Delicias north of the main
park are hangouts where a lot of gringos gather. If you are new in town you
can make some new friends there. Another place to find foreigners is at the
nearby Fiesta Casino on Sunday afternoons during the NFL’s football season.
Hospital San Rafael is the new public hospital located on the road
going out of town toward the airport. Directly across the street is Mall
Internacional, the city’s main shopping center. On the north side of town
52 The New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica
sits Alejandro Morera Soto soccer stadium. It is the home of La Liga the
city’s premier soccer team. Costa Ricans also refer to the city of Alajuela as
La Liga in slang.
The town’s Central Market is only a couple of blocks west of the Central
Park. Fresh meats, fish, vegetables, fruits and a variety of other odds and
ends can be found under one roof. On Saturdays the city holds a large
outdoor farmer’s market where a lot of bargains can be found. If nothing
else the carnival-like atmosphere of this outdoor marketplace provides an
excellent opportunity to mingle with the locals. Many Americans gather
in the bar and restaurant area. Some people say Alajuela has by far the best
farmers market in all of Costa Rica. Other local attractions are a bird zoo, a
butterfly farm, national parks, the spectacular Poás Volcano and much more.
Pricemart recently opened one of their warehouse-style facilities on the
west side of town.
Housing in the Alajuela area is plentiful and very reasonably priced
compared to San José. Prices range from about $50,000 to $300,000 or
more and rents begins at about $400.
La Garita, is a pleasant area that extends from the west end of the city of
Alajuela to the area off the General Cañas Highway on the way to Atenas and
the Central Pacific beach areas of Jacó, Hermosa Quepos and areas south.
The area is known for its mild climate of 72 degrees and is a popular
place for ticos to own second homes. Many foreigners live in this town.
Some of the upscale homes come with large parcels of land. I have a friend
who rented a home with a pool, a couple of acres of land and a security
guard for a very reasonable price. The town has very little to offer in terms
of services but there is a small bird zoo and a lot of good restaurants that
serve typical Costa Rican dishes. Good shopping is located about five miles
away in Alajuela
The City of Heredia
The city of Heredia is Costa Rica’s third biggest city, capital of the province
with the same name, located between (and north of) San José and Alajuela
and is very suitable for living . The towns around the city – including
San Rafael, San Pablo, Santo Domingo, Santa Barbara, San Isidro and San
Joaquín de Flores – have become popular places among both expatriates
and upwardly-mobile ticos looking for a safe place to raise a family.
Heredia is known as the “City of the Flowers” because of its beauty,
and some say due to its gorgeous women. The surrounding countryside is
beautiful, especially above the city. The hills overlooking the city offer some
of the most spectacular views of the Central Valley. The climate is cooler
here, especially as you go higher up into the mountains.
This lovely city is only a short distance from San José by car or by the new
commuter train. Three bus lines offer service to San José every five minutes.
At one time hillsides were filled with verdant coffee fields. Now that
real estate in the area has become so valuable a lot of the coffee fields have
been replaced by housing developments. Nevertheless when viewed from
afar the hills in around and above the city are still predominantly green from
the remaining coffee farms and abundance of trees.
It is rumored that at one time the Sánchez family owned all of the coffee
fields between Heredia and the airport. Costa Rica’s Nobel Peace Price
winner, President Oscar Arias Sánchez is a memeber of this prominent family.
Heredia is also a university town and still retains its rich colonial heritage.
Many old Spanish-style buildings made of adobe with tile roofs can still be
found near the center of the city. Heredia’s beautiful Central Park is one of
the finest in the country. It has an imposing old church and a large water
fountain. Concerts, celebrations, crafts fairs, music festivals and other activities
are often held in the park.
Plans call for the construction of a Paseo de la Cultura, a cobblestone
pedestrian street. This eight-block promenade will run east-west from the
National University along the north side of Central Park and end at the
Palacio de Deportes. It will pass though the heart of the city’s historical
district, where many old architectural gems are found.
The new San Vicente de Paul public hospital will be finished in 2010.
It will replace the old Heredia hospital with the same name. It is located
about four blocks due south of the old hospital and about a block south of
where the outdoor farmer’s market is held every Saturday.
I know a lot of foreigners who live in and around the city of Heredia. A
group of expatriates hangs out at a couple of restaurants in the downtown
area. They can be found sitting there every morning. You will find it easy to
strike up a conversation. You can meet colorful local characters such as Mr.
Goldman, “Search Engine” Bill, Hamster Rudy, “Marvelous” Marvin and
even the author of this book.
In recent years, the city’s entertainment and nightlife scene has improved.
Bars catering to college students and thrill-seeking tourists dot the area
around the National University. Numerous Internet cafés coffee shops and
bookstores contribute to the college atmosphere.
Heredia also has unique restaurants offering international fare. Pane
e Vino is one of the best Italian restaurants in the country as is La Antigua
Roma. Paseo de las Flores is a new shopping mall near the southern entrance
of the city. Pricesmart, across the street from the mall is a warehouse style
store from the U.S. There is also an Hipermás (owned by Walmart) which
is a huge supermarket that sells hardware, appliances, automobile parts, patio
and garden supplies, clothing and a whole lot more.
On Saturday there is a large open-air farmer’s market (fería) in the south
part of the city where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables at bargain
prices. It stretches for about eight blocks and is a beehive of activity. You
can see Costa Ricans leaving the market with large overflowing bags filled
with fruits and vegetables.
Heredia’s beautiful Central Park
Many foreign retirees now live in Heredia because of the low cost of
housing. Here, you may find a lot of affordable homes for less than $100,000.
For example, a 1200 square foot home in gated community can be purchased
for about $125,000. A few years ago my good friend Terry Ortiz purchased
a 1,500-square-foot house about two blocks from the huge Hipermás
supermarket in San Francisco de Heredia for about $95,000. Today the
home is worth almost $150,000. At present, there is a construction boom
in small gated communities on the outskirts of the Heredia area. Heredia is
now one of the fastest growing areas in the country.
I know several foreigners who rent nice apartments in downtown Heredia
for only a few hundred dollars per month. Carson Smith has a beautiful
three-bedroom apartment near the university with all of the amenities. Five
or six other Americans live in the same building. Carson loves his apartment
because of its great location. He says, “I can walk around the corner to the
pharmacy. I have three supermarkets within four blocks. There are several
restaurants and places where my friends gather, all within walking distance.
My brother lives in the States and makes more than $500,000 yearly. I would
never trade my lifestyle here in Heredia for his.”
If you prefer living in a cooler alpine-like setting, you can find nice
homes and cabins all over the pine-covered mountains surrounding the
San Rafael de Heredia is in the hills above the city of Heredia. The
most notable feature of this area is the climate, which is considerably cooler
than that in San José. Wealthy Costa Ricans and some foreigners live there.
The town’s most salient feature is a huge church that can be seen from many
miles away. The Sunday feria or outdoor market is a real plus here. Although
not as big as the one in downtown Heredia, almost any fruit or vegetable
can be found there.
My good friend Joe Brennan bought a nice home overlooking San
Rafael and the Central Valley for less than $100,000. His view is to kill for.
every year he hosts an annual Thanksgiving Dinner for his friends, which
everyone looks forward to.
Los Angeles de Heredia, to the north of San Rafael, is a favorite
with foreigners because of its pastoral setting. The nearby areas around
Monte de la Cruz and San José de la Montaña are all similar but sparsely
populated and cooler because of their higher elevation. I know several
Americans who live near the mountain towns of Barva and Birrí north of
San Isidro de Heredia is an absolutely spectacular area to the east of
Heredia. Gently rolling, verdant hills and meadows surround this Swiss
alpine-like town. This area remains green even during the dry season due
to its cool climate. Many Americans live in the San Isidro area. Bruce from
San Diego just purchased a huge parcel of land with an unbelievable view
of the Irazú Volcano. He paid about $80,000 for the land that includes a
farmhouse. He is presently refurbishing it and plans to build his dream home
on another part of the property. My friend Ana Brown built a quaint home
in the Calle Chávez area of San Isidro.
Grecia, San Ramón and Atenas
Grecia (Greece in Spanish), known as the cleanest town in Costa Rica, is
also a place worth investigating. This charming town is located about 10
minutes off the Pan-American Highway making it very accessible. It is also
about half an hour from the country’s main airport and about an hour from
San José. You can get to the new highway leading to the Pacific beaches
in about 30 minutes by taking the old road to Atenas through the scenic
countryside. Once in Atenas you can pick up the connection to the new
highway a short distance away.
The area around the town of Grecia is absolutely beautiful. Gently rolling,
green hills and sugarcane fields with a backdrop of spectacular mountains in
the distance dominate the surrounding landscape. This tranquil agricultural
town, has a beautiful Central Park, a famous church made of metal panels
and an ideal climate. On Sunday evenings many residents stroll around the
park just like in the days of old. The hills surrounding the town are full of
nice spots to live. Plaza Grecia is the town’s new mall and will eventually
house more than 50 shops, a supermarket, food court, movie theaters and
parking for over 300 cars.
One clear advantage Grecia has over the town of Atenas is its public
Grecia is rapidly becoming a bedroom community for people from San
José. Many people choose to live here because of the laid-back lifestyle,
cheaper housing prices and other factors. They make the hour-long commute
to and from San José by bus or car on weekdays. My good friends Mike and
Ed both live there and love it. Most expats hang out at the Café Delicias
diagonal to the town’s main square.
There are a lot of Gringos who live in the Cajón de Grecia area. In the
last five years, more than 20 housing projects have been built and close to
1,500 construction permits have been issued in the area around Grecia.
There is no indication this trend will change.
Nearby is the town of Sarchí, famous for its handicrafts and wood
products. Other towns worth checking out for living northwest of San José
are Naranjo, San Ramón and Palmares. I know of a few Americans and
Europeans who are happily living in and around these laid-back towns . My
friend Gino and his Costa Rican wife live on the outskirts of Naranjo in a
beautiful 3,000-square-foot home they purchased for less than $100,000.
San Ramón, with a Population of 70,000, is a great place to live given its
terrific climate, friendly people, wide array of services, and proximity to
both the Pacific coast and to San José. Home to ex-presidents and leading
literary figures, San Ramón (locals are affectionately called moncheňos) is
known as the “City of Poets and Presidents.” Additionally, the area’s valuepriced
real estate makes it one of the best places to invest in Costa Rica.
San Ramón is directly off the Pan-American highway heading northwest
from San José, is only a 35-minute drive from the airport to town, and
an additional 35 minutes to the port town of Puntareans on the Pacific.
However, because of its location it is difficult for residents of this town to
take advantage of the new highway to the Central Pacific beaches. In order
to reach the new highway you will have to backtrack to Atenas which can
take up to an hour.
Some gringos live in and around San Ramón but the area has not been
overrun like other more popular parts of the country.
A new improved highway to the capital is in the works and should
reduce driving time to San José and the airport. The stretch between San
Ramón and the airport will receive special much needed improvements to
speed up the flow of traffic.
San Ramón boasts a shopping mall, modern movie theatre, cultural
center/museum, and many supermarkets and restaurants. There is a major
hospital, many doctors’ offices, and the only branch of the University of
Costa Rica outside of San José.
Surrounded by lush mountains and located at 4000 feet above sea
level, temperatures usually range from 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit every
day of the year. However, because the town’s elevation it can get very cool
at night. The winds are also fierce in the summer months. Air conditioning
and heating are not necessary but you do have to bundle up on some of
the cooler nights. During the rainy season, from June through December,
one can expect sunshine in the morning and rain showers in the mid to late
afternoon. The skies tend to clear toward the early evening.
Until recently, there was a limited selection of high-quality homes in
the San Ramón area but this is changing as communities catering to foreign
retirees are sprouting up rapidly. Because development is still relatively
new, real estate remains under-priced compared to other towns in the
Some absolutely beautiful areas can be found above the town of San
Ramón. Helene from Austria has a hotel and health resort in Piedades
Sur de San Ramón. Located in the coastal mountains, it has an absolutely
incredible view of the Gulf of Nicoya.
The nearby town of Palmares is known for its yearly carnival held in
January. The town fills up with Costa Ricans and foreigners in search of a
Nestled in the foothills at the western edge of the Central Valley at 2,500
feet in altitude, the rural and picturesque town of Atenas offers panoramic
views of the Central Valley and nearby volcanoes. The town is 13 miles from
Alajuela — the main city that services the area— and about 45 minutes to an
hour from San José. Atenas is Spanish for Athens. So you can visit Grecia
(Grece) and Atenas (Athens) in Costa Rica without ever going to Europe.
The town’s weather is its claim to fame. According to National Geographic,
Atenas has one the world’s best climates. You can see the slogan Atenas, el mejor
clima del Mundo (Atenas the best climate in the world) painted on the commuter
buses that go back and forth between Atenas and San José and Alajuela.
Atenas is located on the highway that currently serves as the Central
Valley’s main connection to the Central Pacific. About a 25 minute drive
from the international airport and close to a large city with all requisite
services, Atenas also boasts a cool, breezy climate is wooing beach lovers
away from the relentless sun. It is a popular place for both retirees and
The town is a friendly, small-town with a laid-back atmosphere and
5,000 residents. Another 15,000 people live in the surrounding area. The
town is clean with a beautiful central park lined with palm trees. There are
schools, banks, several supermarkets, a health care center, an Internet café
and good restaurants in this quaint town. About 200 North Americans
and Europeans have chosen to live in here. Many Costa Ricans have their
country homes in the surrounding hills.
The other advantage of Atenas from an investor’s point of view is that it
is one of the communities easily reached by the new highway. This will help to
bolster land prices in the area. The big advantage of the new highway is that
it will make the amenities of Santa Ana and Escazú and even San Jose more
accessible. Atenas doesn’t have a hospital but with the new road, Escazú’s
Cima Hospital is fairly close. Driving time to the beach just takes minutes.
Atenas itself doesn’t have much in the way of variety. It’s a traditional
farming town with all the basic necessities plus a farmer’s market on Fridays.
For imported goods, clothes and housewares, it’s a better bet to head for
Alajuela, which has a large shopping mall, or go a little further to Escazú.
The expatriates living in Atenas are generally from the U.S. or Canada,
though you do come across Europeans as well. Only a handful of gated
communities have been established to date, but more are on the way, and it
Why Small Is Better
By Christopher Howard
The first week of December I visited my home town of Thousand
Oaks, California. I had not returned in almost seven years. The first
thing I noticed was that a lot had changed dramatically. Due to
a construction boom, I could barely recognize some of the areas
of town. It seemed like everything had become a great deal more
commercial and homogeneous on much larger scale. Everywhere I
went there were people driving a whole gamut of sports utility vehicles
or as they are more commonly known, SUVS. The streets were filled
with gas-guzzling vehicles we rarely see in Costa Rica – the Ford
Excursion, the GMC Yukon, the Ford F-250 monster truck and a
couple of models of Hummers – to name a few. The latter is similar
to the military vehicles that are blown to pieces by roadside bombs in
Iraq. The version sold in the States is more luxurious with its leather
seats, colorful paint and sporty trim. In California it appears that
the bigger the vehicle, the better it is and more status a person has.
You are defined by what you drive. I guess the car’s size reflects the
owner’s ego. The interesting thing is that very few of the owners use
these mammoth vehicles to go off- road. They use them to commute
at a snail’s pace on the overcrowded freeways, to go to the grocery
store and to take the kids to soccer practice.
The freeways are also bigger than ever. They usually have four
or five lanes in each direction. Rush hour is almost an all-day affair.
Traffic begins to get bad at 5:30 in the morning and ends around 8:00
at night. Sprawling, massive, slow-moving traffic jams can extend
from Ventura Country in the north to the Mexican border just south
of San Diego. These are normal conditions. God forbid if there is
an accident! The freeways are indeed bigger but not a faster means
of transportation than our pothole-filled roads in Costa Rica. Costa
Rica’s presas or traffic jams are small in comparison.
Everything else is supe sized up north. There are enormous 24-
hour gyms to keep those perfect bodies in shape. Almost every major
shopping center and strip mall has a Starbucks, a Subway sandwich
shop, a Home Depot, a Walmart, a Target, a big chain vitamin store,
a Borders or Barnes & Noble bookstore, a branch of Best Buy and
almost every other colossal chain store. There are supermarkets
62 The New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica
that even dwarf our Hipermás. They have a huge selection of every
imaginable food. There are gigantic bags of potato chips, barrel-sized
bottles of soda pop, and a variety of mouth-watering delicacies to
stimulate your appetite. No wonder obesity is such a monumental
problem in the U.S. Restaurants supersize everything. There is even
a chain of pet stores called Petco. Most of their stores are as big or
larger than a Costa Rican supermarket. I guess most pets are also
overweight in the States. It would not surprise me if there is a Weight
Watchers for pets.
Then there are the massive Kinko’s copy centers. They basically
offer every conceivable type of service from making photocopies
to using the Internet. Everything is under one roof and they are
conveniently open 24-hours. These stores are extremely handy for
the traveling business person. I accessed my e-mail everyday by using
one of their computers. I was going to use the local public library’s
computer services at $5 an hour but there was an hour limit The price
at Kinko’s proved to be astronomical. I paid $12 per hour to use a
state of the art credit card device connected directly to the computer.
The cost of the average net café in Costa Rica is about a dollar an
hour. However, none of the Internet cafés in Costa Rica that I have
seen feature new Dell computers like the ones at Kinko’s.
Everything else is geared towards large-scale consumption.
People seem very happy and caught up in their fast-paced lifestyles
of expensive SUVS, the “shop until you drop” mentality and living
in their palatial upscale housing tracts which seem like ritzy suburban
ghettos where every house looks almost exactly like it had been cut
from the same mold.
After a few days of experiencing everything on the large scale, I
began to yearn for my simple down-sized lifestyle in petite Costa
Rica. People here seem to be a lot happier with much less. The
average person here is materially poorer than the average American,
but their lives are far more richer. Here people seem to live with
gusto (enjoyment) and sabor ( a flavor or spice). In Costa Rica every
day can be filled with adventure and exciting activities. Sure we have
the malls and a dose of U.S. culture but we also have a lot more little
things that truly make life immensely more worthwhile. People up
north exist, we live the pure life on a much smaller scale. The phrase,
“¡Pura vida¡,” says it all.