In the past, the vast majority of tourists and persons seeking to retire in Costa Rica were much older than they are now. Back then, there was only the famous pensionado plan (now defunct) designed to attract retirees from the States. The requirements were minimal and had many benefits, including free car import provisions and even a special license plate for pensionados.
But then, beginning in the late 80’s, the typical tourist changed to include a somewhat younger and more energetic age group, many of which were looking for a residency situation that included investing in business ventures and more eventual retirement. These persons were true pioneers. They pushed forward the frontiers of tourism throughout Costa Rica, and especially in areas that were heretofore relatively undeveloped.
Now, of course, there is a great multiplicity of persons wanting to obtain residency here for a diversity of reasons, and for some the first question is how to make a living here. Others want to know about the best places to live in retirement. The answer for both: it depends.
For the former, it depends on their qualifying for legal residency. For the latter, usually persons with pensions qualifying them for residency, it depends on how big their pension — read “fixed income” — is. If it is more than $2,000 a month, they can lead a reasonably middle class existence anywhere in Costa Rica without counting pennies; if it is closer to the average Social Security pension of $1,000, then the big question becomes HOW and then WHERE to live.
For them, it would not be living among the rich and famous in a modern condo in Escazú or Jacó, although the prices of food, water, electricity, and gasoline are more or less controlled by the government, meaning they are roughly the same all over the country.
Let’s assume a couple, as a case example, with a pension of $1,000. The biggest preliminary factors for them would be rent, entertainment, and possibly transportation.
The national average for rent is approximately $185 monthly, and renting in a secure, class neighborhood anywhere in the country could easily be $475 and up, depending on exactly where. For example, if this were at the beach, air conditioning could easily be an additional $150 to $300 more. Typically, entertainment costs in such an area would also be quite expensive, and transportation costs might have to be factored into this as well.
The secret to successful living in Costa Rica with a smaller fixed income is to go native, to get away from the gringo stereotype of being a “walking wallet”, as the Ticos say. The more you are able to do this, the lower your cost of living will be. The secret is to live a relatively simple harmonious lifestyle, fit within this country’s culture, and leave your “other life” behind.
The truth is, as soon as gringos begin moving into an area, they usually start throwing money around, and the prices of everything begin to soar. Therefore it is always better to look for places with fewer gringos, like for example, la Zona de Los Santos (Santa Maria, San Marcos, San Pablo, and more, all connected with hard roads and within 15 minutes of each other) . There you will find beautiful weather, cheap rent ($140/mo for a modern 2 bedroom home), things to do, a first-class hospital, and friendly people. It’s a little more than an hour to San José and about 40 km from Quepos. Very few persons speak English there, so you should be prepared to speak Spanish.
Another important thing to consider is that with a fixed income of $1,000, the inflation rate here will constantly erode your buying power, so in thinking of the years to come, it is always a good idea to think in terms of a hedge against inflation – a hobby that pays something, a sideline enterprise, or some kind of a part-time job like teaching English. Six years ago you would have had money to burn with a $1,200 pension, but not necessarily. It would be a good idea, then, to bear this in mind when deciding where to live. Los Santos is ideal for this.
The Southern Zone is beginning to shake itself awake, and this is also another good bet. San Vito, for example, is a decent little community way down south and has a relatively cool climate, reasonable rent, friendly people of Italian descent, and fantastic pizzas! Another nice thing about it is that it is very close to the Panama border, and local residents go to the International Zone there to buy food and other things at greatly discounted prices, something that takes a big bite out of their overall cost of living. It is in a spectacular part of the country, but a possible drawback is that it is fairly remote. The gringo community there is small but close.
From there, headed back north, is Buenos Aires, a progressive community with a relatively bustling economy. It also is quite respectable, but is considerably warmer. Perhaps more importantly, it is at the end of a 60 km corridor of fast-growing general development between there and San Isidro del General, which is the second largest city in Costa Rica. All along this corridor there is land to be had at rock-bottom prices, (less than $6 M2) but is becoming more expensive as it becomes developed. The major cost of living there would be transportation costs to San Isidro for shopping and things like medical care. It is definitely rural living, but there are plenty of woods and hills and cooling breezes so that air conditioning is not necessary. Offsetting these costs too is the space and privacy to cultivate a vegetable garden.
Basically, this corridor is the overflow of San Isidro, which is the economic and cultural center for the whole area reaching down to the beach town of Dominical, which is only about a 40-minute drive. While there is a considerable gringo population spread over the entire area, it is nonetheless possible to lead a decent bicultural existence. Except for the corridor to the South, San Isidro is surrounded by mountains, which means one can choose a preferred microclimate. So while San Isidro could be considered a “middle of the road” option for living, there are still tradeoffs to be made. For example, it is possible to rent a decent house or apartment near downtown San Isidro for $250, but if one were to rent in many of the barrios surrounding the city, the rent would be considerably less with the transportation costs more.
Like they say, “Happiness is where you find it.” But knowing where to look is also important. It has been my experience that finding the right place is not so much of a “thing” problem but a “people” problem. I select a place to live by first deciding on the climate, and then I look at various neighborhoods. I see how many houses are protected with razor wire, steel gates, and barred windows to get an idea of the crime rate. I chat with local people to measure their receptiveness to new neighbors, because there are closed neighborhoods and open neighborhoods. A closed neighborhood, for example, is where there was once a large finca, later divided into lots and later given to family members and the result is that everyone in the neighborhood is family. Offend one and all are offended. Open neighborhoods, on the other hand, may have a rapid turnover of renters, and so I always look for stability within the neighborhood. Lastly, I evaluate the owners of the property: Am I a fellow human being to them, or a stereotyped walking wallet?
Once settled into a friendly and harmonious neighborhood, I have always found Ticos to be wonderfully good neighbors and friends, always exchanging food and favors, and happiness prevails.