Our First Due Diligence Visit...

by Tom and Dina Duffy - Email Tom and Dina

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Costa Rica... the Rich Coast.  Pura Vida... the Good Life.  These are phrases you come across all the time when researching Costa Rica, but are they merely marketing terms or do they embody the true spirit and culture of the country?

In November of 2011 we made a "due diligence" tour to Costa Rica to find out.


Dina and I first visited Costa Rica 5 years ago for a 7 day vacation staying at an all-inclusive hotel in Playa Conchal in the northern province of Guanacaste.  While we did manage some side trips to Tamarindo and the Arenal area, we really can't claim to have experienced the Costa Rican lifestyle.  However we did feel the warmth and affection of the Ticos and of course we were amazed at the beauty and bounty of this country.

Having just turned 62 and my wife 57, we spent the last year planning and dreaming about our retirement. We currently live in a suburb of Washington DC and knew we didn't want (nor could afford) to stay here. Our goal was to live in a warm climate at a much lower cost of living.

Like many people, we looked at Florida and even took an exploratory trip to some areas that appealed to us. While Florida has some incredibly affordable housing deals these day, there were still some aspects that made a U.S. based retirement not so attractive.   And I'm sure, like many of you, our most worrisome concern was the high cost of healthcare.

The idea of living offshore started to make sense to us. We focused on two countries on which to do our main research... Panama and Costa Rica.  Panama has some real advantages; it is a dollar based economy, has good infrastructure, a very attractive relocation program for expats and lots of readily available imported goods. What we didn't like about Panama was it's weather; mostly hot and humid except in some mountain areas.  Costa Rica, on the other hand, while it lacked relocation incentives, it's weather appeared more conducive to our goals.

Long story short, after a lot of internet research, blog interaction, book reading and some many Skype calls, it became apparent that Costa Rica may be a better fit. We decided that another trip to Costa Rica would either verify or dispel our research.

In May of 2011 we started planning a two-week "Due Diligence" trip to Costa Rica.   Our goal was to visit both the "cooler" Central Valley as well as the warmer, less humid beach area of Guanacaste.  And instead of just traveling aimlessly on our own, we decided to maximize our time by hooking up with local expats who had the experience and expertise to show us around these areas.

We already established a relationship with Andy and Fran Browne, having read their Boomers Offshore Newsletters and viewed all of their videos.  We now needed a contact for the Central Valley.  Our research led us to George Lundquist and his "Relocation and Retirement Tour."  George's goal was to show us how one can live quite comfortably in Costa Rica on just Social Security and Pension. The tour focused on the more rural areas of the Central Valley to the west and southwest of San Jose.


The Central Valley

The three day tour of the Central Valley began early on November 20 and lasted through the 22nd.  Like the diversity of the areas we were visiting, so were the 13 people who made up our tour group. 

While we shared some common goals in retirement, Dina and I quickly realized that there were benefits as well as shortcomings to traveling with such a large group of individuals.  But George did a great job, keeping us all in tow, on target and on schedule.  We traveled through many towns like Grecia, San Ramon, SarchÝ, Atenas, Escaz˙ and Puriscal.  At many of these places we visited with expats who were either renting or owned homes in these areas.  Even though the mantra was "rent before you buy",  we wished we had visited more rentals and less high end homes.  It was obvious, many of these homes were clearly out of the price range of not just us, but many of the folks on the tour.

Overall we did find the tour very useful and informative.  We learned very specific costing information from all of the expats we met. They were extremely forthcoming and eager to share their monthly cost of living expenses with us. We learned that is very possible to live quite comfortably on a monthly budget of just $1500 to $2400.  This was exactly the type of information and verification we were hoping to learn on this trip.

Probably the most beneficial part of George's tour were the two nights we spent at the "special" expat receptions.  Here we had the opportunity to meet with many people who have preceded us in their expat adventure.  We met so many nice people who were willing to share their experiences and offer their help, should we decide to move to Costa Rica. 

In no time at all we had begun developing a vast network of friends who could offer us personal recommendations for all sorts of goods and services, and especially how to effectively deal with the governmental bureaucracy we heard so much about.  What an invaluable resource this is!  Our tour also included meetings and presentations with local experts on Costa Rican residency, international shipping as well as national and private healthcare solutions.


The Ups and Downs of the Central Valley...

Dina and I both agree, one of the strongest and most positive impressions we take with of our time in the Central Valley center around the people we met.  Gringos and Ticos alike, we felt an instant bond with many of these folks and could easily see ourselves developing lasting relationships. This is a part of our life that has been lacking in recent years and will be an important factor in deciding where we will eventually end up. 

San Ramon was probably our favorite town.  Local residents, Paul and Gloria Yeatman, took us on a walking tour visiting many stores and shops.  It was easy to get around.  The traffic was relatively light.  We felt completely safe everywhere we went and the people were warm and friendly.  Our only regret was not spending more time (just like this) in places like Atenas and Grecia.  Hey... that is what "next visits" are all about!

OK, so far so good, now let's talk about some other issues that might give us pause in moving to this area. One of the main draws of the Central Valley is it's cool weather. We kept reading about the "eternal spring" and how it was the perfect temperature... not too hot, not too cold. But it really all depends on where you are and what your elevation is.  It's all about microclimates. You could be in the Central Park of San Ramon under 80 degree heat and sunny skies yet just 10 minutes north it may be 68 degrees with clouds and rain.  Therefore, where you decide to live is in direct proportion to how happy you might be.  It all depends on what type of climate you prefer to live in.  But one important point to remember is... do your research and visit a place during different weather conditions to determine what it will be like to live there long term.

For Dina and I, we were amazed by the views that many of these places offered, that is, when the clouds and rain allowed you to see them. To be fair, we were there at the end of the "rainy season."  Everyone said, "just wait till January, the views will be spectacular."  We still felt however, that some of these places would be too damp and chilly for us for a good portion of the year.  But, if you could find that perfect spot, an area that mixes warmth, less humidity and the views, this would be very enticing to us.  To be clear, the Central Valley is very appealing to us in many ways, especially the people we met and the friendships we started. We just don't know if this is the place we want to move to... yet.


Onward And Upward...

It's time to head on out to Guanacaste and visit Playa Hermosa and the surrounding area but not before making a quick stop in Lake Arenal and it's adjacent rain forest.  It's also rainier than the Central Valley which sort of explains the lush greenery you see at every turn.  We experienced some real downpours while there but nothing that we haven't already experienced back in the States.   Dina and I both agreed, this is a place we would like to visit again but more of a vacation visit as opposed to a place to live.

We then made the 3 hour drive from Arenal to Playa Hermosa.  This was a beautiful ride, driving down the mountains toward the coast.  The roads were pretty good considering all the horror stories we were told about Costa Rican highways.  It reminded us quite a bit of when we lived in Northern California.


We got to Andy and Fran's on Sunday morning.  Our first day was spent getting re-acquainted and giving Fran and Andy more specifics on what we wanted to see and experience.

The next morning we set out early and began a very in-depth tour of Playa Hermosa and it's surrounding communities.  Fran and Andy were wonderful guides and were not only knowledgeable, but also very open and honest about the pros and cons of their life in Costa Rica. 

We thought it funny that when talking to the folks from the Central Valley, almost everyone unanimously told us, "You don't want to live there, it's too expensive and way too hot.  You need to run your air conditioning all the time and electricity is so expensive in Costa Rica, it will cost you a fortune to live there."   But our first hand research is proving otherwise. 

While air conditioning is needed some of the time, it is not needed all of the time.  Where as in the Central Valley, you need to run dehumidifiers all the time, just to kill the dampness and fight the mold.  There were no mold problems in Guanacaste.


In order to get a handle on the real cost of living in Costa Rica, we visited several different types of grocery stores ranging from local markets like Pali to the more middle class store like Luperˇn all the way up to the ultra gringo AutoMercado.  While some things were pricier here at the beach, the cost differential was not great. 

The area's general shopping had almost anything you would need for your day to day living and if you couldn't find it in Coco, you could drive 35 minutes to Liberia.  Speaking of Liberia, it was nice to know that you had an International airport (LIR) close by for those trips back to the U.S.

Andy and Fran took us around to several rental homes, occupied by their friends. We were truly amazed at how far the dollar went in this rental market. We were expecting that rents would be much higher for the type of property we were shown.  One house, which looked very much like an American home in a beach community, with 2 bedrooms and 2 baths and about a 3 minute walk to the beach, was renting for only $650 per month.  We went to another house that just blew us away, it was on a slight hill with a swimming pool, view of the ocean, modern open kitchen and rented for only $1200 a month.  We were very impressed and very surprised how far your money could go, in spite of having heard how much more expensive it was to live at the beach.


The Beach Environment...

Let's talk for a moment about the beach. We have already discussed some of the pricing issues of living there and found out it was not as expensive as we were led to believe. 

But what about that heat?  Well again that depends on what you are used to.  We live in the Washington DC area where the summers get oppressively hot and humid. Last year we had more days with over 100 degrees and high humidity than ever before.  And we don't have an ocean or a pool close by in which to cool off.  During our time in Hermosa/Coco, it was not too hot for us. Yes, in the middle of the day, it did get warm, but there are lots of shade trees to mitigate the heat. The humidity was low and the mornings and evenings were fantastic.  So to say it's too hot is really a subjective statement.  One has to weigh it against their own tolerance to heat and humidity.  For us it seemed quite nice.

The beauty of the beach cannot be denied. Both Hermosa and Coco have wonderful crescent shaped beaches where the water gently comes on shore. They go on for miles and are kissed by the beautiful vegetation that comes right down to the sand line. The water was warm and clean, and there was plenty of room on the beach to get off by yourselves and just enjoy the sights. Both Dina and I have always fantasized about living on the beach.  Now we are beginning to believe it could become our reality.

Living in a beach community has a different feel than living in an inland town. The beach just naturally brings out a way of life that (for us) is more relaxed.  While this can be good, it can also be bad.  It is not uncommon to see people who have moved to the beach and fall into bad habits such as drinking.  It is necessary that we occupy our time with things that are important and meaningful to us; not just hanging out at the beach and drinking beer.


Community Is Very Important...

This is an issue that weighs on our decision about where we want to live. While we really met some very nice people at the beach, we didn't get the same feeling of "community" we felt back in the Central Valley.  People in the valley seemed to have closer friendships and were more involved in giving back to the community and interacting with the Ticos.  We didn't see that depth of involvement nor did we feel (for the most part) the connection to the local Tico community at the beach.

   

We think part of the reason for this difference is the fact that many of the expats who live at the beach do so on a part time basis whereas everybody back in the Valley were full-time residents. They only live in Costa Rica for the winter months than fly back home to the US in the summer. Therefore they probably don't feel as invested to the local community as those living there full time.

Therefore we plan to take at least another trip to Costa Rica to try and resolve some of our uncertainties about one area over another.  Our plan is to definitely rent and not buy.  This way, where ever we end up, we won't be locked into an area that may not be our fit. If that's the case we'll just move on to another location and another adventure living the Pura Vida life!



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