When the time comes to retire, not everyone wants a condo in Boca Raton. Many people want to spend their later years in another culture, one that makes them feel like they’ve stumbled upon a secret paradise.
One such place is Costa Rica. Its name means “rich coast,” which is appropriate considering its location on the Central American isthmus. Its equatorial setting keeps the climate tropical year-round, and the Pacific Ocean on its west coast and the Caribbean Sea to the east make it everything the retired beachcomber could possibly hope for.
Just one look at some photos makes the tiny nation look incredibly enticing, but just as there’s more to retirement than simply quitting one’s job and not getting a new one, there’s more to Costa Rica than its beaches. Therefore, those seriously considering picking up stakes to live there should look a little closer.
CNBC.com used data from the State Department, the Costa Rica tourism board and experiences of some Americans who have lived there to gain insight into the nation’s economy, real estate market, healthcare resources and other issues that retirees should weigh when relocating. Read ahead to find out more about making Costa Rica your own retirement haven.
The logical first step in finding out if Costa Rica is the right place for you is to see it for yourself. According to the official website of Costa Rica, visitors from the U.S. are not required to carry a visa to enter the country.
“U.S. dollars and major credit cards are widely accepted,” the website says. “You will find ATM machines distributed throughout the country.” Those wishing to get a more authentic experience can exchange their U.S. dollars for the national currency, known as the colón.
Costa Rica has a tropical climate. The temperature varies depending on elevation, so the coastal lowlands have average temperatures between 71 degrees and 81 degrees, while it’s 20 degrees lower in the high mountains.
The seasons are divided into two periods, summer and winter, but these are different from their U.S. counterparts. In Costa Rica, “summer” is the name for the dry season, and “winter” is the name for the rainy season. Summer takes place between December and April, and winter occurs from May to November.
Laura Berger moved with her husband Glen to Costa Rica in 2006 for a one-year sabbatical from their corporate jobs in the U.S. She said in an e-mail that real estate prices can vary considerably.
“In a development in the North Pacific (Guanacaste) funded by a consortium including Bill Gates, small beachfront lots were selling for $6 million,” she said. “On the other hand, in Zancudo—meaning ‘mosquito’—south almost all the way to Panama, beach lots three times the size go for low six figures.”
Berger advises caution when looking for real estate through a third party. “Costa Rica is an unregulated market where anybody can claim to be a ‘Realtor,” she said. “The main problem is a developer preying on your better sensibilities in a moment when you are mesmerized with paradise. … It is very important to ask around for a good, solid lawyer.”
The primary language is the Costa Rican version of Spanish. However, Berger said that many of the locals speak English, and that enclaves of American expatriates abound. ”The expats tend to live wherever there’s a killer view—hillsides and oceanfronts—so the expats tend to live in communities,” she said.
Those communities offer some creature comforts to Americans who aren’t ready to get away from it all just yet. According to Berger, in Escazú, a suburb of San José, homesick expatriates can get all their favorite comfort foods at Tony Roma’s, TGI Friday’s “and almost every North American fast food chain.”
“Overall, the dollar tends to go farther in Costa Rica, which can be attractive to tourists and retirees,” Benson said. Indeed, as of July 19, the exchange rate was 499.6 colónes to one U.S. dollar, and the sales tax was 13 percent.
According to the State Department, the per capita income in 2011 was about $11,562, the inflation rate was 5.3 percent and the unemployment rate was 6.5 percent.
Agriculture accounts for about 6.9 percent of the gross domestic product. Industries such as medical equipment, textiles and apparel comprise 26.1 percent of GDP; commerce, tourism, and services make up 67 percent.
Like it or not, retirees must be more aware of the health care situation in their communities than their younger counterparts.
According to Laura Berger, “you could live in Escazú near the capital and enjoy health care that is on par with that in the U.S. and much cheaper.” However, living in a rural area presents a different picture. ”Living outside the capital would involve airlift to the capital for anything truly serious.”
According to the United Nations Development Program, life expectancy at birth for native Costa Ricans is 79.3 years, while those living in the Nicoya Peninsula live in one of the world’s “Blue Zones,” where healthy, active people have been known to live past age 100.