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Retiring to Costa Rica (The Ultimate Guide)

Retirees have long been drawn to Costa Rica for the quiet, peaceful living amid nature, the relative safety, the democratic and socially accepting people, and the ease and security of investment.  Nevertheless, we still have people contacting us every day, asking us about what it’s like to retire in Costa Rica. And rather than hosting individual retirement tours for everyone who is more than a little bit curious, here is a simple guide that answers the most popular questions about what life is like in a post-work paradise.

Healthcare

Costa Rica is known for having quality medical care, reputed to be some of the best in Latin America. Retirees in Costa Rica have a choice of the private system or CAJA, the universal health care system. Note that you must secure Costa Rica residency prior to participation in CAJA. As proof of success, Costa Rica is fast becoming a prime medical tourism destination, reflecting the quality of care and reasonable costs.  Treatments in Costa Rica can be as much as 75% cheaper than many first world nations.

In the Caja universal healthcare system, all treatments and procedures are covered by the monthly fees.  This fee is subject to each individual’s financial circumstances, and expats from first world countries can expect to pay an average of $90 per month, per couple.  There are often long wait times for non-emergency situations; however, there is always the option of private healthcare if you are in a hurry to have results.

For those seeking private healthcare, world-class hospitals like CIMA, Hospital Clinica Biblica, and Hospital Clinica La Catolica  are available on a first come, first serve basis. These three hospitals have doctors that have been trained internationally, with top of the line equipment for all manner of procedures.  Every hospital in the country has private and public options, though, so if you would like to fast-track a procedure, you can choose to pay upfront in your local facility. Most who are seeking private healthcare will likely travel to San Jose, though, to receive treatment from one of the world-class, internationally favored facilities listed above.

As another immediate care option, many pharmacies have a doctor on staff that will give free healthcare advice and provide the right over-the-counter medication for the “simpler” ailments.

Overall Health

A variety of super-foods grow natively in this region.  They are proven to be packed full of vitamins, minerals and enzymes and many have taken to believing that this is a land of miracle cures.  Many expats have been planting their roots here for years with the aim of improving their health and well-being, and many have found remarkable success.  Some forward thinking doctors support the practice of a change in lifestyle to improve health, and there are few places in the world that afford the opportunities for retreat available in Costa Rica.

Shopping/Groceries

Shopping is not quite the same experience in Costa Rica as it is in most first-world nations.  Superstores, malls, or big box/discount stores are only found in the big city centers like San Jose, or San Isidro (the closer option for those living in the Costa Ballena).  For us an dour neighbors, we do the majority of our shopping at the local supermercado (like a mini supermarket), or we head to the commercial hub of our region, Uvita.  There, you will find weekly farmer’s markets (Wednesdays and Saturdays) where you find fresh, local, seasonal produce, herbal remedies, seeds, soaps and more, all sold by local farmers for a good price.  There are also two large supermarkets and many boutique stores in the area at which you can find all your essential items, and many luxury imported items (although they will be at an additional cost to what you can buy them back home).

Expats typically learn to live without their imports and choose the local alternatives, which you are likely to find for a comparable price.  A bag of Doritos might be $5 USD, but the local alternative will be less than half that cost.

Shopping centers in the Costa Ballena will typically have a bank (or at least an ATM) and a variety of other stores, ranging from pharmacies, dental offices, cafes, clothing boutiques, souvenir shops, “dollar stores,” liquor stores, restaurants of all manner – really, everything that you have come to expect from shopping in the first world, just on a smaller scale.

Services

It is a fact that there is a fiscal disparity between first world nations and countries like Costa Rica.  The average wage here is about $4 USD per hour. However, value is not equatable between countries, considering that Costa Rica is consistently surveyed to be one of the happiest nations on the planet.  People here grow up enjoying the simple pleasures in life, like swimming in a clean river or enjoying pristine, natural beaches that are not overly populated.

As a retired investor, you can take advantage of having your hard earned dollars go further than they would in your home nation.  You can hire a gardener and maid for far less than you would be able to afford elsewhere, while still paying them a livable wage. Not only that, but you will be investing into an economy that supports equal rights for men and women, universal healthcare, universal education, and environmentally-sound national policies.

Travel

There are two international airports in Costa Rica, with many carriers flying direct to numerous ports around the world, meaning that you and your visitors will remain well-connected to home.  There are also two regional airports within an hour’s drive of the Costa Ballena, making it easy and affordable to skip the 3.5 hour drive to San Jose (the closest international airport).  Nevertheless, a well-maintained highway connects the Pacific coast with the Central Valley and Costa Ballena for a scenic drive from the capital. The Costa Rican government has pledged to keep these services in good condition for the benefit of tourism and commerce.

Security

Costa Rica is a politically and economically stable nation.  There are few (and generally peaceful) anti-government rallies, political uprisings or riots, and each successive government is democratically elected by a large voter turnout and supported by the majority of the popular vote.  Costa Rica is proud to be one of the oldest democracies in the Americas, cherishing the tradition of negotiation rather than confrontation, as well as social development and tolerance over military spending and hostility.  It is a nation with one of the highest literacy and life expectancy rates, and a people whose happiness is embodied in the national epithet of ‘pura vida.’

Every day enjoyment

The impressive scenic beauty and welcoming spirit are not lost on the more than 3 million tourists who visit annually, nor the nearly 9% of Costa Rica’s population that are expats.  Our Southern Zone of Costa Rica is considered to be the place where the mountains meet the sea, presenting a variety of options in terms of where to live and what to do. Temperatures in Costa Rica are tropical year-round due to the proximity of the country to the equator. Roughly half the year is considered ‘dry’ season (December to May) and the other half is ‘rainy’ season, with coastal temperatures sitting around 80-90F and getting cooler as you go up the mountains.  It is perfect weather for enjoying a wide variety of outdoor activities including heading to the beach, hiking the mountains, and visiting parks and waterfalls.

Language

Many residents of Costa Rica are bilingual. It is ideal to learn some basic Spanish but it is possible to live in Costa Rica without speaking Spanish fluently.  In our diverse expat communities in the Costa Ballena, you will inevitably bear witness to an international mix of languages and cultures, bringing their food and customs with them to share with the world from within this clean, green, welcoming platform that is our generous host called Costa Rica.

Common languages to encounter include French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Czech, Italian, and of course English and Spanish.  Even if you consider yourself fairly proficient en espanol, you may find that the local dialect gives you a hard time in terms of your language comprehension. A few classes with a native speaker certainly wouldn’t hurt, and group classes will give you the opportunity to meet other people in your area who are in the same boat.

Lifestyle

In the Costa Ballena, you are bound to find your niche for engaging with the local community – both locals and expats.  Enjoy a wide variety of courses and classes to satisfy your needs for continued learning and exercising your mind, body and spirit.  Learn to paint, join a book club, make crafts out of natural materials found all around you, or join a lunch club – there are so many options for weekly and monthly events that you’re going to have a hard time choosing how to spend your time!

Try yoga in a class filled with retired expats, or in a mixed environment.  Grab a boogie board and catch some waves with your friends. This is a land that inspires youthful creativity and exploration of the senses in everyone – regardless of age.  No need to push yourself; rather, embrace the moment and go with the flow. You will see 70 year olds hiking in the hot sun or surfing the waves any day of the week.  What you thought was never possible again back home, you will find new energy for, thanks to the vibrant company that surrounds you and the vitality of the land that envelops you here.

Communication

Join a social media platform like Facebook and you will easily find groups within our local community that are long established for the purpose of connecting people in this region to the goings on in our neighborhood.  See people exchange all manner of ideas, suggestions, services and things! Seek help you with queries and connect with the author of posts you like. Reach out and you will likely open a lot of doors.

Residency

You don’t need to be a resident to buy, own or sell property in Costa Rica.  Many expats who own property in Costa Rica never apply for residency, traveling back and forth between their home nation and here, visiting family and friends via cheap, direct flights.  They subsist easily on the 90 day tourist visa, which is easily renewed regularly with proof of onward travel.

For those who want their stay to be a bit more permanent, there are a few classes of residency for which retired expats can apply, the most conventional of which are called ‘pensionado’ and ‘inversionista’.  

For the pensionado class, an applicant must be already retired from his/her usual occupation and already receiving pension benefits.  The applicant will need to show proof that they have $1000 USD per person or married couple from a qualified pension plan (these can include local, state/provincial and Federal government pensions from most countries, Canadian Old Age Pension System, U.S. Social Security Administration and Railroad Retirement benefits, private company pension plans, defined benefit plans, 401K plans, school district pension, IRA/Keogh distributions, etc. To be a qualified pension plan, the pension must be payable to the resident applicant “for life.” Many lifetime annuities can also qualify as a pension). Once approved, the resident agrees to live in Costa Rica for at least one (1) day per year.

For the inversionista class, the applicant must have invested $200,000+ USD in assets into the local economy in any type of business or in real estate, with no requirement of a bank deposit.  The applicant must prove that the amount already invested (not the current or future value) has a registered or verifiable value of at least $200,000 USD. The investment can be made in any type of business, including manufacturing, transportation, hospitality (hotel, B&B, bar, restaurant, etc.), tourism industry (tours, nature walks, amusement and adventure-type parks, etc.), commercial real estate and non-commercial real estate.  A home purchase or the purchase of land for future development are both acceptable investments for the purpose of applying for residency, provided the amount invested is at least $200,000 USD.  Additionally, land purchased for preservation, including ecological, environmental or watershed preservation purposes are also included in this scheme.

Obtaining temporary residency can take anywhere from 6 months to a year.  After 3 years, temporary residents can apply for your permanent residence status.  You will need the assistance of an attorney to complete both of these processes, so ask your neighbors or your real estate agent to recommend a good one, who will help you thoroughly with this process.  There are other paths to residency in Costa Rica, however they are less common for retirees.

In Conclusion

In total, about 4% of Americans abroad find themselves in Costa Rica, which is the third most popular US expat destination after Germany (9%) and Mexico (5%).  According to the international publication Expat Insider, 32% of Costa Rica’s expats are retirees. International Living Magazine consistently ranks Costa Rica in the top ten places for expat retirement, taking into consideration a vast number of factors including: cost of housing, cost of food, climate, healthy lifestyle, quality and cost of health care, accessibility from other parts of the world, technology, benefits and discounts for retirees, and ease of assimilating into the culture.