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Eleven years ago, I decided to retire in Costa Rica during my first trip to the country. It wasn’t my horoscope that guided me, but the decision was definitely based on the heavens.
The tropical cloud forest I was visiting typically was engulfed in low-level clouds. But on this evening, the sky was so bright and clear that I lay down on the ground outside my cabin to get a better view. I found myself lost in the stars visible at this latitude – an array not possible to view this time of year back in Minnesota. Above were a host of unfamiliar constellations.
Most of us are accustomed to trying to follow a roadmap that determines whether we arrive at our destination. Something about the strangeness of the heavens jolted me into thinking about retirement being a destination in and of itself.
Already, my peers were planning moves to senior communities near their grandchildren, and meeting with financial planners to plot a course. I determined to follow a different canopy of stars.
I had three years left before my retirement date. Back in snowy Minneapolis, I needed to pick a location to settle. I designed a plan that included making frequent fact-finding trips to Costa Rica. Still saddled with a high mortgage in a suburb of Minneapolis, I set out to live comfortably on my Social Security and savings.
My list of “must haves” included an active social calendar, acquiring Spanish, immersing myself in the traditions and living in safety. As an avid world traveler, I wanted to use Costa Rica as a jumping-off place to explore more of Central and South America.
Retiring in Costa Rica: settling down in Atenas
Each consecutive trip homed in on my goal of retirement in Costa Rica. The journalist in me led me to approach strangers with questions about the lifestyle and location they had chosen. Blogs abounded where someone already living my dream would pose a question and receive numerous replies, some quirky, others insightful. I observed that volunteering with animal rescue or charity events led to new friendships, as did attending social and civic events.
Through Spanish immersion trips that entailed living with a family in Turrialba, I developed a close familial bond that continues today. That connection led to meeting their relatives in Atenas, who offered to help me explore their town. Eventually, I chose this Central Valley locale because it is a robust community of expats where one can sit on a bench in the town square and greet and be greeted.
The relatives of the Turrialba family proved invaluable in helping me settle by locating a house for me to rent that ticked all my boxes. It was within walking distance of town and was nestled in a Tico neighborhood. Best of all, it offered the safety of living inside a family compound. My landlords were grandparents who cared for the grandchildren while their adult children, who lived on the property, worked. I was like Margaret Mead, observing a lifestyle of constant togetherness where arguments were rare.
In 2019, the landlord’s daughter returned from Panama to reclaim her house. Again, I relied on my Tico family to find a secure neighborhood near town and to help negotiate a reasonable rent.
My second house sits on a lively street, busy with vendors who announce their wares of brooms, pans or tamales. The milk and garbage trucks honk their arrival. From the other side of the bars on my gate, I can choose to interact or not. I can sit on my porch and see toucans, hummingbirds and iguanas. A horseman, putting his stallion through his paces, often trots by and waves.
How much do you need to retire in Costa Rica? I manage to exist comfortably as a pensionada, which is one of the pathways to residency in Costa Rica. It requires an income of at least $1,000 a month. The cost of retiring for me and for most of my friends ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 monthly. I rent my house, don’t own a car, live at an elevation that doesn’t require air conditioning and buy local produce.
Re-learning how to live when retiring in Costa Rica
While the North Americans pride themselves on individualism, Latinos thrive on togetherness. Blending the two lifestyles is an art worth acquiring. My Tico friends teach me to slow down and relish the beauty around me. I am indebted to the expats who share their wisdom on everything from the recycling pick-up schedule to pursuing residency to getting vaccinated.
Moving here has included challenges, all balanced by the thrill of surmounting those trials. For nearly six weeks after I arrived, I washed my clothes in fabric softener rather than laundry detergent, my Spanish skills not up to reading the labels of bottles in the laundry aisle. My clothes were soft, but never clean. Electronics have a short shelf life in the tropics and must be constantly replaced. I once found ants crawling across my toothbrush. And bureaucratic red tape makes accomplishing one task in a 24-hour period a stellar day.
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That said, I’ve adjusted. I’ve learned to wash dishes in cold water, using a product that cuts the grease from the grimiest dish. My days start with choirs of birds, the most raucous being the small green parrots called budgies. In the rainy season, I must hang my laundry on the clothesline hours before the inevitable downpour. Alex, my fruit and vegetable vendor, comes each Thursday with a truck filled with a bountiful variety. Feeding scraps to my resident iguanas allows me to observe these reptilian throwbacks to “Jurassic Park.” My hairdresser comes to my open-air porch to provide haircuts. I take private Spanish lessons in the same location. Each Sunday, I eat breakfast at a Tico restaurant with my “bubble friends.” Trips to buy groceries in the local Supermercado La Coope include many conversations in the aisle with acquaintances.
The best things to do in retirement are those that make you happy. My calendar is filled with Zoom meetings for my book club, a writers’ group and other gatherings. Before COVID, I regularly took a bus into San José to attend the symphony and go to art galleries. But my own town, Atenas, is imbued with its individual character and typically offers a weekend fair with local produce, live music with local bands, gyms, yoga, meditation and water aerobics.
The secret to living longer: retiring in Costa Rica
Although it does not possess a fountain of youth, Costa Rica promotes living well and long. The country has one of the world’s five Blue Zones, the Nicoya Peninsula, where people live extraordinarily long lives, some reaching the age of 100. Many attribute this longevity to remaining active and eating rice and beans, corn tortillas, cheese, eggs and lots of fruit. Most of their diet comes from plants and from carbs derived from whole grains, beans and tubers like yucca.
My goal in retiring in Costa Rica was not to outlive Betty White or to idle away my days in Nicoya munching on mangoes. I wanted to tap into some of the Tico characteristics that appear to increase longevity, happiness and serenity. Now that I am 75, it has become important to explore life, lived meaningfully in a different culture.
I recall meeting 103-year-old Doña Romelia during a visit to the local nursing home where she lived. She was alert, diverting the unexpected attention on her birthday by blessing those around her. Doña Romelia attributed her longevity to healthy living, a deep and abiding faith and a good heart.
“A good heart” doesn’t mean that you were awarded a gold star in kindergarten for behaving. Here, a corazón bueno is nurtured by growing up in close proximity to family. A genuine concern for one another radiates out beyond one’s family to consider the needs of others. As a result, the most vulnerable, the very young and the old, are revered.
A billfold lost and returned by a stranger; the preference given to the elderly, pregnant or disabled in bank lines; the greeting by each person as you pass on a walk speaks to a good heart. I have never had to stand on a bus, no matter how crowded. I am welcomed as a full family member by my two Tico families, who worry about me being idle or alone on holidays.
You will often hear Ticos say “Tranquilo,” meaning, “Be peaceful,” or as we might say, “Chill out.” I have learned from my host country how to live in the moment. As a result, I have experienced tranquility, at first in moments, then for hours, and ultimately for years. That is the essence of living well and longer in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica may or may not be in the stars for everyone seeking a retirement destination. Thinking back these many years on a life journey that began by gazing up at the foreign sky, I am fortunate to have landed in a place that feels like home, because that’s exactly what it is.