Costa Rica is very popular with expats, especially from the USA, as an affordable retirement destination. Although not very big, the country is diverse, so which regions should you choose to settle in and why? Here is the list of the best places to live in Costa Rica.
The Central Valley
The Central Valley is a favourite Costa Rican destination for expats. This is understandable; the region is centred around the capital of the country – San Jose – and has all the facilities at hand: an international airport, great shopping and entertainment, and hospitals and clinics.
Weather-wise, the region is extraordinarily mild and gentle, with average temperatures sitting about 22º C all year round.
The Costa Rican capital of San Jose, lovingly called Chepe by locals, would definitely fail dramatically in any beauty pageant. It is not a pretty city – it is full of ugly commercial structures, crumbling pavements and numerous World War II era buildings that fill the city’s skyline.
Unfortunately due to the fact that the city is relatively young, San Jose cannot boast much in terms of the antique colonial architecture that is typical in other Latin American countries.
What it has in abundance though is a vibrant and dynamic life charged with energy and drive. San Jose is the cultural hub of the country, it’s where theatres, museums and galleries thrive and attract people from all over the nation.
There are a lot of great places to eat out as well, and, of course, to drink coffee.
The Central Valley has some of the best soil and weather for growing coffee. That’s how the tiny village of San Jose came into the spotlight in the 18th century and started to develop into the coffee capital of the region.
Since that time, coffee has been an important part of the Costa Rican economy and history. Nowadays the “grano de oro” (golden grain) industry attracts thousands of tourists with its coffee varieties and fantastic coffee tours across the country.
If you are not greatly impressed by the urban touch of San Jose (and some expats are not) but want to be close enough to its facilities, look at the city’s suburbs.
Western suburbs of Escazu and Santa Ana are becoming more and more attractive locations for expats.
Escazu is definitely one of the trendiest and most upscale suburbs of San Jose. Its residents enjoy the calm, laid back feel of the town while being in close proximity to the capital.
Escazu has everything for luxury living: shopping, restaurants, hotels, gyms and the exclusive Costa Rica Country Club with an 18-hole championship golf course.
Several foreign embassies are located there, as are the residences of the U.S. and British ambassadors. There is also a large English-speaking expat community.
And it’s not too far away from the coast – only an hour’s drive to the Pacific.
Santa Ana is a smaller town than Escazu but is growing rapidly in size and popularity with expats, who value the mix of local ambience and tranquillity with modern conveniences and cultural entertainment.
Santa Ana is green and picturesque, its streets are full of flowers and traditional workshops side by side with luxurious hotels and restaurants. Its proximity to Multiplaza – the biggest shopping centre in the country – and to the capital with its facilities makes it one of the nicest places to live.
Both Escazu and Santa Ana have some of the highest-priced properties in Costa Rica. Close to shopping centres and high-end restaurants and providing an easy commute into San Jose, they attract the wealthiest locals and expats.
The Pacific Coast
Since the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia expanded and underwent a total makeover, the Pacific coast’s great beaches and destinations have become even more accessible.
Costa Rican beaches on the Pacific coast are truly wonderful: Bahía de Los Piratas (Pirate Beach) with its long stretch of pink sand, never sleeping Samara Beach, Playa Rajada sunset beach, or the beaches of Nicoya peninsula – the choice is endless, and life on the coast is calm and divine, with all the modern conveniences you could need close at hand.
The Guanacaste Region is the heart and the soul of the Costa Rican Pacific Coast. The region is situated in the northwestern part and is drier and hotter than the Caribbean or southern destinations. It has been nicknamed the Gold Coast.
The region is very popular with expats from all over the world and is loaded with small peaceful towns, great beaches and friendly people.
Tamarindo is a little town in the Guanacaste region, famous for its superb surfing, sportfishing and diving.
Its closest beach – Playa Tamarindo – is a long sandy stretch going all the way north to the estuary of the Tamarindo River. The waves near the estuary are excellent for surfing, and currents can be strong, especially on a falling tide. During November and December the waves can get up to 12 feet high.
The beach itself is soft and golden with the sand dropping off very gradually into the ocean. If you are not a surfer, you can hire a boogie board, or just idle away your day reading in the sun.
Both Playa Tamarindo and Playa Granda – another beach just across the estuary – attract scores of nesting leatherback turtles from October to May, which is a delight for turtle lovers to watch. If you are patient enough, you can see the hatchlings emerge and hurriedly make their way to the water.
There is no direct access to Playa Granda from Tamarindo because there is no bridge across the estuary, but tens of small boats run to and fro every day and can ferry you for a small fee.
Tamarindo is an appealing little town and many expats who want coastal living head there to settle down. It is full of gorgeous beach houses, B&Bs and luxury hotels.
Shopping and dining there are great too. Tamarindo has about 80 restaurants, the choice of food is fantastic, and you can sample local flavours as well as international cuisines.
The weather there is extraordinarily good, and even during the rainy season there is sunshine most days.
The Central Pacific Coast
This region is meant for those who want beachside living not far from the amenities and facilities of the capital.
If you live on the central Pacific coast, then San Jose is a maximum of a 2 hour drive away. Due to its convenient location, this stretch of the coast is one of the most developed in the country and offers everything one might want for the perfect seaside life.
The area also includes some of Costa Rica’s best national parks.
Jaco is a coastal resort city not far from San Jose. It was one of the first towns in Costa Rica to profit from a tourist boom.
Since then Jaco has been through ups and downs, and today’s Jaco is a very popular seaside town attracting thousands of expats, retirees, developers, surfers and party-lovers. It’s not the place for quiet observation and contemplation, it is all about enjoying life to the full.
Playa Jaco is the hub and the heart of the area – the beach stretches 2.5 miles (4 km), is framed by lush tropical forests, and offers some of the best surfing in the world.
There is no shortage of entertainment on offer night or day: restaurants and shops are cosmopolitan and excellent, daytime activities are extraordinarily adventurous, and nightlife is vibrant and lacks nothing.
The Southern Pacific Coast
The Southern Pacific Coast, or the Southern Zone, is a perfect area for those who are after peace and tranquility as opposed to the non-stop party lifestyle that Jaco offers.
This whole region near the Panama border hasn’t been touched yet by grand developments and urbanisation. It is calm and quiet, and much loved by those expats and retirees who adore unspoiled views and natural beauty.
Costa Ballena is one of the most strikingly beautiful Costa Rican destinations, its scenery and lushness are breathtaking, its sandy beaches are serene, its gushing rivers carry welcomingly cooling waters, and its effervescent waterfalls are mesmerising.
This region is all about nature as it is.
Costa Ballena means “coast of whales”, and it is the mating area of the humpback whales from December to April. During this time you can view migrating whales and dolphins out at sea. Sea turtles often come to Ballena Marine National Park, which is located just past Uvita.
The coast is covered in pristine beaches and dotted with small cosy towns and beachside villages. The region is up and coming but still uncrowded, and it is possible to find a nice home on the jungle slope facing the ocean, and wake up every morning to the divine view and sound of the Pacific.
There is a small expat community scattered along Costa Ballena, those expats and retirees who value eco-living find the region the best place to settle down.
Despite being relatively quiet, the region has its little hubs of shopping, entertainment and fine dining. There are transport links, council services and hospitals as well as a few gourmet restaurants around there — some say the best in the country.
Little coastal towns such as Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal have something to offer in terms of amenities, but there are bigger towns a bit further inland, such as San Isidro de El General, where you can find everything necessary for a comfortable life.
The Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean Coast is “the other Costa Rica” – a stunning, diverse and largely underappreciated part of the country.
It is nearly 125 miles long and stretches all the way between Panama and Nicaragua.
The region is far from being crowded, the beaches are picture-perfect, and the water is emerald and turquoise framed by green valleys and the impressive Talamanca Mountains in the background.
Nearly 70% of the Caribbean Coast is under protection, so it is the perfect place to get closer to nature.
The Province of Limon
Limon is a Costa Rican province that takes up the country’s entire stretch of the Caribbean Coast.
It is lush and pristine, with white-sand beaches lined with coconut trees, untouched prehistoric rain forests, and unparalleled landscapes. And yet, this province of Costa Rica remains the least visited place in the country.
Because of this there is no tourist hype in the region, the prices are low, there are no big scale developments in the area, the local culture, unspoiled by globalisation, is unique and diverse at the same time, and people are open, friendly and curious.
Most of the locals are of the indigenous population, but there are more than 100,000 descendants of Africans who arrived on the coast in the 19th century. This fantastic cultural mix is reflected in the music, food and even the language, with many older locals speaking Creole English.
Some of Costa Rica’s most delightful beaches, like Punta Uva, Playa Chiquita and Manzanillo, are on the Caribbean Coast, and you’ll never see them overcrowded. It’s not rare to experience the bliss of having the whole beach to yourself.
Because the region is protected and any development undertaken there must be low-impact, Limon is bound to stay this way – lush and steamy green, with long inviting beaches, pretty valleys and stunning landscapes.
The cost of living in the region is low. Dozens of small fishing villages along the coast provide the best and freshest seafood for local cafes, which stand side by side with modern international restaurants and sushi-bars.
Shops and supermarkets stock exported goods and food as well as local produce, and activities such as golf, tennis and gyms can be found all over the coast. And although the region is still sparsely populated, the number of its residents, including expats, is slowly growing. Limon’s quiet charm and closeness to nature attract more and more people each year.
However, Limon is not all about basic living on a wild beach. The capital of the region of Puerto Limon is the local cultural hub. It is a bustling port town with extravagant open-air markets, little shops and cafes, and a few museums that can help you to get to know the region better.
Puerto Limon is famous for its Parque Vargas, a lovely park near the city’s waterfront, full of tropical trees and exotic vegetation, which is also the favourite residential quarters of the local sloth community.
Puerto Limon is about 2.5 hours drive away from San Jose. Or you can take one of the many daily flights from Limon International Airport to the capital.
Best places to live in Costa Rica – summary
There are so many wonderful locations in Costa Rica and before you choose the one to call home make sure you know it well enough.
This country is full of micro-climate pockets. One place can get a whole lot of rain, while at the same time a location just a few miles away stays dry.
The best thing you can do is to spend several months to a year renting and exploring and talking to people to find out if an area suits you.