Where to Live in Costa Rica: Planning Your Research Trip

So you’re narrowing down different countries to retire or move to. Or maybe you’re already sure that Costa Rica will be your new home. Beautiful beaches, wildlife, rolling mountains, and a more relaxed pace of life have captured your heart and your imagination. While some people move to Costa Rica without even a single visit, we recommend doing some homework before you come for good. A well planned research trip can give you a glimpse of what life will really be like here day to day. It might even save you from packing up and leaving in a year or two like many do. In this post, we’ll cover some things to consider when planning your research trip.  

 

Where to Live in Costa Rica: Planning Your Research Trip

I’m moving to Costa Rica, I love it there!

People contact us all the time, saying that they had an amazing first vacation to Costa Rica. They went zip-lining, saw a sloth, wrote their name in the sand, and are already making plans to move here and buy property. Yikes! Like us, they caught Costa Rica’s most contagious disease, pura vida, and it’s serious. We always try to respond with encouragement but caution, especially if they are making huge financial decisions based on a single visit.

 

Where to Live in Costa Rica: Planning Your Research Trip
This is what everyone pictures life being like in Costa Rica

 

The thing about a vacation is that it is a moment in time. Everything might have been perfect during your trip, but vacationing somewhere and living there are two completely different things. Before you start lining up immigration lawyers and making real estate appointments, we suggest at least one more visit to ensure that you know what life will really be like in paradise. While this trip should be treated much differently than a vacation, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still have an awesome time.

Tip: Another useful way to learn more about what life is like in Costa Rica is to read accounts from other expats in blogs and books. For a list of our favorite Costa Rica expat books, check out our post Books to Inspire Your Move to Costa Rica.

Choosing Destinations

Unlike vacation where you choose destinations based on nearby attractions, a research trip will be more practical. You should be thinking about things like: Where are the nearest hospitals, private or public schools, shopping centers, and airports? Where will you fill prescriptions, go to the doctor, buy groceries, go to the hardware store? How are the roads? What is the Internet like? Do the towns have an adequate water supply year-round? What is the crime like in each area? What is the going rate for a rental that meets your needs? How much do groceries cost and electricity? Some of these things you might not learn about until you spend time in each town and talk to people who live there. And that’s a big reason a trip like this is so helpful.

You’ll also need to consider where you will be comfortable. Spending a week at the beach drinking cold beers in the 90 degree heat is a lot different than dealing with those kind of conditions on a daily basis. Unless of course you plan to drink cold beers at the beach every day—which some people do. The coastal areas of Costa Rica are generally a lot more hot and humid than the mountain towns and cities of the Central Valley. Guanacaste can be extremely hot and dry for several months of the year (think: air conditioning costs), while the Caribbean Coast can be really wet (think: needing a dry room). Some towns in the mountains experience high winds part of the year. Others, at higher altitudes, even get chilly at night or during the rainy season. Rainfall is another big factor. Some areas of Costa Rica get up to 12 feet of rain each year! For a general sense of rainfall in different areas of the country, read our weather post.

 

Where to Live in Costa Rica: Planning Your Research Trip
Jenn looking chilly in the cloud forest

 

Once you’ve narrowed down your destinations, be realistic about how many you can fit into your itinerary. Make sure you’ve done a lot of research so that you can cut your list down to two or three of your top choices. Then spend as much time in each place as possible. The longer you stay, the more you will learn about a town. A second trip might be necessary if the first one didn’t bring you to your ideal place or answer all your questions, but it’s worth it not to make a move to the wrong place.

Accommodations

Once you’ve narrowed down your destinations, it’s time to start booking places to stay. There are a couple of different ways to go about this. Instead of hotels, we recommend either a vacation rental home or a small expat-owned bed and breakfast.

Vacation Rentals: Costa Rica has a ton of these, partly because a lot of people only spend a portion of the year here and want to recoup some of the money they invested in their property. (Hint: Think about this before rushing to invest in your own Costa Rican property). These houses are great because they are set up to live in like a normal house, and you cook, clean, etc., like you would on a daily basis living here. If you’re “lucky,” you’ll even have to deal with some of the perils that come with living in the tropics. Weird bugs invading the house, strange plumbing problems, surges in electricity or maybe even outages, and Internet reliability, just to name a few. These lessons can really help you know what to look for in a future rental.

 

Where to Live in Costa Rica: Planning Your Research Trip
A little friend we found on our mop on the patio

 

Bed and Breakfasts: Another great option is a small expat-owned B&B. We’ve always found the owners of these places to be a wealth of knowledge. Some have recently gone through the process of moving to Costa Rica themselves, while others have lived here for decades. Either way, they have a lot of useful insight to offer and are usually more than willing to chat over breakfast or sit down with you to answer some questions. When we first moved to Costa Rica in 2013, we rented for a week at a small bed and breakfast in Manuel Antonio. We learned all sorts of useful knowledge about buying a car, how cell phone plans work, where to buy things, and we even lined up a short term rental through the owner’s friend.

Dig Deep Into the Community

Once you’re actually here on your Costa Rica research trip, it’s important to get a sense of the community that you will be potentially living in. Schedule time to go to local events like the feria (farmers market), fundraisers that might be going on, and church services if you are religious. Talk to people and ask questions about where they live, how long they have been around, and so on. Conversations like this can get you all kinds of useful info and even some community dirt.

Many towns also have known expat hangouts, which could be a particular bar on a certain night, a coffee shop, etc. Ask around to see when these get-togethers are and go to as many as you can. While some people don’t want to solely associate with other expats when they move to Costa Rica, these people know the most about what it’s like to transition into another culture and are a good resource to have on hand.

 

Where to Live in Costa Rica: Planning Your Research Trip
Live music at a restaurant in Dominical with expat musician David Bohn

 

Another way to scope out a community is using Facebook. Most of the popular expat towns have a corresponding Facebook group. These are a good way to find out about local events and see what kinds of issues are going on in the community. Things like crime, water shortages, proposed improvements, and other potential issues to know about. There are sometimes even Yard Sale or Classifieds groups for certain towns, which might give you a lead on a rental home, car, furniture, or other necessities when the time comes to move.

Since you’ll be potentially living in the town you’re visiting, you should also try to get a sense of what is available locally. Browse as many of the nearby shops to see what items are available and what you can expect for prices. Even if you don’t need anything, you can still look through the hardware store, appliance center, butcher shop, different grocery stores, veterinary office, etc.

Tip: Read our post Packing for Your Move to Costa Rica to get a sense of what items are hard to find or expensive here.

If you are concerned about medical care, private hospitals will often give short tours of their facility. You could also poke your head into the town’s local clinic or public hospital to see what it is like and visit some of the pharmacies to see what they offer and how much your medications will cost if you had to pay out of pocket.

We’ve also heard from a lot of people who are planning to move their entire family down. If you’ll be enrolling your kids in school, these research trips are an important time to tour the different schools and talk with other parents.

 

We hope that these tips will help you plan a thorough research trip to Costa Rica. While our personal research trip wasn’t as planned out as we explained above, we would have benefitted hugely from one that was. There is certainly a lot to think about before a big move, especially to a different country. But once you are here and settling in, the feeling is like no other.

 

Did you do a research trip before moving to Costa Rica? What other tips do you have? Leave us a comment below (email subscribers click here to post your comment online).

More Info to Help Plan Your Move:

 

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14 Comments

  1. Hi Jenn and Matt,

    Excellent!

    I read on an expat forum of an individual who suggested all prospective expats read this (fictitious) book: “I Bought a Huge Home in Costa Rica and I Can’t Stay Here Another Minute AND I Can’t Sell It!”LOL…..you made the point early in the post. Gotta travel somewhere 3 or 5 or 7 times, or, spend a month or so there, or 3 or 4 months, before making the major, life-changing decision to move to Tico-land.

    As for the Caribbean side, I just tossed out my luggage yesterday here in NJ. It was old anyway, but, 2 FULL months after being out of the deep, humid, moist, sticky jungles of Bribri, it STILL smelled musty and funky and disgusting….after sitting in the dry central highlands of CR plus a dry, cold/hot home in NJ….for 2 months. Crazy, crazy stuff, the humidity on the Caribbean side. Rains like mad but even on sunny days, the humidity levels never subside. Always moist, always feels like a sauna, every day, without fail.

    Ryan

    1. This is confusing, but I love your stuff – except for Puerto Jimenez. I lived in that area – La Palma – for 2 years and had visited with students from 1999 until 2006. One important site Danta Corcovado Lodge in Guadalupe. And my impression of your P Jimenez bit is that you relied on other sources rather than actually visiting there. You don’t even mention eateries, and the hotels-motels you list are okay but don’t reflect actual stays, I would say repeat that and this time depend on some real locals.

      1. Hi Paul, We’re sorry you feel that way about our Puerto Jimenez post. We did in fact go there–we were there about a month ago–and it wasn’t our first visit. We always visit everywhere we write about. Maybe we should have written the post a little differently. Anyway, thanks for reading and for the tip on Danta Corcovado for next time. We noticed that you’ve commented before and appreciate the support.

    2. Haha, you’re so right, Ryan. When we were on the Caribbean side, we left our place closed up for a week to go to Panama and when we came back, everything has a fine coating of mold. A dry room is a must! I don’t think our suitcases will ever be the same again after being in CR.

  2. Hi Jenn and Matt,

    This is a great article and very helpful for someone wanting to move to Costa Rica. I have been in Costa Rica for almost two years and I have got some information from your blog. Keep up the good work and when you get a chance come check out the Ropes Course

  3. Hello,

    We just came back from Costa Rica. We did a lot of research prior to our trip to include your website.

    We are planning on retiring in four years, so we decided to take an opportunity that was presented to us. Kalia living (a new community) was offering a 4 night stay, with a chef cooking all three meals for us, for $1,000, just to look at their place. If we decided to buy a lot, they would refund us the money, to include the airplane ticket. If we decided NOT to buy, we got an all inclusive trip for $1000. So we went.

    Though we had an excellent time, buyer beware. We did not have a minute to ourselves. They purposely keep you busy with high pressure sales techniques especially towards the end.

    A disappointing factor was that CR was not as “cheap” as the results of our research showed. Perhaps because the resort style living is located in a coastal zone (in Guanacaste, the San Juanillo-Santa Rosa area). A box of cereal was $6.00!!! More expensive than in the United States. The houses were also just as expensive. We were very disappointed. Additionally, Kalia living is associated with time share so, although they advertise as a “community”, we would not be living in a community – it seemed to us that it would be more of a vacation home type living, which we did not want. They also have an HOA!!!

    Many other shennanigans were going on. However, our driver (Tico) was the most amazing, honest, down to earth person and we were fortunate to meet him, as well as we met other friends, also looking for a life in Costa Rica, who were amazingly nice. Overall we had an amazing time. But….again…buyer beware!!! Needless to say, we did not buy. But we plan on returning to CR soon. We are hoping the prices are less than stated in the center, or south of CR.

    1. Hi Giogi, Thanks for taking the time to circle back about how your research trip went. Your first-hand experience will be really helpful to anyone looking at that development project.

      Bummer that you didn’t find your dream retirement home, but don’t give up. Costa Rica is a lot more expensive than most people realize, but it doesn’t have to be. More modern homes with North American finishes do tend to be expensive, especially along the coast, but there are still deals out there. Expats are always trying to sell their home after deciding that CR wasn’t right for them so there is a bit of glut in the market, which can give you some negotiating power. Guanacaste is known to be one of the most expensive areas so looking in other places will help.

      You’re right that groceries here are about the same price as in the US, but imported items like cereal are more expensive. Once you live here though, you find ways around this. You know where to go for the best prices. For example, we buy all our produce at the farmers market because it’s cheaper (and better). We also get a lot of imports and things that are more expensive like cereal, cheese, peanut butter, etc. at Pricesmart in San Jose (similar to Costco) for very reasonable prices. It gets easier the longer you’re here.

      Hope your next visit goes better. After you figure out where you want to live, it might help to try to find a local real estate agent you trust to work with. They have the inside scoop on different properties and would know who might be willing to take less than listing price. Good luck!

  4. We are planning on our first visit and wondering about combining it with a research trip. We are thinking about the San Ramon area. Is it feasible to stay there as a home base for a couple of weeks and do some touristy things (La Fortuna, Monteverde) or is that going to involve too much driving around?

    Thanks! Love your site!

    1. Hi Jenny, La Fortuna is doable as a day trip from San Ramon. It’s about a 1.5 hr drive so fine if you leave in the morning (definitely avoid driving Route 702 after dark, though, because it is quite curvy and narrow). Monteverde is a bit longer, around 2 hours, so it would be better as an overnight but still possible as a day trip if you don’t mind driving. There’s also some fun things to do closer to the Central Valley (check out our Atenas post). Our Map might give you some ideas too.

  5. Hi Jenn and Matt and Sam!

    We are patiently awaiting our second trip to Costa Rica and this time its for two weeks! My boyfriend and I are hoping to be able to do a bit of a research trip in a few places.. We will be in Quepos which I think will be our favourite spot and will be looking at Dominical and Uvita while we are there as well.
    We will head north to Monteverde and La Fortuna for a few days as well. Is there anything that really stands out to you that we absolutely have to do, or places we must eat at while we are there?

    I just started reading your blog as I began researching this trip and it has already been so informative! Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Cait, Make sure to go to our Destinations page and read our articles on each of those towns. We have a restaurant guide for Manuel Antonio with all of our favorites too. In Dominical, we would say that you definitely have to see the Nauyaca Waterfalls. It’s our favorite in the country. Lots of other great things to do in all of those places, but I think our posts about cover it. Hope you have a great visit and maybe find somewhere you would like to settle!

  6. It seems from my research so far that all of CR is quite humid and hot all year round? do you recommend certain cities/towns that are less humid/hot but have lots of interesting cultural, restaurant, etc things to do for 2 wishing to retire there? So far it seems as if San Jose and its surrounds may be best for us?

    1. Hi Harvey, The beach towns are all hot and humid, yes. Some places in the mountains are cooler. Take a look at San Isidro de El General – some of the smaller communities outside the main city are higher altitude and cooler. Also Grecia and Atenas near the Central Valley. Grecia, for example, has different communities outside town that are higher elevation and much cooler. One example is El Cajon, where we had some friends live. There’s actually a book on Grecia written by someone who lived there, which might be helpful. Here’s the link.

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