Over the past thirteen months, we’ve lived in eight towns across Costa Rica. From the Pacific to the Caribbean, we dragged our eight suitcases through booming resort towns, quaint mountain villages, and everything in between. Before we started our travels, we knew about Costa Rica’s regional differences in climate and landscape, but were really surprised at some of the other differences we encountered.
Below we share our impressions of where we’ve lived, both the good and the bad. This is our take based on our own personal experiences. If you’re considering a move, this information might help narrow your search, but keep in mind that everyone’s needs and experiences will be different and a place that wasn’t for us, might be just right for you.
Manuel Antonio (Central Pacific Coast)
What we loved: The best thing about living in Manuel Antonio for us was being within walking distance to a beautiful beach. It was great to just roll out of bed and go for a run along the sand or take an afternoon sunset stroll. Another thing we loved was its pure convenience. It was close to the awesome Quepos farmer’s market and tons of great restaurants (many within walking distance), had a bus that ran regularly to and from Quepos, and had good shopping. It didn’t have nearly the variety of what you can buy in San Jose, but we could find most things we needed in downtown Quepos or at the Maxi-Pali, a larger, Walmart-owned store. Another great thing about Manuel Antonio was its large, close-knit expat community which immediately made us feel welcome.
What we didn’t love: Manuel Antonio is one of the more touristy areas of Costa Rica so the beaches and national park can get very crowded, and prices at restaurants are higher because they cater to tourists. While we got a good deal on a rental because we stayed in a small studio, prices are generally high, again because of the area’s popularity.
Dominical (Southern Zone)
What we loved: We lived in a tiny village in the mountains near Dominical called Hatillo and loved the small-town feel. We also loved the landscape. The Dominical-Uvita area is for us one of the most beautiful in Costa Rica because the lush mountains roll right down to the sea. It’s less developed (though growing every day) so the natural beauty is still intact. Other great things include: the many secluded beaches and restaurant options; all the great places to go hiking; and the non-touristy feel.
What we didn’t love: While we liked that the area was more remote and pristine, this was sometimes a downside side too because things were more spread out and we had to drive to get everywhere. Although there was a local bus, it only ran a few times a day, so having a car was a necessity. For shopping, nearby Uvita had two fairly big grocery stores where we could buy most foods. But for other items and fresh, cheap produce, both the Quepos and San Isidro markets and stores were a little far (about 45 minutes away). Another downside was that Dominical is a bit far from the airport (around 3.5 hours from San Jose).
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (Caribbean Coast)
What we loved: Our favorite thing about Puerto Viejo was the stunning beaches and the fact that they were good for swimming. A lot of the beaches in Costa Rica are rough and have riptides, but the water on the Caribbean side is calmer in general, aside from the surfing beaches of course. We also loved the culture. The Caribbean coast is the only place in Costa Rica where you’ll see the Afro-Caribbean influence and it’s a really chill, cool place. We also liked how the area was set up and thought it had a good balance of having things to do without being too developed. If we wanted to go out, we could head to one of the bars or restaurants in downtown Puerto Viejo, or if we wanted a casual night, we could check out one of the more laid back places in Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, or Playa Punta Uva. Everything was really close by too so if we couldn’t walk, it was just a short bicycle or car ride away.
What we didn’t love: This is one area of Costa Rica where we didn’t feel 100% safe all of the time. While most people just visiting for a week or two probably wouldn’t notice anything, petty theft, break-ins, and drug trafficking are somewhat common and you start to notice it more once you live there. Our neighbor had his iPhone stolen from inside his house when we invited him over for dinner (just a few steps away), and while he should have had the place locked up, it was still alarming that it happened at all.
Another thing that we didn’t love was that groceries were overpriced. Restaurants were also on the expensive side because they catered to tourists. Finally, the humidity was crazy and our clothes, car, and house got really moldy.
Playa Hermosa de Uvita (Southern Zone)
What we loved: Similar to Dominical just to the north, we loved our stay in the tiny Tico village of Playa Hermosa because of the small town feel (we frequently saw local guys riding by on horses), beautiful scenery, beaches, and wildlife. Living in Uvita, we were very close to a couple of bigger grocery stores too, which is great if you need something in a pinch.
What we didn’t love: Many of the communities in the mountains of Uvita, including Playa Hermosa, are accessible only via rough dirt roads. We needed four-wheel drive to get up the hill and the road was really rough, taking a toll on our car. Our Internet connection was also the slowest we’ve had so far in Costa Rica. This may change if a new tower is put up, but for now the connection in Playa Hermosa is limited to a 3G wireless stick with super slow speed (cable Internet is not available). We had the same type of connection when we lived near Dominical but the speed there was much faster. Finally, because Uvita/Dominical is growing in popularity with expats, rental prices are on the high end for Costa Rica (we paid $800 a month for a simple, two-bedroom Tico-style house).
Tilaran (Lake Arenal)
What we loved: We stayed in Puerto San Luis near Tilaran and liked it so much that we came back and lived in the neighboring town of Tronadora for a couple more months. This may sound strange, but we liken this area of Costa Rica to rural northern Maine where Jenn’s family was originally from. It’s the country, Costa Rica style, with lots of rolling farm fields, complete with cowboys and horses. The pace was slow and relaxed and the local people were so nice.
Other things we loved were its proximity to Tilaran, which has a lot of smaller shops and grocery stores; the awesome veggie and fruit stores in Tilaran where we bought all the produce we needed for a week for just $10; the lower cost of living in general (rent and grocery prices were among the lowest we’ve seen in Costa Rica); high-speed cable Internet; we felt very safe; it’s not touristy; the mountains are beautiful; and it’s close to Liberia international airport.
What we didn’t love: Because it’s more remote, there wasn’t a ton to do and there weren’t many restaurants (although the ones they had were some of our favorites in the whole country). From the Tilaran side of the lake, it’s over an hour to more restaurants and activities in La Fortuna, so we only made it over there a few times.
Other things we didn’t love were that it was super windy, and although it might not always be, really rainy during our second stay in mid-June through mid-August (raining all day most days). Also, we’re more beach people so we missed the ocean, which is at least three hours away.
Playa Grande (Northern Guanacaste)
What we loved: We loved being just a five minute walk to a beautiful beach. On top of that, we had a nice pool that was a great way to cool off or take a break from writing. We also enjoyed the wildlife and birds and how peaceful it was.
What we didn’t love: Northern Guanacaste is the driest area of Costa Rica and almost everything was dead and brown when we lived there at the end of the dry season. There were even forest and grass fires in the surrounding hills. We like the heat but it was even too hot for us, getting into the mid-90s on most days. Another thing we didn’t like was feeling isolated. It’s possible to take a boat across the estuary to Tamarindo, but aside from that, you have to drive at least a half-hour to get anywhere. Most of the people around us just stayed for a few days or a week max while they were passing through on vacation.
Other things that we didn’t like was that everything was really expensive; there weren’t many restaurants nearby unless you went to Tamarindo; there was little local culture as most of the homes were owned by foreigners; break-ins were a problem (although we didn’t have any issues); we missed the lushness of the tropical jungle; and there wasn’t much hiking nearby because it’s relatively flat.
Nosara (Central Guanacaste)
What we loved: Nosara has a great, laid back feel and the lush jungle setting is gorgeous. We loved seeing howler monkeys in our yard almost daily and heading to the beach whenever we wanted. We also loved that you could get just about anything you wanted for food, fulfilling our cravings for things like pizza and good burgers.
What we didn’t love: Our car hated us for living in Nosara. The roads were terrible, dirt, and pot-hole ridden (get a quad if you live there), and our shocks, struts, etc. even had to be replaced after living there. Other things we didn’t like: we heard about a lot of break-ins and often didn’t feel safe leaving electronics and other valuables at home; restaurants and groceries were more expensive because they catered to tourists and the large expat population; the town was spread out and you had to drive everywhere; and it was isolated from other major towns (at least 45 minutes away).
We loved exploring Costa Rica and getting a feel for the different areas, but moving around so much is definitely starting to get a little tiring. We think we’ll settle in one place sometime soon and are leaning towards the Southern Zone but nothing is set in stone. And who knows, maybe our wanderlust will keep us on the move.
Check out this post to find out how we lived in all these places for less than $2,000 for the year!
What’s your favorite area of Costa Rica? Let us know below.
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So What Happened Next . . . ?
In July 2013, we boarded a plane for a new life in Costa Rica. Want to follow our story as it happened? Check out the posts below to see how our dream became a reality and what it has been like so far.
We’re Moving to Costa Rica!
First Impressions on Living in Costa Rica
Living in Costa Rica: One Month Update
Buying a Car in Costa Rica
Fun Facts From Our First Six Months in Costa Rica
Our First Year in Costa Rica
House Sitting: How to Live in Costa Rica for $2,000 a Year
Two Years in Costa Rica: How Life Has Changed
Post by: Matthew Houde and Jennifer Turnbull-Houde