This Week in Costa Rica

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This Week in Costa Rica is a weekly, online radio program and podcast by US expat, Dan Stevens

Some Boomers Who Are Financially Worse Off Than Their Parents Might Be Able to Make Ends Meet Abroad

Live In Costa Rica - Although retiring in Costa Rica or another country south of the border is not an option for everyone it can possibly mean the difference between having to work all of one’s life or enjoying the time you have left.

retired-couple-on-the-beach.jpg

By simplifying your lifestyle, downsizing, getting rid of your car and a lot of other possessions and above all moving to a more affordable place you can live for a lot less. Fruits and vegetables, public transportation, rentals, medical care, home taxes, movies and other forms of entertainment are generally cheaper in Costa Rica. A single person should be able to by on $1500-$2000 per month without sacrificing much.

Adjustment to the culture, food, language and a different way of life may be necessary for some but really is a small price to paying for living more affordably and saving your retirement. I would be lying if I said that Costa Rica is for everyone, but for many it is the solution to their retirement dilemma.

Let’s look an article from Bloomberg Business the describe’s the plight of many Boomers who are worse off than most of their parents.

“While plenty of baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, have become affluent, and many elderly across the U.S. face financial hardship, the wealth disparity between boomers and their parents is emblematic of a broad shift occurring around the country. Many graying boomers are less secure financially and have a lower standard of living than their aged parents. The median net worth for U.S. households headed by people aged 55 to 64 was almost 8 percent lower, at $143,964, than those 75 and older in 2011, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Boomers lost more than other groups in the stock market and housing bust of 2008, and in the aftermath many also lost their jobs at a critical point in their productive years.”

“That’s left many ill-prepared to provide for themselves as they approach old age, even as they are likely to live longer than their parents. For the first time in generations, the next wave of retirees will probably be worse off than the current elderly. More than half of those aged 50 to 64 think their standard of living in retirement will be somewhat or much worse than their parents’, according to a 2011 survey by the AARP Public Policy Institute. “Baby boomers are the first generation without the safety net of pensions and other benefits their parents have,” says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “They’re facing a much more challenging old age.”

Even if boomers saved more, they would have been hurt by a shift to 401(k) accounts from pensions in the 1980s. Thirty-seven percent of the elderly in the U.S. collect pensions, which provide some guaranteed income until they die. Fewer than 10 percent of boomers do, and that number is quickly shrinking.


Christopher has award-winning Tours for all AGES and BUDGETS

ALL tours are led personally by Christopher Howard, the author of 16 editions of the #1 perennial BESTSELLER "New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica." Christopher has lived in Costa Rica 33 YEARS, is Costa Rican CITIZEN. Absolutely NOBODY has his PROVEN EXPERTISECONNECTIONS or TIME-TESTED CREDIBILITY.

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The Gift of Gods: Learning How To Make Chocolate in Costa Rica

We just came across a cool article by Dan and Casey, of A Cruising CoupleTwo lovebirds slowly, indefinitely traveling the world. We share practical travel tips, top-notch travel photography and inspiring travel tales to get YOU out exploring our world.

These guys are top notch bloggers and photographers, and recently wrote about learning how to make chocolate in Costa Rica.  

 

We have a secret. We’re kind of obsessed with chocolate.

Okay, we know—it’s not really a secret at all.

We make it a point to indulge in at least a little—or a lot of—chocolate everyday. If we are making a grocery list, we actually write chocolate down on it, like we could possibly forget to pick it up otherwise. And we always choose those desserts like “Death by Chocolate” or “Chocolate Lover’s Bliss”. (Come to think of it, I’m even sipping on a “Chocolate Dream Smoothie” right now.)

So when we strolled past a ‘learn how to make chocolate inside’ sign after our afternoon of horseback riding, we couldn’t resist the gravitational pull to find out more.

We were in for a sweet treat with Rainforest Chocolate Tours.

Less of a tour and more of a lesson, we learned how to make chocolate beneath an open-air pavilion, surrounded by cocoa plants, vanilla pods, palm trees, and the ubiquitous Arenal Volcano. But though we were physically present in this garden oasis, class would begin with a bit of time travel…all the way back to the days of the Mayans.

Photos and the complete article can be found here.

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10 Reasons Why You Should Quit Your Job and Move to Costa Rica

Here at This Week in Costa Rica, we have always been big fans of Josh, Park, and the writing talent at Viva Tropical.  Last week we posted a great article by one of their writers, Camille.  This little piece just lit up on our social sites and we thought it’d be nice to share it with our regular readers.

Viva Tropical

Nationals and residents of Costa Rica seem to all share one integral thing: a deep love for the country that surrounds them. Native Costa Ricans, expats, and even travelers who have spent time in this land of monkeys, waterfalls, and surfing, speak about the area with deep admiration and pride.

Arturo Sotillo

Arturo Sotillo

Costa Rica has become one of the most popular places in the world for North American retirees and expats to relocate. What exactly is it about this beautiful country that lures people to pack their belongings and invest their lives there?

Here is our list of the top ten reasons that inspire many people to make the move to Costa Rica.

1. Stunning Nature Abounds

Costa Rica is literally covered in natural wonders. It has epic volcanoes with spewing lava that create natural hot springs you can soak in. It has tall mountains you can climb to see the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

It has hundreds of miles of shoreline varying from black to pink to gold to white. It has dolphins and whales for you to watch on and off shore. The sea varies from enormous waves for exciting surfing to calm and still for snorkeling and diving.

The land is covered in old growth trees, swaying palms, and beautiful flowers. Rushing rivers and waterfalls flow through mangrove forests or reveal themselves deep in the jungle.

Animals take refuge in the lush landscape and the Osa Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Howler monkeys live in the trees in your backyard. Sloths cross the road causing traffic jams. Toucans and scarlet macaws fly over your head.

Costa Rica is easily one of the most magical and beautiful countries on Earth.

2. Great Healthcare is Affordable

Healthcare is top-of-the-line and inexpensive, which has brought a new kind of tourism to the country: medical tourism. Hospitals in the capital of San Jose offer world-class care. Procedures including dental work, surgeries, and more are available at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. and are extremely high quality.

Costa Rican citizens receive free healthcare and residents can pay a low fee to join the national healthcare program. Private healthcare plans are incredibly affordable starting at around $50 per month. Even the out-of-pocket medical costs for those with no coverage is staggeringly low compared to the U.S.

3. Comfortable Climate Year Round

While there is a distinct wet and dry season in most of the country, temperatures on both coasts average between the high 70s and low 80s year round. Even in the rainy season there is typically some sunshine every day. This comfortable weather allows you to enjoy outdoor activities and nature every day of the year.

4. Its Proximity to North America

The capital city of San Jose is an airport hub for flights to North America and has inexpensive, direct flights to major cities in the U.S. including Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, and New York. These flights often cost less than national flights across country. This makes it easy to stay close to family, have visitors, and run home to stock up on certain comforts that can’t be found in Central America.

5. The Established Expat Community

Because Costa Rica has been popular among expats for years it has a well-established supportive community in most of the coastal towns as well as in San Jose. These communities have created excellent schools for children, health-focused stores, markets, restaurants and cafes, and other practices like yoga, pilates, and bodywork.

The communities are very supportive and make integration into a new country much easier. Living in a small town with like-minded people, you may even find yourself in a closer community than the one you were in back home.

6. A Healthy Lifestyle

Eating less processed foods and more local fruits and vegetables, being outside with nature every day, and using your body to achieve more tasks are all changes that take place for most people who move to Costa Rica. Many report losing weight because they become much more physically active.

The slower-paced lifestyle and immersion in nature help one to fully relax which is incredibly health beneficial. Not to mention, outside of the city there is much less pollution and toxic fumes than cities in North America.

Want to get yourself, and your money, out of the USA? 

Want to get yourself, and your money, out of the USA? 

7. The Stable Government and Economy

Costa Rica abolished its army in 1950 and has kept its spot as one of the most stable democracies in the world since then. It is the only country in Latin America to make the list.

The economy is also experiencing steady growth with greater foreign investments as well as tourism which bodes well for those looking to invest in the country.

8. Kind, Generous Local Culture

Local Costa Ricans, Ticos, are some of the most hospitable, nature-loving, peace-oriented people on earth. They love their country and are welcoming to tourists and expats who love it too. Costa Rica has a 95% literacy rate and nationals are highly educated.

Raised in an amazing ecological environment, most are quite knowledgeable on plant medicine, wildlife, and other aspects of nature that many people in North America never study.

The smaller coastal towns tend to have very integrated communities where locals, long-term tourists, and residents are friends. It’s also fairly common for families to be multicultural with one local Costa Rican parent and one foreign parent.

Be sure to listen to our weekly podcast!

Be sure to listen to our weekly podcast!

9. Outdoor Adventure Opportunities

With unlimited hiking trails, white water rafting, excellent swells for surfers, rivers for kayaking, and standup paddleboarding, Costa Rica is an adventure lovers dream. High adrenaline activities are very popular here including ziplining and bungee jumping. In Costa Rica, even a simple walk on your nearby beach can become an adventure.

10. The Pura Vida Lifestyle

What may truly set Costa Rica apart from the rest of Central America is its dedication to the words “pura vida”. Pura vida is more than a phrase, it is a way of life. When locals say “pura vida” it is a reminder to themselves and the rest of the world to relax, let things go, and be grateful for what you have.

Isn’t that why most people get off the grid after all?

It may not be the place for everyone, but Costa Rica is an exceptional option for anyone looking to live abroad in Latin America. These are just a few of the many reasons to move here.


We spoke with Josh Linnes about living as an expat here in Costa Rica.  That interview can be found below.

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Costa Rica Climate: Incredibly Diverse and Tropical

One of our favorite sites to hit is Viva Tropical.  Josh, Park, and their team of writers do a spectacular job of covering lifestyle topics from a variety of countries throughout Latin America.  A recent post about Costa Rican climate caught our eye and we thought we’d share it with you.

Viva Tropical -  When many expats think of Costa Rica climate, the first thing that comes to mind is tropical. Costa Rica is warm and tropical, and while this is true in many regions of Costa Rica, the climate in this small country is very diverse and varies from region to region.

It may be surprising that such a small country is made up of so many micro-climates, but if you have been planning on making a move down to Costa Rica, it’s good to know a little more about the different climate zones before you commit to a spot.

Costa Rica climate

Costa Rica is located close to the equator and sits between 8°-11° North latitude, providing it with the ideal weather that attracts more expats each year. While the Costa Rica climate is known to be like ‘eternal spring’ with the average temperature ranging between 21.7°C (71°F) and 28°C (81°F), the country’s climate will change drastically as you move throughout the regions, so take the time to experience as many as possible before you take the plunge.

Rainy season vs. dry season

Like many tropical countries, the Costa Rica climate is split into two seasons, rainy and dry.  The dry season or summer (named ‘verano’ by Spanish colonizers) generally runs from December to April, while the rainy season or winter (‘invierno’) spans from May to November.

Yet even the dry and rainy season will vary slightly from region to region and the distinct topography of each place will have an influence on the climate.

The sweeping mountain ranges that spread from northwest to southwest split Costa Rica into two regions, the Caribbean slope and the Pacific slope. And the rainy and dry season differs on each slope.

Along the Caribbean slope the rainy season spans from late April through to December while the Pacific slope experiences its rainy season from May to November.

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Free 44 Page Ebook: Pay Dirt! - A Blueprint for Creating Wealth Abroad

But it doesn’t end there. The climate on each slope will also change according to the region. The Northern portion of the Pacific slope will experience an extreme dry season with little to no rain and the Southern half will have a shorter and less intense dry season.

So now that you know the basics of Costa Rica climate, you can begin to take a closer look at the different climate zones, a factor that will help many expats in choosing the ideal spot to call home.

Central Valley

The Central Valley of Costa Rica, that includes the capital city of San Jose, attracts many expats and tourists with its ‘eternal spring’ climate. But even in the valley the climate will change from warm and dry to chilly and humid depending on which side you choose.

When it comes to Costa Rica climate, it all depends on elevation.

The western suburb of San Jose, Pavas, sits at an elevation of 3, 280 ft. (1000 m), giving it an ideal average temperature of 71°F (22°C), while in the foothills of the Poás Volcano (located on an elevation of 6, 070 ft.) on the opposite side of Central Valley, the average temperature is a much cooler 62°F (17.4°C).

But no matter where you choose to settle, in the Central Valley, you can expect to be greeted with moderate temperatures, clear mornings, and rainy evenings, making it the perfect combination for many expats.

North Pacific

The gorgeous North Pacific region is the most popular region in Costa Rica due to its warm sunny weather and numerous beaches like Playa Conchal, Playa Ocotal and Playa Coco, to name a few.

Liberia, the capital city of Guanacaste can be found in the North Pacific region and boasts an average temperature of 82°F (28°C), perhaps a little too hot for some expats, but just right for others.

Central Pacific

This region of Costa Rica includes the provinces of Puntarenas and San Jose and is home to many popular expat destinations like Dominical, Uvita and Jaco.

In Puntarenas to the north, it is not uncommon for the daytime high to reach the low 90s and while this may seem a bit on the hot side, the cool breeze coming off the Pacific works wonders to help manage the heat.

South Pacific

The South Pacific is home to some of the country’s most diverse landscapes and in this region you can enjoy both mountain ranges and majestic stretches of rainforest, including the Corcovado National Park (home of the world’s only Jaguar reserve).

As a result of this varied topography, the climate in the South Pacific bounces from hot to cold. In some higher areas the temperature can dip as low as 50°F (10°C) making a light jacket a must.

Near the coast, the average temperature remains high year round, from the low 80s to the low 90s, but a more moderate climate can be found in the Valle del General (the general valley) and the temperature here will hover around the high 70s to the low 80s.

Caribbean

Spanning the length of the Caribbean coast, the Caribbean region is quite humid, and here, heavy rainfall can sometimes last for days.

Although it rains throughout the year, you will find drier weather in September and October, which incidentally, are the wettest months in the Central Valley.

Northern Zone

In the Northern Zone, the climate will differ in accordance with the altitude. In the areas that sit at a higher elevation, the temperature can drop to the low sixties, while the lowlands remain in the high seventies to low eighties.

The Northern Zone is also home to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a breathtaking, mist covered forest that has become a popular tourist spot.

So which climate is right for you?

With cool temperatures in the highlands, eternal spring in the Central Valley and heat along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, the Costa Rica climate is extremely diverse and definitely something all expats should consider.

To make sure that you pick the right region for you, rent before you buy and experience the many different micro-climates Costa Rica has to offer until you find that perfect match and the perfect place to call home.

 

We spoke with Josh Linnes from Emerging Terrains on the radio show and podcast a few weeks back.  Click the player below to hear Josh's take on "lifestyle design hacking" in Costa Rica! 

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Being Sustainable in Nosara, Costa Rica

Viva Tropical - A shift towards more sustainable living with less impact on the environment is often a driving force behind expats deciding to move to Latin America. However many countries lack many of the modern conveniences in the Western World that protect the environment.

Costa Rica in recent years has proven itself to be a trendsetter regarding ecotourism and sustainability on a national level. The country is filled with protected national parks that support the incredible biodiversity that abounds. However in many towns simple conservation efforts like waste management are completely undeveloped. In fact it’s not uncommon for people to litter and recycling is rarely even an option.

Nosara, situated on the coast of the Northern Nicoya Peninsula, has in recent years developed a highly environmentally sustainable community. The hope of this community is to set the trend for greater sustainability in Costa Rica on a micro level beyond ecotourism.

Nosara Recycling and Education Center

The efforts of the Nosara Recycling and Education Center aim to reduce the amount of trash in the Nosara garbage dump by 80% by educating the community about proper waste management and collecting and processing recyclables.

This project is part of sLAB Costa Rica, an initiative set forth by the NYIT School of Architecture. Through funding from kickstarter.com, sLAB has managed to send students from NYIT to Nosara to develop and build this program.

They have already built and developed the center that collects, sorts, compacts, and sells recyclables for future transformation and created a documentary film about waste management and sustainable practices in Costa Rica. They hope to inspire Costa Rica as a whole with these efforts, as well as other tropical towns all over the world.

Sustainable Nosara

The organization Sustainable Nosara has made huge strides in making Nosara a more sustainable place to live. Rather than address community issues as individual concerns, Sustainable Nosara brought together important community associations including the Nosara Civic Association, the Chamber of Tourism, and the Recycling Association.

The organization leads many conservation efforts including monthly beach cleanups and tree planting on beaches, rivers, and roads.

Sustainable Home Project

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Don't forget to check out our weekly podcast!

While many hotels and businesses in Nosara have worked to develop sustainable practices, Jessica Sheffield found that homes in the area had not followed suit. She developed the Sustainable Home project to create an incentive to promote sustainability in local homes in Nosara. The goal is to award homes that meet certain sustainability standards. This program has been adopted by the Ecological Blue Flag Program (PBAE), which works internationally to fight beach pollution and awards Blue Flags to organizations that meet their sustainability standards.

By offering these awards, she hopes to resolve many ecological challenges in the Nosara community including waste management, water scarcity, and wasted electricity and water. The goal is to create a culture that works towards decreasing consumption to promote a greener, healthier community.

Adopt a Blue Flag School Program

The Adopt a Blue Flag School Program works in a similar way to the Sustainable Home Project. It awards Blue Flags to schools that meet sustainability requirements on anything from water quality to environmental education. Five schools in Nosara are participating this year and they hope to eventually include all schools in the area.

Nosara Recycling Association

The Nosara Recycling Association was formed in 2008 and has paved the way towards proper waste management. In addition to working with sLAB on their community recycling center, they spearhead several efforts.

No Styrofoam Campaign

By asking consumers to demand biodegradable containers from businesses and building their own line of these disposables made from cornstarch and sugarcane, the Nosara Recycling Association hopes to stop the use of styrofoam. Their goal is to be the first community in Costa Rica to eliminate this environmentally damaging material.

Disposal of Cooking Oil

Cooking oil causes massive amounts of pollution and the association is leading the effort to collect cooking oil from restaurants, businesses, and homes, and convert it into biodiesel.

Workshops

To teach the community about composting, recycling, and waste management, the association has sponsored workshops in schools, local libraries, and churches.

Trash-Free Events

In collaboration with the Caricaco Music Festival, the Recycling Association managed to produce a trash-free event. In fact, most materials were completely compostable. They plan to continue to promote events like these in the future.

Reusable Shopping Bags

The Nosara Recycling Assocation sponsors reusable shopping bags to eliminate the use of plastic. They are made locally in San Jose and can be found at supermarkets in Playa Guiones.

Electronic Waste Collection

Discarded computers, batteries, and other electronics cause a huge problem for dumpsites and are highly hazardous. The association has begun a waste collection campaign to recycle and dispose of electronics without harm.

The environmental efforts by community members in Nosara is deeply inspiring and progressive for the rest of Costa Rica. With greater awareness, other villages in the country and in the world will hopefully follow this movement towards a cleaner, healthier community and Earth.

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Costa Rica a Medical Paradise?

Viva Tropical - Costa Rica has been called a paradise by many, but according to Promed, council for the international promotion of Costa Rica Medicine, it is also a health care paradise, a place where tourists can come to receive quality medical treatment at a fraction of what they would pay back home.

Sound a little too good to be true?

A survey conducted by Patients Beyond Borders (the most trusted source in medical travel) can clearly illustrate this point, for in 2011 a patient could expect to pay:

  • $88,000 for a coronary artery bypass graft in the United States or $9,500 in India
  • $33,000 in America for a hip replacement, or $12,500 for the same procedure in Mexico.

This is why the medical tourism industry is booming and why more and more people are opting to leave their homes behind to hop on a plane and seek medical attention elsewhere. In fact, according to Helmut Wachowiak, a Professor at the International University of Applied Sciences in Germany, the global medical tourism market is worth 40-50 billion dollars and is growing about twenty percent each year.

For many people, the idea of combining medical treatment with a vacation may sound a bit odd, but with medical tourism companies like Dr. Holiday out there to build itineraries around medical appointments, it can be a convenient and cost efficient option.

The simple truth is, people need affordable, quality medical treatment, and the idea of recuperating in a tropical paradise like Costa Rica often tips the scales.

So what makes Costa Rica the right choice?

To begin with, Costa Rica is in close proximity to the United States, immediately giving them an edge over Asian and South American countries. And to top it off, U.S. citizens don’t even need a visa to enter.

While the idea of leaving your home and jetting off to a foreign destination to receive medical treatment may sound daunting, according to Promed, Costa Rica has one of the best public health systems on the American continent. If you choose to receive treatment in Costa Rica, you can rest assured that you will be treated by certified professionals working in an internationally accredited hospital like the Clinica Biblica Hospital in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose.

The Clinica Biblica Hospital was the first facility in the region to receive Joint Commission International Accreditation, which is a set of standards designed by a group of global health care professionals.  And to accommodate foreign patients, many establishments, including the Clinica Biblica Hospital, have international departments that offer visitors concierge services like accommodation information and sightseeing tours.

While it is true that some American doctors try to discourage medical tourism, saying that the quality of treatment and follow-up care might not be as good as back home, the standard of care in the private sector of Costa Rica is considered high by both the medical community and past patients.

What medical treatments are available?

The health care professionals in Costa Rica  offer numerous treatments at much lower rates, treatments like:

  • Plastic surgery
  • Dermatology
  • Gastric bypass surgery
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Cardiology
  • Ear, eye and throat care, and
  • high risk pregnancy

But currently, one of the most in demand medical tourist procedures in Costa Rica is dental care.

Dental care in Costa Rica

Massimo Manzi, the Director at Promed, estimated that 40,000 medical tourists came to Costa Rica in 2011, and of those 40,000, around 15,000 came seeking dental treatment.

Again, this is mainly cost related, and since, according to Biotech Business Week, 45% of American’s don’t have dental insurance, it should come as no surprise that they are searching for alternative options.

Receiving dental care in Costa Rica will cost 30-40% less than in the United States (Deloitte Center for Health Solutions). So for many, the choice is quite simple; they can spend a large amount of money getting a crown back home, or they can take a medical vacation to Costa Rica, get the crown for less, and then spend a few extra days relaxing on the beach.

Medical tourism might not be for everyone, but it’s a serious option that many people are choosing to try. So if you are in need of medical or dental treatment and you expect the bill to be overwhelming, do your research, pack your bags, and get the medical/dental attention you need as you take a little vacation to gorgeous Costa Rica.

 

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Central America on a Shoestring

Viva Tropical - What could be better than taking a trip to the gorgeous tropics of Central America? How about making the trip affordable?

Due to the booming tourism industry, this may seem easier said than done, and unfortunately, many once budget-friendly destinations, are no longer so. But that doesn't mean it’s not possible.

First Stop, Costa Rica

First Stop, Costa Rica

Each year tourists from around the world come to experience the tropical climate, Latin culture and exotic beauty of Central America, but many don’t realize that it can be done on a budget.

Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador are four popular Central American countries that can be truly experienced without breaking the bank in the process.

 

 

The most popular tourist destination on the list, and arguably the most tourist friendly, Costa Rica can tend to be a bit pricey  But don’t worry, there are ways to keep your costs down.

In big cities like San Jose, prices will typically be higher, so hop on a bus and head for one of the smaller beach towns. A five hour direct bus to a town like Santa Theresa will cost you around ten dollars.

On to Panama

On to Panama

Remember to exchange your money into the local currency colones, as usually only expensive items/places accept American money. Seek out cheap accommodations at a hostel (around ten dollars) and start exploring the beauty of Costa Rica.

Next It’s Nicaragua

Next It’s Nicaragua

Although the tourism industry here is not quite as developed as their northern neighbor Costa Rica, Panama is just as beautiful and the prices are often lower. Again, buses will be the cheapest mode of transportation and hostels your best bet for reasonably priced accommodations (around twelve dollars for a bed). As a perk, many hostels will have communal kitchens, so take advantage of the local market and cut another cost by cooking your own meals. If cooking on vacation isn’t for you, try to avoid restaurants aimed at tourists and instead look for street stalls and small cafes.

Last Stop – El Salvador

Last Stop – El Salvador

Just north of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, known as the land of lakes and volcanoes,  is cheaper and attracts a lot less tourists. In fact, you can catch a bus from Costa Rica to Nicaragua for just a few dollars, but remember, you will have to pay a fee of seven or eight dollars to get into the country. Once you are in Nicaragua, exchange your money into córdoba’s and head for small towns like El TrasitoPopoyo and Playa Maderas to soak up the sun and experience the amazing surf. If you visit Isla de Ometepe, be sure to hike up the double-volcano nestled in a lake filled with fresh water sharks, or you can try remote Little Corn Island for cheap kayaking and snorkeling.

While El Salvador may not be as popular a tourist destination as the others, most who visit are pleasantly surprised. The people are friendly and welcoming and there are many wonderful, and cost efficient things to enjoy, like taking a trip to the beach town of El Tuncojust an hour from the capital San Salvador. Yes the food is a little pricey, but the hostels are cheap and the surfing and swimming is unbeatable. Explore San Salvador on a five dollar bike tour that takes place every Thursday night, or take a leisurely stroll around the city to check out the politically-charged street art.

Ready to go? Remember these tips:

  • Take advantage of local transit. While bus rides may be longer, the cost is substantially less.
  • Eat like a local. Avoid tourist-targeted restaurants and look for low-key local spots.
  • Make the most of happy hour.
  • Visit “free” national parks for hiking and observing nature and wildlife.
  • Stay in a hostel. Typically group and private rooms are offered.
  • Surf and swim – it’s free!

It’s a common misconception to think that a good holiday means an expensive holiday. Cliché but true, the best things in life are free, especially when you are somewhere as beautiful as Central America. The sun, the mountains, the beaches, the surfing, it’s all free and all unforgettable. If you are not overly concerned with five star transport and accommodation, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador can all be yours at a reasonable cost. So do your research, book your plane ticket and get ready to discover the wonders of Central America without putting a dent in your wallet.

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What are the Best Beach Towns for Expats in Costa Rica?

Viva Tropical - Costa Rica has long been famous for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. This gorgeous shoreline with great surfing and incredible wildlife has lured expats for decades. Today many beach towns in Costa Rica are well established for those looking to relocate to towns with some of the same comforts of home in a tight-knit community with plenty of nature.

Playa Samara

  Daniel Stenberg

 

Daniel Stenberg

Many cite Playa Samara, on the North Pacific Coast on the Nicoya Peninsula, as their favorite beach town in the entire country. The relaxed fishing village has a strong community feel for locals and tourists alike. The town has many local authentic “sodas (Costa Rican cafes) as well as expat-run sushi bars and Italian restaurants. The horseshoe bay is a great gathering place where fishermen wade into the water then run out with their fresh catch. Groups of people crowd around to admire what they pull out and some purchase it for their lunch or dinner. At more populated spots on the beach locals, expats, and tourists play games of volleyball or take kayaks and stand up paddleboards out into the ocean.

The many nearby beaches are great for hiking and exploration including Playa Carillo known for its crocodile sightings, Playa Buena Vista, and Playa Barrigona where Mel Gibson owns a home. All beaches can be accessed by long walks on the shore around rocky points or on back roads on a bicycle. Slightly further inland are farms with domesticated animals like sheep and cattle which gives the area an authentically Nicoyan cowboy feel.

Playa Guiones

  Chris Goldberg

 

Chris Goldberg

National Geographic named Playa Guiones one of the top surf towns in the entire world and we can see why. Beginners, intermediates, and experts can all enjoy the clean waves here that can be surfed all day long. Nearby beaches also offer a variety of breaks for those looking to really challenge themselves. Surf schools are everywhere as well as surf camps for kids.

In addition to having some of the most versatile and consistent surf in all of Costa Rica, it also has a well established expat scene. One of the first yoga studios in Costa Rica is in Playa Guiones, the Nosara Yoga Institute, which has led to the opening of many yoga studios and retreat centers. There is also pilates, kickboxing, massage, horseback riding, stand up paddleboarding, and many more physical activities. It is a great place for families as there are tons of activities for kids as well. Surf camps, horseback riding clubs, ballet, and gymnastics are just a few. There are also two reputable international schools that ensure quality education for children of all ages.

The dedication to health also makes Playa Guiones a great place for health-conscious individuals and families. The town boasts an organic grocery store, farmers market, and a few organic healthy cafes.

Playa Cocles

  Magalie L’Abbé

 

Magalie L’Abbé

Playa Cocles on the South Caribbean coast hosts stunning beaches, tons of wilderness, and tons of local and international culture. This neighborhood is most famous for its barreling waves at Beach Break and close proximity to Puerto Viejo just a couple of miles away, but it’s quickly becoming a yoga and health hotspot as well. The neighborhood houses locals and expats from North America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and South America giving it great international appeal in a very undeveloped town. The community here is infectious with a weekly farmer’s market, community garden project, community dinners, and events at Om Yoga.

About a century ago Caribbean islanders came to this part of Costa Rica, which lends a fascinating local culture to the area. Traditional Costa Rican rice and beans are steamed in coconut milk, reggae plays in the streets, and coconut curry with lobster is sold from big pots on the beach. Many families are multicultural with European, Jamaican, and Latin roots and locals often speak English, Jamaican Patois, and Spanish.

Unlike many Pacific Coast beaches, the water in Playa Cocles and nearby beaches, many named some of the most beautiful in the world like Manzanillo and Punta Uva, is turquoise and warm. Beach break can fill up on the weekends and for surf competitions, but a short walk away and you will find yourself in completely undeveloped deserted wilderness beaches.

Montezuma

  Drivebysh00ter

 

Drivebysh00ter

Though it has become a popular tourist destination, Montezuma manages to maintain the laid-back hippie roots that made it popular in the first place. Health and environmentally conscious expats comprise most of the transplants in Montezuma and this is clear by the businesses that thrive here. Several yoga studios sit in town and on the beach and it’s even possible to take free community yoga classes several times a week.

The landscape in Montezuma is quite unique to many beach towns in Costa Rica with beautiful rocky cliffs to climb to secluded beaches, natural tide pools, and great surfing for beginners. There are also two waterfalls within walking distance of town.

Manuel Antonio

  Zhu

 

Zhu

Manuel Antonio is arguably one of the most popular destinations in all of Costa Rica. The beaches and national park are stunning, outdoor activities like snorkeling, parasailing, fishing, and whale watching make it a desirable vacation destination. However, it’s also a great place for expats to live.

The popularity of the area makes it a solid place for investing in tourism. Hotels, vacation rentals, and restaurants receive relatively consistent business year-round unlike many other beach towns in the country that tend to clear out in the low season. There are many local hotspots where it’s possible to meet expats like Emilio’s cafe and Agua Azul overlooking the ocean.

Because of the tourism industry nearly everyone in the area speaks English and most restaurants cater to North Americans. This can make for a much easier transition for those with hesitations about moving abroad.

These beach towns offer some of the most accessible expat communities in the country and are a great place to consider if you have dreams of relocating to Costa Rica.

 

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Freedom: the #1 Reason Why People Move to Central America

That First Taste of Free Air

You feel it the moment you step out of the airport, and are busy cruising down the highway to your destination.  It’s not just in the traffic that crosses double yellow lines or ignores stop lights if the road is clear.  It’s in the vehicles themselves; sometimes crowded to the maximum, with luggage tied to the top, sometimes appearing to be tied up just to keep the vehicle together.

Maybe you’ll notice a truck filled with workers or one that has a hammock swinging lazily in back, with the occupant blissfully taking in the sunlight.  The buses lumber by, so packed, passengers cling to the door frames.  If you brave one of these second-class, local buses, you might feel you’re in a barnyard.  Chickens squawk from crates packed under the seat, and there might even be a goat or a lamb that somebody’s transporting to the market.

It’s a reminder of how America was before seat belt laws and strict traffic regulations, before traffic citations became profitable.  If you have someplace to go, nobody cares about the means you use of getting there.

Slowing Down

Outside the city hubs, vehicles are relatively sparse. The most common mode of transportation is by bus. Pedestrians, farmers pushing along a few cows, wash women with piles of clothing on their heads are not an uncommon sight along rural roads.

This daily life, so unencumbered by appointments and punching a clock, begins to seep into you. You find yourself hurrying less and relaxing more, spending time doing those things you’ve always dreamed of doing, but never found the time or the opportunity. You begin to think about your new found freedom, that began with a freedom from worry.

The Economic Race

It seems odd that so many of the citizens who are immigrating from the United States into Central America are doing so out of a longing for freedom, but sadly enough, as a country founded on the liberties of all people, it has become a system of rules and regulations designed to give advantages and privileges to some, while penalizing and suppressing the many.

That hectic pace felt so distinctly in urbanized America is the desperate measure of a people determined to keep their heads above water. The American dream for many married couples, of a fine little home and a two-car garage, can’t possibly be realized unless both are working and they take out a twenty year loan. Those over sixty who had been planning to enjoy the benefits of their golden years, find their retirement or social security checks just aren’t enough, and take on part-time jobs for which they are over-qualified, but too financially distressed to refuse.

Then there are the young singles, working hard and studying for a degree that may not be very helpful for finding work. Jobs that had once taken an associate’s degree, now take a master’s, and debt-strapped students wallow in student loans.

When Life Becomes Stifling

The opportunities once offered in America don’t seem so plentiful anymore. Innovation, imaginative ideas, are either swallowed in a maelstrom of bureaucratic paperwork, or take a long time to mature, making the process uncomfortable for non-entrepreneurial types. For every proposal, no matter how universally beneficial, there is opposition. The red tape ticks away at finances, valuable time, and eventually, motivation.

America can barely breathe. You cannot even build a porch for your house, on your own property, without permits and inspectors. In some communities, there are agreed-upon house colors, and regulations concerning what you may have in your yard. You may discover you don’t even have a right to grow a garden instead of a water wasting lawn. The attempts to create a uniform standard of living within specified zones has swept away the concept that one’s home is one’s castle. The spirit of these rules makes sense, they are for the benefit of environment, home prices, and people’s safety, but in today’s world the rules are wielded like weapons against creativity and individuality.

You’re as Free as Your Neighbor

The migration into Central America is made up of people who have grown weary with asking for permission. The safety net hovering over American social affairs feels more like an entrapment net, encumbering freedom of travel with security checks and invasive techniques, such as airport scans and cell phone tracking.

Homes and small businesses are regulated with so many expensive codes and mandatory health care. The U.S. constituents are strapped with so many liability laws, they become nervous about allowing the neighbor kids to come over and play on a trampoline.

Coping with Drawbacks

The expats have had to make some adjustments. In an area where there is little to no regulation, cities can turn ugly fast, while everybody builds whatever they want and a smorgasbord of buildings go up. If your neighbor wants to begin his day at six in the morning, banging away at his new addition, and you want to sleep until seven, it’s best to just roll over with your pillow.

While the cities offer the modern conveniences, the farther away you are from them, the fewer commodities, such as super consistent electricity, paved roads, libraries, and U.S. foods you’ll find. You may find a lower quality in many of the common household tools, such as for gardening or carpentry.

There is a role reversal once you are an expat. You are suddenly a minority in a foreign country. You’ll feel subjected to the same type of scrutiny as given any minority. You may get pulled over just because you look like a gringo. If you are aspiring to become a global citizen, this actually aids in perspective. Outside the dynamics of the western world, you are a minority.

You Still Feel Freer than You Did in the United States

There is an enormous amount of satisfaction in living and breathing freely, without the rigid controls over an over-regulated government. It’s a learning experience in getting along with others of different cultural backgrounds and lifestyles. It allows you ample opportunities for evaluating your own beliefs. It teaches you resourcefulness with the tools and materials on hand.

For the health-oriented, it becomes advantageous to acquire a taste for the native foods. This isn’t too hard, considering the volume of fresh tropical fruits and delicious sea fare that abound in Central America’s market. Not only do you benefit from the organics, but buying local is cheaper than the shipped-in U.S. market.

The Growing Family of Expats

Families make up a vital force in the expat community. Sometimes, they come down for a year to absorb the cultural setting or as a reprieve from restrictive American life. Sometimes, they arrive with more permanent intentions in mind.

The challenge for these families, if they remain within a residential area removed from the major cities, is finding good schools. But like pioneers, they draw upon their own resourcefulness, enjoying the opportunity to educate their children in the manner they feel is best, maybe even starting their own school.

As We Look Forward

It is, in every sense, a type of pioneering. The expats that settle in Central America don’t hate their country. They hate the limits placed on their abilities to make conscious choices. They no longer wish to be treated like a kid, they trust their own ability to decide what is best.

They know this freedom comes with a price. They are moving into a different culture with different customs. They must depend on their own abilities to cope with change, to problem solve, to develop good relationships with others, but it’s all part of the excitement, the adventure. These are the stimuli for growth and development, the fundamentals of increased awareness, and the reward is an evolving society, ready to explore the new boundaries of individual rights and harmonious communities.

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Why Life Is Healthier in Costa Rica

Viva Tropical - The stunning nature, fertile land, and native superfoods make Costa Rica an easy place to become health conscious. Expats looking to lead a healthier lifestyle have been planting their roots in Costa Rica for years, making healthy living even more accessible for future transplants. Here is why life just seems to be healthier down in Costa Rica.

Indigenous Health Foods

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Some of the healthiest foods in the world grow naturally in Costa Rica.

Young coconut is cheap, plentiful and full of nutrients. The fresh coconut water contains vitamins and minerals, is incredibly hydrating, and has shown significant anti-ageing, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-thrombotic effects.

The tree fruit noni grows wild and is praised for its immune boosting effects and cancer fighting properties. Concentrated fermented noni juice is available in most pharmacies, farmer’s markets, and in some healthy cafes.

Antioxidant rich cacao and coffee farming is a huge source of industry. Fresh, local coffee is sold everywhere as well as dark, pure chocolate made with raw cacao.

Healthier Outdoor Activities

With national parks, volcanoes, rivers, and miles and miles of beach, Costa Rica is an outdoor lover’s playground. Being fit and having fun could never be easier. Surfing is an extremely healthy form of exercise and is a huge part of the culture in Costa Rica. Calmer bodies of water allow for paddleboarding and kayaking. The many national parks, mountains, and volcanoes make for great hikes, or one can simply take long walks and runs on the beach.

Established Yoga Community

The influx of expats has spread yoga all over the country. Most towns have at least one, if not several, studios offering daily classes. In addition to burning calories, building strength, and improving flexibility, yoga facilitates in digestion, detoxification, and stress release, making it a holistic form of exercise.

Organic Cafés, Stores and Farmer’s Markets

Local food in Central America is delicious and a must-try for a cultural experience, but it is certainly not the healthiest cuisine. Unlike many other Central American countries, health food is very accessible in Costa Rica. Most towns have organic vegetarian cafés, shops selling all natural products, and farmer’s markets with organic local produce, cold pressed coconut oil, and raw foods.

 

Check out our radio interview with the author, on This Week in Costa Rica! 

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Best Places in Costa Rica for a Yoga Retreat

Viva Tropical - Costa Rica has enchanted yogis for years with its natural beauty and peaceful serenity. In fact, many came and decided to establish professional yoga centers to bring world-class yoga to the secluded beach towns. It’s no wonder that today Costa Rica is home to some of the best yoga centers in the world offering inspiring, often life-changing retreats.

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With a plethora of yoga centers in the country, how does one choose the best place in Costa Rica for a retreat? We’ve compiled a list of the most professional studios in some of the most peaceful, beautiful places in the country.

Nosara

Nosara is undoubtedly the town that put Costa Rica on the map for yoga and wellness tourism. In fact the Nicoya Peninsula, where Nosara lies, is one of five places in the world considered a Blue Zone. Blue Zones are areas where people tend to live longer, past 100, more than anywhere else in the world. The town of Nosara is quiet and tranquil with a solid expat community, great surf, and stunningly beautiful sunsets. As the most popular place to practice yoga in Costa Rica, it hosts many yoga retreats throughout the year from a variety of centers. The two most reputable are Nosara Yoga Institute and Blue Spirit.

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Nosara Yoga Institute

As one of the first yoga studios in Costa Rica, Nosara Yoga Institute paved the way for the many yoga centers throughout the country. High on a hill in the woods on the outskirts of Playa Guiones it is a very peaceful place to practice. The Nosara Yoga Institute is widely known for its exceptional yoga teacher trainings, which offer an interdisciplinary approach far beyond asana. They strive to deepen students’ inner voice and awareness and emphasize non-judgment and non-authority in their teaching to allow all students to explore their individual yogic path.

Those looking for non-teacher accredited retreats can find them at Nosara Yoga Institute, but they are offered by teachers from other institutions. The instruction and experience is consistently high quality.

Blue Spirit

Started by the same holistic physician who founded the Omega Institue in Rhinebeck, NY, Blue Spirit is one of the most famous places in the country to study yoga. The center overlooks the ocean on a long white sand beach that is a protected turtle refuge and has a lovely koi pond and salt water infinity pool. Yoga teacher trainings are done through the globally respected Yoga Works association which combines East and West philosophy in its curriculum.

They also host many retreats throughout the year covering a wide variety of topics and style including Yin and Vinyasa. The retreats are led by reputable instructors from all over the world. Teacher trainings and retreats include accommodation and three delicious vegetarian meals.

The Osa Peninsula

Those who have had the pleasure of visiting the wild Osa Peninsula understand why National Geographic called it the most biologically intense place on Earth. You immediately feel transported to another world, a world before modern development, when you enter the rainforest jungle of the Osa Peninsula. Scarlet macaws squawk over your head, monkeys swing from trees, and if you’re lucky you might see a jaguar or a tapir. Completely removed from the rest of the world, you can really disconnect from the modern world and connect deeper with yourself.

Blue Osa

With an onsite eco-resort, restaurant, and yoga studio, Blue Osa is a luxurious all-inclusive retreat center in the remote Osa Peninsula. They strive to run a completely sustainable facility with recycled waste and water, organic produce that comes directly from their own garden, environmentally friendly landscaping, and a completely self-sustaining micro grid for all of their power and sewage. In fact their center that comfortably accommodates 30 guests and 20 staff members uses the same amount of energy as a typical four-person home in the U.S.

They host teacher trainings as well as week-long retreats offering anything from shamanic journeys to life coaching in conjunction with incredible yoga offered by teachers and healers from all over the world. The founder’s intention in creating this center was to create a space that removes people from the distractions of life and awakens their innermost selves.

Pavones

At the very southern Pacific tip of Costa Rica lies the small, authentic surf town of Pavones. The black sand beaches with volcanic rock stretch for miles and the surf is some of the best in the world. In an untouched remote part of Costa Rica, the town of Pavones is teeming with wildlife and offers a unique view of true Costa Rican culture. The town may be small but it hosts one of the top teacher training centers in the country, the Pavones Yoga Center.

Pavones Yoga Center

Built on top of the hill overlooking the Pacific ocean and the town of Pavones, the Pavones Yoga Center is a breathtaking place to practice asana. The founder and lead instructor Indira grew up on the South Pacific of Costa Rica as a child. After studying yoga across the globe she worked as a teacher training instructor at the famous Nosara Yoga Institute before opening her own center in Pavones. The center hosts several teacher trainings a year, from one week to one month, but also hosts retreats. Their surf and yoga retreat held annually combines yoga classes with private surf lessons.

Trainings and retreats include accommodation in their beautiful center along with healthy delicious meals. The onsite spa offers a wide variety of body work as well as body wraps, scrubs, and other skin treatments.

The Yoga Farm

The Yoga Farm offers a highly affordable alternative to typical retreats. It is situated up in the hills overlooking completely deserted beaches in Pavones. The farm is covered in fruit trees and grows much of the produce that the kitchen prepares for guests. With packages starting at $260 per week for daily yoga and vegetarian meals, the Yoga Farm is a great option for those on a budget. They also have a work trade and volunteer program for those who intend to stay long term.

The South Caribbean

A different world from the rest of Costa Rica, the South Caribbean is becoming a yoga destination in its own right. With abundant wildlife, live coral reef, golden sand beaches, sparkling turquoise water, and world-renowned surf, it is an incredibly beautiful place to deepen your yoga practice. Two of the country’s most beautiful national parks sit on the Caribbean: The Cahuita National Park and The Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. The beaches here are nearly deserted and consistently listed as some of the most beautiful in the world.

Culturally the Caribbean has a diverse mix of indigenous people as well as Afro Caribbean descendants who bring Calypso and Reggae music and spicy coconut-flavored cuisine. There are also plenty of international transplants from all over the world.

Samasati

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The South Caribbean now hosts many yoga studios, but Samasati was the first to open and is one of the only studios offering retreats and teacher trainings. The center is high in the mountains on a secluded property with stunning views of the ocean. Samasati was built with the intention of creating a sustainable retreat center that contributes to the community. The space was built with minimal environmental impact and employs local residents exclusively. They aim to promote an alternative way of life through their practice of asana, serving local organic vegetarian meals, operating with energy efficiency, and giving back to the community.

Retreats offered cover a wide spectrum from yoga teacher trainings to wildlife adventures. Their yoga retreats are offered year round and include meditation, asana, pranayama, and daily shuttle service to the nearby Caribbean beaches of Puerto Viejo. Packages include accommodation and delicious vegetarian meals. They also offer tour packages to explore the wilderness and culture of the region.

Punta Mona

Deep in the Caribbean jungle in the Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge lies Punta Mona, or Monkey Point. Animals run wild, the beaches are deserted and gorgeous, and it’s not unusual to see dolphins swimming offshore. When the sea is calm it makes for incredible snorkeling. Entirely self-sustaining and isolated, the Punta Mona Center for Sustainable Living and Education is so remote it can only be accessed by foot, small boat, or horseback. The center is most famous for its permaculture design courses but it also offers tours for day-trippers as well as retreats and yoga teacher trainings.

Retreats consist of asana practice as well as guided meditations, underwater adventures, jungle explorations, medicinal plant ceremonies, natural mud baths, and many creative hands-on activities like cooking and arts and crafts. Lodging is included at the onside eco-center as well as three organic vegetarian meals a day sourced primarily from their own land. The Punta Mona Center is unique in that it also offers retreats for children of all ages led by Cirque de Soleil veterans. These retreats incorporate yoga, music, and dance and also teach children about permaculture and sustainability.

 

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Wandering is their destination, bewilderment their guide

After 7 years of living in Pura Vida, I’ve noted that there is one piece of advice that you can thread through anyone’s tapestry woven of expat success stories: simplify. Not in the way pseudo-Zen Buddhist office junkies clean off their desks and auto-hide their taskbars, nor in the sense of sewing shut the pockets of your pants to force you to rethink what you “need” to carry with you.  I speak here of seeking a quality of life higher than that which we left behind by lowering our expectations and revisiting what we feel we require to be happy.

I find myself surrounded by individuals that I forlornly need to categorize.  One such column into which I’ve fitted many would be “Grumpy Gringo”. There is no shoehorn required to slide them into place. Sadly, for these souls there is no end to the infinite rise in cost of living, expanding disdain for their Tico neighbors, and never a realization that they have indeed moved to another part of the world where things are simply different.  In contrast I have slotted those that I choose to spend more time with in the “Que Sera, Sera” column. These expats feel a sense of connectedness to everything and everyone around them.  They float effortlessly through a life wherein events, desires, and projects just seem to go their way – eventually, somehow.  They have an enormous, blissful trust placed in the way things just seem to work out if you step aside sometimes and allow them to unfold.  They communicate easily with the locals and receive kisses and smiles when they pass.  They fret not of the future, nor do they dwell on the past.  They greet each sunrise with the wonder and gratitude of a child, and sing as birds before the dawn knowing that the sun will indeed rise.  They bid the sunset farewell and ask not for another day, for the one they live now is beyond anything they could possibly expect.

I’m coming to appreciate that the separating factor between all these well-intentioned folks may be ‘simplicity.’  The latter of the two expats I encounter seem to need very little to be happy.  They aren’t fidgeting about their iPhones looking for their next distraction.  They certainly aren’t mulling around Multiplaza toting shopping bags full of more trinkets and garments to fill their air-conditioned condos.  And they positively are not ordering a second bottle of Romanée Conti whilst pushing their appetizers around the plate, on a plate, on a charger plate.  They are, however, to be found at the farmer’s market early in the morning chatting with the kind woman peddling papaya learning which is ripe today and which will be ripe in three more.   They are to be seen walking up the mountainside at dawn to see if a faint glimpse of the ocean can be caught when the sun bathes the valley just so.  They are quite often found strolling down the beach at sunset, allowing the surf to gently caress their feet, tilting their head and staring past the breakers dreaming of the wonders that lay on the other side of that vast, sparkling ocean.  They are still children.  Wandering is their destination, bewilderment their guide.

 

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THE ART OF LIVING

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Often times fear of the unknown can be a socially paralyzing and unwelcomed component in the life of an expat.  We’re quick in Costa Rica to pass judgment on the way Ticos seem to cage themselves into their homes with bars, razor wire, electric fences and elaborate alarm systems (that only seem to go off when they’re away for the weekend and you want to get some reading done).  Here I speak of a kinder, gentler fear of branching out and making new social connections.  Last night was one such example for me. 

Lately I’ve promised myself that I would be more open to accept coincidence and perhaps recognize synchronistic events as part of a grander cosmic conspiracy.  Now before you think I’ve lit the incense and am about to preach from the lotus position, I have only recently found that life is best enjoyed when taking a few more chances in order to nudge a blossoming variety of outcomes from the universe.  I received an invitation from the good folks at Internations.org.  This global community of expats, writers, travelers, bloggers, film makers, and you-name-it’s had a modest gathering in nearby Escazú where 40-odd folks who’ve recently joined the network planned to meet and interact. 

Anyone reading this who knows me well would attest this stands in direct opposition of anything I might find remotely interesting.  Furthermore, overcoming my general malaise of social awkwardness and fear of having to be “normal” in group settings were immediate hurdles standing tall before me.  That said, I accepted and promised myself the chance to go.  If it was going to get weird, I was going alone and could simply walk out.  Nothing to lose. 

To understand how unique this evening was you must first appreciate fish tacos.  In Costa Rica there are a couple of great taco bars serving fish tacos and more in a snazzy, open-air setting.  They ask you to order and pay first, which I adore in Costa Rica as I’m not stuck waiting for the bill hours after eating (another blog post on service standards another day).  The salad bar is fantastically stocked and there are infinite condiments with which one can indulge their darkest culinary musings.  I had invited to meet a job candidate who through seemingly sheer intention and will power managed to manifest a scenario whereby I took an unsolicited phone call at the office. 

This in and of itself is simply unheard of.   After a bit of negotiating we agreed to meet, on my terms, at the fish taco bar.  Basically, I’m arrogant enough (at times) to assume that folks want to work for me so badly that they’ll take 2 busses and wait around to watch me eat fried fish and wax on about whatever book I happen to be reading, or my recent interpretation of the Tao Te Ching.  Fortunately for both of us, I was right.  We met and spoke of running shoes (reading Born To Run), Taoism, yoga, impermanence, and projects we were both working on.  She spoke of a ten-day meditation retreat in Costa Rica in July, offered to teach me yoga, and be my travelling photographer through a seven-country whirlwind indie music documentary I’m plotting. Her mesmerizing Indian accent and knowledge of Sanskrit sutras left me dizzy and entranced to a point that my fish was cold and tartar sauce sat neglected, unwanted. 

At the end of a delightfully strange and therapeutic lunch session I explained that I had to go meet a client and then pop over to Escazú for some get together.  She immediately struck the word as timely would Paganini’s bow to a string, “Internations?”  To my amazement she had been a member for years. 

I went to the meet up, and spoke at length with folks I had fully expected to see.  There were people who massage you with electricity flowing through odd machines, retirees looking to force-feed you their business cards, “experts” on living in Costa Rica, bloggers and more bloggers, et al.  What was initially appealing was the variety of nationalities represented.  I do enjoy a gathering where our U.S. friends are far outnumbered.  After a few odd conversations and a feeling that everyone felt out of place (both here and in life) my new friend from lunch and her husband arrived.  Being that they’re both from India, we spoke a bit of cuisine, cricket, and cosmic coincidence.  At that time the guests were invited to participate in a mingling activity in which we had words stuck to our shirts and were to seek out the matching collocation.  I had “global”.  I went about the room staring permissively at the breasts of all the guests until a woman from Germany looked at me and indicated that we were a pair.  Her tag said “minds”.  We spoke at length about meditation, spirituality, languages, Taoism.  She mentioned a retreatin Costa Rica in July and for which she planned to apply. 

With that, I thanked her graciously for the connection, found my new friend and likely yoga guru only to say, “That’s enough from this universe for one day.  I need to go home and process.”  She said, “Don’t try to understand it.  Just let it be.”  Sound advice for anyone living in a foreign country and trying to overcome fear.  

 

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NICARAGUA - PART 2

The beach in San Juan del Sur is fine for strolling, having seaside cocktails, or watching stunning sunsets while feasting on the catch of the day.  However, for those that like an undeveloped shoreline, crashing surf, and endless stretches of abandoned sand, you’ll need to take a trip out of town.  Both North and South of the main harbor are a plethora of beaches with conditions and surroundings to satiate all tastes.  If you’re the type for wading calm pools of warm turquoise sea with white coral sand beach, or tearing a board across ripping curls of waves bashing a dirty, rock-laden cove, and anything in between, the West coast of Nicaragua has it.  

I went for a beach just north of town.  Just about anywhere in San Juan you can set up a combo trip.  Many of the surf shops have options to be picked up at your hotel and dropped off at whichever location you choose and picked up again at a designated time.  Considering that we tend to travel light on these visa renewals, the tour guides and surf shops have thought of everything.  Not only can you get you transport set up, but you can rent a la carte your beach accessories and amenities on the spot as part of the package.  I went for the transportation with beach chair, boogie board, cooler with a midway stop to fill it with ice and beer.  This was all too easy, and about $20.

After a 20 minute ride up the main highway we took a louie and started down a bumpy gravel road back toward the coast.  We were inundated with jungle scenery yet again; howler monkeys could be heard in the thick, spider monkeys hanging from branches looking decidedly unimpressed with our passing.  The way began to open revealing the sound of the ocean beating the land.  There was a small thatched roof bar/restaurant, and a near empty beach.  The driver helped me with my things and confirmed with a nod, “a las quatro, verdad?”  I smiled and acknowledged my 4 o’clock pickup and cracked my first beer (it’s OK at 9am when you’re on vacation, wake up a 5am, and are in bed by 8pm).  

Swimming was a bit treacherous at this locale.  The riptide was evident and the sea angrily sucked its visitors outward, only to roll them back in with each cresting wave.  This was clearly a place where venturing beyond where I could firmly plant my feet was inadvisable.  Considering there are no lifeguards, or other humans for that matter, almost drowning was not on the agenda today.  I spent the day sipping beers, cooling off in the ocean, walking for miles up and down the beach.  I stopped into the little restaurant to enjoy some fresh fish and chat a bit with the bartender.  It was simply perfect, pristine, and a much needed disconnect from the grind of San Jose.

Packing up my belongings and jumping in the truck back to town, I realized that I hadn’t booked nearly enough time in Nicaragua.  Fortunately, I planned to stay in Central America for much longer than initially intended.  This meant that another trip to Nicaragua was not only inevitable, it would be necessary.  With Granada, Ometepe, the Corn Islands, and more beckoning, I felt that my relationship with this strange land was only at the first-date, just kissed stage.  As the great Las Vegas performers always leave the audience wanting more, I couldn’t wait to hear the encore and get back to my hotel to start planning to buy my next ticket to see this magic show again.

I made my way back to another seaside restaurant to watch the sunset over a jalapeno steak dinner and contemplated that this would be my first, but certainly not my last, trip to a strange little slice of heaven so poetically hidden from all who dare not chance a bumpy jungle ride into the unknown.  

 

THIS WAS A DOOR OPENING, NOT ONE CLOSING

My first gig as an English teacher was in May, 2006.  It was a Monday afternoon group in a company called Baxter Americas Services.  I had just been hired the Friday prior and given access to my lesson plans and schedule online.  I saw that this was a group of 4 intermediate students about midway through their current program.  That morning, I was to take the 3 busses to our office in Santa Ana and get an overview of the lesson plan layout, class summary, and tips and tricks for having a successful session.  This “training” was brief, to be kind.  

I was handed a manila folder, a copy of the activities and guide, and offered the chance to travel with my manager and some teachers back to San Jose (all in the span of 5mins).  Though I didn’t live in San Jose (not that anyone asked), I accepted considering the 6 hours to kill before I had class.  As with many preliminary entries to this blog, that 6 hour gap is something else I had to get very used to.  We jumped on the bus and I got off at the stop following Sabana Sur.  Armed with a small brief case full of mystery lessons, way overdressed, and completely lost, I proceeded to look for Baxter Americas Services office buildings.  

I found my way to Parque de la Merced as it was an area I became familiar with.  I then began asking bus drivers if they knew where Baxter was.  After 3 or 4 drivers, one finally knew and offered me the trip.  I took it.  During the ride I noticed we were heading back towards my town.  In fact, this office park (Global Park) that had Baxter in it was only a few kilometers south of my house!  I then took the cab all the way home and relaxed for a few hours. 

Later that day, after a short bus ride and a 2k walk, I arrived in the lobby of Baxter.  I sat listening to my iPod and eagerly awaited my 4:30 start.  When it was time I headed into the room, set up my class, and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After 90 minutes, and several inquiries at reception, I realized that no one was coming.  I packed my brief case in a defeated fashion and made my way to the lobby.  Therein were my boss, manager, and 2 teachers coming from their classes!  They greeted me and asked how it went.   I said that no one came, to which they replied, “Yep, that sounds like them!”  When I asked how they got to the facility, they told me they took the private (free) company shuttle from inlingua to Baxter.  My manager then queried, “Why didn’t you ride with us?”

Well, I was never offered the ride, told about the shuttle, given directions, I wasn’t really even prepared for my class.  This was the beginning of my opportunity not only to eventually take over my manager’s position, but to try and change what I would next learn is a story told by nearly every ESL teacher on the first day of work in Costa Rica.  This was a door opening, not one closing.  This was a chance to make the positive change many of us seek when we venture south.

 

FOR ME, ONE SUCH THING WAS HOT WATER

One of the greatest lessons living and working in Costa Rica can teach you is how much we may have taken for granted in our countries of origin.  For me, one such thing was hot water.  Reentering the world of the workforce brought with it the need to get up extremely early, shower and shave, and often iron my clothes.  I feel an entire post should be dedicated to this, as anyone who’s battled the ups and downs of ESL teaching will give me an ‘amen brother’ here.  

My morning classes started at 7am in Forum, Santa Ana in either our offices or an adjacent building.  This meant my alarm would first sound at 4:30am.  If I wasn’t out of bed and into my superhero costume by 5:15, I was late.  I would awake to the sound of roosters and birds, a pitch-black sky, and a house full of sleeping Canadians.  After making my way to the $16 coffee maker and placing bread in the toaster oven I would then proceed to put on a pot of water.  Not for tea, not for a coffee sock, but to shave.  Understand that in many homes in Costa Rica hot water is a luxury, not a standard.  

So, in order to have a nice shave in the morning I would need to boil water, carry the pot to the bathroom sink, crouch down (Ticos are typically shorter than North Americans and mirrors are hung accordingly), and start to work on my mug.  Appreciate that there was always a good chance I would miss a spot or two under that single, bare light bulb with no natural light to speak of.  From there it was time to flip the switch on what gringos affectionately refer to as the “suicide shower”.  It has earned this name as it is a plastic shower head that plugs into to a power source, thus heating an electric element over which the water (I assume) passes.  From there you have a ‘hot shower’.  I would describe this more as a warm, leaky, somewhat dissatisfying experience. If the electricity doesn’t kill you there is a chance that over time you may simply kill yourself.  However, this was known in my new life as a shower.  

Once I reached a state to be fairly judged as rinsed, I would towel off and start to work on my ironing.  Washing machines here in typical settings involve a multistage process in a single device.  At the end, you often end up with clothes that are wet, twisted, and if you’re not careful, covered in blue streaks of detergent.  After hanging them on the line (often for days in the wet season), or as you see in many homes, strewn about the house or along the fence line for eternity, they do indeed need to be ironed.  I couldn’t afford and ironing board ($45 for some reason here), so I would lay out my towel and begin a ritualistic pattern that would be burned into my brain and muscle memory for years to come. 

Today I enjoy an apartment with a hot water heater, a washing machine and clothes dryer, and a lovely woman who comes in twice a week to do my laundry and more.  I take NONE of that for granted, nor will I ever.  I am sure that my children will hear of my struggles when they whine and moan about having to carry their laundry downstairs, or their siblings are complaining that someone used all the hot water.  This is my ‘I used to walk 6 miles to school in the snow, uphill’ story.

 

PANAMA - PART 2 OF 3

When I had finally crossed the bridge into Panama, the small minivan promised to me on the other side was waiting with a handful of fellow tourists to take us to a dock in Changuinola.  This was a bumpy, crowded, hot trek through what had the loose framings of a town, over small rivers, through vast banana plantations, and finally to a riverside boat company with a dock and a cash box.  It housed two small covered boats designed for the sole purpose of stuffing people in the hull and speeding them to their vacations.  ­­­­­­Upon paying what I believe was $12, we were outfitted with life jackets and went about speeding and weaving through mangroves, small islands, fishermen in carved logs in what I feel was a 30 minute ride.  

This indeed was another world in such a small span of geography.  This staggering variation in so few kilometers will never cease to bewilder me.  Once arriving at the mouth of the river, we were taken into open ocean where waves broke on sandbars and tossed the boat a bit more vigorously.  Off in the distance one could faintly make out the structures and archipelago of Bocas del Toro.  Approaching the main island we were able to take in a greater panorama of how small this island community is.  Furthermore, it was evident that its entire economy was based on the damp wallets and passports in our pockets.  Small planes flew overhead taking what I assumed were rich people in and out of paradise.  

I would later know this place from the air.  When we disembarked I set about the main street.  It was hot, humid, crowded, amazing.  I was hunting out some cheap accommodation as I really didn’t have a lot of money this first time around.  When I finally found a decent place and got a little food in me, it was time to think about which beach I would head to on day two.  All advice I’d been given said that if it’s your first time, take a tour.  I signed up for an all-day combo with snorkeling, lunch, two beaches, and dolphins - all this for $20.  I jumped into a small craft at about 8:30am and was treated to dolphins leaping in our wake, pristine beaches, unbelievable snorkeling, waterfront dining, and sunburn to rival any.  

As much as I loved this island, and looked forward to having to return upon my next visa expiration, my lowly teacher’s budget, and need to return to work on Monday, meant that this Saturday would have to be last beach trip I could take for the next 3 months.   I relished every moment knowing that I would awake with but $25 in my pocket the next morning with which to get off the island, out of the country, and back to San Jose.  A challenge to be sure.

PANAMA - PART 3 OF 3

I awoke with hunger in my belly, sunburn on my back, and stress throughout my whole body.  There was only one bank machine on the main island of Bocas del Toro at the time and I got up early to see if I could beg it for any cash.  At times in Central America, trips to the bank machine are better likened to pulls at a slot machine.  You put in your card, press some buttons, and pray that the machine with regale you with sweet sounds of bleeps, bloops, and rollers counting cash.  

I sadly did not win on this pull.  It was suddenly very real.  I didn’t have enough money to get home.  I could afford to take the water taxi back to the mainland, the microbus to the border, get across, and half the bus fare to San Jose (they only sell whole tickets, by the way).  This is not taking into account that I would arrive in San Jose and have no way to get home.  With that, I did all one could do – I bought a piece of chocolate cake and booked my water taxi back.    The trip was the same, but in reverse.

Sixaola - border of Costa Rica/Panama

  We were a gaggle of gringos, sunburnt and hung over, bobbing sleepily across the ocean and through the waterways, with compasses pointed in all directions.  Many of us were heading back to our respective jobs, some continuing their vacations, some ripe off checking their vacation properties and purchases in the islands and heading back to their 20-year-old Tica girlfriends.  I fell into the first category, but worry I’m steering toward the latter (another blog post).  Upon arrival at the border a woman in a box with a small window noted that I’d overstayed my tourist visa by 11 days.  She made such note of it as to write that in my passport for all future immigration officials to see and proceeded to run her index finger across her throat as if to signal “next time, you’re dead”.  Then she asked me for my ticket out of Costa Rica.  Dammit.  

That little nuisance we call proof of continuation.  You need in Costa Rica upon entry proof that you’re leaving within 90 days, be it a plane itinerary or bus ticket. Fortunately, the border is set up for such events and you can purchase a cancelled, one-way, ticket back to Panama from the pharmacy for $6.  With reentry stamp firmly placed in my passport, I was ready to live another 3 months in Pura Vida.   There are two busses back to San Jose – one at 9am and another at 3pm.  To catch the 9am is a near impossibility.  This means that I am stuck sitting in a shanty border town for 3 or 4 hours in 100 degree heat waiting for bus I can’t afford, hungry.  With some careful pleading and puppy eyes firmly set, I managed to get on the bus and made my way back to the terminal.  

Upon arrival in San Jose I dashed to the bank machine to insert every Canadian and Costa Rica debit card I had to desperately try and muster some cash to get home to San Lorenzo de Heredia.  I had no way to get on the 2 busses home, and definitely couldn’t afford a taxi.  By the grace of God, my TD Canada Trust card yielded 2000 colones ($4).  Being the last person in the terminal, a kind taxi driver approached and asked where I was going.  When I told him and showed my little pittance of cash he grabbed my rolling bag and said “vamos” (let’s go).  He took me to San Joaquin, which is only 2kms from home!  I was within walking distance.  By now it was about 9:30pm.  I walked home, dragging my bag behind me, hungry, tired, and dirt poor.  I stepped through my front door, reached into my pocket, and pulled out my last 5 colones (1 cent).  I slammed it on the kitchen table and wondered how in the world I was going to get to work for 7am the next morning.  

Seems my roommates were to contribute to the universal fund of “save Corey” that night.  The generosity of so many on the last leg of my trip is a series of acts I’ll never forget.  I always can spot a struggling tourist at a border, on a bus, wandering San Jose, and extend my hand whenever the opportunity arises; for I know what $4 from the slot machine feels like.  

 

I WAS LEARNING

It was starting to look more and more as if the six months to a year I’d initially intended to stay in Costa Rica was a gross underestimation.  After completing my first visa renewal, work and life started to show clearer patterns.  I am very much a creature of habit.  Living in Canada such a scattershot lifestyle of irregular sleep patterns, shifting jobs, unclear goals, wasn’t conducive to finding the inner peace and sanctuary I now know as habit.  

This is not to the degree of obsessive, rather sinking into routines means that you can almost unconsciously take your bus routes to work and enjoy the scenery and splendor of Costa Rican mornings instead of watching intently for where to pull the magic string to signal a stop.  You can prepare your lessons and enjoy becoming a student as much as you are a teacher.  You can buy those six beers knowing that a given amount of money will fall into your bank account.  You can leave your house within a window of time and trust that you’ll arrive at class before 7am.  It’s this letting go of daily anxiety brought about by constantly struggling or unknowing and developing trust in a proven set of patterns you undertake.

Sometimes the cure for restlessness is rest. 

This is where I think many expats start to show cracks in the seams.  I’ve often said that expats have a built-in 4 month expiry date.  If they don’t sour within the first 4 months and pull the chute, they will harden and develop and longer shelf life.  I was amidst those very moments and thoughts that accompany them at this stage in my detachment from my ‘first world’ expectations.  There comes a point in every expat’s journey that makes or breaks this enormous choice.  (40% leave within the first year)  For me, the X factor that sustained my interest in staying wasn’t the obvious – weather, beaches, cost of living, strong communities, cute girls.  

What I loved about this place (besides the aforementioned perks) was the lack of safety net under me and the clean slate ahead of me.  I had to borrow money from my folks from time to time, but for the most part, it was all on me.  Succeeding in this career path was determined by sheer will, talent, and a little bit of luck.  I’ve always defined luck as intention and preparedness meeting at the same time.  

There was a great sense of satisfaction in my work.  I felt appreciated in my job.  I saw that I was having a lasting, positive impact on those I worked with.  I began to envision growth, both personal and professional.  I was learning.  I started to like, and furthermore respect, me.  When an expat has this kind of experience at the 4 month mark, you can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be here a lot longer than one year.  I’m coming up on the 6th.  

 

NICARAGUA - PART 1

September 2006 rolled up on me rather quickly.  My 90-day visa was about to expire again and many of my colleagues had told me good things about their experiences traveling to Nicaragua.  Even before I’d arrived in Central America, Nicaragua was a scary place.  Perhaps it was hearing of it on the news during the Iran-contra scandal of the 80’s, remembering something about civil war and something something Sandinistas, or just that Canadians are by nature cautious, but I was indeed certain this was no-man’s land and not for the faint of heart.  Nothing (as I learned about many myths surrounding Latin America) could be farther from the truth.  Some fellow teachers told me of this magical harbor town just north of the border on the Pacific coast called San Juan del Sur.  Rumored to be a tourist friendly haven of expats and globetrotters with pristine beaches, superb seafood, and reasonably priced everything, this sounded like the perfect fit for a budget-conscious (poor) English teacher on a quest for that next stamp in my passport.  I learned of Ticabus, a company that provides quality bus service from Mexico to Panama, and caters to a slightly more affluent clientele.  A cheaper option to flying, this was an executive option for hitting up Managua or a comfortable trip for those making a long trek over land.  I bought my ticket in advance and prepared for the 6-hour trip. 

I was excited and nervous.  This would be my fourth country that year (yes, I counted stopping in Miami) and my first trip to the Pacific coast of the isthmus.  The bus ride was smooth, pleasant, and comfortable.  Upon arrival at the border the stark contrast to Panama was immediate and striking.  A nice young bus attendant circulated and took our passports for us to be stamped by immigration.  The bus then crossed into Nicaragua and we disembarked to wait 20 minutes or so.  He returned with our passports stamped and ready to go.  We jumped back on and were on about our way!  The first natural stop is a town called Rivas.  It sits on the edge of Lake Nicaragua.  You can clearly see as you approac this town two enormous volcanoes set in the center of this massive fresh-water lake.  I jumped off, grabbed my bag and split a cab over to San Juan del Sur a few kilometers away.  This was going really well.

Driving down into the town of San Juan del Sur you were treated by winding roads, endless, lush green jungle backdrops, humid warm air, and the clear sensation that you are indeed entering a magical place.  I, like a Canadian, made a reservation at a hotel.  I would learn to regret doing this for the most part as the best approach in countries as these is to grab your bag and follow your gut.  That said, I checked in and promptly set about the town to get my bearings and plan my first beach trip.  It was like a mini version of Rio de Janeiro, with a statue of Jesus on the mountaintop overlooking the town and harbor.  Restaurants lined the beach, hotels and surf shops throughout the town, and a laidback attitude from its visitors that emanated peace and serenity.  I hit a little tour shack to ask about beaches and things to do.  I was given a map that showed all the beaches north and south of town and made my way to sit down for dinner and plotting.  

This is where Nicaragua’s reputation for value came to light.  I ordered pretty much everything and anything you could imagine.  If it was a drink, I drank it.  At the end of this feast I was presented with a bill that I calculated at least 3 times in my head in disbelief that the conversions I was doing were right.  They were indeed.  I was in paradise and it was well within my budget.  Drink, eat, be merry young man.  For tomorrow you are going to fight the mighty ocean.

This Week in Costa Rica is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, expressed or implied.  This Week in Costa Rica is produced by Podfly Productions, LLC and broadcast with permission by the Overseas Radio Network.