Have you ever fallen in love with a place?
My first trip to Costa Rica was in the early 1990s. The morning I found a small boa constrictor curled up on a chair outside my guest room door, I knew I would be back. The snake was sleeping off a meal, judging from the bulge in its coils. Its black, tan and green skin looked sleek and soft. The boa was one of the many wonders I discovered in the rainforest the next few days. I saw a glass frog, whose tiny heart pulsed beneath translucent skin; a nest of baby hummingbirds that could fit in the cup of a hand; a metallic blue Morpho butterfly floating through the canopy. Oropendola nests hung like woven teardrops from a tall palm. On a night hike, I watched a delicate cast-net spider throw a silk lariat at its prey in the beam of my flashlight. I was enthralled.
Dawn and dusk were accompanied by hooting laughter and tremulous, lonely calls; the racket of parrots; shrieks of birds of prey and the echoing groan and roar of howler monkeys. Even the smells were intoxicating: funk of green river water and rich red mud, the lush perfume of the ylang ylang tree, the sweet fecundity of fallen fruit. So many unidentifiable delights coaxed me to explore. And this was just the rainforest! I had yet to experience cloud forest, volcanic mountains, the bone dry hills of Guanacaste, the waterfalls, rivers and myriad beaches on two coasts of this beautiful country the size of West Virginia.
I fell hard for Costa Rica at a jungle lodge in Selva Verde. After that first trip, Tom (now my husband) and I returned to Costa Rica many times and explored much of the country’s different regions. In 2010 we ended up in a small hotel on the southern Pacific coast near a beach called Playa Tortuga. The beach was wild and nearly deserted and the wildlife plentiful. White-faced monkeys swung through the branches above our casita, a vivid green iguana skittered across our roof, tiny bats sheltered from the sun under a ledge at the pool. Every morning regal scarlet macaws flew in pairs from the hills to the beach, where they feasted on almonds and squawked at each other.
Near Playa Tortuga, Ojochal is a small town with dusty roads and a surprising number of really good restaurants, most run by the expats who have settled there. We explored nameless dirt roads, driving up into the verdant cerros, which rise to 2,000 feet just a few kilometers from the ocean. Near the tiny village of Tres Rios, we met a charming Canadian physician on an ATV who helped manage the “development.” He showed us some house lots for sale and told us about the area, where he and his family had lived for years, splitting time between their home in Saskatchewan and Costa Rica. We weren’t seriously looking for land, but we loved the lush crenelated hills bordered by rainforest and split by rivers. The secluded lots featured expansive views of the ocean to the west and the rising green mountains to the east. At each viewpoint, Tom and I looked at each other and knew we were in trouble.
The people of Costa Rica, who call themselves Ticos, have a popular informal saying. “Pura vida” translates to pure life. This phrase is used as everything from a tourism slogan, to a greeting among friends, to something that roughly means “awesome, dude!” To many, pura vida is the Costa Rican way of life. Located in the heart of Central America amid countries steeped in political and cultural unrest and poverty, Costa Rica is a stable democracy with no standing army. It has a large middle class, a high literacy rate and often makes the top ten list of happiest countries in the world. It’s also one of the greenest, both ecologically and economically, having long ago invested in its abundant biodiversity, natural resources and sustainable energy sources. This second-world country has its share of troubles, but for a tiny place, it draws a huge tourist population, some of whom decide to stay for more than a vacation.
Many foreign expatriates make their home in Costa Rica. They hail from all over the world, but especially from Canada, the USA, Germany, Holland and other countries where winter sends people to warm places. Like tourists, expats tend to congregate in certain areas, and living in “Gringolandia” did not appeal to us. But on the Costa Ballena, we discovered a region that is less touristy and where community is diverse, authentic, meaningful and highly valued.
Lynn and Terry LaRue knew that they wanted to retire outside of the US and explored several Central American countries. They bought their Costa Rica home in 2011 anticipating Terry's retirement and visited often during vacation from their home in Florida. They moved to Costa Rica full time in 2015. “We had originally intended on returning to Florida for several months in the spring and fall,” says Lynn. However, after being there a few months they decided to sell their Florida home. They are now permanent residents and only return to the US to visit children and grandchildren. “I don't think anything could be better than waking up to the howler monkeys, screeching parrots and the calls of the toucans,” says Lynn. “We also got really lucky with the wonderful community here and love how everyone helps one another.”
In the Costa Ballena region, people seem to appreciate both natural and human resources. The locals are friendly and fairly patient with newcomers. And the expat community is especially welcoming and supportive, helping each other out in myriad ways—from sharing locations of their favorite mercado to helping fix an appliance or a vehicle. They are invested in their properties but also in the community, where they employ locals, help support education, rescue or foster dogs and cats, volunteer for organizations, and build friendships with Tico families.
After doing a lot of research and then renting two different houses for several months, Steve and Tammy Brooke became full time residents in Costa Rica last year. “We spent time doing the things a resident would do,” says Steve of their rental experience. “We also brought Tammy’s parents down to let them see what we were planning. This solidified our decision and one year later, we flew down with ten bags and a dog.”
“We love livin' pura vida,” Tammy adds. “It has its challenges, as anywhere you live, but we love the people, the jungle and the wildlife.” The Brookes chose Costa Rica for its diversity of climate, stable government, good healthcare, low crime level, and relative lack of tourists where they settled. They live there full-time and have applied for permanent residency. “We divested all our property in the USA,” says Steve. “We wanted to leave the intense consumerism of the USA and live a simpler life. This area offers that, but more, it offers a community of like-minded people with the same interests. You can’t get that in the USA. Here everyone depends on each other. You spend your time living instead of complaining how little time you have. It feels like a home.”
What makes a place home versus simply a beloved location? To me, home means familiarity and comfort, feeling welcome, a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership and investment. In addition to the beauty of the natural world, I need all these things to call a place home. Three years ago, Tom and I finally purchased property in this area. We plan eventually to build a small house—a place to escape winter. In the meantime, we have spent the last few winters housesitting for a month or so and have been warmly welcomed into the expat community. These outgoing folks enjoy weekly group dinners, book clubs, golf, beach outings and adventures such as hiking, waterfall rappelling, backroads excursions into the countryside, and more.
Canadian residents Dorothy and Len MacDonald spend their winters in Costa Rica. On their first trip there in 2000, they stayed in a beachside hotel and were immediately captivated. “Our first morning we woke up to howler monkeys in a tree between our room and the ocean,” Dorothy recalls. “I think we both fell in love with the country at that moment. The clincher was meeting a lovely woman on the beach who set up a trip for us to go and see the leatherback turtles nest. It happened to be a full moon and it was such a magical experience that I will never forget it. We were so smitten that we planned a trip and took our whole family — 16 people—for Christmas the next winter. It was an incredible vacation and when the family returned to Canada, Len and I stayed on and started looking at real estate.”
Like Tom and I, the MacDonalds spent several years exploring the country during vacations. In 2007 they brought 20 family members down to celebrate Christmas and their 25th wedding anniversary. “By the end of this trip our whole family was enamored with this beautiful, peaceful country and its welcoming Ticos,” says Dorothy. In 2012 they rented a house in the Costa Ballena area and looked at surrounding real estate, eventually buying a lot they both liked.
Of course, living in Costa Rica is not perfect. Len and Dorothy hate the inconvenience of finding what you need to repair and fix things, the intense heat at sea level, and the “damned loud cicadas!” But these snowbirds love their property and enjoy their winters immensely. “As we age, we know the inevitable will happen and it will become necessary to sell our home in paradise,” says Dorothy wistfully. “For now, we appreciate that we have been fortunate enough to explore this incredible country, become friends with some amazing Ticos and expats, and watch the sun slip into the Pacific Ocean every night.”
As Lynn LaRue notes, “Costa Rica is certainly not paradise but each day holds magic for us.” One of the local realtors advertises with numerous roadside signs that read, “We Sell Paradise.” To me, paradise is just a dream. Pura vida is living the dream. After much exploration, we have come to know Costa Rica as a place where nature and people can converge in peace, beauty and often happiness. It’s a place I know that I could call home and perhaps in the next few years I will.