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Retiring in Costa Rica

By Barbara Whelehan ·
Friday, July 1, 2011
Posted: 10 am ET

In a recent blog post about retiring abroad, I stated that I didn't want to live in Costa Rica because an American student disappeared in a national park near Liberia in August 2009, according to Carole Moore's compelling book, "The Last Place You'd Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search for Them."

The truth is, people disappear all the time here in the states. I just used that as an excuse because, despite its beautiful countryside, warm and friendly people, and diverse flora and fauna, I don't want to live in Costa Rica during retirement. But plenty of Americans do.

Recently my husband Kevin and I spent 10 days in the jungle near Nosara, where the Pacific Ocean provides a steady supply of consistently good waves. We stayed at the Harbor Reef, a comfortable, rustic lodge designed to provide basic amenities for the surfers who travel there.

Some choose to retire in the area, despite the lack of infrastructure -- the roads near Nosara are unpaved, the electricity tends to flicker and the area has "sensitive septic systems." But the beach break at Playa Guiones and the point break at nearby Playa Pelada beckon surfers from around the world.

Kevin surfing in Costa Rica, photo by local photographer James Rees of

3 who took the plunge

Kevin met three expatriates in the water during the occasional lull between sets. Richard, age 55, said he and his wife moved to the area eight years ago and own two properties, one in Guiones and another at Playa Pelada. They stay at one and rent the other, but Rich, who once worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency, says it's expensive to live there and he's just happy to have enough food on the table for him and his wife and their dog. Even though he seemed to be complaining about the cost of living, he told my husband, "I surf all the way to the bank."

One morning when I was standing on shore with camera in hand waiting to catch Kevin on a wave, I saw someone paddle over to him and strike up a conversation. That turned out to be Paul, 62, who hails from Stuart, Fla., where he used to work in a marina. He rents a place in Guiones, having moved a year a half ago. In order to establish residency, he arranged for a monthly annuity of $1,000 to be directly deposited to a bank near Nosara, he told Kevin. He plans to begin collecting Social Security this year, and seems to have modest needs. He said that he's happy to have a radio and a flat-screen TV.

Another surfer, Pete from Pensacola, Fla., kept dropping in on my husband. "Dropping in" is a term surfers use when someone takes advantage of a wave that another person is entitled to. Yes, surfers are territorial about waves in the open seas. But Pete apologized and urged Kevin to consider living in Costa Rica. He himself admitted it was an impulsive decision. Pensacola Pete used to be in the hurricane shutter business and is now building a home in Guiones. He and his wife also own a beachfront house in Pensacola, which he rents out most of the year.

These surfers are living their retirement dreams, doing what they love to do most. For them, the most important retirement tool is their surfboard. I got a little worried that my husband would want to follow suit. Fortunately, after 10 days of playing in the surf, Kevin decided he would get bored after a while.

Whew! I'm glad we were able to avoid that retirement planning conflict or I might have had to pull a disappearing act of my own!


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July 24, 2011 at 1:31 am

does anybody know anything about retiring in germany.any feedback.thank-you.

July 10, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Hey every one: Retire in India. Retire rich....!! Granted, luxuries like running water or 24-hr electricity may not be there all the time. Who cares? You live the life of a king by just using a fraction of your retirement ss money. Trust me, it is worth it. Take things in stride and you will be happy.

An English speaking population, workers ready - willing - able to work for you for literally peanuts and warm weather all year round with a gardener, a cook, a maid, a driver (that's right - a driver) and you will have plenty left over from your social security paycheck. Figure this.

July 05, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Retiring overseas is definitely appealing although many articles never really get into some of the deeper issues. It's truly a case where you hear about the success stories but not the ones where things did not work out (like many personal finance tend to hear only about the winners!). For example, while living overseas may be great early in retirement, there are real issues when it comes to health care needs later, at least for those who do not plan to just 'bop til you drop'. When I traveled in Costa Rica I met a few Americans who were just getting by, and fine, but would have a terrible time trying to move back to, and pay for, the cost of living in the U.S.

Barbara Whelehan
July 02, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Fritz -- Thanks for sharing your experience. We met quite a few expats who were happy with their decision to live in Nosara.

Marq -- Good to hear from you. (For the uninitiated, Marq is manager of Coconut Harry's in Guiones, where we rented our surfboards. He made the move to Costa Rica about ten years ago.)

And you're right -- we will definitely be back!

July 02, 2011 at 4:59 pm

I made the move to Nosara and Playa Guiones almost 4 years ago and don't have any second thoughts, even though I rarely surf any more and I've taken hits from the financial crisis. You have to approach life as an adventure and be flexible and prepared for change.

July 02, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Hey, I know that Surfer(and surfboard)!!! It may not be perfect for everybody, but I bet we will see you back down here again!! Marq, Coconut Harry's Surf School and Board Rental

July 02, 2011 at 9:19 am

Thanks for the book mention, Barb. My husband and I are nearing retirement age and we considered becoming expats for awhile, but changed our mind when we started looking at the rising crime rates of some areas of the world. And I don't think there's any way to predict where things could get dicey, either. I am sure a lot of those who have bought in countries that were super-safe and economical 10 or 15 years ago are now facing different challenges. For us, the answer is to stay right where we are and ride out retirement in a place we already know -- we'll just travel as frequently as our budget will allow. Great post. I enjoy hearing about how others are making it in retirement years.

Barbara Whelehan
July 01, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Glenn - I'm just sharing.

July 01, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Barb: What is the object of this article?