So what’s the cost of living in Costa Rica?

As we get ready to leave the land of pura vida, it’s time to talk dinero. If we choose to retire to Costa Rica, what would our cost of living be? It’s a key issue for us and always an inexact science.

Costa Rica’s currency is the colon. The current exchange rate is 566.795 colones to one U.S. dollar. So when you see something priced at 3,000 colones, that’s just a shade over five bucks. The guy at the airport car rental place called it “Monopoly money.”

Simply put, Costa Rica is not cheap. Eating out in restaurants, for example, costs us only slightly less than what we might pay in the U.S., and in some cases about the same. Last night we had steak and barbecued ribs at one of this town’s nicest spots, and it was slightly over $80 including wine and dessert. But last week we visited an excellent Thai/Balinese restaurant a short walk from our condo. Leslie had pad thai and I had Balinese beef stew. With lovely chicken spring rolls and two glasses of wine, we paid 27,400 colones — $48.34.

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Pineapples at the farmers market. Very sweet!

But we have most meals at home, buying groceries and cooking. As in Mexico, the food bargains are at Jacó’s Friday morning farmers market, where roughly $30 USD buys us a bag full of amazing fruits and vegetables. We bought a pineapple that was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. Great tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans and avocados. Most of the produce is local, but some comes from other Latin American countries, such as the apples from Chile.

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Stalls at the Friday farmers market. Not a big market, but some very nice produce.

We’ve shopped mainly at two grocery stores, and remember this is only for Jacó. We haven’t bought food anywhere else and prices might be different in other areas. Maxi Pali is a Costa Rican chain owned, I’m told, by Wal-Mart. It’s just down the street from our condo, and prices are lower than some of the other local stores. Here’s a sample:

  • fresh orange juice, 64 oz., $6.26.
  • 15 large eggs, $2.81.
  • local chorizo, three links, $1.50.
  • mayo, 14.1 oz., $1.98.
  • oatmeal, 42 oz., $2.21.
  • white onions, 20.8 oz., $1.41.

The more Americanized option is called Auto Mercado. It’s about a five-minute drive down the main highway in the Plaza Herradura shopping center. Prices are a little higher, but we can find things like gluten-free bread and pasta, and their wine selection seems to be the best. We got one of our U.S. favorites, Apothic Red, but it was $17.81 a bottle and we usually pay $7. Of course here, it’s imported! Here’s some of what we bought:

  • six limes, $2.50.
  • Costa Rican coffee, 12 oz., $7.59.
  • Ritz crackers, 9.14 oz., $2.71.
  • seedless red grapes, 28.7 oz., $8.75.
  • gluten-free pasta, 8.8 oz., $1.42
  • head of Boston lettuce, $.97.

We’ve gotten some meats at these stores, but we’ve also gotten great cuts at a lower price from El Rodeo, a carneceria just off the main street through town that was recommended by our new friend Lisa. She also guided us to a relatively new pescedaria where we got a little over 2.2 pounds of fresh mahi-mahi for just under $9. I think we made three meals off that fish.

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Not a great picture, but this is Jaco Bay Premium Towers where we’ve lived the past month. You could score a 2/2 here for under $300,000, but it’s pretty crowded on weekends. Yes, that’s a paraglider between the towers.

Moving on to real estate (all prices in USD), and I’ve tried to find properties in all three areas featured in this blog. I did not look in San Jose, although the San Jose neighborhood of Escazu (ess-kah-ZU) and the suburb of Alajuela (allah-WAY-la) are prime for North Americans to buy or rent. And please remember, we haven’t actually looked at any of these properties — I’ve just done a lot of research, either on the internet or by checking listings posted in real estate company windows.

Jacó is a beach town that’s known for surfing and partying.  A 2/2 at one end of the beach with amazing ocean views is listed for $389,000. Pretty good for ocean view. Don’t need a view of the Pacific? Here’s a nice 2/2 condo with a short walk to the beach for only $227,000. On the high end, a stand-alone villa for $1.2 million. Rentals are available, but it appears the focus is on short-term vacation rentals. I did find a 2/2 in central Jaco for $1,000 a month, but it’s not close to the beach. Right on the beach, in nearby Playa Hermosa, there’s a 2/1 for $2,000 a month.

Atenas isn’t near a beach, but the mountain views from this Central Valley village can be stunning. Here’s a 2/2 with two 1/1 casitas on the property for $699,999. And there’s a more moderately-priced option, a 3/2 in Grecia for $178,500. As for long-term rentals, I found a couple of nice 2/1 properties just outside Atenas running from $1,200 to $1,400 a month.

Prices are lower in the area around Lake Arenal. You can even get amazing views for a bargain price. Like this new 3/2 in a gated community with lake views for only $169,000. If you’re on a tight budget and you don’t need to see the lake, there’s this 2/1 renovated house in the village for just $89,000, and you can walk to many stores and restaurants. I had to work hard to find a high-dollar property but here it is, just reduced to $995,000. It’s a 3/3.5 with a garden shower and an infinity pool with waterfalls! Area rental prices are low, too, running around $500 a month. I found a 3/3 with volcano and lake views for $800 a month on a six-month lease. From a price standpoint, Arenal wins.

So does that mean we’re moving to Costa Rica? The answer is in the next post!

Pura Vida!

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Good stuff at the Jaco farmers market. And this photo was taken late in the morning, so everything had been picked over. Still some nice produce.

 

New year, new plan

Happy New Year, everybody! May this be a great one for all of you. Leslie and I have been sharing a bad cold since right before Christmas, so we’ve been staying pretty close to home and doing very little of interest. Nothing to post about. We both feel much better now but we still have lingering coughs that sound worse than they are.

A new year brings new plans. We will be here in San Diego until the end of January (longest we’ve been anywhere since this project began). Unless our circumstances change significantly, San Diego is not on our list of possible retirement locations.

The cost of living is stunningly high here. For example, there is a one-bedroom, one-bath condo for sale on the first floor of the building we live in right now. It’s 717 square feet and is listed at $398,000. A two-bedroom, which is what we would need, is closer to $500,000+ in the downtown area. In nearby towns like La Mesa, one of our favorites, you can find two-bedroom places under $500K, but they’re generally quite small. And rents are high throughout the area. I’m not going into detail about real estate because everything depends on location. Prices are affordable if you don’t mind owning a double-wide in El Cajon. Want to see water from your house? Now you’re looking at seven figures.

Groceries cost a lot more here in Southern California. Ralphs is the biggest and best grocery store in the downtown area, and it’s an easy 10-block walk from our condo. (An aside here for my editor colleague John: It’s Ralphs, not Ralph’s. No apostrophe — checked their website to be sure.) The best thing about Ralphs is getting 30 percent off all wine (mix and match) if you buy a minimum of six bottles! That’s a great deal. These prices, though, not so much:

  • gluten-free penne pasta, $2.79.
  • Classico pasta sauce, $2.99.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.92.
  • grape tomatoes, $3.99.
  • Silk almond milk, 1/2 gal., $3.49.

Across the street from us is Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, a discount food store. Prices are lower and the walk is less than a block, but they don’t carry the range of stuff Ralphs or Whole Foods does:

  • 5 limes, $1.00.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.02.
  • Quaker oats, 42 oz., $3.29.
  • Ritz crackers, $1.99.
  • pineapple, $1.99.

When we have a rental car, we go up to the hip Hillcrest neighborhood to Whole Foods. There are some things we can only get at Whole Paycheck, like our favorite Intelligensia House Blend coffee, which sets us back $13.99 for 12 ounces. It’s worth it. Some other stuff:

  • guacamole, .85 lb., $7.64.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.99.
  • coconut milk coffee creamer, $4.49
  • low-sodium bacon, $5.49.
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People-watching is great at the year-round Little Italy farmers market.

Then there are the Little Italy (Saturday morning) and North Park (Thursday afternoon) farmer’s markets. I have no idea what we spend there, but it’s dramatically more than at the tianguis in Ajijic, or the mercado in Mérida. For example, you may recall me bragging about getting 13 limes at the Santiago mercado in Mérida for about 75 cents. At the Little Italy market, one vendor was selling limes at three for a dollar. Sometimes, though, you get what you pay for, like free-range eggs from Three Sons Farm in Ramona, Calif. — expensive at $7 a dozen, but by far the best eggs I’ve ever had.

I looked back at cost-of-living posts from Mexico, and you should feel free to do the same if you like. The Orowheat whole wheat bread I enjoy, for example, is $3.49 at Ralphs. We paid $2.30 for the same loaf at Wal-Mart in Ajijic, Mexico. At Ralphs, a dozen large eggs is just a penny shy of four bucks. In Ajijic, less than two dollars.

Mexico still seems to be in the lead in our home search, and cost of living is a big factor. But we’re giving Europe — France and maybe Italy — another chance in the spring. More on that when plans firm up.

Finally, some sad news. We had to say goodbye to our cat Sam last week. He was only 10 and suffered from episodes of poor health about once a year since he was a kitten. Dr. Berg, the best vet in the world, would give him a B12 shot and some other treatment and he would bounce back as if nothing had happened. She did that several times while we still lived in Westmont.

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Sam

This time, after more than a year of excellent health, he didn’t respond to treatment as he had in the past. He stopped eating and his kidneys and liver were shutting down, so we consulted with Dr. Berg and with our dear friend Barbara, who was caring for Sam in our absence, and made the tough call to end his suffering. We deeply appreciate Barbara, who did all she could for him. She and Sam had bonded, and we know she feels the loss as we do. We bring these little creatures into our homes and into our lives knowing their life spans are shorter than ours, but it’s still hard to handle.

2018 started on a sad note as Leslie learned that her second cousin, Helen Thoman, died in New Jersey at the age of 99. She was a grand lady, and a lot of family history may have been lost with her death, especially information about Leslie’s Hungarian relatives.

And we were shocked just after Christmas to learn of the unexpected death of our former neighbor Dan Smith. Dan and Zdenka were the best neighbors we ever had. I remember Dan shoveling his own driveway, then shoveling ours, then shoveling Monica’s driveway across the street, after her husband Ed died. Dan was one of those really big men who was never without a smile. Except, maybe, when the Chicago Blackhawks lost a hockey game! He was truly a gentleman, and a gentle man. Z, you and Christopher are in our prayers.

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We miss you, Dan. So glad we had this dinner together last summer.

 

Fires, househunting and Christmas

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Stephanie’s Christmas tree, overlooking the corner of 9th and Island. 

Once again I’ve taken a long time to put up a new post. But I’ve got a lot of very good excuses for my procrastination! We continue to look at possible retirement locations, but we’ve been doing some Christmas shopping too.

First I should tell you that Leslie and I are not in any danger from the wildfires ravaging Southern California. Most of the fires have been north of Los Angeles in Ventura County. The biggest and baddest of them, the Thomas Fire (they name fires like hurricanes here in California), is one of the worst in the state’s history.

The Lilac Fire (now fully contained) was the only one in San Diego County. It hit the North County area pretty hard. You may have seen national news reports about a number of thoroughbred horses being killed when this fire swept over a stable complex. Heroic efforts by horse owners saved many horses. Two people trying to save them were seriously injured, but it looks like they will both recover. Fortunately, the Lilac Fire never came near downtown San Diego. We didn’t see or smell smoke at any time, and we didn’t venture north while the fire was at its worst. We saw the effect of the Santa Ana winds, though. Nasty stuff. And humidities were below 20 percent most of last week.

Leslie and I have visited a few more places we could consider living, provided we’re forced into Plan B for whatever reason. Escondido is in North County (that’s what they call the northern part of San Diego County). It’s an inland town of about 150,000 that has a few 55-plus communities. Nice town, roughly 30 to 45 minutes from downtown San Diego. We also spent some time looking around Solana Beach, an upscale community right on the Pacific Ocean. Both are places we could definitely afford to live. We just wouldn’t be able to buy food or clothing or anything else for that matter!

That’s the big drawback to Plan B. Rentals can be $3,000 to $4,000 a month, or higher, for a two-bedroom apartment. Buying a condo means shelling out upwards of $500,000 in the downtown area for a two-bedroom — more if you want a view or an upper floor in a high-rise. And it’s not much better in the outlying areas where we’ve been looking.

 

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The North Park neighborhood, an older area just north of Balboa Park. Costs are a bit lower here than in downtown, and it’s a neat area. A possibility.

There is a way for us to pay for housing here, but it involves dipping into investments way earlier than planned. That raises the specter of outliving our money, which is not something we even want to think about.The other downside, especially to apartment rentals, is that everything is so small. We’ve seen two-bedroom apartments in North County that are about 850 square feet. The bedrooms are too small for our king-size bed.

Gotta go to the upside, though. On Tuesday I met with some guys at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. It was noon, and we were sitting outside. I admit, I wore a long-sleeved shirt. But my new friends Tom and Lee were both wearing shorts! Looking for “normal” temperatures in the low 60s F. for Christmas Day.

And so it goes.

That’s all for now. Merry Christmas to all our family and friends, and Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends. Happy New Year to all!

More in 2018.

I leave you with this photo, taken at the North Park Farmer’s Market last Thursday afternoon:

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Yes, that is a chicken on the woman’s shoulder. A pet? Maybe, we didn’t stop to ask. Most people have dogs. But hey, it’s California. 

 

 

 

Living in Playa, and a side trip to Tulum

As we near the end of our time in Playa del Carmen, let’s examine the cost of living in this neat little beach town. That’s always a major factor in deliberations over where we will spend our retirement.

Meals in Playa restaurants seem a bit higher than in some of the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in. That’s probably because we’ve been to places that cater almost exclusively to tourists. We’ve paid only a bit less than we would expect to pay at similar quality restaurants in places like Naperville, Westmont or Downers Grove. If we lived here, we would go more often to places the locals frequent. They’re usually less expensive.

More important for us is the cost of groceries, because we dine in more often than we dine out. Unfortunately, there is no central mercado here, as there was in San Miguel de Allende and Mérida. Mega is the closest American-style grocery store. We know them from other Mexican cities and they’re generally okay. Our purchases there included:

  • almond milk, 946ml, $2.51.
  • toothpaste, 4.5 oz., $2.32.
  • premium orange juice, 1L, $2.29.
  • ground beef, 19.7 oz., $4.42.
  • chicken breasts, 38 oz., $5.88.
  • olive oil, 750ml, $7.65.
  • dozen eggs, $.98.
  • Advil, 200mg, 24-pack, $3.44.
  • Orowheat multi-grain bread, $2.42.
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Dac Market is open-air. No walls or doors. See the baskets? Those are your “shopping carts.”

There are a number of markets that sell frutas y verduras (fruits and vegetables). Our favorite is the Dac Market, where you can get nuts, chiles, spices and dried fruits, such as raisins, in bulk. This market is larger than most neighborhood fruit stands, and their produce is definitely better than the big chain stores. Here’s a sample:

  • carrots, 27 oz., $.54.
  • limes, 21 oz., $.58.
  • white onions, 23 oz., $.60.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.11.
  • zucchini, 19 oz., $.30.
  • raisins, 12 oz., $1.08.
  • avocado, 15 oz., $1.83.
  • white potatoes, 17 oz., $.46.
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Colorful jars of bulk spices and seeds at Dac Market.

Meat and fish tend to be better at a carneceria or pescaderia. There are two meat shops and two fish vendors close to us. A few days ago, Leslie went to Pescaderia El Mero Mero and bought some very nice grouper for dinner. The owner told Leslie his shop had provided the fish for a Mexican television version of “Top Chef” that featured Rick Bayliss. Good enough for Rick, good enough for us! Leslie picked out two whole fish, then the owner’s assistant filleted them on the spot — fresh, never frozen. We ended up with four six-ounce fillets for less than $10 USD. And what Leslie did with it was muy sabroso!

Real estate is also important, and Playa is a little different from other places we’ve lived. Vacation rentals are everywhere, especially between the main road (Highway 307) and the beach. There are no high-rises here, only condo buildings three to five stories high.

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Typical new condo building. At one time, developers were limited to three stories. Now, five is the max.

And there are more on the way. If you’re a construction worker and you need a job, come to Playa. Several condos or hotels are under construction.

Real estate sales pitches tend to tout income potential — buy a condo in PDC for your vacations and rent it out whenever you’re not here. That’s not for us, but it’s normal here. And prices are all over the map. There’s a third-floor, two-bedroom condo for sale in our building, Aqua Terra, for $245,000 USD. They had an open house last week and we took a look. There’s a rooftop area that would be great for entertaining or sunbathing, but the view is nothing special.

Then there’s a two-bedroom unit in condo-hotel Aldea Thai, right on our favorite beach. It has a private pool and says it has “great views” but none of the photos show an ocean view. It seems a bargain at only $650,000 USD. Right across the street, they’re hard at work on Ocean Residences, one of many new luxury condo buildings. We talked about looking at the model, but haven’t done it yet.

Want to spend more? I found listings online up to $10 million USD. If you’re looking for a bargain, you’ll need to look outside Highway 307 or in some of the smaller towns between Cancún and Tulum. Buying on the Riviera Maya would take a lot of research, figuring out exactly where you want to be, then spending a lot of time with a good agent. There are a lot of properties for sale here.

Rentals, as noted, tend to be vacation rentals rather than long-term. Go on Airbnb or VRBO and you’ll find luxury properties that will set you back $500 a night or more, USD. We were lucky to grab something in our budget. I found long-term rentals online, but there are few bargains at $1,500 USD a month and more. There was one listing in Tulum for $1,000 USD a month. It’s a nice two-bedroom house with good outdoor spaces, but it’s not close to the beach and you would need a car to get anywhere.

So, does Playa stay on the list or not? That’s coming up in the next post!

Living on the Riveria Maya would not be boring, though. There are lots of attractions on this stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula that runs essentially from Puerto Morelos (just south of Cancún) in the north to Tulum in the south. There’s also the island of Cozumel, a 40-minute ferry ride from Playa, where scuba diving and snorkeling are big business. We visited Tulum last week to see more Mayan ruins.

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“The Castle” at Tulum. When Leslie and Stephanie were here many years ago, people could climb those stairs to the top. The authorities don’t allow that anymore because at least one person was injured in a fall here, according to our guide.

Leslie and her daughter Stephanie went to Tulum nearly 30 years ago when they were on a cruise. Back then, she says, the site consisted of “the castle” and not much else. Archeologists have uncovered much more of the site now, and it’s amazing. There’s even restoration work being done right now on a building that’s in danger of collapse.

Our guide Dan told us Tulum was probably the last city the Maya built.

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One of the few houses still standing at Tulum. Our guide said this was the home of the high priest. There are lots of foundations inside the walls of Tulum. Priests and other high-ranking Maya lived here while most lower-class people lived in villages outside the walls. 

Next time, I’ll review our five weeks in Playa del Carmen and let you know if we’ll be coming back any time soon. Spoiler alert: The humidity here is often greater than 90 percent!

Hasta luego!

Playa is a little different, seven years later

Leslie and I spent Christmas 2010 with daughter Stephanie in Playa del Carmen. In fact, this is the only place in our travels so far that we have actually been to before. Back then, we rented a two-bedroom condo near the beach for about a week, spent nearly every day at Kool Beach Club and sampled some excellent restaurants. We’re back, almost seven years later, and a lot has changed.

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Pedestrian-friendly Fifth Avenue is Playa’s top draw.

Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is still the hot spot in Playa but it seems busier now, with even more opportunities for tourists to spend their money.

On our first stroll down that famous pedestrian-only  street, we were attacked by at least a dozen vendors who aggressively tried to sell us something, thinking we were tourists. Easy assumption to make, I suppose.

I saw one or two restaurants that looked vaguely familiar. Otherwise, big changes. The little wine bar the three of us enjoyed more than once in 2010 — gone. The Mayan-themed restaurant where I got some great cochinita pibil (a traditional Yucatecan pork dish) — it’s Guy Fieri’s Restaurant now. I guess that’s called progress.

We got in last Saturday, unpacked and got settled, then decided to revisit Kool Beach Club on Monday. I remember it as being a place with great food and drinks, and a DJ that played techno-beat electronic junk music that annoyed me.

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Back at Kool Beach Club!

Until I caught my toes tapping to the beat. Then I heard the overlay change — something dropped in and something else dropped out. The music was changing, evolving, interesting to listen to. But the beat was the same. Hard. Driving. Constant. Not annoying anymore — fascinating. Didn’t read much in my book after that.

Well, the beach has changed. The music isn’t nearly as good, and a couple of new condo-hotels have been built, making the beach more crowded. The food is still great at Kool Beach Club. We had some terrific fish tacos Monday and will probably return several times over the next month.

Changes are not limited to the beach and Fifth Avenue. Playa del Carmen (pop. about 150,000) isn’t laid back anymore. It looks like they’ve built condo buildings all over the place in the last few years, especially between the beach and Avenida 30, a major thoroughfare.

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New condos along Calle 34, near our condo.

In 2010, PDC was centered on Fifth Avenue establishments catering to the tourist trade. Not anymore. There are restaurants and boutique hotels along 1st Avenue, 10th Avenue and all along the calles in between (avenidas, or avenues, go north-south while calles, or streets, run east-west).

One big downside to Playa is the lack of an English-speaking Protestant church. We loved St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel de Allende, as well as St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Mérida. Christ Church by the Sea in Puerto Vallarta (also Anglican) was OK, too. Unfortunately, that denomination apparently has no presence in Playa del Carmen, or anywhere in the state of Quintana Roo. There are non-denominational churches in neighboring cities like Tulum (about an hour south) and Puerto Morelos (about 30 minutes north) but nothing in PDC that might meet our needs.

Same with expat groups. Leslie found three groups on Facebook, but all appear to be geared toward real estate. We haven’t connected with any other expats yet.

We’ll be here in Playa until July 15. That should give us time to experience this little beach town and visit other possible retirement locations, such as Bacalar (on a lake near the border with Belize) and Tulum.

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We’re in a modern two-bedroom condo across the street from PDC’s major sports complex, where I join the locals to go jogging around the cinder track every morning. 

As for the weather, it’s hot and humid — really humid. But temps here are in the upper 80s F. instead of the upper 90s as they were in Mérida. Humidity, though is consistently high, so we start sweating when we walk out the door. Nice breeze at the beach, though.

More next time!

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The pool in Aqua Terra, our home for the next month. Not as private as our digs in Merida, but it’s nice. And the big saltwater “pool” is just a few blocks away!