Costa Rica misses the cut

While Costa Rica has a lot going for it, the downsides overshadow the positives for Leslie and me. The land of Pura Vida is no longer on the list of places we’ll consider living. It’s a close call, but we think Mexico is still in the lead.

On the plus side, Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The mountains are lush and green, and there’s an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. We didn’t get to see much of it because we didn’t do any of the touristy things, such as jungle treks and zip lines. Areas like the Central Valley and Lake Arenal have a nice climate with warm days and cool nights. The humidity in those places is relatively low. Beach towns are definitely out. Too hot, too humid.

There are a number of things we like about Costa Rica in general. It’s a politically stable country that just elected, by a fairly large margin, a center-left president who has great plans for his country. There has been no standing army since 1948, the 90 percent literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, there’s a growing middle class, and Costa Rica takes care of the environment. For example, almost 100 percent of the electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar.

But electricity is expensive, and the overall cost of living is only slightly lower than in the U.S., In some cases it’s on a par with North American and European countries. We’re looking for a place where our money goes a little farther.

Other downsides include:

  • There are no street addresses. We talked with a Canadian who rents a box at the post office to get mail. If he knows a package is coming, he calls the UPS or DHL delivery driver to meet them somewhere. Crazy.
  • And you get directions that assume you know where you are: “We’re 200 meters south of Pops Ice Cream.” Thanks — now where the heck is Pops?!?!
  • Even the highways are not very well marked. We used Waze and Google Maps on our two trips around the country and still got lost in places.
  • Driving is hideous. In cities and towns, you have to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists who just dart into traffic. In rural hilly areas, the twists and turns force me to slow down while the locals just barrel ahead. We saw several near-accidents from drivers passing against a double-yellow line.

Finally, we just don’t have good feelings for Costa Rica like we have for Spain and Mexico. The people are friendly, and there are a lot of ex-pats in the area to socialize with. But neither of us has developed warm fuzzies for this country.

So Costa Rica is off the list as a place to retire. But we would like to come back someday as tourists to do some of those things we passed on while we were here. Also, Horizon Church — the nondenominational we’ve been attending in Jacó — is building a new church. The walls are up already and the plans look terrific. We would love to see it after they have moved in, and reconnect with our new friends there.

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Our last look at Costa Rica — a Pacific sunset. Hasta luego!

Now we’re taking a short break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was back on Feb. 6. Has it really been 25 years? Doesn’t seem like it. We are marking this auspicious occasion by taking a two-week cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome. While Italy is not really on our list of places to live in retirement, we’re taking this opportunity to visit Naples, Rome and Florence to see the historical sites and museums — places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the coliseum in Rome.

After Italy, we’ll move on to France, the last place (maybe) on our list of possible places to live. We’ve rented an apartment in the historic center of Montpelier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon area, for six weeks. Leslie is looking forward to finding a French cooking class, and I relish the idea of sipping cafe au lait at little French bistros.

We’ll be back in Chicago’s western suburbs by July 12. Then we have a decision to make.

Next post will be from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — IF we have decent wi-fi on the ship!

Ciao!

 

The Central Valley

Costa Rica advertises its Central Valley as having “the best climate in the world.” We’ve heard that about other places, too, so we had to check it out. The valley encompasses most of the country’s interior, and includes several national parks. This week, Leslie and I visited the Central Valley towns of Atenas, Grecia and Sarchi. We spent most of our time in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which — you guessed it — is named for Athens, Greece.

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One of the main streets in Atenas.

Best climate? Depends on how you define “best.” One definition is a place where temperature and humidity are relatively constant throughout the year. However, it was unseasonably hot the few days we were there — in the low 90s F. with overnight lows in the upper 60s. Our Canadian host at the bed and breakfast where we stayed told us many North Americans leave Costa Rica at this time of year because it is hotter. Humidity is lower in the valley than at the beach, of course, but it still felt humid. So maybe it’s not “the best” climate.

Another thing that changes very little is sunrise and sunset. This area is so close to the equator, these events happen at roughly the same time every day. And there is no daylight saving time.

We also heard horror stories about Costa Rica’s rainy season, which is in the fall and is not limited to the Central Valley. Apparently there are deluges almost every day, and while they don’t last long they cause brief flooding in some places. Areas without paved roads have bigger problems. We noticed that streets in Costa Rican towns have drainage gutters built into the roadsides. They are made of concrete and some are at least six to eight inches wide and eight or nine inches deep. You’ve got to be careful when walking or you might break an ankle if you step into one, and very careful when parking or your car will drop off into the ditch.

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The drainage on this Atenas street is sloping toward the curb, and you can see the yellow walkway just to the right of the white car. Some drainage ditches are more squared-off.

We found Atenas to be fairly small (5,000 population, I think), with some very nice homes near the center of town. We talked with a young woman from the U.S. who lives with her husband and daughter on a nearby mountaintop. They can actually see the Pacific Ocean from their 6,000-foot perch. There’s a sizable gringo population, but it’s not as obvious as some Mexican towns, particularly Ajijic. We met some other ex-pats at a small cafe and learned there are men’s and women’s groups that meet weekly, so a new resident would have to get connected through those two social groups. A downside for us is the lack of a faith community. The closest English-speaking Protestant church is in a San Jose suburb.

Atenas sits at about 2,200 feet, while Grecia (GREH-see-ah), the largest of the three cities we visited, is slightly higher at 3,270 feet. That makes sense, because we thought it was just a bit cooler in Grecia. Sarchi is only 1,000 feet above sea level, and is a center for Costa Rican crafts. Furniture manufacturing is huge in Sarchi. We saw lots of places selling furniture.

So the Central Valley has some good things going for it, and a few things not so good. Leslie and I might consider coming back to spend more time here. To be continued.

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A common sight in the Central Valley is clouds hugging the mountaintops in the distance. I took this from the car window just outside Sarchi.

Finally, some fun facts about Costa Rica in general:

  • This country has no standing army. There are local and national police, of course, but Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948.
  • Life expectancy in Costa Rica is about 79 years. That’s among the highest in the world. The Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast is one of the world’s seven Blue Zones, where people often live past 100 years.
  • The World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica’s health care system as the 36th best in the world. That’s one notch ahead of the United States (France and Italy top the list).
  • Costa Rica is the world’s unofficial hummingbird capital — home to 52 species of hummers.
  • There are five active volcanos in Costa Rica.

That’s it for now. Last post from Costa Rica coming soon, then it’s time to return to Europe. Time flies!

Happy Easter, and Pura Vida!

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This bus in Grecia is typical of Costa Rican public transportation. The buses here are much newer and nicer than those  in the Mexican towns where we lived.

Is this the place?

Leslie and I came to Ajijic partly because it has “the best climate in the world.” So far, so good. Since we arrived on Sept. 15, we’ve had temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s or low 80s during the day and the low 60s at night. The house we’re renting has fresh air flowing through all the time.

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Sunset over Lake Chapala. Most of the Driscoll’s raspberries and blackberries you buy at Jewel are grown on the other side of the lake.

Most homes in the Lake Chapala area (known generally as “Lakeside”) don’t have heaters or air conditioners. They’re not needed. If we lived here, I would never have to pay those $200-plus Nicor Gas Co. bills in February! One person told us the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ajijic is 40° F.

There’s roughly a month left in the rainy season so it’s a little wet at times, and slightly more humid than we would like but still not like the Mexican beach towns we’ve tried. Here, it’s as high as 70 percent after a storm, but usually 50 percent or less. And most of the rain is at night when we’re sleeping. In fact, one big storm woke us both up around 3 a.m. The lightning was pretty amazing.

We also came here because there is a thriving expat community. We’ve been to several events already, some sponsored by The Lake Chapala Society, and some by Ajijic Newbies.

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We met Susan and Rex (second and third from right) at an LCS event. We later joined them for Happy Hour at Nuevo Posada, where they introduced us to Janelle (front left), Carla (right) and long-time resident Flo.

And we’ve found a terrific faith community in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, just down the road in a neighborhood called Riberas del Pilar, between the two main towns of Chapala and Ajijic. Our new friend Libby gave us a ride home from our first visit to St. Andrew’s and pointed out several other churches in the same area. “They call this Holy Corner,” she laughed.

St. Andrew’s is the largest and most welcoming congregation we’ve encountered yet in our travels. This past Sunday there were probably more than 75 people in worship. In addition to Libby, a Canadian widow who has been here over a decade, we met a couple who formerly worked in marketing and corporate communications, same as me. David worked at some Chicago public relations agencies, and is a former PR director for Playboy Enterprises. We found several other folks with Chicago connections, so we felt right at home.

Then there’s Ajijic Newbies, which is Facebook-based but they do events too. Last week we went to a dinner they sponsored and met more expats, some brand new to Ajijic and some who have been here for a few years.

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Leslie chats with new friends Heidi and Steve at an Ajijic Newbies dinner.

We also went on a tour of five homes for sale in Ajijic. It seems all the real estate companies host these tours once a week. It was a large group, and we went with Rex and Susan, a fun couple from South Carolina who seem much more interested in buying a home here than we are right now. Wherever we land, we plan to rent for at least six months to a year before making any real estate moves.

And it seems all these groups try desperately to keep expats busy! As LCS members, we’ve already been to one screening of a TED Talk with discussion afterward, and Leslie is taking a Spanish class at the Society starting next week. We’re both interested in the Tai Chi class mid-month, and we met some fun people at the Oktoberfest recently. LCS is a great resource for expats and a super way to meet people. The Society also gives back to the local community. For example, our friend Marlene is teaching English to a group of local residents, mostly teenagers, who know some English but are trying to improve their  conversational skills.

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Mariachis play in Ajijic Plaza for the opening of a display of historical photos of Ajijic, taken over 50 years ago. Lots of things happening here!

Finally, we came because it simply costs less to live here. That’s true of the other places we’ve been in Mexico. I’ll discuss the cost of things like food and real estate in a later post, but today let’s talk about the many shopping venues we have here.

There’s Wal-Mart, of course, and a grocery called “Super Lake” that has lots of food items from Canada and the U.S. But we prefer the local markets, like the Tianguis on Wednesday mornings. Here’s a fairly recent YouTube video. This clip focuses on beans and street food, but Leslie and I go more for the fresh fruits and vegetables. You can also buy jewelry, art, clothing, electronics, hats, shoes, DVDs — almost anything you want. On Tuesdays there’s an organic farmer’s market in West Ajijic, with more prepared food and specialty items.

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This organic market vendor had some excellent bulk oatmeal.

It’s a little more expensive and somewhat light on veggies, but you can find gluten-free bread and muffins, excellent sausages and chorizos, and some very tasty hummus.

Ajijic hits a lot of our buttons. Is this “the” place? We don’t know yet, but it looks good so far. More to come…

Hasta luego!