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.

A slight delay

“Mom, if you wanted to stay with me longer all you had to do was ask,” said our daughter Stephanie as she and I hovered over Leslie’s bed in the emergency room.

No, we’re not in Costa Rica. There’s been a slight delay and we’re still in San Diego. But while I’m staying in Stephanie’s guest room, Leslie is a patient at Sharp Memorial Hospital on the city’s north side. I’ll try to make a complicated story as concise as possible.

After suffering with abdominal pain all day Monday (Jan. 29), Leslie asked me to take her to Urgent Care on Tuesday morning (Jan. 30), just to make sure she was OK to get on an airplane to Costa Rica the following day. Urgent Care did some tests and sent her to the ER at Sharp Memorial, where she was admitted with acute pancreatitis — probably caused by passing a gallstone Monday (hence the pain) — as well as pneumonia.

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Just one of the devices Leslie has been hooked up to. She would not agree to pose for a photo.

Since then they have pumped her full of antibiotics and other meds. As of Friday (Feb. 2) afternoon, her condition has improved to the point where a surgeon may be able to remove her gall bladder Saturday morning, tentatively at 9:30 a.m. The gastroenterologist who treated her in the ER said her gall bladder was “full of sludge” and she might have more stones in the future. We agreed that doing the surgery now will help avoid the possibility of throwing another gallstone while we’re on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!

There are some positives here. First, we’re in San Diego where Stephanie can be with her mom, and where doctors and nurses speak English. Second, Leslie’s room is on the seventh floor of the acute care wing with an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean. Well, it’s several miles away, but you can see it if you look closely. And the sunsets are super!

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The view from Leslie’s hospital room. That’s California Highway 163 in the foreground. Across the freeway is the Kearney Mesa area of San Diego, and the ocean is in the distance.

We have cancelled the first part of our trip to Costa Rica, the house in Atenas, but everything else is unsettled. We hope to rearrange accommodations in the beach town of Jacó so we can arrive March 1 and leave April 10. That way we can still evaluate Costa Rica as a possible retirement location, but give Leslie plenty of time to heal and still take the cruise to Europe.

More to come…

 

 

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!

Hasta Luego, Puerto Vallarta!

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This little guy is called a social flycatcher. He and his relatives have been visiting our pool for the past two months. Pretty bird with an obnoxious call!

Leslie and I leave tomorrow morning for the next stop in this vagabond lifestyle — Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan (JOO-kah-tan).

This is Hasta Luego (“see you later”) rather than Adios! because we may very well be back. We like this city. San Miguel de Allende is still at the top of the list, and we still have other places to see. But PV is definitely in the running. We need to spend more time in the centro, the downtown area that’s also called the Romantic Zone.

We can already see a scenario that would have us in San Miguel for the summer and Puerto Vallarta for the winter. Best of both worlds.

The good things about this little slice of heaven include:

  • Lots of places where you can contribute to the local economy, including U.S.-based big box stores like Costco (where I got new contact lenses this week) and Home Depot, but also many small locally owned places. Leslie came out of one marina-area shop with lots of great-looking lightweight clothing at good prices.
  • A good Anglican church, Christ Church by the Sea.
  • The locals are warm and friendly. They don’t mind us gringos being here because we help create jobs. And that’s a good thing.
  • Many expats here, and our friends Mike and Sara Wise make sure there are several events a month to get people together. We met David and Michelle Webster at a coffee hour several weeks ago, and later had dinner with them. Fun couple, whom we hope to see again.
  • Lots of great restaurants, and not just Mexican places. Italian, Chinese, Brazilian, seafood, you name it.
  • A number of interesting places outside PV to explore — such as Magical Cities like San Sebastian.

The downsides are:

  • It’s big. Maybe too big. Lots of places and lots of people. Puerto Vallarta is several different areas with vastly different vibes.
  • Walkability is good in the marina but poor if you want to go to other areas, like downtown or the shopping centers — almost essential to have a car here.
  • Access to farmers markets and local mercados is limited.
  • Many expats here (once again, that’s a positive and a negative), and they seem a little bit cliquish, although they would say that’s not true.
  • Not many cultural opportunities here, at least not that we have found. However, we did miss an opportunity to be at a chamber music concert early last month, and last night we attended the second evening of the 11th Festal Vallarta Azteca del Folclor Internacional.
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Mexican folk dances, complete with colorful costumes, were a big hit with the crowd of mostly locals at the international folkloric dance festival that opened Wednesday evening. The beach is just behind that stage, so we had a nice view of the sunset, too.
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We will miss this view. 

Next post from Mérida. We’ve heard the daytime high temperatures hover near 100° F. It’s a colonial city, like San Miguel, but a 30-minute bus ride gets you to a great Gulf of Mexico beach! More to come…

How does Puerta Vallarta stack up?

Before the main event (and because there are not a lot of pics this time), here’s a photo I thought I had posted before but realize now that I never put it up for all to see. John and Anne Mixen came to Puerto Vallarta for a well-deserved vacation just a few days after we arrived here on March 1.

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We met John and Anne for drinks and watched an amazing sunset.

After a number of emails and texts, we met our old Naperville friends for drinks at the Lighthouse and dinner at Victor’s in the marina, followed by great conversation on the patio of our temporary home. It was great to see them again and catch up.

Now let’s talk pesos and dollars. Any consideration of where to live in retirement includes the cost of living. That’s a big factor in our decision, along with climate and a few other things. So let’s take a look at what it costs to live here in Puerto Vallarta.

We shop for food in several places, just like we did back in the States. The two major Mexican supermarkets are Soriana and Comercial Mexicana. Here’s a taste of what it costs to shop in an American-style supermercado (all numbers have been converted to U.S. measurement, and prices are in dollars at today’s exchange rate):

  • Lavazza coffee, 12 oz., $8.00
  • rice, 26.5 oz., $1.23
  • Colgate toothpaste, 4.6 oz., $2.04
  • oatmeal, 2.2 lbs, $1.07
  • gala apples, 23.8 oz., $.68
  • sliced deli ham, 17.6 oz., $5.39
  • olive oil, 25.4 oz., $5.28
  • gluten-free pasta, 12 oz., $2.61
  • loaf of 12-grain bread, $2.01
  • dozen eggs, $1.21

In San Miguel de Allende, and in Alicante, Spain, we shopped for fresh fruits and vegetabels at the mercado where the locals go. Puerto Vallarta is big city, so there isn’t one central market. We go to El Mercado Palmar de Aramara. It’s a neighborhood market, and we see lots of locals there. Here’s what we got this week:

  • pineapple (gold), $.69
  • carrots, 24.7 oz., $.48
  • red onion, $.59
  • raisins, 35.27 oz., $3.20
  • cauliflower, 35.27 oz., $1.09
  • white onions, 46.56 oz., $.45
  • cucumbers, 22.57 oz., $.93
  • Italian zucchini, 41.62 oz., $1.33
  • radishes, 35.27 oz., $.80

Obviously, we try to get fresh produce at the mercado whenever possible, but we have to take a bus or a taxi because it’s too far to walk. The bus is $15 pesos for both of us to ride. That’s less than a dollar US.

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Mexican buses are not much to look at, but they get us where we need to go. There are no routes, as such. You just look at the front window as the bus approaches. If you want to go to Centro, for example, hop on this one! And do you see the speed bump? Mexico LOVES speed bumps! They’re everywhere!

Taking a taxi is usually about $70 or $80 pesos, which is less than five dollars US. Transportation is not a big expense here in PV, but if we lived here permanently we would definitely need a car.

We usually have breakfast and lunch at home, as well as the evening meal most nights. Dinner out is always fun because there are a lot of excellent restaurants in PV, especially in the marina. We found a great place in the marina for seafood, Las Palomas Doradas. On our first visit, Leslie had mahi-mahi Veracruz style and I had — OK, I don’t remember what I had, but we both had a glass of wine and the bill was $38.25 US. On our second visit, we both had shrimp dinners with wine and paid less than $50 US. Plus, since it was a repeat visit, we got dessert free. There’s also a great Argentine restaurant, Rincon de Buenos Aires, where we both had steak with red wine and paid $57.85 US.

Is there expensive food too? Yes, we’ve had lunch twice at a gourmet burger spot, where Leslie had a glass of wine and I tried some Mexican craft beers. That ran us about $30 US, but the burgers are really good! And we have reservations next weekend at Puerto Vallarta’s top-rated restaurant (according to Trip Advisor), Tintoque, where we will celebrate daughter Stephanie’s birthday! That will be more on a par with high-end restaurants in the Chicago area. I’ll let you know.

There seems to be a lot of property on the market at any given time, which you would expect in a place like PV. There are also a lot of real estate agents, including some expats who prey on serve other expats. So I checked a reputable place, Coldwell Banker. Just so you know, CB on Main Street in Downers Grove has the best real estate agent in the Chicago suburbs, Slav Polinski. Slav, you should come down here! Anyway, the CB office in Marina Vallarta has a range of properties. These are some of the condos available (single-family homes are generally a bit higher):

  • A 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath in the Marina Golf complex for just $175,000. Overlooks the marina and the mountains.
  • A 1,732-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath in the Porto Fino complex for $395,000. It’s beachfront, on the seventh floor near the elevator, with views of the Bay of Banderas.
  • And just for comparison, a 4,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, three-bath penthouse in luxurious Bay View Grand for a mere $1.1 million. Two terraces, bars inside and outside, and a private pool. Here’s the listing, in case you want to dream a bit.

The Romantic Zone is another popular area of Puerto Vallarta. It’s in the centro, the older part of PV, and you can find homes with a little more Mexican character here. Just looking at the Coldwell Banker website, there are two-bedroom condos from $155,000 US up to $1.2 million US. For $599,000, you buy a two-bedroom, two-bath overlooking Los Muertos Beach, and it’s a penthouse with amazing ocean and beach views, plus a BBQ grill.

And that’s just from one agency, and just looking at their website. There are many other options. (Google “Puerto Vallarta real estate” if you’re interested.) Real estate here in PV is all over the map, literally and figuratively. For vacation rentals, the same thing. There are nice properties for rent under $1,000 US a month, and there are some ocean-front penthouses that rent for that same price, but per week!

In general, we think prices might be a little better in San Miguel or some of the other places we’ve visited. But we’re not done yet! At the end of April we head for the next destination, Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan. More on that later.

Let’s close with a look at that sunset we enjoyed with our friends back in March. This is a regular occurrence here on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

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Sunset as seen from El Faro, The Lighthouse in Marina Vallarta. We have a pretty good view from the patio of our condo, too!

Hasta luego!