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What draws expats to Costa Rica?

From the print edition

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – Every year, millions of tourists descend on Costa Rica, a country about the size of the U.S. state of Vermont, to soak up the sun, explore protected rain forests and catch a glimpse of wildlife most folks see only on postcards. 

Many of them, hoping to make the pura vida lifestyle their own, decide to take the great leap and move here permanently. Others with expendable income opt for a second home in Central America’s most thriving democracy.

 There are as many reasons for moving to Costa Rica as there are expats living here: Pensions stretch a little further, health care is affordable, it’s cheaper to build a home on a spectacular piece of land and the country has two coastlines just hours from the capital. 

But relocating to a developing country with its own language, customs and lifestyle can present unexpected challenges. Expats who’ve settled here and have committed to making Costa Rica their adopted home share a unique bond with the land and its people, and despite common frustrations among them, many say the rewards far outweigh the setbacks.

“We take it for granted sometimes that there’s a killer ocean view in the home that I’m building. I look around and say, ‘You can’t get this in Buffalo, New York,’” says Rebecca Clower, a real estate broker, property manager and owner of Blue Water Properties, in the thriving beach town of Tamarindo, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

Clower, 34, the daughter of a U.S.-born father and Costa Rican mother, moved here from the United States with her husband, Keith Clower, in 2006, leaving behind a successful physical therapy business. The couples’ friends thought they were crazy, she says. Now with two kids, ages 2 and 4, Clower says her roots in Costa Rica are permanent.

“It’s not for everybody, but I don’t have regrets about coming here. I miss [U.S. discount retailer] Target, but none of the negatives outweigh the positives. I don’t have to deal with traffic. I have one stop sign on the way to my house. I wouldn’t be able to afford this lifestyle back in the U.S.,” she says.

Clower does have a piece of advice for those contemplating relocation: “People need to have a plan. It can be modest, but you need to have a plan. A lot of people come here and think this is a Utopia, but unless you’re really changing your style of living, it costs money to live here.”

Having a roadmap is essential, as Clower notes, but sometimes not having a plan works, too. Joe Walsh, for example, didn’t have a set plan. Before he started Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, a thriving do-it-yourself business in Tamarindo, surfer and former art student Walsh drove to Costa Rica from California in a bus in 2001 (see story, Page W1).

Says Walsh: “I came down here to find a way to surf every day. I didn’t think I’d be building anything. I just thought I’d have a surf shack on the beach. Who makes money being a surfer?” 

But in a decade, Walsh and his wife, Holly, grew the business, added a restaurant and bar and built a hotel, with a little help from former online resource (now, Walsh adds with a chuckle.

The secret to the success of Witch’s Rock, Walsh notes, is tenacity, product and service quality and good pricing. 

“We under-promise and over-deliver so people come back again and again. And we created a community of people who come back,” Walsh says, turning to a nearby surfer and frequent camp guest.

“Hey Pat, how many times you been to Witch’s?” Walsh asks. “Twelve,” Pat responds. “I knew it was more than 10.”

Blending In

Costa Rica also can be a great place to raise a family, say local expats.

For real estate broker and northern California native Tony DiMaggio, 62, of real estate company El Tesoro de Tamarindo, moving to Costa Rica in 2001 with two teenage kids was the best bit of parenting he has done.

“[My kids] were only seeing a slender slice of life back in the U.S.,” DiMaggio says. “Moving here made them worldly.”

DiMaggio praises the private education his kids received: “We would not have moved here if it wasn’t for the educational opportunities. We talked to the principal of Country Day School for a long time, and that was one of the key factors in our decision to make Guanacaste our choice.”

He was also drawn by Costa Rica’s natural beauty, weather and healthier lifestyle, in which fresh fruits and vegetables often substitute processed foods at the dinner table. 

“If you want to change your lifestyle and live a healthy life, I can’t imagine a better place to live and grow old gracefully in wonderful health than this place,” says DiMaggio, who starts each day with a morning swim in his 18-meter pool in the backyard.

DiMaggio also notes that while it’s possible to survive in a multicultural community like Tamarindo without speaking much Spanish, learning the local language and culture is an important step to building ties in the community.

“It’s important to learn to speak Spanish and show respect for the Costa Rican culture,” DiMaggio says. “But you can actually get by as an English-speaker and you don’t feel alienated.”

Pitfalls and opportunity

Like every developing country, Costa Rica isn’t without its problems. Buoyed by solid export and service sectors, the country’s economy also depends on tourism, which generated $2 billion in revenue last year, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Board. Until the 2008 global economic meltdown, one of the strongest industries to drive coastal expat communities was real estate.

Following the downward trend in the U.S., Costa Rica’s real estate market began to tank in late 2008. Along many beach communities like Tamarindo, unfinished development projects loom as a constant reminder that luck can change almost overnight.

Because of the real estate market crash and a marked drop in tourism (which has since shown signs of a modest recovery), several expats living here were left with few options but to pack up and move back home. For those who chose to stay, getting by was a struggle.

Yet, as the economy slowly begins to show signs of recovery, expats who weathered the worst of the financial storm say their communities have emerged stronger, fortified by a common resilience to work together to stay in business.

“[Before the economic crash,] you had all these buildings going up, and they couldn’t keep up with the infrastructure,” Clower says. 

A moratorium on new construction in the Tamarindo area that lasted for more than a year – in place to help protect the nearby Las Baulas National Marine Park – also took a heavy toll on development projects. 

“When the crisis happened, we also had the big Las Baulas decision, and everything here was halted. It was like a ghost town here for like a year and a half. And it really killed people. So many people packed their bags and left,” Clower says.

But for those who remained, things would eventually begin to turn around. Newly paved roads, an expansion of the Daniel Oduber International Airport in the provincial capital of Liberia and rock-bottom real estate prices helped generate new demand in the U.S. and other regions, including Canada, Europe and South America.

“I think confidence in the market helped a lot,” Clower says. “There were a ton of fire sales at one point. It has dropped off now; there aren’t as many deals as then, and as inventory declines, it drives up demand.”

For investors, says DiMaggio, Costa Rica is still a buyer’s market, although prices are beginning to level off. 

“If you’re talking about the economics of the real estate market, somebody can buy my property for more than a half million dollars less than it would cost to build. And that doesn’t even account for the fact that it took more than four years of our lives to plan it, design it and go up there every single day during construction to examine it. So, the buying opportunities because of this market are just starting, the bottom’s in. This year’s better than last year, and it’s better than the last three years,” he says.

In Tamarindo and nearby communities, amenities added in recent years help reassure buyers, such as dozens of restaurants, several doctor’s offices, new bank branches and supermarket chain Automercados (Tamarindo is the chain’s top-grossing supermarket).

Preventing crime

Although Costa Rica registers fewer violent crimes than other Central American countries (with the exception of Nicaragua, which has the lowest crime rates on the isthmus), public security is one of the country’s greatest threats to development, and crime – especially in coastal expat and tourist communities – is a constant problem.

 Security expert Terry Anderson, 53, moved to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast in 2008, after selling a security company he founded in the U.S. as a teenager. Seeing a demand, Anderson applied his expertise locally and founded Force One, a small security company that helps homeowners build, install and maintain security systems. Home invasions are common throughout Costa Rica, particularly in coastal communities with high volumes of tourists and vacation and rental homes.

“Our clients are a lot of [North] Americans and Europeans who are experiencing burglaries and robberies, so with new sophisticated electronics we’re trying to solve those problems. We’re a small company, but we keep busy. There’s lots of work here; the market’s pretty demanding,” Anderson says.

Adding to the difficulties in dealing with crime, in many cases home invasions, burglaries, assaults and other attacks often go unpunished, as local police and the national Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) – tasked with investigating and prosecuting crime – are understaffed and underfunded. In Costa Rica, limited public security budgets are distributed based on the number of denuncias, or criminal complaints, a regional OIJ office receives. 

“Without denuncias being filed for crime, then there’s no crime,” Anderson says. 

For Tamarindo residents, the nearest OIJ office is in Santa Cruz, a half-hour drive on an unpaved and bumpy road. 

Because of the transient nature of tourism and the vacation rental market, the barrier of language and the difficulty in traveling to the nearest OIJ office, many crimes go unreported. Entire areas that may experience a string of crimes are left off the radar when public security officials prioritize resources, Anderson says.

When criminals are apprehended, Anderson adds, often they are released within a few hours, and denuncias pile up on desks, taking weeks, months, or even years to make it into the hands of investigators.

“Things that are stolen include laptops, cellphones and cutting-edge technology toys that the well-to-do bring here,” Anderson says. “The locals steal that because it’s so easy to sell in San José, Liberia, Heredia and other places.” 

Taking preventive measures is essential to help avoid becoming a victim, Anderson says.

 “Drive through Costa Rican towns and what do you see? You see homes with burglar bars, razor wire, barbed wire; their cars are parked in their houses, their gates are closed and they lock their stuff up,” Anderson says. “But people from the U.S. and so forth come and build these beautiful vacation homes, and what do they do? They build a completely open home without paying attention to the locals. Costa Ricans are advertising what you need to do to have a secure house.”

After a few years, expats do begin to adapt and take steps to secure their homes and assets, he says. 

“The thing to consider is that when a carload of thieves is driving down the street, or a single thief is walking down the street and checking out your house, if it looks easy, he’s going to come back. If it looks daunting, he’s going to move on to the next house,” Anderson says.

Anderson’s outspokenness on crime has caused some members of the community to label him a fearmonger, an accusation he brushes off by listing a series of recent home invasions in the area. 

“You just have to secure your house to the best of your abilities, because the infrastructure isn’t here yet,” he says.

Like others who decided to stay in Tamarindo, despite the crime, Anderson doesn’t seem to have much to complain about.

“Things are great here, business is good, the surf has been insane,” he writes in a recent email. “Went to Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point Friday and Sunday, and the surf on Sunday was 12’ to 14’ … absolutely incredible waves.”

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