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Army Vets Find Costa Rica Retirement Bliss

The following story began fifty years ago in April, 1974, when a young couple left their first military assignment, the Panama Canal Zone, for the adventure of a lifetime, driving the Intercontinental Highway from Panama to northern Illinois. But perhaps one of the participants, John Buford, can tell it as well as we can.

“My wife, Caryl, and I, US Army veterans, spent our first assignment from 1970 to 1974 at Fort Gulick, Canal Zone, on the Caribbean side of Panama. Native Illinoisans, we learned to love all the tropics had to offer—although we never really adapted to the heat. That part of Panama is also known for its rainfall. The standard joke was, ‘During the dry season, it only rains once a day.’

At the end of our four-year tour, we drove to the States from Panama—a ten-day trek. We drove through most of the Central American countries, but only one left an indelible impression. We agreed that Costa Rica would be worth another visit. We didn’t realize that we would be driving within two miles of where we now have been settled in Costa Rica for the past twelve years.

It took us 37 years to get back to Costa Rica—even for a visit. Life got in the way, including both of us completing 32 years with the US Army. In February, 2011 we finally found time for a three-day tour to research retired life in Costa Rica. During the two years prior to our visit, we traveled to all the retirement states of the union, including Hawaii, but couldn’t find what we were looking for—a year-round temperate climate, a tranquil pace of life, a pastoral setting with majestic views, all within access of a major city and at a price we could afford. In all fairness, parts of Hawaii offered these but it was just too far from the US mainland and the price wasn’t in our budget.

The tour guide for our visit was George Lundquist, now retired, who went out of his way to show us the good, the bad, and the ugly of retired Costa Rica and various parts of Costa Rica. We visited with expats who had lived here for a couple to many years and received extremely valuable input, gleaned from years of experience.

In addition to their recommendations of where and where not to live, we had our own preferences. For us, the coast was too hot, San Jose was too busy, and much of the country was too far away from San Jose’s major medical facilities—not needed then or currently, but high on our “must-have” list. Our first stop was San Ramon de Alajuela, only 45 minutes from the San Jose international airport, an hour away from five major hospitals in San Jose, and an hour away from the closest beach.

We didn’t need to look further to meet most of our big-ticket items, but what put San Ramon over the top was the organized expat community with plenty of activities to plug into—something San Ramon still offers. Two things for which we were looking that San Ramon didn’t offer were spectacular views with a pastoral setting, and an organized place to “play” as active adults.

On a second visit in June, 2011, we discovered El Empalme, a tiny, unincorporated village only ten minutes from downtown San Ramon, with 50 to 100-mile views of the Pacific coastline and Gulf of Nicoya, phenomenal sunsets, and the tranquility for which we were searching. But the San Ramon area didn’t offer a place for retired expats to congregate regularly or engage in regularly organized social and/or recreational activities. At the same time, neither did anywhere else we could find in Costa Rica.

In our search for a place to retire in the previous years, Caryl and I had been impressed with the activities, events, and recreation offered by various adult mega-communities in the US, although we were not impressed with 100+ degree temperatures in the summer or minus 30-degree temperatures and snow and ice in the winter, 50,000 or more (very) close neighbors, or the stress that went with dense population. We realized we might be able to fill a gap if we were to offer a small community with organized recreational and social activities to the active adults in the region.

Using successful adult community models from the States, we set out to duplicate the positives they offered on a much smaller scale. Jardin La Torre, in addition to residential units and lots, also boasts Vientos Bajos, a center for activities, events, socials, and recreation. The Activity Center houses a gym, a pickleball court, an activity room, a golf simulator, libraries of DVDs, CDs, books, and puzzles and organized activities to include cards, participative music groups, presentations and events—not just for the residents of Jardin La Torre, but for anyone in the area who wants to participate—either on or off the stage.

JLT also is blessed to have wonderful Tico and gringo neighbors. Over the next twelve years, we bought up contiguous, fallow farmland in the Empalme area. We converted this ground to gardens, paths, homes, residential lots, and an activity center in order to share with others our vision of Shangri La—location, climate, friends, and an escape from stress.

Until only a couple of years ago, we had never heard the term “Blue Zone.” In doing our research in what these areas with a plethora of people living well beyond 100 years, we found about five things they all had in common. First, they all seem to be in a temperate climate year-around. Second, they offer a less-stressful lifestyle. Third, there is social activity to tie into. Fourth, exercise and healthy diets are a very big part of living long and well.

And fifth, and perhaps one of the most important aspects for those living these lives, is a reason to get up in the morning—something to look forward to. We like to think that, at least for us, the mid Pacific Highlands, the San Ramon area, and Jardin La Torre offer all five of the advantages that Blue Zones offer. We found most of what we were looking for in a retirement haven and supplemented this by building an active adult community that meets all of our needs and most of our desires—as it seems to for our fellow residents. For us, Shangri-La DOES exist.”

If you think what Jardin La Torre offers is what you may be looking for, John and Caryl would love to field your questions. You can contact them at or visit their website at

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