We're Not In Illinois Anymore...

by Sally Timm


My husband Leonard and I moved to Costa Rica in mid-2010. We’ve found the process of settling in to be something like the tale of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” (“This town is too wet. This town is too windy. This town is just right!”).  Of course, while Blondie was griping about her new digs, somewhere out there was a bear scratching its head and wondering why this kid wasn’t satisfied.

I am sharing with you a bit about our quest for "just right" in the hopes you can – as we have done – benefit from our experiences.

Our story began in September 2009 when we traveled from Chicago to CR to take part in a due diligence tour.  The tour not only gave us a chance to see a sampling of what the country has to offer prospective Gringo immigrants, it also afforded us the opportunity to connect with a network of ex-pats willing to share their insights on relocation in a Central American country.

Of the many pieces of sound advice we received, the absolute best was:  Rent first! This admonition came from folks who had done just that.  We also heard it (and continue to hear it) from others who bought the first piece of Paradise they saw and now regret it.

Heeding the admonition to rent, for at least the first six months, has yielded two benefits. First, we avoided the headaches that frequently accompany property ownership and/or construction in CR. Second, we remain free to explore the rich diversity of natural beauty, climate and local culture that exists in our adopted homeland. There are resources for learning more about the former, and I encourage you to seek those out. However, it is on the latter that I’m going to focus.


The first stop in our adventure was a charming cluster of rental casitas perched on the side of a hill just outside of San Ramon, Alajuela. There, a national rain forest served as our front yard. (Sort of like living in the garden section of a Home Depot, only better.) We learned about this housing option from a Gringo couple who befriended us during our diligence tour. During a follow-up trip in early 2010, the couple invited us to join them for dinner at their rental where we saw (up close) the awesome natural beauty of the rain forest. The setting was quite alluring. What we failed to understand was just how much that setting would change come rainy season.

Fast-forward to June of 2010, when one of the wettest “green” seasons in Costa Rican memory was now underway. It rained and rained. Then, it rained some more. When it wasn’t raining, it was foggy and cold, conditions we soon realized were part of life at 3,900 feet above sea level.

We’d settled into bed #1 based on a limited understanding of whether or not it met our needs. We came to realize that what we needed (or wanted) turned out to be quite different from what we had found.  But because we rented, we were free to seek out a more suitable environment.



Like our friends at the cabinas, everyone in Gringolandia, and I do mean everyone, has an opinion about the best place to live in Costa Rica. We were flat out told not to even consider places like San José (“too dangerous”) and Escazú (“too pricy”).

As we got to know better the lay of the land, we saw that those characterizations didn’t always fit. After all, not every neighborhood in San José abounds with pick pockets; some areas are actually quite livable. Escazú has housing bargains available if you just look. What’s more, what didn’t suit others might actually appeal to us. It was this open-mindedness that led us to discover bed #2 in our tale.  The Central Valley town of Atenas was such a place we were told absolutely to avoid.  Atenas was reported to be too hot and too gringo!  Thankfully we visited Atenas and learned for ourselves what we felt to be the facts!

Our discovery did not arise through any deliberate search. Rather, it resulted from a quest for, of all things, reading material.


Atenas is home to a well-known ex-pat haunt, Kay’s Gringo Postres. Kay’s owners, Tom and Kay Costello, are refugees from the frozen land of North Dakota.  They serve up friendly conversation, North American-style comfort food, and what I believe is the largest lending library of English language books in Costa Rica.

It was our search for books that got us to looking more closely at the town and surrounding area. We liked what we saw and in October 2010, Leonard and I rented an apartment in a tranquil, rustic setting just outside of town.  We definitely like the drier, sunnier climate (even in the wet season). We find Atenas’ proximity to Costa Rica’s Central Valley to be another big plus.  Alajuela, San José and a number of smaller cities are within a 30-minute drive. The climate and locale draw in lots of ex-pats who strive to maintain a sense of community that has developed here over the years.


While we have been happy with our decision, our story does not end here. You see, among the ex-pats who’ve befriended us are your friends and mine Fran and Andy Browne.  You know them as Boomer’s Offshore. On two occasions we’ve spent time with these two "funsters" roaming parts of Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast.

Again, keeping an open mind is very important.  Had we listened strictly to the word of others, we would have never visited the province of Guanacaste.  Everybody said it was too hot and yes, it is hot. We purposely visited during the hottest and driest part of the year (April) and as it turns out it’s not too hot for us!  Leonard and I also learned that we are actually a couple of closet beachcombers. Consequently, bed #3 may possibly be situated in a wet-and-wild part of Guanacaste but then again maybe not.  Time will tell.

Staying open to the possibilities has made our life in Costa Rica interesting and enjoyable. Hopefully, something I’ve shared here will help you as you look for your happy ending. ¡Pura vida, Goldie!

Timm’s Ten Tips for Adjusting to Life in Costa Rica

Don't become the Ugly American! Make a list of everything you don’t like about what immigrants to the US do then post that list to your refrigerator as a reminder of what you won’t do if and when you move to Costa Rica. 

Learn Spanish. Although many younger Ticos understand and may even want to speak some English, Spanish is the official language of CR. Learning more than just “dos cervezas, por favor” (two beers, please) and “donde está el baño” (where’s the bathroom) will gain you respect of your Tico contacts as well as the admiration of your Gringo compadres, especially those who can’t be bothered with this task.

Take a due diligence tour. In addition to offering you a glimpse into daily ex-pat life in CR, a good tour will also link you with other ex-pats so that you can remain in contact as your relocation plans unfold.  Not all tours (or tour operators) are created equal. Be sure to ask for recommendations from former participants. Communicate directly (i.e. offline) so that people can feel comfortable with sharing their honest reviews. The CostaRicaLiving group at Yahoo.com is a great place to start.

Rent before you buy. (See above article for details.)  You'll come to appreciate the fact that this probably will be the best decision of your entire Costa Rican experience.

Think critically - use your head and not your heart.  Too many times our decisions are ruled by emotion.  That's when we tend to make the most mistakes.  Moving to Costa Rica should be looked upon the same way to decide on what house to buy or what job offer do I accept.  The results of your decision will have a profound impact on the rest of your lives.

Keep an open mind. Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know. Further, what you think you know upon arriving in CR is bound to change. Keep an open mind, and you give yourself a chance to enrich your experience in ways you might otherwise miss.

Know yourself. Frequently in Ticolandia, when someone tells you they’ll take care of something mañana (tomorrow) they really mean “not today.”

If you really are patient enough to live with this attitude without developing a bleeding ulcer, you just may be right for life in Costa Rica. If not, consider another country (and culture).

Get a GPS. Maps are good; a good global positioning system is better. Few Costa Rican streets have names or numbers. Once you locate a spot you plan to visit again, such as a friend's house or the vet's office, save that location to your GPS.  Next time you make that trip, simply choose it from your list of saved locations.  This will allow you to think about more important things while you drive, like avoiding the car driving towards you in your lane of the highway!

Know your finances.  A fair number of ex-pats have been lured to CR with the promise of being able to live on Social Security.  Can it be done?  Sure.  Just consider a) there’s a wide range of SS income checks out there and b) there’s a difference between living and surviving. Inflation and fluctuations in currency values places extreme pressure on the ol’ bank account. Keep yourself in a position to head to higher ground should rising economic waters pose a threat.

Know your spouse. Yes, love is patient, love is kind, yadda yadda. It can also get really cranky after a three-day water outage that’s kept both of you from taking a shower! Relocating can be tough under the best of circumstances.  Talk with each other and develop a plan for what to do when you’re standing on his (or her) last nerve and there’s no place to go because the road to town has been closed by a landslide.

The bottom line is, BOTH of you must be in 100% agreement about moving to Costa Rica.  If there is anything but total agreement, failure is likely.


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