Winters are long and brutal in Connecticut. By March, we are desperate to break things up with hot sun and sand. This year we spotted cheap tickets to Liberia, Costa Rica. They were direct flights from JFK to Liberia for $350 a piece. While we have often threatened to quit our jobs and retire in Costa Rica, we had never been. There are plenty of articles smearing the internet with talk about how you can retire early in Costa Rica for as little as $1k a month. We had to see for ourselves how much truth there was to this, and what kind of a living this would entail. When we saw a good deal, we jumped at the opportunity to go.
Flying into Costa Rica for the first time was exciting. The hilly terrain of Central America dotted with farms and forests was completely foreign to us. It was March – apparently the hottest month for the beach areas west of Liberia. The landscape this time or year is of dried golden grasses and barren trees. While the area around Liberia and to the west are very much like a savanna, to the east, the landscape changes to lush green as the mountains rise to the clouds. On the flight back out of Liberia, I caught this shot of the Maderas Volcano which rises up from a giant lake in Nicaragua.
Exploring Liberia, Costa Rica
We knew Costa Rica was very diverse, but we only had 7 days to explore and did not want to rush it. We like it hot, so decided to spend time in the beach towns to the west of Liberia. Since we had also just learned to surf in Puerto Rico, we sought out a beach to experience some of Costa Rica’s legendary surf. After some searching around, we decided to stay in Playa Grande. We found a great place that was basically an efficiency apartment attached to a house with a very well landscaped yard and a swimming pool. Best of all, it was about a 3 minute walk to the beach. This deluxe beach side apartment set us back $75 a night. Playa Grande is more secluded but there are plenty of amenities and towns close by.
Renting a car in Costa Rica
We rented a car which doubled in price to $50/day when the $25 mandatory insurance was added. We had already read up on the expensive rental cars, so this was no shock. What we were not certain about was whether we really needed a 4X4 vehicle. Being cheap, we decided to go with the compact economy. The car was interesting – a BYD F0, which I learned was a Chinese copy of a Toyota Aygo. Capable of carrying us and a surfboard, it was all we needed. Some roads were pretty much dirt and rock, and we mercilessly beat the crap out of the suspension. The car held up fine. And like us, most locals did not have 4X4 vehicles. I can imagine driving could be more dicey if you were in the cloud forests or there during the rainy season.
Surfing Playa Grande Costa Rica
There are several surf shops in Playa Grande and we found the best deal with Matos surf shop. They rented us a newer long-board for $75/week and boogie board for $25/week. On the second day, we got some zinc oxide sunscreen and rash guards. The sun can be brutal down there, and with the rough surf, most other sunscreens don’t survive very long. Being so close to the beach, we could easily check the surf – when it looked good, we just grabbed the boards and went surfing.
Playa Grande Costa Rica
True to its name, the beach at Playa Grande is massive. This meandering beach is made of silky white sand and has some consistent surf breaking over a forgiving sandy bottom. The first few days, the surf was pretty big and rough with a lot of closeouts. The beach drops off very slowly however, so you can catch some really nice long rides in the whitewater after the waves break. Being a beginner, I was fine starting out like that, and the boogie boarding was awesome. As the week went on, the surf mellowed out and we got to catch some nice waves. Our accommodations were far down the beach from the public access, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
While we ended up eating out much more than anticipated, we still got to do some cooking. In Costa Rica, like in most other countries, they do not keep eggs refrigerated. (Refrigeration is unnecessary unless the egg’s protective film is compromised by washing it.) They tasted farm fresh and made for some nice egg over rice breakfasts. There was also a local fish monger who did rounds through the neighborhood. We caught up with him one day and got a kilo of fresh tuna that we pan fried up for a few meals. There were great ingredients to cook with, but we also found the local food to be amazing and cheap!
How is the food in Costa Rica?
Prior to going to Costa Rica, I had only read that the food there was boring. We always like to do the local thing, so we sought out a small soda the first day we were there. We ordered some casados which are basically a standard lunch/dinner meal that comes with rice, beans, salad, fried plantain, and one type of meat. Our casados turned out awesome! The beans were well seasoned and delicious, the fish was fresh, the plantains nice and caramelized, and the salad refreshing.
On average, we paid $6 for a casado at local sodas, including tip! The meals tasted amazing and provided nutrition packed fuel for our adventuring. I could eat casados everyday and we pretty much did.
At another soda, Mrs Crazy Kicks ordered a fish casado. We were not sure what kind of fish it was when it came out, but it was amazingly good. With a nice chewy texture and some rich tasty fat on it, this was the BEST fish either of us had ever tasted! Then we hit a big bone in one piece and after double checking the menu realized that Mrs Crazy Kicks had really ordered the pork. Our Spanish could probably use some more work. So yeah. The pork was fucking delicious – the best fish I ever had.
Tamarindo water taxi
Playa Grande is nice and quiet, but still has some good amenities close by. There are several restaurants and a local grocery in walking distance. The touristy town of Tamarindo is about a 40 minute drive, or you can take a 5 minute water taxi across the estuary. Tamarindos beaches are lined with small hotels and there are plenty of restaurants and bars. We stopped at the Volcano Brewery attached to the Witches Rock Surf camp and had the best IPA I tasted in Costa Rica. Well, the only IPA I had in Costa Rica, but it was really good!
Taking the water taxi was an interesting experience. We did have to wait for a while for one to come take us from Hotel Bula Bula on Playa Grande and ferry us down the estuary to Tamarindo. This cost us $3 per person and the ride was only ~10 minutes. On the way back however, we could only find one guy, and he would only take us straight across the estuary rather than up the estuary to where we had come from. Maybe not the most reliable, but that shorter trip only cost $1 per person and it made for a nice walk back along the beach.
Is it cheap to retire in Costa Rica?
As far as living in Costa Rica, it can be cheap but this depends on how you live. The food at local sodas was delightful and inexpensive. We also caught up with some friends who were living in Playa Flamingo in a nice apartment near the beach. With utilities, including A/C, they were paying around $700 a month in rent. Most food in the grocery stores is reasonably priced. The beer however was pricey. Imperial, which became our PBR, went for $10 a six pack in the grocery. Craft beers were obviously hard to find and much pricier.
From talking to our friends, cars cost about double or triple what they do in the States and this seems to be true for anything imported. So depending on how you live, it could be more expensive than living in the States. If you can live like a local however, nice surf and stunning beaches with affordable accommodations are here in spades.
While we only got to see a small part of a really diverse country, we loved Costa Rica and we plan on returning soon. We saw much less than we planned because we were having too much fun playing in the surf and sand right in our backyard. Next time, we will probably return to Guanacaste’s beaches, but also spend a few days in the cloud forests exploring nature and wildlife that we did not catch this time. While we aren’t moving just yet, I can see how it would be nice to retire in Costa Rica.