Both Costa Rica and Ecuador have much to offer retired expats. I will start with the northernmost of the two: Costa Rica, which is much smaller, is more modern in North American/European terms.
Retirement in Costa Rica
One of the great attractions of living in Costa Rica is that the medical care is excellent, yet if needs be, Miami and Houston are only a couple of hours away.
Another major aspect that many retirees may find advantageous is that one does not have to know much Spanish, because nearly everybody speaks English to some degree in Costa Rica.
Mother Nature is at her best in these latitudes. The Caribbean side of the cordillera receives almost 200 inches (5 meters!) of rain every year, which leads to frequent road closures from San Jose to Limon, but the result of all that irrigation is amazingly lush and green. Elsewhere, climates range from the relatively dry Guanacaste Peninsula to the shrouded cloud forests of Monteverde to some of the densest rainforests in the world, home to uncounted species of animals.
Although Costa Rica lies in the tropics, the mountainous terrain creates a huge variety of microclimates. The period of May to November is the rainy season, whereas December through June is drier. The same natural splendor that attracts so many tourists to Costa Rica also makes it an excellent retirement location for those who enjoy outdoor activities – from nature adventures such as river rafting, surfing, and sport fishing, to hiking and horse-back riding, to lazing on an exotic beach all day or soaking in a natural thermal spring on a cool mountain eve.
Most retirees tend to congregate in the central valley, close to the capital, in places like Alajuela, Cartago, Santa Ana, and the various other smaller towns that make up the greater San José area. The capital itself has much to offer as well, as long as you remain careful and are aware that petty thievery has been refined to a science here. Not many retirees live in San José proper, as it is a bustling city and somewhat polluted, but just 15 minutes to half an hour away, there exists another world. The hills to west of the capital present breathtaking views of the central valley, along with a wide variety of housing, everything from gated communities to condos, houses, and apartments are available, from the pleasantly simple local-type constructions to the finest luxury.
As far as Real Estate in Costa Rica goes, don’t expect any bargains, the last of those were had at the end of the 70’s, yet very nice properties can still be found at fair prices.
The climate in the central valley negates the need for air conditioning, and tropical ceiling fans are sufficient to keep you comfortable during the day, with a very few exceptions when a combination of heat and humidity may make it a little sticky in the daytime. But nights are usually cool and comfortable, particularly in the dry season.
Another less costly option is in the south, on the other side of the Cerro de la Muerte, in the region around the lovely, clean town called San Isidro del General, or just San Isidro. It is in an agricultural region where many of Costa Rica’s vegetables are grown and land is more affordable. The incredible Pacific Beaches of Dominical and Quepos, another half hour north, are accessible, while you can live in a more comfortable climate. In the other direction is Chirripo National Park, home of the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. Near the entrance to the park is the town of San Gerardo, a cute little mountain town that is about 45 minutes away from San Isidro and has a very healthy climate, where at night it can get downright cold. If you like this alpine climate, you can find lots, houses, and farms for sale. You will also find fresh dairy and cheese production here, hot springs very close to town, and a small expat community that has existed for over 30 years and is slowly growing.
San Isidro has also grown quite a bit in the last few years, and has a sizeable expat community that meets continuously at the Grand Hotel Chirripo, which is located on the main square. It is a very peaceful and quiet town, halfway between San José and Panama, with very good medical facilities, banks, internet, telephones and just about everything you may be looking for, including a sizeable community of Northern and European retirees who shun the hot climates of the sea level areas, enjoying many get-togethers, social events, potluck dinners, and outings.
Another very popular area for retirees is in the north of the country, around Arenal, where you have a large lake, active volcanoes and a large influence of Europeans, particularly Dutch, German and English. It must however be stressed that Volcano Arenal is very active, and has in the recent past caused some serious damage, as well as contributing to constant seismic activity. The area is relatively remote, and if you decide to settle here, be prepared to spend a lot of time on your own. Recently, a couple of developments have sprung up, which provide a more neighborly feeling.
As for gaining residency, one can qualify for Costa Rica’s pensionado status by fulfilling three requirements. The first is to show proof that you receive at least US$1000 per month from a qualified pension or retirement account or from Social Security (this will cover both yourself and your spouse, unless you are a gay couple). You must then change at least $1ooo a month into colones and live in Costa Rica for a minimum of four months out of the year. Costa Rica used to exempt pensionados from paying import taxes on belongs brought into the country, but this exemption was rescinded back in 1992, and now you are required to pay the taxes on most items. Another important item of note is the fact that it is now mandatory that all residents be members of Costa Rica’s socialized medical system.
Immigration law in Costa Rica changed significantly as of March 2010, causing a great amount of confusion. But one of the new requirements is that you must have an official representative. Expect to pay around $1000 per couple to complete the entire residency process.
Hiring an experienced immigration specialists/attorney who knows not only the ins and outs of the process but the bureaucrats involved is also a good idea for Ecuador, as well, and will be well worth the US$500-700 for saving you the copious amount of time and hassle it takes waiting in lines, notarizing paperwork, etc. The basic requirements for residency visas for retired persons in Ecuador are proof of $8000 per year, and you must not leave the country for a minimum of six months.
These laws are subject to change at any time, so I strongly advise that you get the most current information from the respective Consulate or Embassy in your home country. They can also inform you on which documents you will need notarized by them before you can start the process of retiring in the country of your choice. For example, in both instances, you will need to provide a criminal background check as well as certified proof of income. There are other options besides the retired person’s visas, such as coming in as an investor by buying a certain amount of property. So do your research.
Retirement in Ecuador
Now let me go on to sing the praises of Ecuador, a country that has much to offer as well, stating with its native population, many of whom still speak their ancient Quechua language and wear their traditional trajes (traditional tribal costumes).
The rich culture of Ecuador is steeped in its colonial past, with an intriguing blend of indigenous and catholic traditions that is so unique to Latin America. While this atmosphere is alluringly charming, and it also means that the culture is much more conservative than that of Costa Rica. Learning Spanish is a must, if only in order to not be taken advantage of. The security situation is similar to Costa Rica’s, where one must remain vigilant and be aware of your surroundings, particularly at bus stops and in taxis. Perhaps this is easier to keep in mind in a country where poverty is more prevalent, and, in fact, this may be one of the biggest differences between Ecuador and Costa Rica.
Climate wise, the two countries are similar in that Ecuador also has a surprising variety of climates, due to the Andes Mountains. Although it greater in size, the population centers are concentrated in the protected valleys in the Andes and along the Pacific Coast, while the nearly half of the country that lies in the Amazon Basin to the east is home to less than 5% of the country’s total population. Being right at the equator, there are no seasonal changes to Ecuador’s weather.
When it comes to food available in regular everyday restaurants, Ecuador beats Costa Rica without a doubt. While the Tico’s (the residents of Costa Rica refer to themselves as such) national dish is something called Gallo Pinto, which is rice and black beans, sometimes with fried eggs or platanos, a type of cooking banana, regularly served 3 times a day, is quite palatable and you get used to it, Ecuador cuisine offers a lot more variety and takes advantage of the large selection of fabulous seafood that is available.
Ecuador does have reasonably good hospitals, emergency rooms, doctors, and pharmacies, particularly in the cities, although only some are bilingual. Public healthcare is free in many places, or extremely economical. However, they may not be the best services or the most secure. There are also private clinics and prepaid medical plans that offer a higher quality of services.
I should mention the general health situations in the two countries, here. Both having tropical climates, there are also tropical diseases to be wary of, namely, dengue fever and malaria. These diseases are carried by mosquitoes and are more of a hazard at lower altitudes (below 1500 m, 5000 ft, for dengue). Use of mosquito repellent is highly recommended in those areas where they exist, and other methods of avoiding mosquito bites includes lighting mosquito coils, using netting, and covering up, especially around sunset.
Hygiene standards are higher in Costa Rica, where the water is generally safe to drink, with the exception of a few remote rural areas. Ecuador’s water, on the other hand, is unsafe, food borne illnesses are common, and the milk is unpasteurized, so dairy products can be problematic. Ecuador’s Amazonia also carries the risk of typhoid and yellow fever, for which one should be vaccinated, while Costa Rica is not plagued by these diseases. And finally, note that Quito’s high altitude and other locations in the high Andes take some getting used to.
The cost of living recently has gone up quite a bit, since the currency is now tied to the US Dollar, which has lost 20% of its value against SDR’s (special drawing rights, based on a basket of currencies), whereas the Canadian and Australian Dollars and Swiss Franc have appreciated considerably against the Dollar, by as much as 20%. Retirees who want to be relatively comfortable should have an income in the range of US$2000 to $4000 per month. Of course, you can always get by with a little less by eliminating foods that are imported and using public transport as opposed to owning a car. The prices for property, just like in Costa Rica, have adjusted themselves to the foreigners who are shopping for them. Depending on where you are looking, raw land to build your home is still relatively affordable, and building costs and labor remain quite reasonable.
There are also many houses and apartments available, to rent or buy, something to please almost all tastes and budgets. You might want to take the cautionary step of hiring a lawyer to make sure things are on the up and up. The city of Cuenca seems to be a favorite for retirees, due to its mild climate, along with the availability of social activities, due its growing anglophile expat community. Part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring many fine colonial buildings. It is at an altitude of roughly 2500 meters or 8250 feet, and is surrounded by mountains that protect it from the worst of weather. Night time tends to be cool, while the days feel as if in perpetual springtime.
Of course, there is much more to living in Ecuador than Cuenca, its fourth largest city. There is the capital of Quito. Located at an altitude of 2800 m (9200 ft) at its main plaza, this cultural gem was actually one of the first cities to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The high altitude and proximity to the equator give it a regular climate year round, with daytime highs of around 65°F and overnight lows of about 50°F. There are roughly 2 million people in the greater metro area, but the main plaza, in the Old City, is the heart of the city, where the café culture is alive and well. Quito features a very good urban transport network, so getting around is quite easy. One of the greatest advantages for expats in Quito is the presence one of the South America Explorers clubhouses, which provides all kinds of information and discounts on travel and leisure activities, as well as organized tours and Spanish classes.
Ecuador also features a Pacific Coastline of about 1000 km (650 miles) that reaches from Peru to Colombia. The climate here is generally hot and muggy, (we’re talking about being right on the equator, after all), but not really much more so than Costa Rica’s Pacific or Atlantic Coasts. There are many resorts and developments that cater to foreigners, so if you need coconut trees and Mai-Tais served to you in your hammock, or you value great surf, this would be the place to check out. The country’s largest city, Guayaquil, home to over 4 million people, which serves as its main port, is also located here, as well as a whole string of towns where an abundance of excellent seafood is to be savored.
I have compiled a list of items that will be of interest to you, and have made it alphabetical, ranking it from 1-1o, 1 being unacceptable to 10 being super!
Costa Rica Ecuador
Cost of Living 7-8 5-8
Climate 5-9 5-9
Crime 3-8 6-9
Education Level 9.5 6-9
Freedoms of the population 10 8
Ease of gaining residency 8 8
Health Care 6-10 5-9
Historical Sites 3-6 8-10
Inflation 5 5
Political Stability 9.5 2
Public Transport 6-9 7-9
Quality of life 9 9
Safety 7.5 8
Shopping 5-9 7-9
Real Estate Choices 8-10 7-10
As there are different parts of each country, ranging from sea level to over 10,000 feet, and from urban to rural, some of the ratings are multiples such as 4-6, because not all locales are the same. For instance, if you live in the country, medical care will not be as good as if you lived near a big city. Public transport is divided as well, as the local service scores higher than long distance service.
In the overall comparison, if I had to make a choice based on today’s circumstances, I would probably choose Ecuador, mainly because of the culture and colonial architecture, as well as the ever present natives and the public markets offering a wide variety of oh, so fresh fruits and vegetables. But having spent years in Costa Rica, it would be a very close second, because in that country, I am familiar with so many out of the way places that are so scenically spectacular, and all along the Pacific Coast, the lights twinkle late into the night, inviting you to stop by and meet other expats. Both are very friendly and alluring countries with much to offer.
About the Author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He is always available for assignments and new adventures. [Send him an email]