Retiring In Costa Rica: The Dream And The Reality
PLAYA HERMOSA, Guanacaste, Costa Rica — There is scarcely a breeze on the beach in Playa Hermosa, along the central Pacific coast. Dan Brovont is surveying the sunset. He has been in Costa Rica for just five hours, having flown in from Albuquerque.
His first impression: “Heat. Heat and humidity. Of course I’m way out of shape. I’m sure if I dropped a few pounds, I could weather the heat a little bit better.”
Tropical heat is just one of the many challenges that face Brovont as he contemplates retiring in Central America. Back home, he’s already starting to sell his gun collection — and he’s thinking about selling his house — in preparation for a move.
Brovont, however, isn’t completely sure that Costa Rica is right for him.
“I thought that, before I got any farther, I ought to make sure that I’m on the right track, or figure out a Plan B,” he said.
Actually, Costa Rica is his Plan B; he first investigated retiring to Hawaii, but learned that the Aloha State was simply too expensive for his budget. He’s hoping Costa Rica will bring him some of the adventure of Hawaii at a fraction of the cost.
Now, he’s hired a married couple to give him a realistic orientation to the country.
Expats Fran and Andy Browne moved to Costa Rica from North Carolina in 2009 after they had both been laid off from their jobs. Without employer-subsidized health care, they were paying $1,800 a month for health insurance. They moved to Costa Rica to escape the high cost of medical care.
Four years later they ended up in Playa Hermosa, a sleepy little beach town on the Pacific Coast in the Guanacaste region of the country.
Their present home is up, way up, above Hermosa beach. What a place this is: a million-dollar home overlooking the Pacific, where you can watch the sun sink into the sea every evening. A big swimming pool, plenty of space for their dogs, a guest quarters where Brovont stays during his orientation.
It’s really everything a retiree could want. The Brownes are renting for just $1,400 a month.
They didn’t get to their piece of paradise by chance. It took the Brownes a lot of research and discipline.
“People come here. They wind up thinking with their hearts, instead of their heads,” Andy Browne said. “They leave their logic back in the states and they come here making huge mistakes.”
He believes as these would-be expats search for beauty, adventure, and cheap living in their golden years, they need to know about the harsh realities that lie ahead should they come here.
The Brownes got the idea of starting a business in Costa Rica, giving “due-diligence” tours to future retirees, because they saw so many expat retirees leaving the country.
“From what I have seen, almost half the people that move here wind up going back home inside of the first 12-18 months, because Costa Rica has not met their expectations,” Andy Browne said.
They saw opportunity in helping future retires by helping them to understand the marketing, the hype, that is drawing people from the U.S. The expectation of the good life, the pure life (or pura vida, as it’s known in Costa Rica) is easy to understand. Costa Rica appeals to expats with its affordable health care system, the simple lifestyle, and water you can drink out of the tap.
The due diligence tour is necessary because future retirees need a reality check.
“All of a sudden, people come here, they think they can live like a king, on $500 a month. That’s a total bunch of crap,” Andy Browne said. So he and his wife begin their tours by taking potential retirees to chat with others who have already moved here.
Fran Browne senses what the visiting Brovont needs.
“This gentleman who is here right now is single, so we’re taking him to a couple of single people’s homes to talk with them,” she said. “This isn’t rocket science.”
However, she says there’s more to the tour than simply quizzing the retirees who are already here.
“The second day, we take them to the pharmacy,” Fran Browne said. “A lot of people our age are on medication. Let’s go see if it’s available. Talk to the pharmacist. See how much that stuff costs.”
No due diligence tour would be complete without a trip to the store.
“Then we take them grocery shopping, where they have a heart attack," she said. "They’re shocked at how expensive a bag of Ruffles potato chips is. I say, you’ve worked 40 years, and if you want to spend $5 for potato chips, do it!”
But sometimes, all the preparation in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t heed the best advice. John Dungan of El Paso did all his own research, but ignored it.
“What went wrong? Oh God, there were so many things that went wrong,” Dungan said.
In 2009, Dungan and his wife Blanca packed all their possessions into a container and shipped them to Costa Rica. At first, the couple was happy, but it didn’t last.
“I had been advised, in everywhere you look when you are doing research about Costa Rica, 'don’t buy! Rent!' I ignored that because, all my life, I’d been a homeowner," Dungan said.
So, they spent nearly $100,000 to move from the states and build their dream house in the Lake Arenal region. Once the thrill of the move had faded, the culture and bureaucracy of this developing country quickly took over.
Thieves stole their electricity, tapping into Dungan’s electrical service. When the Dungans finally discovered what had happened, they couldn’t get help from either the power company or the police.
In fact, Dungan said, they were informed that if they persisted in pursuing their case against the power thieves, they could be subject to Costa Rica’s harsh libel and slander laws.
When the ATM they used regularly to retrieve money from the states to pay their bills stole their money, the bank did nothing.
“They said we would have to file a claim with our bank in the states,” Dungan said. It took six weeks to finally get the money that the ATM keep for itself.
The problems mounted, they couldn’t take it any more, and they had to leave.
“My first thought was ... oh, for crying out loud! We’re stuck with this house. We just can’t walk away from all this,” Dungan said.
But they did walk away. The Dungans retreated back to the states, two years after their misadventure began, losing their home and their investment. They came to Costa Rica with a shipping container full of their possessions and with hearts full of hopes for the good life. They left Costa Rica with just whatever they could fit into four suitcases.
The Dungans are now back in El Paso, happily living in an apartment, even knowing that they will probably never be able to be homeowners again. This brings us back to Andy Browne and his advice from the due diligence tour.
“Rent, and get to know the country,” he said. “Know that some of the processes around here are so screwed up that they defy belief. If you can do that and be happy with yourself, you stand a much better chance of living here happily and successfully.”