Mar 18 2016

Retire for Less in Costa Rica – March 18, 2016

Welcome to our Retire For Less In Costa Rica Newsletter

Paul and Gloria

In This Issue: 


Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve: Gardening in the Wind

GardeningWithSteve_smI’d never gardened in a windy place before I came to Costa Rica. Our property is situated in the mountains, on top of a ridge, and from December through March the Trade Winds hit that ridge at a right angle. There were no windbreaks when we got here (and not even any trees) and I figured the wind was going to be a problem. But I told myself, let’s just start the garden and see what happens. The winds flattened everything. Not only was it flattened, plants were yanked out of the ground by their roots. We used to joke that we’d have to run a rope line from the house down to the garden so I could hang on to it to keep from being blown away.

During the last six years I’ve learned to deal with the wind. I had to – it was cope, or quit. By the way, if you live in the southern Pacific side of Costa Rica, or in the Caribbean lowlands, you’re lucky because strong winds are unusual in those areas.

Here is some advice, based on what I’ve learned.


Here’s the easiest strategy – don’t garden during the windiest months, December through March. There is some logic to this because this is also the dry season, a good time to give your garden a rest. But there are some problems – what about protecting fruit trees and ornamental plants during these months? Sometimes there are strong winds at other times of the year (July 2014, for example, was a very windy month at our place). And, there are some folks (like me) who garden straight through the dry season.


Building a stone or concrete wall is a quick and effective way to protect your plants. Of course, it’s also the most expensive. You can save time and money by using baldosas – prefab cement slabs, but they are not very attractive. Walls can also provide aesthetic value. If it’s an exterior wall to your property it also provides some security. The first wall we built was for security. Previous to the wall we had a barbed-wire fence. Barbed-wire fences don’t keep out bad people, only good people. Once the wall was finished we discovered it provided an aesthetic backdrop for our flowerbeds. You can do a variety of things with walls, such as paint murals on them or grow ivy to beautify them.

The wall and arbor protecting our pond

The wall and arbor protecting our pond

The second wall we built was to provide some wind protection for our pond. It was very effective. We built an arbor on the leeward side of the wall, and so it also provides shade. One good thing about walls and wind, the wall actually creates a cushion of air on the windward side as the wind goes up and over. Plants growing against the wall on the windward side are actually protected to some degree, not a whole lot, but some. We planted the vines to cover the arbor on the windward side, and they are actually doing just fine.

A bad thing about walls is that because they stop the wind completely, they create a very strong high pressure on the windward side, and a very low pressure on the leeward side. As Isaac Newton said: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We witnessed this on the leeward side of our house, where the wind creates strong eddies that can damage plants almost as much as if they were on the windward side. This leads to the last two methods, fences and hedges.


Fences can also be quick and effective, and they are usually much cheaper than walls. One of the cheapest options is to install posts and cover them with corrugated metal. These can be kind of an eyesore, but there are many creative ways to beautify them. You can design a fence so that it allows some of the wind to blow through it. I highly recommend this. Not only will this reduce the huge difference in pressure on either side of the fence, thereby dampening the eddy effect, it will also lesson the chance of the wind blowing your fence down. Yes, not only are fences blown down in our neighborhood, some friends even had a cement-block wall blown down. So build a sturdy foundation for your wall or fence and build diagonal struts to support it on the leeward side.

The fence protecting the vegetable garden

The fence protecting the vegetable garden

This leads to the fence that our handyman, Don Alexis, built for our vegetable garden. After everything was destroyed by the wind we talked over what kind of a fence he could build that would be most effective. Putting my trust in his good judgment, I was well rewarded. Don Alexis welded together a vertical steel frame ten feet tall. He built a solid cement foundation and diagonal struts on the leeward side to strengthen it. To the frame he welded heavy-duty welded wire mesh (it’s called maya electrosoldada in Spanish). Over this he secured shade cloth (sarán en Spanish). He covered the fence with two layers of shade cloth and spent extra effort to fastening it securely to the frame. The wind tugs at the shade cloth 24-7 and it has required maintenance at least twice a year. Six years later it looks pretty ragged, but it’s still there doing its job. One thing about walls and fences, besides stopping the wind, they also create shade, not something you’d normally want in a vegetable garden. So by using shade cloth, Don Alexis lessened the impact of the wind, reduced the eddy effect, and also lessened the shade that a wall or solid fence would have created. After the first fence was such a big success, I had Don Alexis build a second one downwind from the first.


Once the emergency was over I began thinking about hedges. Hedges can be very effective windbreaks (and they are considerably cheaper than walls and fences) but you must be patient while they grow, and once they are in place they require maintenance. One excellent feature of hedges, they allow some of the wind through, therefore reducing the eddy effect.

So what kind of tree or shrub should you plant for a hedge? That’s a good question, and the answer depends to a large degree on what part of Costa Rica you live in. We live in the highlands, so I have no experience with hedges in places like, say, Guanacaste.

My first experience was with trueno (Ligustrum lucidum). My neighbors had planted it along the property line about a year before we built our house. I decided to locate the vegetable garden down the hill near that property line. When I planned the garden and looked at the hedge, I thought, that’s a nice little row of shrubs, the garden will be safe from their roots if I keep it ten feet away. WRONG. Trueno can grow to be 25 feet tall, which is not a problem, but it is a heavy feeder and its roots can go out almost 20 feet. After a year I noticed the plants on side of the garden nearest the hedge had become stunted and yellow. I started digging and discovered the soil had become a solid mass of tree roots. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. So although trueno creates a good windbreak, don’t plan on growing anything within 20 feet of it. Also, because of its vigorous growth, it needs to be pruned back heavily twice a year. Trueno does well here at 5,000 feet elevation and it can grow well down to about 3,400 feet.

Cypress hedge

Cypress hedge

Cypress trees are the most common windbreak in our area. The variety that grows here is Mexican cypress (Cupressus lusitanica). I don’t think it will grow well down more then about 4,000 feet elevation. I was warned not to plant cypress because it (like trueno) is a heavy feeder and you can’t really grow anything else near it.  But where we live cypress does create the best windbreak, so I eventually began planting it. I now have one hedge about ten feet tall, have started a second, and am planning a third, which I hope to grow to about twenty feet tall.

Hibiscus hedge on the left, trueno hedge in the background

Hibiscus hedge on the left, trueno hedge in the background

Hibiscus is another option. It grows well here in the highlands and also grows well at middle and low elevations. It is not as effective as trueno or cypress, but is much more attractive and is not as destructive to the soil. There are many different kinds of hibiscus and some make more effective windbreaks than others. I’ve found the variety with the little scarlet nodding closed-flowers is the best. It goes by a variety of names, but our neighbors call it amapolita (scientific name: Malvaviscus pendufloris).

Bamboo hedge

Bamboo hedge

This brings us to the last option, bamboo, something I’ve not tried because, like the cypress, I was warned against it. The problem with most varieties of bamboo is the rampant growth of their rhizomes, which will gradually spread out and eventually take over everything. Years ago in South Carolina I was the gardener at our church. There was a two-lane asphalt highway in front of the church and there were concrete sidewalks on either side. The neighbor across the road planted bamboo. As God is my witness, I tell you the bamboo grew under both sidewalks and the highway and came up in the church garden. When I explained what had happened at the annual membership meeting, one of the parishioners exclaimed, “That bamboo is the work of the devil.” I’ve heard you can control bamboo by creating an underground wall around it, but I have never tried this. Sounds like a lot o work.

Several years ago our neighbor planted a bamboo fence, and it has proved to be an effective windbreak. First he built a fence using cement posts and then ran five or six horizontal strands of wire to support the bamboo. Next he planted a very small variety bamboo (sorry, I don’t know the name) that I see a lot of here in the highlands. It formed a very dense hedge about ten feet high. I’ve noticed each year it gets a little denser and spreads a little to the sides.

For those who have serious wind problems, I hope you find this information useful. Maybe you will discover a better way to stop the wind. Good luck and happy gardening.

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In the Mailbag – Everybody’s Talking About the Cost of Living in Costa Rica

When we posted Our February 2016 Costa Rica Cost of Living Expenses – $1991.73 on facebook, we got LOTS of varied reactions. Here are a few of our favorites:

Tom M. wrote:

This month, after living here since September 11, 2013, I had my best budget month. I am no longer fighting my impulse to wish I had the convenience of how we shopped in the USA. Also, I have finally found the shops for what I want rather then drop a bundle on being lazy! It takes time to learn this new way of life, but now my cash flow works and I have peace about the way of life. Why it took me so long, I don’t care!

Charles M. wrote:

You should be capitalizing and depreciating the asset purchases rather than expensing them. You will get a much more accurate number and it wont be so lumpy month to month. Also rather than showing the sequential results, why not compare year over year numbers? Seasonality is likely a major factor in costs.

Thanks, Charles, for your input. We do average everything out at the end of the year and compare year-to-year costs of living. The name of our work and web site is “Retire for Less.” It’s Retire for a life Less complicated, where month to month expenses over time make sense for people who want to know how day-to-day life shakes out for one family month-to-month in one country, living well, but modestly. People have always appreciated that simplicity.

Mike H. wrote:

Are you kidding me?? I can’t imagine one person living on that..let alone two? Do you ever have fun? I have had people saying I won’t make it there…. I hate saying what my retirement is but I will….it’s just me and my dog.. but much more than twice your budget is my income…if that is correct I could buy a really nice boat in a couple of years…

Then Mike, you could probably live like a king here. And yes, we do have fun. We go out to dinner, invite folks over for meals, go to community and cultural events, go to the beach for the day a couple of times a month. But for us, fun doesn’t always cost money. Fun for me (Gloria) is reading a great book in our hammock, listening to the birds sing, watching the sunset off our porch, or enjoying the water with friends at our favorite close beach.  But we know that what we call “fun” and what others call “fun” isn’t necessarily the same. We are sharing our journey to show folks that a great life is possible for us (and maybe them) in Costa Rica, on less.

And Bonnie V., a long-time reader, wrote this:

We met Paul and Gloria in April of 2012 when we first came here to explore retirement in Costa Rica. We kept in touch, and when we came back a year and a half later, they invited us to spend a night with them in their rental home outside of San Ramon We were there as their guests, not part of any tour, and they were gracious, welcoming hosts. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner and breakfast which Gloria prepared from wholesome, locally sourced ingredients, all served on their comfortable patio with a beautiful view of the mountains and distant ocean. I have followed their newsletter for almost four years and have written to Gloria numerous times to ask questions. I have found Paul and Gloria to be generous with their time and forthright with their responses. Reading their tips for living on less and seeing first hand how they live joyful lives, gave us the confidence to retire last year rather than continuing to work until we had “enough” money. Some may find, as I do, that the toaster example is a bit extreme. But really, the point they make is that there are all sorts of ways that you can save a little bit here and a little bit there to carve out simple, joyful, and meaningful lives here. The choices you make will be determined by your income and tolerance level. If your income is twice or three times what theirs is, that’s wonderful! You’ll be able to live a lifestyle closer to what you lived wherever you came from. Out of necessity, we live on a budget that is even lower than Paul and Gloria’s. We’ve learned so much from their newsletters, yet we make different choices about where to save. Do we have fun? Every day! We enjoy the simple pleasures of walking our dog, interacting with the Ticos, preparing delicious meals at home, attending and hosting potlucks with our Tico and Gringo friends, watching movies on Netflix, etc. And we’ve enjoyed the company of several visiting friends and family members since we arrived here. The money we’ve saved by living in a small town and living simple, low-consumer lifestyles has allowed us to take several modest vacations to the Pacific coast, the Central Valley, the Caribbean coast, and the Southern Zone. We have good friends who live charmed lives here on far less money than we do. They swing this by not owning a vehicle, growing their own organic produce, rarely eating at restaurants, and taking fewer vacations than we do. We, too, track every expenditure, and it takes very little time. I always make sure to get receipts or jot down the amount spent when I don’t get one, and when I get on my computer in the evening, I enter them in a spreadsheet and throw most of the receipts away. It takes less than two minutes a day but is invaluable in making sure we live within our means. There are many paths to a happy life, and I appreciate Paul and Gloria sharing their path.

A few others mentioned our toaster example as well. Eric T. wrote:

Are you that big of a tight-wad Paul, or just trying to recycle? Buy a new freaking toaster, or at least eat the cardboard you have been reusing for the past year. Sheesh. How much did you spend per month while living in the U.S. before moving to Costa Rica?

toasterTo answer Eric’s question, we spent about $3450/month in the States and spend about $2000/month here — a whopping 42% reduction in expenses that goes along with an even better quality of life. The whole point of the toaster account in our cost of living report wasn’t that we’re tightwads (though I will admit to being frugal). It’s my (Gloria’s) desire to stop throwing away things which still work. Instead, we get them repaired or find work-arounds. I think it would make my depression-era parents proud! Plus, it’s always good for a laugh at breakfast time when we have folks visiting.

N. Johnson wrote:

I know my position is not well received here but people get way too intoxicated on pura vida do not fully account for the real costs to live in CR as an expat. Where are costs to do boarder runs or fly back to US? Where are costs to buy a relaible car in CR? Where are cost going out to dinner and having a few drinks costs? Where are auto repair costs? (not just maintnance). Paul’s job seem to be seducing gullible US citizen into thinking that can live in paradise for less than the US, and what he is selling is not reality (sorry Paul nothing personal). You can only survive in CR on less than $2K a month, you cannot live at the same comfort as in US. And you are not living in Expat communities like Santana, Nosara, or Santa Tersea for $2K a month. (Santa now being one the most expensive places to live in central america as an expat). I love CR and know it well, (been a habitual tourist here since 1998), many great aspects to the country which I adore. But its no cheaper to live the same life style in CR as it is in Florida, and in US you can actually work PT and make some money; not take jobs from Ticos.

And here is Paul’s reply:

N. Johnson, it’s true we live in the western central valley, in San Ramon de Alajuela & it’s considerably less expensive than living at the beach. However, we’ve been doing this for years too. We are not tourists, nor expats, but rather immigrants with permanent residency. We’ve NEVER said our way is the only way. Incidentally, we do mention & put in everything in our monthly cost of living, i.e. airfares, meals out, auto repairs, etc. We leave nothing out. Additionally, we write about crime, humidity, mold, & the heat of some areas.We never mention the word paradise nor luxury. We feel they are both disingenuous & a marketing “come-on.” We tell it like it is, the good, the bad, & the ugly. I hope our readers are not gullible. It’s also true, if you want to live that BIG American Life, it’s going to cost you. We just live a little life, an extremely fascinating & fulfilling one, & for us it’s just beginning. We’ve just scratched the surface of the possibilities.

If you are wondering what it would cost YOU to retire in Costa Rica, check out our article, “So What Would It Cost ME to Live in Costa Rica?”

And responding to Our January 2016 Costa Rica Cost of Living Expenses article mentioning watching television and movies in Costa Rica, Paddicakes shares the following info with our readers:

Here are two additional ways to watch TV shows from the US:
For live TV, there is ustvnow.comTVset
You can also record — but it is limited unless you pay additional. You can also sign-in using Facebook.

For yesterday’s TV and international TV without the VPN: use If you set up a profile, you can keep track of the shows you want to watch — but you don’t need a profile to watch. You can also watch episodes of shows that you missed and some older TV shows you used to watch. This site is a little trickier and you have to learn to not fall for any download requests and to just close and ignore the ads — very much like the old project free TV was. Also be careful not to fall for any start buttons that are really commercials. I find “vodlocker” works best for me and “vidbull” when it comes to view options. As for Downton Abbey, I got to watch it when it came out in Britain and have already watched the final episode — the Christmas special.

Thanks Paddicakes for showing us another way to have fun without spending money!


Featured Property: San Ramon Wheelchair Accessible Casa for Sale in Empalme $150,000 USD



Property ID: JM001

Asking Price: $150,000

Bedrooms: 2

Bathrooms: 2

Home: 280 m2




This is an amazing house with amazing views in El Empalme, west of the town of San Ramon. Brand new, custom design concrete construction, every room has ocean views.

Split floor plan with bedroom & bath on each end of the house. American style, large spacious rooms, hot/cold water thoughout. Lots of outlets, lights.


Master suite is 40 m2 with large bathroom and 2 closets.


LARGE kitchen, room for several cooks, Guanacaste wood kitchen cabinets, granite counter tops.


LED lights throughout, no a/c needed in this beautiful mountaintop climate, for low electric bills.

Located on a paved road, 500m from highway, 7km west of San Ramon. Close to hospital, university, & shopping. 45 minutes from both the airport and the beach.

Quiet and secure.

Wheelchair accessible.

Property ID: JM001

Click here for  more photos and to contact the realtor for this property.

Though we recommend you rent, rent, rent when you move to Costa Rica, we realize that some folks will still choose to buy, either early on or after they’ve been here for a while. We recommend purchasing properties under $150,000 because they are both easier to buy and easier to sell. Though we are not realtors, we work with trusted realtors who have many other properties in this price range available. The homes we feature are just a sample of the properties the realtors we work with have, both above and below $150,000.

Click here to check out our other properties under $150,000 and read about what to do before you buy.


Our Ultimate Healthcare Tour of Costa Rica

Our newest tour is the Ultimate Healthcare Tour of Costa Rica. When asked what he liked best about our healthcare tour, one of our guests wrote, “the wide variety of places we saw, the experts that Paul HCTOUR_030arranged for us to meet and talk with, and an emphasis on all aspects of health, not just doctors and hospitals. Mental health is just as important as physical, if not more so.”HCTOUR_008

We’ve lived in Costa Rica for over six and a half years and have used the Caja, Costa Rica’s public healthcare system extensively, as well as the private system, when needed. We’ve learned the system and have been referred up the ladder to see specialists in the maze that is the Caja system. Gloria’s even had surgery here.

Our blend of personal insights and on-the-ground experience combines to answer your questions about whether or not Costa Rica’s healthcare system could meet your individual needs.


But, while it is focused on healthcare, you will learn a lot more about living and retiring in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Most of the second day of the tour takes place in the town of San Ramón where we live and use the services. And you will come to our home for lunch that day to listen to two of our featured speakers.

Our tour is designed to save you both time and money, packing a lot of information into a short period of time. Our goal is to show you the possibilities and to try to demystify Costa Rica’s healthcare system. Our tour lasts two days and 1 night and includes lodging, transportation, meals and non-alcoholic beverages.

Sample Itinerary

You’ll visit:

  • At least two private hospitals in San Jose area
  • Hospital Mexico, the largest and best public hospital (they even do open heart surgeries there)HospitalMexico
  • An insurance broker for a presentation on the various supplemental health insurance options, including public, private, and international plans
  • A senior living retirement community
  • CPI language school for a presentation about how learning Spanish increases your options for healthcare and some basic medical Spanish.
  • Our local hospital here in San Ramón
  • A local EBAIS (community clinic)
  • A local private medical and dental clinic
  • A local Seguro Social office where you would sign up for the Caja (national healthcare coverage)
  • A pharmacy
  • A health food store (macrobiotica), and more!


You’ll learn:

  • If the Costa Rican healthcare system could meet your needs and put your mind to rest, once and for all, about this sensitive subject.
  • About the public system and how it works, about the private healthcare system, and how you can use a combination of both to your advantage.
  • About the EBAIS – where healthcare starts in Costa Rica.
  • Approximately how much you would pay for Caja.
  • About medical tourism in Costa Rica.
  • About home health care in Costa Rica.

Introductory prices: $550 for a couple, $450 for a single.
Please contact us if you are interested in booking this tour. Space is limited.

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