Mar 27 2015

Retire for Less Newsletter – March 27, 2015

Welcome to our Newsletter

Paul and Gloria

In This Issue:


Gardening in Costa Rica with Steve

by Steve Johnson

GardeningWithSteve_smThe number one reason I retired to Costa Rica was to garden. Being an avid gardener, my thinking was: (1) with the tropical weather I could garden year round, (2) we bought a lot on the side of a volcano and volcanic soil, I understood, was very fertile, (3) I could grow lots of tropical plants that I couldn’t back in the States, and (4) although I was aware that Costa Rica had by far the highest rate of pesticide usage in the world (which was of great concern), I could grow much of our own pesticide-free food.

As I mentioned in the first article, when we moved to Costa Rica things kind of blew up in our faces. Much of this had to do with the garden. I’m not a quitter. As issues confronted us one by one, we said to ourselves, well, we can cash in our chips now, or we can stay in the game. If all of these issues had hit us at the same time, we might have quit. But that’s not how it happened. And as we responded to each issue, the stakes got higher, so more motivation to stay in the game.


I did some research and discovered that San Jose got 70 inches of rain a year. GardenRainWe were going to live seven miles due north of San Jose — FANTASTIC. About the time we arrived I discovered weather data for Barva (only three miles away, as the Yigüirro flies): 90 inches a year – still okay, maybe even better. Our first year here it rained 125 inches!!! Oops. As it turned out, that was an unusually wet year. It averages about 110 inches, still more than I’d anticipated. I solved this problem mainly by planting the vegetable garden in raised beds and incorporating sand and organic matter into the soil to improve drainage. It is so rainy in September and October, though, I pretty much stay out of the garden those months. So much for gardening year round, but hey, ten months isn’t bad.

My wife, Maria, grew up in San Rafael de Heredia. We opted to live in Concepcion (a district of San Rafael) because it was more rural and higher up, and, therefore, cooler. (I know many of you moved here to escape the cold winters of the far north, or the gloomy winters of the Pacific Northwest (where I grew up}), but before moving to Costa Rica we’d lived for almost 30 years in the Deep South, and we came here, in part, to escape the heat). During my visits over 40 some years, I knew what the temperatures were like and knew to expect wind during the dry months. The folks in San Rafael warned us: oh, it’s so cold up in Concepcion, you’ll freeze to death. We’d lived in Connecticut for seven years, so we just laughed that off. What we didn’t know was how much windier it was in Concepcion (only two and a half miles from downtown San Rafael), how much wetter it was (we get blow-over from the Caribbean side), and that there was a cultural communication problem. When the locals said “cold” they meant “wind.” The firstWind-Cartoon year the wind blew the gutters off one of our neighbor’s house and blew another neighbor’s wall down. At least once a week we lost our power due to branches falling on the power lines. Everything in the garden was flattened. Many of the things I planted were literally ripped out of the ground. No kidding. The wind grabbed my beets and as far as I know they landed somewhere in the next canton. One day I finally lost my temper with a neighbor during a windstorm. He was going on and on about how cold it was and I said it wasn’t cold, it was windy (he was holding onto a post to keep from being blown away) and he corrected me, “No, cold,” he said. You can’t argue with these people. For him it will forever be cold, and for me it will forever be windy.

And the high winds explained something — I’d noticed on Google Earth that beginning right about where we purchased our lot, and from there going on up the volcanic range the landscape consisted of light green patches boxed in by dark green rectangles. What I discovered was that the light green patches were pastures and the dark green rectangles were hedgerows created by planting cypress trees. To block the wind up here you need hedges at least 100 feet tall. NOW I understand!

So what I did first was to hire a handyman to build windbreaks made of a metal frame and covered with shade-cloth. The neighbors, I’m sure, thought this was extravagant on my part, but I’m getting old and I can’t afford to wait 20 years for those cypress trees to get 100 feet tall.

GardenDirtTHE SOIL

The soil was our single biggest problem. Our property is surrounded by vegetable farms. The soil up here is black gold. Except on OUR property. The previous owner had abused the land – planted the same crops over and over until (he told us AFTER we purchased the property) he couldn’t get anything to grow on it. And the builder — he and his workers buried literally tons of concrete and other debris on the property and covered it up with clay so we wouldn’t know the difference. Our beautiful topsoil was under ten inches of hardpan and rubble. The first dry season my shovel just bounced of the clay and the first wet season the clay sucked my boots right off my feet. It was impossible stuff. We could have cut it into rectangles and sold it as adobe bricks. The concrete changed the pH of the soil from 6.5 (slightly acid, and close to ideal) to 7.5 (too alkaline). Everything I planted the first year either died or was blown away.


African star grass

African star grass

The third thing was the African star grass. After the builder buried the rubble and covered it up with clay, the star grass moved in at the speed of summer lightning. In a couple of months the entire lot was covered with the stuff. It’s a type of Bermuda grass — I call it Bermuda grass on steroids. It’s roots and rhizomes from below wrapped themselves around everything we planted and the grass leaves smothered the plants from above. The locals told me the only way to get rid of it was to apply three applications of Roundup over a three month period. The only problem with that solution was that Roundup is bad for the environment and so I refused to use it.  Another solution was to dig it up and pull it out by the roots, a tedious and backbreaking task. I couldn’t do it myself so I began hiring workers to do it for me. They dug and chopped at it, but did a very ho-hum job of getting rid of the roots. I patiently explained that the whole point was to get rid of the roots. They were going to have to sift the soil to completely extirpate the star grass. If one single piece were left, in a year I’d be right back where I started. The workers hemmed and hawed, I offered to pay them extra, but they continued to do the same miserable job. I thanked them and told them not to come back.

The vegetable garden in 2010 with rudimentary windbreaks and black plastic to kill the star grass.

The vegetable garden in 2010 with rudimentary windbreaks and black plastic to kill the star grass.

After racking my brain I finally came up with a solution, and it worked – black plastic. I covered vast areas of dirt with two layers of thick black plastic, and weighted it down with stones. After six months I lifted up the plastic and there wasn’t a trace of star grass. Tah-dah!

So after a year I was getting a handle on two of my three problems. I was totally exhausted, but I still had to do something about the clay and rubble. As I mentioned early in the article, I am not a quitter. I was going to have my garden even if it killed me, which it pretty near did. After five years I am happy to report that I have a wonderful vegetable garden, the ornamental plants are looking good, and I actually have some small trees. More on the clay and rubble in the next segment.

Related Article:


Monthly Weather Report for San Ramón, Atenas, Nuevo Arenal, Quepos, San Isidro de General, & San Rafael de Heredia – February 2015

Click to enlarge.

You’ll notice that we now show rainfall and temperatures for six towns in Costa Rica. This isn’t weather forecasting. We report after the fact to give you a much better picture of the weather in each of these areas.

You can click on the map to the right to enlarge it and check out the average rainfall for the towns in which you are interested. Remember that the areas shaded in darker blue tend to be higher in elevation and also the places most expats choose to live.

Paul’s San Ramón Observations, Facts, & Tidbits for February:

  • Starting late this year, in January, the “Christmas winds” were often gale force (over 50 mph), stopping around March 8th, though it’s still breezy.
  • We had one day with a high of only 64°F —that’s the coldest high since we moved to Costa Rica 6 years ago.
  • When you live in a mountain climate at 3,000 ft. you may need a light sweater or wrap, socks and long pants. We’ve come to love our mountain climate; it’s refreshing, with no heat or air conditioning needed. Our temps range from 60 °F to 80 °F, 12 months a year.
  • We will be heading to Mexico in June to present at the International Living Conference in Cancun. costa-rica-map_cropped4
  • Total rainfall in 2014 total was 120 inches and 2013’s rainfall was 111 inches in our area of San Ramón.

Lance T’s Atenas Observations, Facts, & Tidbits for February:

  • Generally, February in Vista Atenas was characterized by relatively cool morning temperatures in the 60’s and warm dry afternoons with high temperatures in the 80’s. Also, quite windy. The coolest part of every day seemed to occur within the first hour or so after sunrise. (As the sun comes up, the atmosphere “sweats” and the air cools down).
  • The hottest daytime high air temperature was 88 °F, but it was accompanied by a dry 22% humidity – resulting in a “feels like” or heat index temperature of only 84.7 °F. In fact, February was so dry that the “feels like” temperature was less than the air temperature high on 22 days out of the month.
  • But, unlike February last year, it actually rained on one day – only about 0.07 inches, but measurable nevertheless.
  • Total rainfall in 2014 was 73.59 inches and 2013’s rainfall was 63.84 inches in our area of Atenas.

John’s Nuevo Arenal Observations, Facts, & Tidbits for February:

  • Saturday, February 28th was the beginning of the Annual Mountain Bike Race/Tour around Lake Arenal. It began in Tilaran Saturday morning, with an overnight stop in La Fortuna and resumed Sunday morning, finishing in Tilaran.  There were several thousand participants.  The Lake area was full of enthusiastic hotel guests this weekend and a fun place to be.
  • We had a record-breaking 185 inches of rain  for the year 2014. Total rainfall in 2013 was 164.75 inches in our area of Nuevo Arenal.

Lance M’s Central Pacific Observations, Facts, & Tidbits for February:

  • Well, another month has gone by and we are getting closer to the beginning of the rainy season.
  • We have been fostering a puppy that was found in the Palm grove just outside our home. She has decided to make a puppy door in our screen door and now runs in and out at will unless we close the big wooden door. We have bought new screen and and a heavy gauge mesh to install on the screen door to prevent this from happening again. Our landlord thought it was a great idea since this is not the first time this has happened. Luckily the little foster puppy has a new home and she will be leaving on Wednesday after her stitches are removed from her stomach were she had been neutered. Paws, the organization we volunteer for, pays to have any animal spayed or neutered and the first two sets of vaccinations. The adoption fee is 5,000 colonies, roughly 10 US dollars.
  • We had three days in a row with rain at the beginning of the February with a total of 8.3 inches. Our landlord who has lived here over 40 years told us he can’t remember getting that much rain in February.
  • Have at great March from always warm southern zone Costa Rica.Map_Quepos_SanIsidro
  • 2014 rainfall for the Quepos area of the Central Pacific was 73.54 inches (as of February 2014 when I started measuring it for this newsletter).

Gordon’s Quebradas (San Isidro de General) Observations, Facts, & Tidbits for February:

  • The coolest morning in February was also the warmest day!
  • We had 6 consecutive days of rain, although one was not enough to register in the gauge.
  • The gentle breezes make each day very tolerable at this altitude! I have been surprised that on the odd night we have had to add a blanket to the bed.
  • The influx of summer birds has been great to see at our feeder, and the increase
    in Tucan sightings is only a plus!
  • The exhibition/rodeo was in San Isidro de El General for 10 days, and we went 2 evenings. Once to see the dancing horses, and then again the next night to the bull fights! Having never been to a bull fight we really enjoyed the evening, complete with some great roping and bull riding. I have to say that life in Costa Rica is pretty darn good!

Steve’s San Rafael de Heredia Observations, Facts, & Tidbits for February:

  • Total rainfall to date is 14 inches. Last year it was 2.7 inches. The main difference between dry season and rainy season this year is the direction from which the rain comes: rainy season – rain comes from the west; dry season – rain comes from the east.


  • Living here we have learned not to take seemingly little things, like water and light, for granted. Last March the river that provides our water went dry and the water company had to send as many as eight trucks a day to fill their collection/storage tanks. Even then we got just a trickle of water at night and nothing during the day. This year the river is full. For future dry years we now collect rainwater from our roof and store it in tanks. We got mosquitoes breeding in the tanks at first, but have since learned how to prevent this. Our plan is to never be without water again.
  • Our front door and carport are on the east side of our house. This is also the windward side during the dry season. Gusts can reach nearly 50 mph (although this year nothing more than 30 mph). We’ve dubbed it the Alaska side of the house (the west side is our Florida side). When we’d get out of the car and make a dash for the door, if we fumbled at all with the key we could get totally soaked from the horizontal rain and our teeth would be chattering by the time we got through the door. So [sound of trumpets blaring], after five years we have enclosed the carport into a garage. You might ask why it took us so long to remedy the situation, and the answer is because there were so many other bad design or poor workmanship features about our house that we had to fix other problems before we got to this one. As the saying goes: better late than never.
  • Another thing occurred to me about the difference between living in Costa Rica when I arrived in 1968 and now: no guidebooks. The closest thing to a guidebook was a Pan American World Airways brochure that was eight pages long (as I recall). Poking around the country back then was full of surprises and you missed so many things because you didn’t know they even existed. I found out about Manuel Antonio Beach only because the LACSA plane I was on flew over it and when we landed in Palmar Sur I asked the pilot what the name of the beach was.

Click to Enlarge



Our San Ramón Weatherman, Paul Yeatman

Meteorology has been Paul’s lifelong hobby.  As a child, he devoured books about the weather and earth sciences vigorously. Later, he took a few college courses in meteorology, and still later, he served as a meteorologist for the U.S. Army in Vietnam.  Now, Paul gets to practice his avocation in Costa Rica, albeit on a very small scale with just temperature and rainfall data, probably the two most important factors regarding the weather. He wanted to include weather info on our website to help people decide where to live, although weather is just one of many factors to consider in determining where to relocate. Current weather data is from our current home at about 3,000 ft. elevation and 10 minutes outside the town of San Ramón. Weather data prior to December 2012 is from our previous home at about 4,000 ft. elevation and 10 minutes outside the town of San Ramón.

Our Atenas Weatherman, Lance Turlock

Lance and his wife, Diana, moved to Costa Rica about 2 years ago after living 30+ years in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia (Vancouver and environs). They live in the Central Valley near the town of Atenas and are at an elevation of about 2700 feet. They have no need for air conditioning or heating. Overnight low temperatures are comfortably cool (low 60’s). Daytime highs can be relatively hot (high 80’s, low 90’s), but rarely uncomfortably hot.Lance started to keep track of daily temperatures and rainfall in order to have factual ammunition to help disabuse friends, relatives and acquaintances of any misconception that the weather must be like that of a tropical jungle.

Our Nuevo Arenal Weatherman, John Nicholas

After many visits to Costa Rica, John and Cathy Nicholas moved from New York to Costa Rica in 1991.  They chose Arenal for its sacred, majestic beauty, its lush wildlife, its relaxing lifestyle, and its proximity to activities and sites such as the Volcano Arenal and the beaches. They own the B&B, Chalet Nicholas, which has been in operation since 1992. Temperatures and rainfall are measured at Chalet Nicholas which is located at approximately 2,200 ft. elevation and 1 mile west of the town of Nuevo Arenal.

Our Central Pacific (Quepos) Weatherman, Lance Miller

LanceM2I was born in a very small town in northwest Iowa and raised on a farm. When I was 18, I joined the service, in which I spent 22 years before retiring in 1990. For the next twenty three years my family and I lived in south central Pennsylvania. After having a stroke in 2012, I was unable to work and that is when my wife and I began talking about retiring. Thanks to your newsletter and a website we found about San Isidro, we began looking at Costa Rica. We came down in March 2013 and looked around for a week. Went home, packed up, and moved here in April. We settled in a small village called Playa Matapalo which is located between Quepos and Dominical. We later moved to Quepos. The word Playa means beach. It is so nice to lie in bed and listen to the ocean. Pura Vida. We will continue the weather info next month.

Gordon_photo_croppedOur Quebradas (15 minutes north of San Isidro de General) Weatherman, Gordon Stanley

Gordon and his wife Bea moved here from Lloydminster, Alberta, Canada, where he used to track the correlation of the winter hoer frost and the spring/summer rains. After 30+ years as a Purchasing Agent for a retail lumber yard/Homes Manufacturing company, he decided to say “Adios” to the snow and ice. They arrived in Costa Rica Oct. 3, 2014, and live in Quebradas, which is a 15 minute drive North of San Isidro de General, at an elevation of about 3600 feet. There is a stream that runs behind the hill in their back yard, so are “forced” to listen to the sound of running water 24/7. Ahh the tough life! They are totally enjoying their new found retirement freedom in this wonderful land that they discovered thanks to this newsletter.

SteveJohnsonOur San Rafael de Heredia Weatherman, Steve Johnson

I’m a weather geek and have been recording daily weather data for the last 4 years in Concepcion de San Rafael de Heredia. We live at 5,000 ft. (1,500 meters) elevation, above San Rafael centro on a low ridge that comes off of Cerro Chompipe (between Barva Volcano and los Cerros de Zurqui). We have a 60 mile wide view from Turrialba Volcano east to somewhere around Cerro Turrubares west. I first lived in CR as a Peace Corps volunteer (1968-71), married a tica school teacher, and moved back to Costa Rica in 2009. My wife grew up in downtown San Rafael just three miles away, and the weather is quite different there. I am also an avid gardener and birder.

Related Articles:



In the Mailbag: Shopping for “New” Clothes and Buying a Car: Yes or No?

Our newsletters and posts generate lots of discussion, on our website, in emails, and on facebook. Here’s a glimpse into our mailbag.

Shopping for “New” Clothes

In response to my recent report of a shopping spree at Ropa Americana in our February 6th newsletter, and our “Money Saving Tip” to buy your clothes there, Lynn writes,

I totally agree with your report regarding Ropa Americana. I’ve found some name brands for anywhere from $1 to $4, and since I lost some weight after we moved here over 2 years ago, I needed some “new” clothes.

Main Ropa Americana in San Ramon

Main Ropa Americana in San Ramon

Recently I saw a Tica in downtown San Ramon sporting a Jones of New York blouse, the exact same design that I happened to be wearing that day! It retails in the US for around $125 (but I bought it on sale there for much less). Chances are pretty good that she bought it at Ropa Americana for about $4!

If you visit the Ropa Americana in your photo (kitty cornered from Molinas), make sure you finish your shopping at Karen’s Panaderia next door. It has some of the best pastries I’ve found in Costa Rica!”

And on Facebook…

In response to our article, Paul’s Monthly Tip to Live for Less in Costa Rica: Don’t Buy a Car, there was quite a discussion. Here are a few of the comments.

First, from Marty M:

Paul, I really enjoy reading your blogs because you put everything into perspective. I 100% agree that most people from the states, if not all, would say that one is un-American if they don’t have a car. I have some American friends who ask me if I have a car and I reply no. They don’t understand, but I like not having a car due to all the expenses and I don’t foresee me getting a car. However, I would like one for the family, but the family is healthy and there’s nothing wrong about walking. Also, what you had mentioned about doing less things is so very true, but keeps us home with the family, visiting others, going to a soccer field and playing soccer, etc. Thanks for the insight! I’m sure someone will read it and the light bulb will turn on.”

From Debbie R:

I disagree with you on the statement that you will do less! You can still do whatever you want to do! The buses run every 30 minutes right in front of my house from 4:30 am to 10:30 pm so I can get on one and go anywhere in Costa Rica or wherever I want to go.”

From Rob E:

We do not have a car and as a result can not do some things. I do not have a plane either and can not fly around CR. So be it. For us, we had a life time of being everywhere quickly and made the best use of every second. We could get ten things done in a day and now we might get only one or two things done using the bus. But now we have lots of time and less money. Now that we are retired, we do not need to be in such a hurry and have every minute planned like before. I am so thankful to be off the rat wheel. If you can locate near a bus line you can get pretty much get anywhere. It may not be pretty but doable. Personally, I love the mental challenge of getting from point A to B. And for the 2-3 time a year when things get crazy (e.g. three parties on the same day) I just rent a cab for the day for $20-$30.”

And finally, from Jane H:

We bought a car after months of buses and cabs, and are very glad we did. Our Tico landlord helped us and we got what we feel is a very good price for a very good vehicle. He helped us with everything, down to the reteve, marchamo, new tires, attorney, and much more. We didn’t spend nearly as much as you did. Our gas is minimal for use around town. We tend to take more jaunts to discover this amazing country we live in. If you have any health or breathing problems, taking a bus can be very iffy. You never know when the drop off will include a mountain goat hill to climb, sometimes with luggage. I could definitely do without a car, and did, but our options have widened considerably with our vehicle.”

Related Articles:

  • Read all of our “In the Mailbag” columns at this link.


Learn “Survival Spanish” With Medical/Healthcare Terms at CPI

Have you ever worried about describing your health issues to caregivers in a Spanish-speaking country like Costa Rica?

CPI Spanish Immersion School in Costa Rica

Spanish classes for Healthcare Tour

CPI offers private Spanish classes with emphasis on survival Spanish (for example: greetings, basic verbs, basic grammar) and medical vocabulary from the patient perspective. CPI offers 3 campuses: Heredia, Monteverde and Playa Flamingo.

If you love the forest – the chance to see a toucan fly overhead, a sloth hanging from a branch – and more temperate weather, then Monteverde is for you. Flamingo Beach is what you imagine a tropical beach to be – white sand and blue Pacific waters – just arriving there and seeing the seascape transports you immediately into relaxation mode. San Joaquin – Heredia is a small quaint town located in the Central Valley and permits students to get a feel for the typical culture where the majority of the Costa Rican population resides.

You can enroll at any time and begin classes any day. Classes may be held at CPI proper or at the medical center or place of recovery. Depending on location of off-site classes, there is an additional cost for transportation.

We have the following packages:

1.-  Package of 10 private hours  –  cost  $260-10% = $234 USD

2.-  Package of 20 private hours  –  cost  $520-10% = $468 USD

3.-  Package of 30 private hours  –  cost  $780-10% = $702 USD

It is recommended to register for at least 10 hours to cover basic topics; if you would like to add more hours then you can add additional packages of 10 hours.

CPI also offers group Spanish classes of 4 hrs or 5.5 hours a day should you like to start your classes prior medical treatment.

At each CPI site we also have apartments that could be considered for possible recovery, too. In this lodging a 10% discount is also applied.

Related Articles:


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_008We’ve lived in Costa Rica for over five 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.

HCTOUR_004But, 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!

EBAISStaffYou’ll learn:

  • If the Costa Rican healthcare system could meet your needsand 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.

Related Articles:


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