Where to live? Part 1: Overview and San Jose

Most gringos who come to live in Costa Rica fall into one of two groups: There are the ‘beach’ people and the ‘central valley’ people. I will state right here that I am a central valley guy. Valley is actually a misnomer, as it’s more of an uplands plateau. In any case, the main reason the beach people like the beach is simply because IT’S THE BEACH! Some of the valley dwellers would be beach people except they can’t handle the heat and humidity. My own personal preference is not to perspire all day. Other people are less perspiration prone or it just doesn’t bother them, or they feel it’s a small trade off for the charm and lure of the ocean. In any case, you will probably find yourself in one of those two groups.

There are other options, however: There is a sizable part of Costa Rica that is not in the central valley and not on the beach. Some places, such as San Isidro de El General and San Vito are at enough of an altitude where the heat isn’t opressive. Other areas tend to be warm and often humid but the beach isn’t particularly close by. Most of Costa Rica east of the mountains is like this, as is most of Gunacaste and much of the southwest, excepting those communities right on the ocean. If you want a peaceful life or grow bananas or pineapples, this might be for you.

Along the coasts gringos can be found most everywhere. However, the largest communities would include Jaco, Quepos/Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas, Playa Tamarindo, Playa Tambor on the Pacific and Cahuita and Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean. I must say that Cahuita and Puerto Viejo (de Talamanca) are not large communities, but they are popular tourist destinations for those interested in the Caribbean part of the country.

The central valley is where the majority of Costa Ricans live. The four biggest cities are there: San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago. There are numerous other smaller towns/cities as well as suburbs of the bigger cities. Depending on traffic, all four of the biggest cities are less than an hour apart. All of the bigger cities/towns have a variety of neighborhoods, from posh to downright terrifying. The smaller cities/towns tend to be rather peaceful and safe, relatively speaking. This doesn’t mean you can leave your house unattended and not worry about burglary. Theft of this sort can happen even in the remotest areas. I had a friend with a tiny farm miles from the main highway. Thieves came by one night and stole all of the brand new electric wire he ran from his house to the pole 200 ft away.

The mild weather is one of the attractions of the central valley. The fact that it is where you find the largest cities is another, although it is also one of the drawbacks. San Jose and its suburbs is where you will find the most abundant and varied shopping, dining, entertainment, culture and businesses. San Jose is the center of the country, and acts as a magnet for both the best and the worst the country has to offer.

The Western suburbs of Escazu, Santa Ana and Cariari are very popular with gringos who want an environment similar to ‘home.’ In Escazu, for example, you can find TGI Friday’s, Tony Roma’s, and lots of gringo style fast food, plenty of pricey boutiques and a giant mall called ‘Multiplaza.’ There are 2 golf courses nearby and tennis courts, gated communities and high rises with private security and many many more gringo style amenities. On the negative side, it is more expensive than many other areas and it is rather distant from central San Jose. You would probably need a car, but that’s not a problem for most of the gringos living there.

Closer in, west of central San Jose are Rohrmoser and Sabana Norte, along with La Uruca. Rohrmoser is probably has the most gringo feel of the three, but the other two are gringo enough for some. Closer in yet is Paseo Colon, which is the main route into downtown San Jose. Lots of high rise office buildings and generally modern and spacious along the boulevard, though the residential areas are much more ‘Tico,’ albeit there are still some expensive houses and apartments to be found.

In the downtown area itself can be divided into 4 quarters, split by Avenida Central (East/West) and Calle Central (North/South). In the downtown area, the ‘desirable’ areas are pretty much found in the northeast, generally termed Barrio Amon. There are some nice houses here and some nice apartments but the area is considered somewhat dangerous due to its proximity to the downtown area. Few gringos live in the southwest or northwest quarters. Away from the downtown area to the east are some rather nice neighborhoods: Barrio Dent, Los Yoses and San Pedro. San Pedro, like Escazu, has it’s giant mall. Los Yoses is home to several embassies and some very nice homes, though crime is still a problem sometimes due again to it’s nearness to San Jose. Farther east are other areas that contain some rather ‘nice’ parts, such as Curridabat.

If you want minimal culture shock and don’t mind spending a little more, you might want to start in Escazu or Rohrmoser. If culture shock is something you don’t mind and you can handle the noise and hubub, you may want to try to find a place downtown. There aren’t a lot of them, unfortunately, but they do exist.

There are a few short term to medium term apartments available if you would like to half settle in while you explore. Or you may want to stay in a hotel while you explore. When I first moved down, I found a local who made a few phone calls and found me a nice place out in the outskirts of San Pedro. I was there about a half a year until I decided I wanted to be closer to the action. But that’s the beauty of renting… when you decide to move, you just move. Good luck

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  1. I agree… except I'm not sure what to make of the weather being "mild" in the valley. During the rainy season it was (for me) ferocious!

  2. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    Mile only in terms of temperature. If you can't avoid traveling/commuting in the rainy part of the day, you WILL get wet, even with a giant umbrella (your feet at the very least). Not quite as severe as Michigan, though, wouldn't you agree?

  3. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    mile = mild

  4. usexpatcostarica.com says:

    I agree during the rainy season I need at least two pairs of shoes, and that's just for walking around San Jose. I imagine its kind of muddy in the countryside.

  5. george schicker says:


    Hello all,

    I'm George and my wife is Minnie. We have visited Costa Rica and are considering a permanent move there. We want to stay in the downtown area of San Jose and explore the area before we rent a more permanent place.

    Can anyone suggest a furnished apartmernt downtown that is reasonably safe, easy walking distance to stores and not outrageous in price?

    All suggestions will be appreciated!