Popular Regions for Expat Living in Costa Rica

Popular Regions for Expat Living in Costa Rica

As a top expat destination for many years, and International Living’s Top Retirement Destination of 2024, expats have made their homes in every area and corner of Costa Rica.

In this article, I will introduce you to several popular regions in Costa Rica, along with specific towns where expats live and thrive.

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maps of Costa Rica
While Costa Rica is a small country, there are many regions where you can live. Each region offers a different style of living.

Central Valley

This is the most populous area of the country and is known for its amenities, cultural opportunities, and year-round spring weather.

San Jose

The largest number of expats in the country live in the San Jose area. Its near-perfect climate (always spring), public transportation options, and numerous livable neighborhoods make it a top choice for many expats. Upscale neighborhoods such as Escazu, Santa Ana, and San Pedro provide convenient living communities.

All modern amenities are available in the San Jose area, as well as the top doctors and hospitals in the country. Cultural activities, language schools, and many historical sites are also of interest to many.

With a population of around 350,000 and part of the San Jose metropolitan area numbering almost 1.5 million, it is one of the most livable cities in Latin America. 

  • Pros: spring climate, medical care, cultural opportunities, public transportation, proximity to the airport, shopping
  • Cons: traffic, cost of living

Alajuela

Home of the country’s largest international airport, Juan Santamaria, this city of about 200,000 is located about 20 kilometers northwest of San Jose. 

church in Alajuela
Church in Alajuela

Home of the country’s national hero, Juan Santamaria, it is a charming, historical center as well as a modern city. It is often known as the “City of Mangoes” due to the large number of mango trees in the city. It is part of the greater San Jose metropolitan area.

  • Pros: proximity to the airport, friendly people, shopping
  • Cons: traffic congestion, airport noise

Heredia

Known for having some of the coolest temperatures in the country, this city with a metro area population of over 300,000 is the second largest in the country and is also part of the greater San Jose metro area. Less busy than San Jose, it has excellent public transportation, a lively university culture, and friendly locals. It offers an excellent option for a smaller-feeling city in the metro area.

  • Pros: climate, friendly people, proximity to San Jose
  • Cons: poor city infrastructure in some parts, traffic

Central Pacific

This area is known for its beautiful beaches, flora and fauna, and proximity to the Central Valley.

Jaco/Playa Herradura/Playa Hermosa

This area is comprised of three towns and is the closest beach destination in the country from San Jose. 

Jaco is the center of activity, being a town of 12,000+ with all modern amenities and attractions, including private clinics, banks, numerous pharmacies, a movie theater, and extensive shopping.

Both tourists and residents can find almost everything they need in Jaco. Its beach is 2.5 miles long and is popular with surfers as well as tourists and locals. Many expats are drawn to the sizable English Christian church www.horizonjaco.org that serves the community in many ways. Jaco is growing rapidly, and development is at an all-time high.

  • Pros: sizable expat community, only 1.5 hours from San Jose, beach, English church, amenities, great restaurants
  • Cons: crowds on weekends, cost of living is higher than many regions

Playa Herradura

This community sits just 3 miles north of Jaco and is a small, quiet, laid-back town. It has a beautiful, sandy beach with palm trees, providing shade for parking and relaxing.

Herradura has a major chain grocery store (Auto Mercado) which also serves Jaco. A new Costa Rican chain department/grocery store is currently under construction (Pequeno Mundo). Herradura also has a number of American fast-food places such as Subway, KFC, Burger King, and Starbucks.

  • Pros: proximity to Jaco and San Jose, American-style grocery store, laid-back
  • Cons: less community infrastructure, busy main intersection on Highway 34

Playa Hermosa

The third in this group of sister towns is about 3 miles south of Jaco and is a world-famous surfing site. International surf competitions are held here. The town is small and quiet, but Fridays are exciting as impromptu surfing competitions take place. Playa Hermosa is not a good beach for swimming; in fact, it is prohibited. But the beauty and serenity of the area draw people from all over. Its location near Jaco makes it a convenient place to live, with all that Jaco offers just down the road.

  • Pros: surfing, quiet, beautiful beach and coastline, proximity to Jaco
  • Cons: beach is unsafe for swimming, offers few amenities

Quepos/Manuel Antonio

These two sister towns host the country’s most visited national park, Manuel Antonio National Park, where wildlife abounds. Quepos is the commercial hub of the area, while Manuel Antonio is the touristic center. Some of the most beautiful beaches and wildlife are in and around Manuel Antonio, while Quepos has a world-class marina, Pez Vela. Manuel Antonio has a large concentration of expats, while Quepos is populated primarily by Costa Ricans. Shopping is excellent, and residents often travel to Jaco or San Jose for items not found locally.

  • Pros: shopping, Manuel Antonio National Park, large expat presence, hospital, beaches
  • Cons: distance from the capital, crowdedness in Manuel Antonio town, expensive

Cartago Province

This region is located east of the San Jose metro area. The region is popular due to its stunning scenery, proximity to San Jose, and friendly locals.

Turrialba

This city of about 30,000 lies east of San Jose and under the watchful eye of Volcan Turrialba, one of the active volcanoes in the country. The heart of the Turrialba area is its agricultural heritage, proudly claiming some of the finest coffee beans in the world. Other agricultural crops abound also. People are drawn to life in Turrialba because of its slower pace, rural lifestyle, and friendly and welcoming people. The city has all major amenities available, including a private clinic and a public hospital.

  • Pros: farmers market, friendly and helpful people, climate, proximity to Cartago
  • Cons: Volcan Turrialba is active, public transportation is limited

Cartago

Once the capital of Costa Rica, the city is home to Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (the national basílica) as well as many surrounding farms which produce most of the agricultural crops in the country.

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With a population of 150,000, Cartago is a city of shopping malls and movie theaters.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles

All amenities are available, including proximity to excellent health care both in the city and in nearby San Jose. It is only an hour’s drive from the airport, and its climate is often mentioned as a major drawing card – average 78 F in the daytime and mid-50s F at night.

  • Pros: shopping, medical care availability, proximity to San Jose
  • Cons: metro area congestion

Orosi Valley

Known for its beautiful, green-covered mountains and beautiful lakes, Orosi Valley is close to the metro area, yet provides a rural style of living. Towns are small and everyone knows everyone. While you might not find everything you need in the villages, Cartago is just a few miles away, and San Jose is less than an hour. Residents enjoy the quiet, friendly atmosphere of the area.

  • Pros: scenery, friendliness of people, rural lifestyle, proximity to Cartago and San Jose
  • Cons: lack of amenities in villages

Caribbean

Puerto Viejo

Once a sleepy beach village, Puerto Viejo is now a bustling small town about 30 miles south of Limon. Europeans, Canadians, and Americans make up the expat population. It is often said that Puerto Viejo is not for everyone, and that is due to its rather isolated location and lack of services.

White, sandy beaches abound in the area. Afro-Caribbean, Bri Bri indigenous, Tico, and expat populations give it a unique vibe. Medical services are very basic, with the nearest public hospital in Limon. Puerto Viejo is loved by those who want an eclectic community with the basics of services in a lush, tropical beach setting.

  • Pros: laid-back lifestyle, multi-cultural, beautiful beach
  • Cons: distance from an international airport, availability of medical care, heat and humidity, insects

Guanacaste

This area is located in the northwest sector of the country and is known for its drier climate and beautiful beaches.

Tamarindo beach
Guanacaste is known for its beautiful beach and water activities.

Tamarindo

Many expats, especially Canadians and Europeans, call Tamarindo home. Sometimes called “Tamagringo” because of all the expats, it is a surfer’s paradise. The beach is long and sports great waves. The population is between 6,000 and 8,000 inhabitants. Tamarindo is located 1.5 hours from the international airport in Liberia and 4.5 hours from San Jose, the capital. Most amenities are available.

  • Pros: beach and water sports access, vibrant expat community, great restaurants
  • Cons: distance from the capital, higher prices than in most areas of the country

Playas del Coco

Located 16 miles from the international airport in Liberia, this community has a population estimated to be about 5,000. It is a small town from which one can launch into many water sports activities. Playas del Coco has expats from many countries, the most coming from The United States and Canada. Proximity to the city of Liberia makes it popular with expats.

  • Pros: proximity to Liberia and the international airport, many expats
  • Cons: limited medical care in the immediate vicinity, travel necessary for many amenities

Nosara

Located two hours south of Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula and 80 miles south of Liberia, Nosara embodies its logo: ‘No shoes, No shirt, Nosara.” It’s all about a wellness lifestyle and enjoying nature. Yoga and surfing are the drawing cards. The small town (5,000 residents) is about 4 miles inland from the beach, but there are three beaches nearby. Residents of Nosara enjoy a close-knit community comprised of Costa Ricans and expats.

  • Pros: wellness and nature-focused lifestyle, close-knit community
  • Cons: distance from a city and international airport, limited medical area

Flamingo

Flamingo Beach is one of the most beautiful in Central America. The town of Flamingo is more laid-back and quiet than its nearby neighbor Tamarindo (21 km, 35 minutes’ drive). It is known for its excellent amenities like private clinics, international schools, supermarkets, banks, restaurants, and bars.

Flamingo is predominantly an expat community with a mix of Costa Ricans, North and South Americans, and Europeans.

The beach town has the fantastic full-service Marina Flamingo and Marina Village, with sailboats and charter boats available so you can explore the coast at your leisure or plan world-class deep-sea fishing adventures.

  • Pros: excellent amenities, sizable expat community, beach
  • Cons: 4.5 hours from San Jose, cost of living is higher than many regions

Perez Zeledon (South Central Highlands)

This area is known for its beautiful mountainous location and scenery as well as its livability.

San Isidro de El General

This is the most populous city in the central highlands region, with a population of roughly 50,000. It is a bustling small city with all amenities readily available. It is filled with local culture and is located just an hour from the beach (Dominical) and only minutes from Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Cerro Chirripo. While it is not known as one of the leading tourist spots in the country, numerous expats have chosen to settle there due to the moderate temperatures, beautiful scenery, and availability of all kinds of goods and services.

  • Pros: scenery, availability of amenities, hospital, proximity to beach
  • Cons: distance from San Jose, fewer expats

San Carlos

This area is the largest canton (county) in Costa Rica. Located in Alajuela province, it is the main tourist area of North Central Costa Rica. Wildlife, adventure sports, and thermal springs are favorite attractions, as well as Volcan Arenal.

Arenal/La Fortuna

As the gateway to Volcan Arenal, the town of La Fortuna (population 15,000+) offers smaller-town living with exceptional outdoor and adventure activities.

Expats in La Fortuna are a mixture of families, single adventurers, and retirees.

Arenal
San Carlos is a gateway to the Volcan Arenal.

The climate of the area can be described as hot and humid, being located between the ocean and the higher mountains of the canton of San Carlos. Arenal Volcano is now dormant but remains one of the most visited sites in Costa Rica.

Shopping in La Fortuna is good for basics, but for more specific items, residents go to Liberia (two hours away) or Ciudad Quesada (one hour away). There are two clinics in La Fortuna which serve well for routine medical care; however, for serious emergencies, the Hospital San Carlos in Ciudad Quesada is the place most people go.

  • Pros: scenery, outdoor activities, access to amenities
  • Cons: distance from San Jose and the beaches, expensive, large tourist presence

South Pacific Region

This area is known for its remoteness and abundant wildlife and flora.

Osa Peninsula

This region is the most remote, but most adventurous part of the country. Life at the very southern tip of Costa Rica is slow, simple, and nature-focused. These are the main reasons people choose to live on the peninsula. The most popular attraction is Corcovado National Park. While the area is a long way from San Jose, there are daily flights from the principal town of Puerto Jimenez, the capital. Puerto Jimenez has a population of about 15,000, including about 500 foreigners, some part-time and some full-time. Other small towns include Cabo Matapalo and Carate.

  • Pros: quiet, peaceful, beautiful scenery, national park
  • Cons: distance from San Jose and other larger towns, limited medical care and other amenities

Conclusion

Costa Rica offers a wide array of locations suitable for expat living. A good suggestion is to plan a visit to several regions to see what feels right for you and matches your desired lifestyle. Regardless of where you settle, Costa Rica is bound to be an enjoyable home.

Paul Maxfield
As an educator and nonprofit leader, Dr. Paul Maxfield has traveled to 58 countries and lived in four: The United States, The Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, and Honduras. He and his wife, Brenda, live in Costa Rica and have two children and six grandchildren. He is the author of When Far Away Is Home and Straddling Two Worlds.

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