January 2nd, 2013 — When driving around Lake Arenal, Costa Rica’s biggest lake, keep your eyes on the road. Driving 101, right? But it’s hard not to get distracted. Blue morpho butterﬂies ﬂit across the road, troops of raccoon-like coatis scamper on the shoulder, howler monkeys lounge in the high branches, and bright tropical birds wing it from tree to tree.
Good thing there isn’t much trafﬁc. Besides, it’s worth taking the time to pull over and get a better look. There are stunning views of 33-square-mile Lake Arenal. It’s about 18-and-a-half miles long but only three miles across at its widest—which means that, wherever you are along the lake, you can see the emerald-green hills that rise from its shores on the opposite side.
People come to live around Arenal, about three hours north of San Jose, because they fall in love with these views.
The weather—not humid, just warm and breezy—is also a big draw. So is the affordable real estate and low cost of living. It’s laid-back, peaceful.
These factors alone make it one of the best places to live in Costa Rica (although it’s overlooked by many looking for places to settle in this country).
But what most attracts expats is that this is a place where you can do what you love. A perfect example is Captain Ron Saunders, a ﬁshing guide on the lake. Originally from Las Vegas, he left his custom-cabinetry business seven years ago to start a new life here; now he ﬁshes almost every day.
And Ron is just one of many entrepreneurs running a variety of boutique hotels, restaurants, bakeries, B&Bs, art galleries, and more. It’s great fun to take the road around the lakeshore, stopping in at each whimsically-decorated spot and chatting with the friendly owners.
You can ﬁnd one of the country’s ﬁnest restaurants, Gingerbread, run by Israeli expat Eyal Ben-Menachem, here.
This is a gathering-place for expats in the Arenal area—a great place to go for the inside scoop if you’re here on a scouting trip. On the other side of the lake you’ll ﬁnd a hotel modeled on a Minoan palace; be sure to check out the murals. It’s now also home to a microbrewery, one of just a few in the country.
Yes, some expats are running businesses. But for them it’s a means to an end, a way to live in a place they love. As Alex Krauskopf of the Lucky Bug B&B told me, “We could contract with some of the large tour buses that pass through the area and have them stop here for lunch. But that’s not what we want.”
Everyone I spoke to valued their personal relationships with customers over proﬁts. That sense of family extends to the close-knit community of expats, who number about 400 in the area now.
A majority is U.S. and Canadian, but other nationalities, like Germans and Swiss, are represented as well. And most are retirees, ready to enjoy their golden years away from the rising costs of life back home.
But like retirees everywhere, they keep busy. There’s plenty to do, especially in the outdoors. Hiking in the rain forest surrounding Volcan Arenal, at the east end of the lake, you can see more than 200 species of birds, as well as monkeys, coatis, and other picture-perfect wildlife.
The lake is a water-sports paradise and you’ll often have it to yourself. There are hardly ever more than a dozen or so craft on the water on even the busiest days. Fishing, boating, and kayaking—they’re all here… and Arenal’s now become a haven for wind- and kite-surﬁng. On the breezier, west end of the lake you’ll ﬁnd one of the world’s steadiest winds from November to April.
If you’re on a budget you can ﬁnd local Costa Rican, or Tico-style, homes for $40,000 to $70,000. There are even “dream” properties with their own private waterfalls or volcano-fed hot springs—like $140,000 for 30 acres with four waterfalls…or $175,000 for 30 acres with a hot spring.
By Jason Holland, InternationalLiving.com