Saturday, December 20, 2008

Living in the Barrio

While many foreigners who came to San Ramon bought lots in ex-pat communities or land in the country, I bought a house in the barrio. Rather than be apart from the culture, I wanted to live in the center of the life that defines San Ramon, Costa Rica. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and have lived in urban settings most of my life. What seems scary or strange to some has been a wealth of authentic experiences for me.

I’m a 10-minute walk from the central park and the heart of downtown. While many foreigners fantasize about 5 acres separate from others, I had a different plan. By being connected to my neighbors and the flow of life here, I have been changed in ways both profound and simple.

I bought my house in the barrio 3 years ago after renting downtown, near the university for the previous 4 years. How else to learn about my new hometown and become part of it, if I don’t walk the streets and become the newest Ramonense (San Ramon person)?

I was the first foreigner on my street and when I moved in I was quite the curiosity. I felt a bit like an exotic animal at the zoo as my neighbors were happy to have me but perplexed that this guy from the USA bought a house on their block.

Life starts early in Costa Rica. When the sun comes up at 6AM, life begins. Unlike many urban settings, this barrio has the most amazing bird sounds you can imagine. The birds morning songs are followed by kids getting ready for school and family life beginning. A little upbeat Spanish music, the dogs starting their day and then the flow of my neighbors walking down the hill … parents with their kids in their school uniforms, adults heading to work … lots of bicycles, a few cars and motorcycles, but mostly people walking. (It still amazes me how the sexy local women walk in stiletto heels without falling or twisting an ankle. It must be genetic.) There is none of the angst and frenetic pace of North American cities.

Now, 3 years later, I am integrated and known by all. I have always been safe and protected as my neighbors have a sense that their property values will rise by me successfully owning a house on their hill. Most of my neighbors have renovated and upgraded their homes during my time here. Of all my neighbors, I am most grateful to Rosario Vargas who takes care of my house; cleaning and making sure that when I am out of the country my house is looking good, clean and safe.

While the natural world around San Ramon rivals anyplace in the world, it is connecting with my neighbors and friends that has allowed me to discover the true meaning of Pura Vida.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ithaca, NY Winter = San Ramon, CR Summer

I just finished my annual Thanksgiving in the USA. Nice to see family and friends and remember to be grateful for all that I have. The only bummer is the dark, cold winter weather and lack of people on the streets. After 8 years in Costa Rica, my body just doesn't like the winter in Upstate New York.

December starts the summer in Costa Rica. San Ramon temperature remains a comfortable mid-70's year round but summer means the rain has stopped for the months ahead. After months of rain, everything is green and colorful in December. With no daylight savings time, the steady temps are complemented by 12 hours each of daylight and darkness. Easy on the body and spirit.

After a hectic visit to New York State, I'm very ready for the slow, friendly, uncomplicated life I have in Costa Rica. As a former restaurant owner and chef, I look forward to expressing my creativity with the fresh organic fruits and vegetables from my new garden in La Paz.

During the unfolding world economic downturn, San Ramon seems like a good place to be. The last few years have been boom times for foreign travelers and investors in Costa Rica. Unlike the over development at the beach, San Ramon has maintained its own character and economy for over 100 years. I think this will be an interesting time for people everywhere as they re-evaluate their life, plans, and future. Affordable, peaceful, friendly, sunny San Ramon seems like a good life in these uncertain times.

Tomorrow I leave winter and arrive in Costa Rica for the beginning of summer.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The New Economy and San Ramon, Costa Rica

A new era is beginning. This weeks' United States Presidential election reflected the reality of our challenges, followed by outrage after 8 years of wasted opportunity and finally hope. The folly of living on credit has been exposed. Billions of dollars of personal wealth throughout the world has vaporized over the last few months. Falling real estate values, stocks, retirement accounts, job loss etc. have caused many people to have less.

The houses and property I have bought in San Ramon, Costa Rica have been the best investments I have ever made. The lifestyle they reflect seemed modest compared to the over-the-top lifestyle sought out by many. They now seem smart, healthy and secure. It's hard going against the grain, but at times you must follow your intuition and take the road less traveled.

As we get ready to move into our new house in La Paz, I more fully appreciate my life which is not based on materialism gone wild. I'm thrilled to have no mortgage, $20 a year in taxes and $5 a month phone and electric bills. With no need for heat or air conditioning I'm feeling like I have a small footprint. Behind our house we have an organic vegetable garden as well as bananas, plantanos, avocados, oranges and lemons. My neighbors don't have flat screen TV's, their kids entertain themselves in simple ways, and people's smiles reflect a slower, low stress lifestyle.

Costa Rica, with no military, health care for all and college that is affordable is a country that keeps the poor and middle class secure, healthy and educated. Happiness and balance seem elusive in a hard charging world, but I have learned a lot about life from my San Ramon friends and neighbors. Pura Vida is more than a national motto and I continue to internalize a lifestyle that takes the best from many worlds.

Check out my website for more about San Ramon. It's time to think outside the box since the box has not shown itself to be as strong as promised.

After enjoying Thanksgiving with my family in New York State, I'm looking forward to my next chapter in San Ramon, Costa Rica. One of the cool things is that life in Costa Rica often unfolds differently than planned which keeps you flexible and open ... important qualities in the new world.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My Friend Inez Turns 100

I wrote a blog a year ago (3 August 2007) about my friend Inez who was 99 years old and amazing. Janet and I went to see her last week. She is now 100. On her birthday, a national newspaper wrote a story about her and the remarkable life she has led.

Inez remembers everything we spoke about months ago including details. Many people half her age wish they had her memory and positive outlook on life.

When we hug, she holds on tight and let’s me know how happy she is to see me. Knowing Inez is an honor.

Living Pura Vida in Costa Rica can help one have a long lifespan. People don’t over think things, are surrounded by family, eat fresh local food and more…..

I’m a lucky guy to be living in San Ramon, Costa Rica for over 7 years and have a friend like Inez to remind me what is important.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Container Homes in Costa Rica

With the mortgage crisis in the USA, the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and a runaway consumer culture…. It is time once again to appreciate that “small is beautiful,” simplicity is a virtue, and living within or below one’s means helps keep life peaceful.

Costa Ricans tend to live in much smaller spaces with many generations together. You don't see baby sitters for kids or senior living for old folks, mostly just families sticking together and taking care of each other. Being alone for long periods of time or living alone is not the ideal.

Last month, The New York Times published an article about small homes gaining popularity in the USA. ("The Next Little Thing")The age of the McMansion requires a lot of $$$$ for heat or air conditioning, maintenance, taxes, mortgage etc. They interviewed some people who had achieved this American Dream and now have simpler aspirations. One of the consequences of having a large home is the isolation in a family as people spend a lot of time in their own spaces with their high tech toys.

My friend Jimmy has an interesting new project that addresses the “small is beautiful” concept. He has taken shipping containers, recycled them and retrofitted the inside as a beautiful, functional home with all the necessary amenities. Jimmy’s container homes have a practical aspect in Costa Rica where many foreigners buy land without homes. It often takes a long time before building and of course you need a place to live before and during construction. Also, there is a lot to learn about your land in a foreign country before you build that can avoid big expensive mistakes later.

Jimmy was my first ex-pat friend in San Ramon and really helped me. When I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and didn’t know the lay of the land, his friendship meant a lot to this stranger in a strange land. We went every weekend to different beaches and he opened his home to me as a place to hang out. We have both seen lots of foreigners come with big dreams yet return to their country of origin when things became tough. We have helped each other over and over to find the humor in situations that could make one crazy and frustrated. Sometimes we let each other rant and rave and sometimes we party until we forget what got us stressed.

To learn more about Jimmy’s container homes look at the property page on our website. (

Monday, September 15, 2008

Costa Rica Independence Day - September 15

Today is Costa Rica Independence Day, a festive colorful celebration. San Ramon is rocking with parades, costumes, music and general festivities. On this day in 1821 Costa Rica declared it’s independence from Spain. It is a treat to live in a country that has used it’s independence to create a vibrant democracy with no military, national health care, and education for all. It is neither dominated by a super power nor dominating events in other parts of the world. Pura Vida!

The annual celebration began on Sunday night with a children’s parade. The kids dress up in adorable traditional dress and carry homemade candle lanterns throughout the town. This replicates the scene in 1821 of people walking with lanterns from the Central American capitol in Guatemala to spread the word to Costa Rica and beyond of the declared independence from Spain.

On Monday, there is a larger parade presented by the students to amplify the celebration. The whole town is in the streets which is a beautiful multigenerational scene. I’m sure the nighttime celebration will include lots of drinking, dancing, flirting and more. Ticos know how to party.

Costa Rica has always felt like a country with a lot of personal freedom compared to the USA. Policemen are my friends here whereas they seem more aggressive in the USA. The simple act of drinking a beer in the streets is totally natural here, but would get me arrested in my place of birth. As long as you’re not violent, pretty much anything goes here in terms of personal expression.

I feel very lucky to live in San Ramon, Costa Rica. After 8 years of Bush, it’s hard not to question the direction of the US government both at home and around the world. To go from being dominated to dominating others seems like a weird way to use power.

I wish everyone in the world felt the level of freedom ringing out in Costa Rica today.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My New Home in La Paz

We just bought our 5th property in San Ramon, Costa Rica. Fortunately, we've sold a few of our properties recently to keep life manageable. We were going to list this property for sale for an 80 year old lady and her son, but one thing led to another and we ended up buying it.

Although it is only 20 minutes from San Ramon center life there feels at least 50 years in the past. Our neighbor uses oxen and a cart to transport his sugar cane harvest and there are more horses, birds, and animals than cars. Our neighbors are mostly from one family and 3 generations have welcomed us warmly.

For us, La Paz is a perfect complement to our home in the city. There is something about the air and vibe that is magical. It is the beginning of the rain forest without the tourists, buses and activity. Some Costa Ricans in the know have quintas/weekend houses there.

Our house has 2 floors, 2 bedrooms and 2 baths which should be good for entertaining and having friends visit. There are avocados, oranges, bananas, plantanos, limons and squash. We will work together with our nearest neighbor Hormidas Arias to recreate an organic garden so that we can grow all our vegetables on our land. As food gets expensive and travels thousands of miles for many, eating all our fruit and vegetables organic from our garden will be healthy and satisfying.

I really did not want to buy another house, but some places are so special. La Paz is one of those special settings that rivals any place I've ever been. As a guy born in NYC, my 8 year journey in San Ramon, Costa Rica continues to amaze me with twists and turns I never expected.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cost of Living

I’m heading back to San Ramon tomorrow, July 4th after spending some time in my other home, Ithaca, NY. I’m in NYC at the moment, the ultimate contrast to San Ramon.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, the United States and NYC was the land of opportunity for working and middle class people. Now the rich are richer and life is challenging for most. Watching the news leaves you with a bleak scenario for the American Dream moving forward.

During this time in the USA, it felt like a scary time economically. The stock market is tanking, gas hit $4+ a gallon, real estate and the banks that made real estate loans seem shaky. Health care is unaffordable and a college education costs 10 times what it did for me in the early ‘70’s.

I feel so lucky to have my life in San Ramon, Costa Rica for many reasons. As energy costs explode, I don’t use heating or air conditioning here and my monthly utility bill is in the $5 range. Virtually all the food I eat is local, excellent quality and either affordable or free. I just read in the NY Times about a restaurant selling a $100 hamburger and $12 for a cocktail is common in NYC. In San Ramon, for $2 I can get a boca of shrimp, fish or whatever. For $5-6, I eat and drink all that I desire.

Recently in San Ramon, I got a flat tire. Richard had it fixed and back on in less than 20 minutes and asked for $2. In my 8 years here, I have developed some strong relationships. I employ people to take care of my property, contractors etc. My staff said I treat them better than others. The $2 an hour they ask for, always includes a heartfelt thank you on my part and theirs. Amazingly, they all own their homes and while homes in the US are going down in value, their homes in San Ramon continue to appreciate significantly. Real estate taxes are negligible and most people own their homes outright with no mortgages. My $5,000 a year real estate taxes in Ithaca are getting harder to afford and services are dwindling. This all contributes to a life in San Ramon that is relatively non-stressful from a financial standpoint for both locals and ex-pats.

One of the things I’m really looking forward to is not driving. Between the cost of gas and the stress on the roads, it will be a pleasure to give up my car for awhile. In San Ramon, walking is social and good exercise. People ride their bikes to and from work. There are buses to every country town near San Ramon for 20-50 cents. An hour ride on the express bus to either San Jose or Puntarenas (nearest Pacific beach) costs about $1.75. Public transportation isn’t as viable an option or affordable an option in many parts of the United States.

So, for me, the American Dream of the past has now transformed to the Pura Vida Costa Rica Dream of the present. With no military and a friendly lifestyle, I am happy to be enjoying the present and not struggling with a dream that is harder to achieve.

Manana, I return to Costa Rica where I’m sure the stress of surviving in the fast expensive US lifestyle will ease as I re-enter my gentler, easier San Ramon way of life.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Most people visiting Costa Rica marvel at it's great surfing beaches, volcanos, rainforests, nature etc. Yet, there is another level of beauty. While many people in the USA, or "developed world," are not satisfied though they have SO much; many Ticos exhude a gratefulness for all they have, even those with limited resources. One feels it in the daily life on the streets of San Ramon. People just smile more in San Ramon and move slower through their lives.

Renato is a great San Ramon character. He's an older guy who feels content with less than most people. He says easily, " if I have rice and beans, a pack of smokes, C1000/$2 in my pocket, a tin roof over my head and a water spigot ... I'm happy. " Life can be simpler to enjoy with less possessions to manage.

Renato is scared of doctors and avoids visits if possible. While waiting in the San Ramon hospital in a 1st floor exam room for the doctor to come in, he climbed out the window before the exam claiming he felt much better.

This month's AARP Magazine had an article on lifestyle and longevity. It featured a number of Costa Rican centenarians living healthy to 100.AARP Magazine - Living Healthy to 100

The national expression "Pura Vida" has many definitions. Having a joyful, light Tico lifestyle is one part of it.

I learn a lot about life from many different people and experiences here in San Ramon.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bajo Caliente - San Juan de San Ramon - Recreation

One of my favorite places to spend some leisure time in San Ramon is Bajo Caliente. Locals come for many different reasons and the variety of things to do, make it special.

There is a nice swimming pool with a mesh roof for an indoor/outdoor feeling. Weekends and school vacations are busy times. I often go on weekday mornings and it feels like my own private club. There are swimming classes for children and hydro-spinning exercise classes. For people watching and socializing, the grassy hill outside the pool is filled with sexy beautiful people, catching some rays and checking each other out.

Bajo Caliente also has a soccer field. Local teams and friends rent the field for weekly games. Their friends and family cheer them on and make a nice scene.

The bar / restaurant is one of the largest in San Ramon. It is covered but open air with people of all ages. They serve bocas, small plates of food for about C1000/$2. Their wood fired roast chicken is one of the specialties along with cerviche, shrimp, fish and more.

The owner, Luis and his sons make this a family run business. Luis spent a few years in the USA working in Orlando and the Hamptons. Like many Costa Rican’s, he worked hard in the USA, saving most of his dollars to create a business in Costa Rica. While you hear so much about immigrants in the USA, Costa Ricans have a different take. The lifestyle in the USA is too fast, expensive and cold for most Ticos. They prefer to take their money home and lead a Pura Vida lifestyle with some capital for a house or business.

Bajo Caliente is a great part of my San Ramon lifestyle. It is located 5 minutes from the center of town in the community of San Juan.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

ICE - Costa Rica Telephone and Electric Service

In Costa Rica, the government has a monopoly for providing telephone and electric service. It has pros and cons and there is much debate on this changing in the future.

On the pro end, it is very affordable for everyone to have the basic services. My monthly bills are about $6 a month each for telephone and electric in my home. In the USA, my minimum can be 10 times this amount. This is a great thing to have inexpensive access for all. Universal access can also be seen in health care and higher education which is clearly not the case in the USA

The other side of government monopoly is it might take a month or even years to get phone service in some areas. The ongoing experience at an ICE office are long lines and not always the best customer service. High speed internet is rolling out very slowly in much of Costa Rica. Also, international calls are much more expensive from Costa Rica than from the USA. Thank God for Skype as a free or very cheap alternative for global communication.

On March 20 of this year, there was an overhaul of the phone system. The standard seven-digit phone number was changed to eight. A 2 is now added at the beginning of seven-digit landlines and an 8 before seven-digit cell phone numbers. The area code for all of Costa Rica is still 506 and the country code is 011. This has caused much confusion and frustration over the past month. I wondered if this was a plot by printing companies since business cards, stationary and signs all needed the phone numbers corrected.

For me the inexpensive basic services are a great thing and allow me to live in Costa Rica very affordably. In addition, there is a lesson somewhere in the need for patience and not being able to get instant anything here. Living a simple basic life is the way to go in Costa Rica.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Our Second Coffee Harvest in El Empalme San Ramon

As someone who has spent most of his life in cities and college towns, it remains an unexpected turn to own an organic coffee and fruit farm. These are THE crops of Costa Rica and before tourism and foreign investment became such a powerful part of the economy, coffee and bananas ruled.

My farm in El Empalme has an amazing ocean view and the sunset in the Pacific is an inspiring experience. El Empalme is one of the highest altitudes in the area making it ideal for coffee farming. It is also part of Costa Rican history. During the revolution that formed the modern Costa Rican state, El Empalme was where the rebels gained their strategic advantage over the government troops below due to its long views both towards Puntarenas and the Central Valley. A former Costa Rican President and San Ramon’s most famous citizen Jose Figueres had a weekend home in El Empalme. Figueres was an intellectual leader and one of the many architects of the modern Costa Rica who considered San Ramon their home. The elimination of the military, health care and education for all, and a stable democracy have roots in San Ramon.

Our farm produces just enough coffee for our own consumption and some to give away. The shade plants for the coffee are bananas, plantanos, limons and other fruit trees. Coffee is harvested once a year between December and February depending on the specific location. This is plenty to keep track of for me but there are many coffee farms in the area that are significant businesses.

Our friend Martin Rodriguez roasts the coffee for us at his farm in Bolivar. He can be seen selling his coffee most weekends at the San Ramon farmers market. I feel most grateful to Ivania, our El Empalme neighbor, who helps take care of most aspects of the farm for us.

We have a small farmhouse on the property, nicely oriented to the view. We hope to renovate it during July and August. Our goal is to retain it’s traditional nature while making it a comfortable living space.

Life is full of surprises and my farm in El Empalme has been one of the more unexpected chapters in my recent life.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Where the Streets Have No Name ....and the Houses Have No Numbers

In San Ramon, and most of Costa Rica (except San Jose), the streets have no names and the houses have no numbers. It makes asking directions and finding places comical and a true adventure. Every location is identified as a certain number of meters from a known landmark. In the era of Big Brother, the Costa Rican address system feels protective of your privacy and anonymity but also slow, impractical and difficult.

As an answer to my question for directions, a person will come outside and say something like … go to the big tree and then go 180 meters, make a left and when you see an old man in a chair on his porch go 50 meters and you are there. Also, people use references of store names that have changed years ago and impossible for the novice to know. But of course everyone is really helpful, smiling and friendly.

Police in San Ramon are friends and neighbors and clearly not looking for conflict. They don’t keep their hands on their pistols or look over their shoulders. They can be seen in the park, shaking hands, riding their bicycles and hanging out. Asking the Police for information has led to many fun conversations and developing friendships. Police interaction feels much different and lighter in San Ramon.

Many aspects of life in San Ramon bear little resemblance to my former life. The good news is it’s often filled with more laughs and new friends.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

My Vacation in the Snow

It was time to take a short break out of Costa Rica. We landed at JFK in NYC at 2AM just as a major snowstorm was materializing. We were one of the last flights that landed. Wow! After leaving the 70's and sunny San Ramon. Contrast.

There was 9 inches of snow in the NYC area as we drove a rental car to Ithaca at 3AM. The good news was there were few cars on the road; the bad news was that we couldn't see much of the road as the snow was piling up. It all ended well as we arrived in Ithaca after our 9 hour drive that normally takes 5 hours.

It's been fun being in Ithaca and we're heading for a few days in NYC. Back to Costa Rica on Friday after 2 weeks vacationing in NYS. I loved reading the NY Times, eating Chinese, Thai and Pizza and seeing friends and family. pero/but it's been very cold and snowy. People are mostly in their houses or cars ... not much street life.

We are flying back on Taca ( which feels better than flying with the majors. On our flight here, they gave us a nice dinner, free liquor and free headsets for movies. Taca flights offer good leg room and good price. To accomplish this, Taca often flys at extreme times, very early or very late. It's worth checking out if you're flying to/from one of their hubs.

I'm ready to go back to San Ramon and settle into my life; the swimming pool, bars and restaurants, and back to my simple but nice life.

Postscript: I have been back in San Ramon for 24 hours and I’m embraced by the friendliness on the street, relaxed by the sunny mild weather, relieved by the inexpensive cost of living …. and amused to watch my mind and body so flexible and tranquilo.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Puerto Viejo - The Other Side of Costa Rica

Here in San Ramon, people live by the wisdom of living in the mild weather of the Central Valley and vacationing at the beach. Most locals and tourists visit the Pacific beaches such as Samara, Jaco, Tamarindo or Manuel Antonio but the Caribbean beaches are a whole other experience … and worth the trip.

The Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica is not Latin, but rather settled by Black and Indigenous peoples. Much of the Caribbean feels like a different country with a culture and vibe in contrast to the typical Tico lifestyle in the rest of Costa Rica. Even the language is different with many locals speaking a Creole version of English, rather than Spanish. At the mid-point between the large port city of Limon and the Panama border to the south is Puerto Viejo, a laid-back beach town that lacks the megabuck development of the Guanacaste Pacific Coast. The lack of large-scale development, does not necessarily mean inexpensive (for Costa Rica), but the scale remains small and personal.

To make our trip to Puerto Viejo a real vacation, we left our car home and took the bus to mix with the other travelers. The bus from San Jose costs about $7.50 for the 4-5 hour trip, a bargain no matter how you look at it. Puerto Viejo is a walkable town so a car is not needed once you arrive. (

I was amazed by the changes in the 5 years since my last visit. Northern Europeans (German, Dutch, Swedish etc.) have bought many of the small businesses and make up an extraordinary large percentage of the visitors. Part of the color of the town has been lost, but it is still a cool place, full of surfers and young world travelers enjoying the lifestyle and natural beauty.

We stayed at Cabinas Agapi (, which is perfectly situated oceanfront just at the edge of town near Cocles Beach, which is THE beach in Puerto Viejo. Rooms and apartments are between $50 and $120 depending on the size and amenities. For the budget traveler, Rocking J ( seemed like a fun choice and is also beachfront. For $12 you can rent a tent on a 2nd floor platform with a mattress, pillows and sheets. It attracts a young crowd and is a good place to meet people.

There are loads of restaurants and bars, which can be discovered by just walking the small village of Puerto Viejo. Bread and Chocolate is a favorite with excellent breakfasts, desserts and snacks. Chile Rojo is another good choice for people watching, cocktails and creative fusion meals.

Playa Cocles is the beach of beauty and enjoyment in Puerto Viejo. Because of the coral formations, the beaches near the center of town are not suitable for swimming or surfing. Most people walk the pleasant shaded trail from the village center and the 10-15 minute walk is well worth it. Surfers, swimmers and sunbathers hardly make a dent in the space and it is surprisingly open and uncrowded even in high season. The heat of the beach is best enjoyed in the morning and late afternoon while limiting your exposure to the sun in the heat of the day.

Those seeking more nature or adventure can explore the nearby town of Cahuita and the Cahuita National Park, or travel down the coast to the Panama Border. If you are in Costa Rica for more than 10 days, the Caribbean coast is worth a visit. If you are planning a shorter trip, make the Caribbean your primary focus.

I loved my vacation. The heat, beaches and the tourist scene were great for a few days. It was a real break and contrast from my life in San Ramon. After 2 nights in Puerto Viejo, I was ready to return to my Tico life. They say one great part of going away is appreciating your home. When I saw the familiar faces on the San Ramon bus and felt the cooler breezes as we got close to home, my face lit up with joy and pride to live in a very special place.