Relocation Hotspot: Alajuela
Renowned for its friendly residents and relaxed vibe, Alajuela feels like a big city masquerading as a small town. It is one of the Central Valley’s up and coming relocation destinations, boasting a close proximity (less than 5 minutes!) to the international airport. Alajuela’s compact downtown is home to inviting parks, museums, and small shops galore. Just a few miles outside the city center, the urban sprawl blends into picturesque countryside, where local farms produce some of the country’s tastiest java and most flavorful strawberries.
Like most cities in the Central Valley, Alajuela’s standard of living is high: cable television, high-speed Internet, and cell phone service are widely available and easy to obtain. However, the cost of living is considerably lower than in nearby San Jose or Heredia. Mansions in the city’s posh areas rent for $1500 or more per month, while a quaint 3-bedroom, 2-bath home can be had for less than $400 monthly.
For those who choose to forgo car ownership – or just prefer to explore downtown on foot – Alajuela’s public transportation system is top-notch. From the main bus terminal, TUASA buses depart daily for San Jose, Heredia and Poas Volcano National Park. Buses around town and into the suburbs are a bargain at 30¢ to 75¢ per ride and taxi stands are conveniently located around town.
Mall Internacional, located just outside of town, offers a moderate selection of stores as well as a fast food court and movie theater. Bargain hunters flock to the local Pricesmart, Costa Rica’s big box store. For upscale pantry supplies, Alajuela’s brand new Auto Mercado supermarket carries organic foodstuffs, imported items, and fine cheeses. Every Saturday, Alajuela hosts one of the largest outdoor farmers’ markets in the country at the Plaza Ferias. Here, residents can stock up on flowers, fresh produce, meats and dairy products at incredibly low prices.
Entertainment in Alajuela is all about the company you keep. While nightclubs are scarce, every neighborhood has a local watering hole and family-run restaurants offer a place to spend the night with neighbors and friends. Daytime hours are often filled with a trip to the museum, a game of pickup soccer or an afternoon spent at Alajuela’s central park. Shaded by huge mango and palm trees, it’s a pleasant spot to people watch and enjoy the occasional music concert or local performer. Just a short drive from town, public swimming pools, botanical gardens, and the popular Zoo Ave draw regular crowds.
Families take advantage of Alajuela’s excellent public education and private schools. Popular private pre-K through 12 options include the American International School and the Pan American School, just 15 minutes away in the province of Heredia. In nearby Escazu, the Marion Baker School, Blue Valley School and the Country Day School offer English-language curriculums, while classes at Rorhmoser’s Colegio Humboldt are conducted in Spanish, English, and German.
Medical services are easy to come by in Alajuela. Pharmacies, which can treat many minor maladies, abound, while inexpensive private clinics (about $10 per visit) attend to regular check-ups. For more serious complaints, residents head to the public Hospital San Rafael, a state-of-the-art facility inaugurated in October 2004. Those interested in private care are just 20 minutes away from CIMA Hospital, one of Costa Rica’s highest rated private hospitals.
Expat Spotlight: Steve, Age 40
1) Why did you choose to live in Alajuela?
I came to Costa Rica in 1970 on a student exchange program. That winter, I befriended an exchange student from Alajuela who was visiting my home state on the same exchange program. When I traveled to Costa Rica over the following 10 years, I stayed with him or at his family’s home when he was studying in Europe. When I moved to Costa Rica permanently some 13 years ago, Alajuela was where I wanted to live. To me Alajuela has always been home.
2) What are the positive and negative aspects about living in Alajuela?
Despite what most Costa Ricans think (that Alajuela is too hot), I like the weather better than other places in the Central Valley. The town is rapidly becoming more modern and more amenities are appearing such as the Centro Comercial Real Alajuela with its restaurants and soon to be movie theaters and food court. Also an Auto Mercado supermarket just opened. The city is a nice size and actually fairly logically laid out. In terms of negative aspects, I’d say it’s the same as the rest of Costa Rica: poor roads and petty crime.
3) What are Alajuela's best neighborhoods for expats?
Honestly, I’m not very involved in the foreign community other than a few acquaintances. However, I know there are some Americans living in La Giralda and sprinkled around the downtown area.
4) Any tips or advice about moving to Costa Rica?
Learn Spanish. It’s embarrassing and irksome to me that Costa Ricans think that gringos don’t speak Spanish. Be flexible. Learn what real estate should really cost. Even when it’s a bargain to you, you’re probably paying way too much and causing the real estate to be beyond the reach of locals. Respect the people, but don’t get all starry eyed about “paradise.”