Relocation Hotspot: Atenas
I spotted a three-toed sloth out my bedroom window the other day. The fuzzy gray mass was slowly ascending one of the cecropia trees that frame our property. I'd expect to see one of Costa Rica's most iconic mammals in the jungles of Tortuguero or perhaps Manuel Antonio, but right here in Atenas? My hometown is best described as a slice of quintessential small town Costa Rica. Located on the western edge of the Central Valley, it's a lively community made famous by National Geographic's title for having "The World's Best Climate." And along with great weather (daily averages 77- 86 F) and tropical breezes comes amazing wildlife -- often right in your own backyard.
From the front porch of our modest home we regularly see giant green iguanas, pacas, toucans and even the occasional howler monkey. But the really wonderful part is that we don't live out in the boondocks; we're a five-minute drive to Atenas' town center where modern amenities like Internet cafes, a fitness center, boutiques and supermarkets are walking distance from central park.
The true charm of Atenas lies in its residents and unpretentious surroundings. Green and fertile with rolling hills, it is a flourishing agricultural region known for its animal husbandry, coffee and fruit orchards. This is a typical blue-collar working town, where residents jovially greet each other in passing. I know my pharmacist, my butcher and my favorite fruit vendors by first name.
Entertainment options are limited, as daily life is focused on family and rooted in tradition, such as the Friday farmers' market where fresh produce, flowers and meats are on offer, or Saturday bingo games next to the church. When we're craving dinner and a movie -- a big night on the town -- we take the Caldera highway, and in less than 25 minutes we're in Escazu's Multiplaza and Imax theatre.
What the town lacks in nightlife, it more than makes up for in outdoor recreation. Whether you're into swimming, hiking or mountain biking, you're sure to enjoy the public pools and miles of challenging trails that stretch all the way to Jaco. Horses are an integral part of Atenas culture and it's not uncommon to see local cowboys on their steeds, parading through town.
Every year at the end of April, Atenas celebrates with the Climate Fair -- a community event featuring local art, typical foods, children's activities and music performances. Other notable festivals include the annual oxcart parade and nocturnal horse parade that draws hundreds of riders from the Central Valley.
Atenas has become a popular retirement destination for North Americans and property values have skyrocketed over the past ten years. But good deals can still be had; a one-acre lot with mountain views can sell for as little as $55,000 and you can rent a furnished two-bedroom house for around $400 a month, while gorgeous, Balinese-style homes in gated communities run upwards of $1200 monthly. Depending on your lifestyle, the cost of living in Atenas can be much lower than in larger cities. Amenities like high speed Internet and satellite TV are relatively cheap and easy to access, even on the outskirts of town.
Expat families often send their children to the area's private schools, such as Escuela Colina Azul (Pre-K- 6) or the bilingual Green Valley School (K-12). Besides a handful of pharmacies with English-speaking staff, medical facilities include the public health clinic, as well as the privately run Linea Viteal, which addresses all minor emergencies. Modern facilities like CIMA hospital are less than half an hour away, offering state-of-the-art facilities and bilingual physicians.
One of my favorite aspects of living here is the central location; Atenas is just 25 minutes from the international airport and 40 minutes from universities and city resources in San Jose. For around $1, you can hop a public bus bound for Alajuela or San Jose, which depart every hour from 4:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. With the completion of the Caldera highway, travel from Atenas to the central Pacific Coast is a breeze -- it's now less than 45 minutes to the surf towns of Jaco and Playa Hermosa.
If you're thinking of relocating to Atenas, there are plenty of ways to get involved with your new neighborhood. Take yoga, pilates or Latin dance classes at the local community center, or volunteer with Atenas' own animal rescue organization that helps abandoned cats and dogs. Try aerobics or spinning classes at the town's remodeled gym or join the Wednesday Womens' Group that meets weekly for lunch and conversation.
Best Eats: Alita's Italian restaurant serves up authentic thin crust pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven. For a traditional taste, head to La Trocha, which features massive portions and one of the tastiest Caribbean dishes this side of Puerto Viejo.
Best Kept Secret: The handmade German sausages, baked breads and desserts for sale at El Balcon de Cafe, in the center of town. The quality can't be beat, and it's one of the perks of European expat communities in Costa Rica.
Best Attraction: The local horse parades, which are so much fun to watch. The dry season months of December through April host the largest number of topes. You can even rent a horse and participate in the fun.
Best Family Activity: A visit to the local balneario, or public swimming pool. A rustic bar serves up ice-cold drinks and salsa music is always playing. Swimming lessons are also offered.
Best Supermarket for Imported Goods: Head to Canario, located across from the central market, for sushi makings, pesto sauce, Greek olives and other ethnic goodies.
1) Why did you choose to live in Atenas? My fiance was offered a teaching position here six years ago; having lived in larger towns like Heredia and Alajuela, we embraced the provincial charm of Atenas. It's by far my favorite place to live. No pollution, very little noise and miles of scenic views in every direction. It's funny how quickly you grow to love small town life.
2) What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Atenas? People are friendly, the weather is fabulous and I feel very safe. It's also the perfect-sized town: just big enough to provide the amenities you crave but small enough to preserve a strong sense of community. However, the nightlife in Atenas is almost nonexistent; other than a couple of tiny bars, there's not much going on. You need to make your own entertainment, so we often invite friends over for BBQ's and dinner parties. Atenas doesn't have a movie theater or variety of ethnic restaurants, so we drive to Escazu or San Jose for our date nights.
3) What's the expat community like there? The expat community seems to be made up of small enclaves of North Americans and Europeans (mainly retirees, along with a smattering of adventurous 30-somethings) that live in the surrounding countryside. Although most live outside of town, expats can be seen integrating into the community: shopping in the central market, having a beer at the local bar, or enjoying the periodic fairs held in the downtown area.
4) What sets Atenas apart from other relocation hotspots? Atenas, although a popular expat destination, retains the authentic, small-town feel that makes Costa Rica such a great place to live. Neighbors make conversation on their porches in the evening, shopkeepers recognize you and have your usual order ready, and central park is full of townspeople in the evening.
5) Do many people speak English in Atenas? No, I'd say that a majority of residents have some basic English skills, but Spanish is the norm on the street. Even though there's a considerable foreign presence, English is not widely spoken. It's a great place to learn Spanish and local residents are quite patient with beginners. There's even a community center that offers Spanish classes at night; or new residents can opt for a language exchange with their neighbors/friends.