by Shannon Farley
Most international visitors come to Costa Rica and head straight for the beaches, looking to find their perfect paradise on one of the country’s two coasts — Pacific or Caribbean.
While Costa Rica’s beaches certainly are spectacular, I’ll take my mountain town of Atenas any day over the beach. In fact, my husband and I have been in our mountain town now for nearly 10 years, after living for a few years on the Pacific Coast, and I don’t think I would live anywhere else in Costa Rica.
Atenas checks off everything on the list that many expats are looking for: cooler weather (to get cool in Costa Rica, you have to go up in elevation); close to the airport (it’s a 35-minute drive to the Juan Santamaria International Airport); safe, small-town; affordable housing and cost of living; and an international community.
Because Atenas is at the western end of the Central Valley, you can see the Pacific coast from many of the hilltops. And if residents want to go to the beach for the day, it’s only an hour’s drive. Atenas is also an hour from the capital city of San Jose.
I love Atenas’ green mountains and colorful countryside. Being a coffee-growing town means you can get excellent local coffee, and there’s even an organic coffee producer. Being a small town – only about 7,000 people in town and close to 27,000 in the whole county, the people are warm and welcoming. Residents still greet each other with Buenos días or Buenas tardes as they walk past each other on the streets. And in every shop, you’ll receive the same greeting along with a friendly smile.
Because so many international expats have settled in Atenas – estimated at 1,500 full-time residents from all over the world – there is a fantastic selection of good restaurants. There are two very excellent pizzerias that serve woodfired pizzas and fresh pasta dishes; one also has quite a selection of Mediterranean-style offerings. There is a sushi restaurant, several great cafés for sandwiches and salads, a German-owned café with a bakery and deli, a Polish-owned restaurant serving homemade pierogi (savory dumplings) and cabbage rolls, and a fabulous bakery that is the go-to spot for many expats in town for fresh bagels, sourdough bread, and desserts. Stop in for breakfast, lunch or coffee any day of the week and you are nearly guaranteed to run into someone you know.
The largest supermarket in town, CoopeAtenas, rivals any U.S. store with its big selection. Looking for gluten-free or dairy-free products, organic items, brand names from the States, or exotic international fare? It’s all here. The parking area has covered spaces and there is even a small café at the entrance serving specialty coffees, snacks, and desserts.
Atenas’ farmer’s market happens weekly on Thursday afternoons and evenings and Friday mornings. Vendors come from all over the Central Valley and nearby towns to sell a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, organic cacao products, locally produced organic coffee, fresh herbs for cooking and medicinal use, and a host of other items. You can get a duo of hot tamales for breakfast for only $2, and last week I bought two large bouquets of multi-colored lilies for only $6. Spending the equivalent of $25 in Costa Rican colones will fill your refrigerator for the week.
What’s more, Atenas offers service from a farm in the nearby town of Grecia that delivers 100% organic produce, weekly, right to your door. Place your order online at the beginning of the week – no fuss, no hassle – and it arrives on Friday afternoon. The delivery fee? Two dollars. I buy a huge sack of organic produce and even organic goat milk yogurt for only $25 a week.
For fun and to keep healthy, there are many activities available in Atenas. There are twice-weekly morning Tai Chi and Qigong classes, yoga classes three times a week, aqua aerobics, a men’s club, a ladies’ book club, and many volunteering opportunities. Atenas has lots of hiking and is a popular place for mountain biking and road cycling. There’s even an expat rock band that plays frequently around town.
With so much going on in and around Atenas, the town attracts many short-term and long-term visitors who use it as a base to enjoy relaxed tropical living and to explore nearby regions. For an enchanting place to stay, whether for a romantic escape for two or a holiday with friends and family, try La Toscana Hills luxury vacation villa.
(A version of this article first published in International Living.)