When you think of retirement, what do you envision? Growing old in the comfort of your longtime home around familiar faces? Or riding waves on a beach in Central America? We sat down with Devon and Lavanson Austin to speak with them about their decision to embark on an exciting adventure in Costa Rica instead of settling further into life in San Francisco, California.
Tell us a little bit about your background: where are you from and did you travel abroad growing up?
Lavanson and I had very different upbringings. My father was in the Air Force so we traveled quite a bit when I was growing up. I lived all across the US from California to New Hampshire as well as Guam and Hawaii. Lavanson, on the other hand, was born and raised in Los Angeles where he lived until he graduated high school. His first travel experience was moving to Phoenix, Arizona for work.
After college I moved from Colorado to San Francisco and Lavanson moved there from Phoenix . Interestingly enough, we both arrived in the Bay Area around the same time, back in the mid 70s, when San Francisco was a melting pot of diversity, flower power, activism, racial pride and rebellion. Although we were both living in the Bay Area we did not meet until 1997.
What was life like for you in San Francisco prior to retirement?
Life was good in San Francisco. Lavanson started out in the furniture business and later teamed up with his brother to launch a successful career in real estate. I pursued the corporate path and had several careers in the financial services industry.
I’ve always had the travel bug, but Lavanson knew a lot more about the history of other countries because he is an avid reader and researcher. After we met, we put these skills together and began to explore the world. We traveled many times to Europe, Mexico, Alaska and the Caribbean. (I traveled alone to Africa in 2012 after having my African DNA traced.) We enjoyed experiencing other cultures up close and personal and considered ourselves to be ‘global citizens’.
When you first started thinking about retirement, what did that look like to you?
I must admit that in the beginning we looked at retirement in the Bay Area — there was no reason not to. After all, we loved it there. We had family, friends and we both had led pretty successful careers.
Why did you choose a different route to retirement?
Although retiring outside of the US had not been on our minds, the skyrocketing cost of living and healthcare, and the drastic change in the social/political climate was on our minds. When we sat down to do the numbers, we found out that if we wanted to retire and continue living anywhere close to the standard we had enjoyed, that would definitely not be happening in the Bay Area! It was then that we began looking outside of the country.
How did you decide where to retire?
During our travels, one of our favorite places had been Paris. After visiting in 2010 we thought we might even like to retire there. I wrote a blog called I’d Rather be in Paris and created a five-year plan to retire in Paris, but it was not to be. After nearly four years of research it became obvious that, financially, moving to Paris would be impossible. By this time, there were many articles and there was a lot of information available online providing comparative costs of living outside of the US. We had decided we wanted to live in a country with a low cost of living, mild climate, and close enough to the US to be one short plane ride away (in case we had to return for any reason). But we also wanted to live in a culture that was very different from that of the US, and we wanted to see more black and brown people. So we started looking at Central and South America. Our short list included Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.
You recruited friends during your planning process; what were the benefits and/or challenges of making a major life decision with five other people?
We began making relocation plans in 2013. I thought it would be a great idea to take a group of friends with us to our new location! We all had individual strengths and there weren’t many challenges because we were a group of friends and had already been holding a weekly discussion group since 2008. Our weekly meetings now consisted of researching all aspects of relocating to Costa Rica. We learned a lot. We usually assigned a topic to each member and discussed the findings the following week. Since we also had an architect in our group we spent some time exploring the possibility of building a container home community.
What are some of the benefits you’ve seen as a retiree in Costa Rica?
Four of our group made the move to Costa Rica in 2016. Lavanson and I chose to live in the Central Valley on a charming little coffee farm. It is our joy!
Costa Rica offers the freedom to live a peaceful, happy life surrounded by peaceful, kind and happy people.
The country is beautiful with lots of beautiful beaches and many different activities. The climate is mild, fruits and vegetables are plentiful, healthcare services are excellent and affordable and the people are super helpful.
In addition, the cost of living is reasonable (although it is no longer the inexpensive destination it used to be). I always ask the question, “Compared to what?” For example, if you compare the San Francisco rental costs alone to rent in Costa Rica, Costa Rica is 87.56% lower!
Please describe your experience as a Black expat in Costa Rica.
Although the Black/African population is only about 1.1%, we have found life here to be enjoyable. The locals have been friendly and welcoming. The total US expat population here is about 70,000 with only a very small percentage of African Americans. Until recently I don’t think many African Americans considered Costa Rica for relocation. Since we have been here I have seen the number of African American tourists and expats increase.
How have you used your experience to help other aspiring expats?
When we first started our research, I found only one website about relocation to Costa Rica from the African American perspective. We started our site not only to document our journey but also to help other African Americans navigate through the process more easily. We answer questions and provide information, resources and tips to singles, families and retirees who are planning to relocate, as well as those who are just passing through.
What is one quintessentially Costa Rican experience every newcomer or first-time visitor must have?
When you visit Costa Rica, be sure to check out Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast. It’s sort of a hidden gem. The Caribbean Coast has some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica: surfing, water sports, dancing, lots of reggae music, restaurants, yoga, and amazing cuisine (lots of fresh fish and Jamaican food). That’s also where you will find the majority of the Afro-Costa Ricans.
Wherever you decide to go, relax and enjoy the beauty of the country and the Pura Vida lifestyle!