Thursday, December 18, 2008

Alajuela Living: Pros and Cons

I’ve been putting off posting a review of living in Alajuela, and I’ve finally figured out why. I didn’t want to write anything negative about it! Our rule for town reviews is to write pros *and* cons, and Alajuela has always felt good – I didn’t want to dig for bad.

Well, since our plan for Costa Rica is to live in several towns for several months each before deciding where to settle down, we have to try to stand back; we have to toss the rose-colored glasses. I struggled with the Orosí review as well.

During our visits, we have been trying to keep in mind that we are looking for the best place for us - this is difficult because it is so easy to focus on the positive and ignore or downplay any negatives. It is easy to say "Oh, we can live without that," etc.

We lived in Alajuela for 4 months, from the end of the rainy season until the end of the dry season. When we left, we kept it on our list as a possibility. We let our impressions settle for a while, then came up with this list of Pros and Cons.

Costa Rica update
  • Affordable: While still affordable, CR has gotten more expensive.
  • Safety: We believe CR is getting more violent.
  • Year-round living: We have our residency (no change in outlook)
  • Religion: We’ve seen many saints’ processionals, we’ve met more people who attend church, but are not fanatics. However, Alajuela central park often had yelling bible-thumpers. (no change in outlook)
  • Interesting (culture, activities): There are many universities, museums, theaters, and a symphony (but mostly only in San José). Music is a big part of life. Cowboys (sabañeros) are alive and well, contributing fancy horse-back riding, topes, and rodeos to the scene. A question we still have is how easy is it to get involved?
  • Dangerous diseases (few or none, please): Dengue fever is on the rise.
  • Medical care (accessible and good): We bought into the state-run medical insurance ($61/month for both of us). There are several excellent private and public hospitals, but the best ones are in San José. I had surgery – so far, so good.
  • Water – must be drinkable (bottled water is available, but too expensive and bothersome). Neither of us could drink the tap water without some degree of discomfort; we ended up using bottled or filtered water for drinking and for making soup and coffee. This has been true in every town so far, so we have decided that we will need a water filter for anywhere we live in Costa Rica. We found a faucet-mounted water filter at EPA in Escazú, and brought a large supply of the replacement filters from the states.

Alajuela Overview (see here - - for data**): Alajuela is a large city – it is the second largest city in Costa Rica, and has about 72,000 people. It is the city nearest the “San José” airport. It is about 17 km West of San José (560,000 people). It is in the central valley - a bit lower in elevation (918 m / 3015 ft) than San José (1146 m / 3763 ft).

  • Friendly people – Alajuela has some of the friendliest people! On our nearly daily walks, we exchange smiles and greetings with many people. We have met and become friends with many people there. Alajuela is on par with small towns in its friendliness. We felt much more welcomed than in Grecia (for example).
  • We fit in (purely a feeling): We are comfortable walking around Alajuela. The neighbourhoods make us feel energized.
  • Very few of the helpful people have ulterior motives (e.g., they genuinely want to help; they are not just trying to sell you something).
  • Alajuela is not a tourist town, but we saw a lot of travellers.
  • A Central Park – Alajuela has an excellent central park, as well as many others. We regularly walked through 3 on our short trip to the bus station; all are beautiful and relaxing.
  • Excellent central market; a lot to chose from. However, we didn’t shop there often enough to develop a sense of what were fair prices. There is also a weekly farmers market, verdurerías, and super markets.
  • Good doctors are available in town; there are both a clinic and a hospital. It is a decent bus ride (20-45 minutes) to San José for private hospitals and major public hospitals.
  • Easy to find things – it is a large town, and the provincial capital, so most items are available (shoemakers, tailors, spices, appliances, furniture, bedding, “unusual” medications). Specialty items (CPAP) are available in San José.
  • Many ethnic restaurants – Chinese, Columbian, Peruvian, Italian, Tex-Mex…
  • (Pro for Julie) ¨Good¨ climate - not too humid, a little bit too hot. “Hot” was 84-87 inside. A fan helped, and Julie got used to the heat. At the peak-heat time of day, there was usually a nice breeze, so going outside (like to a park:)) helped. Our apartment got pretty cold at night – 67 was not uncommon (a thicker blanket would have been welcome).

  • (Con for Rick) Climate – Rick needs a cooler elevation (perhaps 1200-1300 meters or higher); Alajuela’s elevation is about 900, and is on the hot side. Temperatures in the upper 80s were common. It was too hot for Rick.
  • Somewhat difficult to have a horse nearby, but there is a stable. We didn’t see any riders.
  • Not as affordable as smaller towns – rent was double; food was more expensive.
  • Few opportunities for social interactions and meeting new people. There were few events for such a large town (although the soccer stadium had games and a few concerts). Limited to “hang-outs” such as Jalapeño’s, and private parties.
  • Able to find housing within 10 blocks of the center of town – we found an apartment that was 5 blocks from the central park, but it is more expensive than in smaller towns. It was also hard to find!
  • Feels safe (emphasis in addition to above list) – safe enough that a woman can walk around alone at night? I used to do this in Alajuela, but now I would think twice about going by myself after dark.
  • Community – need to be part of an artist/music/movie community (how far away is too far?) – near UCR, or other center. Didn’t find this in Alajuela.
  • Entertainment / Mental Stimulation – we need a town with more than churches and bars (of course, parks are very entertaining) – Difficult to find.

** use some caution when looking at populations – this site counts the population within a 7 km circle. So, large towns are under-represented and small towns get more population than actually live in town.

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