Latitudinal Adjustments – A Summary of Our Move to Costa Rica

Our move to Costa Rica

This summary of our move to Costa Rica can be found at Living Abroad in Costa Rica a website/book/guide about moving to and living in Costa Rica. The fourth edition is coming out and our expat profile (a version of this article) will be included.

by Erin Van Rheenen

Kimberly Beck Hovland and Barry Hovland moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to rural Costa Rica in 2010, but they say that the seeds for that radical life change were planted much earlier. “Planted” turns out to be an apt metaphor. The Hovlands had long been interested in living off the land. They even have twin Eastern Hemlocks ‘planted’ on their bodies, his tattooed on his chest, hers on her hip. And when they came to Costa Rica, they relocated to a 9-hectare (22.5-acre) farm, fertile land bordered by a river and with a natural spring in their backyard, where they grow coffee, cacao, bananas, papaya, squash, peppers, and passionfruit, to name just a few of the crops that help them realize their dream of being more self-sufficient. They christened the farm “10 Degrees Above” for its latitudinal position in relation to the equator. It’s just outside the tiny town of San Miguel de Matina, in the province of Limon, on the Caribbean side of the country.

Real versus Manufactured Need

How did the Hovlands get from latitude 39 in Cincinnati to latitude 10 in Costa Rica? How’d they go from “selling data pipes” (Kim) and teaching photography (Barry) to clearing land in the tropics, building their own roads, stringing their own wiring, and building not one but three houses? We could go way back, no doubt, but let’s start with the couple meeting as Peace Corps volunteers in Tanzania, Africa, in a town so remote the kids there had never seen blacktop and the babies cried when confronted with white people. Kim and Barry worked in community-based natural resources management, as Environmental Extension Officers. “They called us ‘mentals’,” says Barry, born in Minnesota in 1977. “It was from ‘environmental’ but it was also because everyone thought we were crazy for wanting that assignment, where there was no running water and no electricity.” Kim, born in Ohio in 1969, finished her Peace Corps stint first, and Barry later followed her to Cincinnati. Reentry wasn’t easy for either of them. “After being in Africa for a few years, coming back to the U.S. freaks you out a little,” Barry says. “I remember going to buy some deodorant, and being confronted with just this wall of choices.” “It was physically overwhelming for him,” Kim remembers. “He could not make a choice.” “Living in the U.S.,” she continues, “there’s so much purposeless advertising telling you you need things no one really needs. In Africa, they do actually desperately need things. Food. Clean water. Rain for their crops.” “We needed a middle ground” between those two extremes, says Barry.

An ad on the Internet

Ironically, it was an ad that pointed them in the direction of Costa Rica. At this point they were both back in the 9 to 5 grind, and Kim had had a banner year at her sales job. She banked her US$30,000 bonus check, hoping it would be a down payment for a new life they had yet to invent. “We thought about buying a big RV and just driving around the States,” says Kim. “Then I started looking on, but the places that looked good—beautiful land in Oregon and California where the growing seasons are long and we could grow our own food—were really expensive.” Then she saw a little ad for land in Costa Rica. “It was just all green,” she says. “It was greener than anything else on that site.” Two research trips later, they bought what would become 10 Degrees Above for US$35,000. They looked all over the country, but found that the Caribbean Zone was not only less expensive but better suited their desire for a working farm. “On the Pacific Coast, the ideal is a cleared lot with just a few trees and an unobstructed view of the ocean,” says Barry. That’s pretty, but it’s not necessarily very fertile.” By the numbers “We got a good price because the place had been neglected” and was overgrown, says Barry. There were no roads, no electricity, and though there was a natural spring there were no pipes making that water available for use. The only structure on the land was a dilapidated caretaker’s shack that had to be pulled down. Besides the initial US$35,000 for the acreage, they paid a realtor US$4,000 in fees and commissions, another US$4,000 to have roads built, a little less than US$1,000 to bring in electricity, and US$22,000 to build a charming one-room high-ceilinged “love shack” with a tropical hardwood wraparound deck. That latter figure included the clearing of the land and all the appliances they needed for the house. They spent about US$6,000 on a small cabin with front porch that they rent out (they built it on the cement foundation of a dilapidated caretaker’s shack they had to tear down). They’re also building a larger two-story home up the hill, having budgeted $30,000 for that structure.

DIY, Hiring Help, and Paying Local Prices

“I do a lot of the work myself,” Barry points out. “My dad was a contractor, and I brought a lot of tools down.” If Kim and Barry don’t do the work themselves, they oversee it, and unlike some absentee owners they know who’ve been overcharged, the Hovlands feel that they have a relationship with their town and the people in it that helps them get better prices. “In the Peace Corps,” Barry recalls, “they drop you off in a community, and you see taillights. You’ve had three months or less of language training. You find a friend, fast. You go out with whatever language skills you have, smile big, and you get to know people in the community.” That training served them well when they moved to Costa Rica. They are known now in San Miguel, and they hire locals they can trust to help out with building and on the farm. To get started, they asked a neighbor to help them get the water from the spring to their house. When he proved himself with that job, they hired him for other jobs, and put him in charge of sourcing materials. “When we tell people—even Ticos—what we pay for, say, the wood we build with, they say ‘Muy barata!’ [very cheap]. It’s because we have a Tico negotiating for us.” says Kim.

The Five-year Plan

When asked about making a living in paradise, Barry sighs and Kim laughs ruefully. Though they have a lot of irons in the fire, they’re still paying out a bit more than they’re taking in. But they have a five-year plan. Back in Ohio, they sold their house, renting to save money before moving down. Barry’s photography has created some income—through Café Press he sells the remarkable snake and frog and bird photos he takes here in Costa Rica, and people can even get an alarm clock or a shower curtain with a great shot of a wet sloth clinging to a tree—the photo was taken right outside their house. When the buildings are all finished, he hopes to have 8-person photography workshops onsite. He’s done some occasion photos for local Costa Ricans, and put together a video for a nearby Amish dairy. “We did that in kind,” says Kim of the video. “We got $580 in milk products. It’s not income, but we’re eating really good ice cream.” Kim also posts regularly on a blog that gives detailed accounts of their life on the farm, from roasting and grinding cacao to making the trek to San Jose for a local photography expo. She hopes her online presence will draw people to the farm and to Barry’s workshops. “But even if our plan doesn’t work out,” Kim adds, “and we never make enough money to sustain ourselves here, I feel very proud of us as a couple, that we had a common dream and took that leap. I feel very lucky to have Barry with me. Even if it doesn’t all work out, we’ll have had five years of working to make our lives better, of enjoying the little bit of time that we have in this life”

© Erin Van Rheenen

23 comments on “Latitudinal Adjustments – A Summary of Our Move to Costa Rica”

  1. Kimberly Beck Reply

    Hi Dave. I like the description of a “hard paradise”. We think that our trials and tribulations have been worth it. Sometimes I get so mad or upset and then I just look out at my farm or get back to what I love doing, nature watching and gardening, and then everything is better. We do hope that you come to visit and any business you can throw our way would surely be appreciated. Which state do you hail from in the US?

  2. Sue Borah Reply

    Amazing article and I love hearing about all you have done since moving to Costa Rica. Miss you two and hope to visit you some day.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  3. Sue Borah Reply

    Kim, you and Barry have come a long way since our days in the Peace Corpsl I am so happy when I read of your adventures and see the wonderful photos you post. Hope you don’t mind, but I share with my friends as well so they can share in your adventures and also get a feeling for my life when I lived in Costa Rica after leaving the Peace Corps. I am so proud of you both for following up on your dreams!

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  4. Sue Borah Reply

    Kim, you have come a long way from the first night we become roommates at the Equator Hotel in Arush Tanzania! I am so proud of what you and Barry have accomplished and so proud of how you both continued your dream after the Peace Corps.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  5. Mark & Lisa (Schultz) Chelini Reply

    Hi Kim! It’s Lisa, from California. My husband and I love your story. We are planning a relocation down your way ourselves. He has been considering Panama, Belize, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica – in that order. I told him about you living down there and he wants to talk to you and your husband.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Hi Friend! Tell him he can give me a call 506 8307-9218 or e-mail me any questions. Better yet, why don’t you guys come down for a quick visit and we’ll talk over a good meal and some beer.

  6. Joseph Reply

    You should offer consultation services. I will gladly pay for your advice and expertise when we go down there to buy land (in about 2 years).

  7. Joseph Reply

    OK, so I looked on, but everything is too expensive! I’ll have to keep checking raigslist cr and other sites for good land at reasonable prices.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Joseph – Land and Farm had a property but that is not the one we bought. We had to look on 4 other trips for the right price/place. There are some good deals still out there but the problem is finding a smaller farm. Everyone is selling 100+ acres farms. We were lucky to find 22.

  8. Joseph Reply

    This is great. I love the history and how you guys got the land. Lots of insight into the costs and the reasons behind your decisions. I aspire to do as you and Barry did and live off the land as much as possible. This was a great help to me. Thanks, Kim and Erin.

    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Well Joesph when you find yourself in CR next time give us a ring. And of course, if you have any questions feel free to ask.

  9. Erin Van Rheenen Reply

    Hi Kim & Barry,

    Glad you liked the profile! Just a small correction: it’s the 4th edition of my book coming out in 2013, not the 2nd.

    Happy new year,


    • Kimberly Beck Reply

      Duly noted. Everyone go out and buy Living Abroad in Costa Rica by Erin Van Rheenen. It has practical advice and great expat profiles : )

  10. Cindy Reply

    You two are inspirational.. Interesting to learn of your stint in Tanzania..& your difficult re-entry into our crap/garbage nauseates me daily. I do hope you make it..& to refer to last comment/blog.. Bravo for your sustainable practices & tree hugging (tatooing too 😉

  11. Kim Deprenger Reply

    Kim and Barry, I loved this post since it gave me more info on your history and your projects. It was an honor to get to know you even if it was only for one night.

  12. carolyn tait Reply

    great write-up. i have faith in you guys. it will work out!!

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