One of my favorite things about living and writing in Costa Rica is the new friends I meet. That’s where this Costa Rica Expat Interview comes in! A good number of those new friends and colleagues are expats from other countries, not just the U.S. and Canada, but from all over the world. In every conversation I have, I learn something new – about where people are from and what brought them to Costa Rica (or Panama) and often, I glimpse my world and this country through their eyes.
It’s a lot of fun.
Expat interviews are something I’ve done now for many years on my Panama blog. With today’s post, I’m starting to do expat interviews here on La Pura Vida Costa Rica, too! Why? Because the stories you hear from other expats in Costa Rica will inform you, educate you, and help you. And sometimes, even entertain you. 🙂
So, without further ado: Meet Enzo from Italy
Meet Enzo: An Italian Expat in Costa Rica
Enzo and his wife Gineth live in Ojochal, Costa Rica. Enzo hails from Italy originally, though he spent some time in England before he relocated to Costa Rica. I met Enzo and Gineth here in our community at a social engagement and at the gym, in addition to visiting their authentic Italian restaurant, Mamma e Papa, here in Ojochal a few weeks ago.
Enzo Loreto started out like so many new expats do – he came to Costa Rica on vacation 13 years ago. A friend of his had come back to Italy after enjoying his own vacation, and on his friend’s recommendation, Enzo returned by himself and in a short time – just two months – he caught the Costa Rica bug.
He came – again, like many visiting this tropical paradise and many of those same people that become Costa Rica expats – speaking no Spanish. Nor did he know anyone in the country. But, he loved the Tico lifestyle so much that he stayed.
Finding Work in Costa Rica as an Expat
During Enzo’s first year in Costa Rica, he worked virtually via his computer for a company back in Italy. Enzo had previously worked in Italy as a speleologist. (What the heck is a ‘speleologist’? Good question. I had to look it up too. A speleologist is like a geologist or someone who makes maps of the earth, but does it underground, for caves.) So, essentially, Enzo was developing a map for a cave in Italy, though he was living in Costa Rica.
Don’t you love technology? It makes the world so small! I also telecommute – both with my writing and with any consulting I do – and can work from anywhere in the world. I choose to live here in Costa Rica, but let me not get side tracked.
Post that first year, Enzo worked in food and restaurant supplies and also started a t-shirt stand in the beach town of Jaco with a partner. These experiences helped him get a feel for Costa Rica and the business climate, as well as to become familiar with the various communities along the Pacific coast. Soon after, he started his own Italian pizzeria in Santa Ana, which is a suburb to the capitol city of San Jose.
Why did he return to San Jose after living on the beach? “I didn’t like San Jose, but I had to start out there to figure that out,” Enzo said. “I had to see how Costa Rica worked without investing a lot. That’s why I started my pizzeria. Through it, I met a lot of people and I also learned that San Jose was similar to many other cities around the world.”
One of the people he met during his four-year stint of owning the pizzeria is his wife Gineth, who is a Costa Rican native. “She was one of my clients,” Enzo told me with a slight smile. (This falls right in line with statistics I’ve read that a good percentage of us in the developed world meet our significant others and spouses at work. And, yes, it happens abroad too.)
Discovering the Ballena Coast in Costa Rica
“How did you find this area?” I asked. Again, Enzo smiled. “A client of mine at the pizzeria told me about this area. He had some property down here for sale and kept talking about it. So, one day, I drove a motorcycle down from Santa Ana, checked it out, and drove back.”
It was no small feat eight or nine years ago when Enzo made this epic one-day round-trip. First of all, the most direct route between the Ballena Coast and San Jose was yet to be completely paved – at that time, it was lacking a pretty significant strip between the beach towns of Dominical and Quepos/Manuel Antonio. That means that Enzo had to take the famed “Hill of Death” road between San Jose and San Isidro, which is windy and in some places seems to hang off the side of a mountain. It probably made for one heck of a trip to do that here and there all in one day.
So what happened?
“I told my friend I’d take it,” Enzo said.
“The property we’re sitting on?” I asked. Buying a property on your first visit is not normally something I’d recommend, but Enzo had lived in Costa Rica by that time for almost five years.
“Yes!” he replied. “This very property.”
The photos that accompany this interview are of that Mamma e Papa property, which measures 1.5 hectares (more than 15,000 square meters). That property is also the site where Enzo and Gineth built a cozy cluster of bungalows facing a tranquil river in Ojochal, and the location of their TripAdvisor award-winning authentic Italian restaurant overlooking the jungled hillsides.
It’s safe to say that Enzo’s impetuous purchase of this land has paid off in spades for the Costa Ballena community – especially for those tourists who choose to stay in this lovely setting when they visit Costa Rica – and for those of locals who can go around the corner to enjoy Enzo’s homemade pasta and pizza.
For Enzo and Gineth, that gamble has paid off in success, though it has come with a somewhat hectic lifestyle. While they make it look easy, running a small hotel as entrepreneurs always comes with its set of challenges, especially when you consider that staff and vendors are often on their own brand of “Tico Time”. (I say this after having worked as an executive in an office setting for almost six years in Panama.)
Enjoying the Costa Rica Pura Vida Lifestyle
When I posed the question, “What do you enjoy about Costa Rica?”, Enzo described what sounds to most like a tropical dream.
“I get up when the sun rises, when the birds start singing every morning,” He waved his hand at the lush landscape of trees all around where we sat. “Here, we live among real nature – not a world of concrete – and we listen to the sounds of the river.” When he paused and I tuned into the bubbling of the water below us, my whole body relaxed. “The sensation of living here in this paradise – the silence I find – the quiet – the tranquility – is like nothing else, nowhere else in the world,” Enzo finished. “Costa Rica is another world.”
Indeed, living here in the jungle in the tropics of Costa Rica is something most people only dream of; Enzo (and his family) are fortunate enough to actually call it home.
The Challenges of Living in Costa Rica
“It’s kind of like asking who do you think the most beautiful woman in the world is?” Enzo replied, when I asked him the question I ask almost everyone: What do you find most challenging about living in Costa Rica?
Enzo did not miss a beat as he replied. “Everyone has a different opinion. The most complicated thing I have found about living in Costa Rica is that growing up Italian – in Italy – has impacted my viewpoint.”
When asked him to explain further, Enzo continued, “Here in Costa Rica, you have the opportunity to do anything you want – however you want. There are all kinds of potential and possibilities. Here, you can find tons of space wherever you want, and do with it whatever you have the money to do. In Italy, there’s less space, more people and less opportunity because there’s more competition.”
His unusual answer caused me to look up from my laptop where I was taking notes. He went on. “The easy thing is that if you want to come here, you can, but it’s different. Here in Costa Rica, you have the opportunity to change – learn a new language, learn a new trade, eat different food. It’s different and it’s an adventure but the change – that many people think may be difficult – is not. The difficult part is only in your mind. But that change,” Here he shook his head. “It never daunted me. For many foreigners, it does.”
“How did you know you’d be successful?” I asked, waving a hand around at the spotless restaurant facilities in which we sat. Enzo shook his head again. “I didn’t come with a marketing plan for “if this business would work”.” He said. “It does. I built it with a dream to have my home here, with this gorgeous lifestyle and with four rooms and we did it. And it’s amazing and it’s been successful and it’s kept us very busy.”
Enzo’s Advice for New Costa Rica Expats
What three things does Enzo recommend to a new expat considering moving to Costa Rica?
- Come to Costa Rica for an extended vacation. Do six months if you can. “Not everyone can do it, but my two-month vacation cost me less than living in Italy for those two months,” Enzo added.
(I’m pretty sure I raised an eyebrow when Enzo said this as Costa Rica is not cheap.)
He clarified, “If you have the opportunity, you can do this. You may have to bring a backpack and stay in simple places and take the bus, but an extended stay will give you a real picture of the lifestyle in Costa Rica.”
- Don’t buy anything immediately. Rent something. If it works and you like it, then you can buy it later. Many people make this mistake.
- Before you make any long-term decisions about relocating to Costa Rica, come here and check it out. Make sure you like the climate, the people, the animals, the environment. Make sure you “get” the real Costa Rica. (My addition: It’s different from the tourist version, believe me.)
Enzo had one final piece of advice, which I really liked. And that was, “If you can’t live spontaneously, this is not your country. If you come with a critical mind, you will have an unhappy life.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, Enzo made an interesting observation, which struck me as important to share.
“Many people that live in Italy get to the edge of the ocean – because we have beautiful beaches too – and when the reach the edge, they exclaim “Wow!” he said. “In Costa Rica, the reverse happens. People get to one of the gorgeous beaches – (there are many of them here) – and they wade out into the water, walk 100 meters out, turn around and look back at the land and exclaim, “Wow!” Because here, they are not just seeing the beautiful beaches – those exist in many places around the world. Here in Costa Rica, you see the beauty of the land, the animals, the endless green, the waterfalls, the rivers; these things you do not have in many other places around the world, not like you find here.”
All I could do was nod.
Discover Mamma e Papa Hotel and Italian Restaurant in Ojochal, Costa Rica
For award-winning, delicious, handmade pasta, make sure you make a point to visit Mamma e Papa when you are next in Costa Rica’s culinary capitol, Ojochal de Osa. (They also have pizza, though I have not tried it.) Enzo and Gineth’s cozy bungalows are also perfect for those visiting the Ballena Coast. They sleep two to five people, depending on availability and features a beautiful pool, a shared social area with TV and pool table and the sound of the Ojochal River to lull you to sleep. Rooms start at $115 for two including breakfast.
Interested in buying a property in Ojochal, Costa Rica?
Mamma e Papa is currently listed for sale. The asking price of $890,000 is for the bungalows and the restaurant (including a private home above the restaurant) in this beautiful riverside setting of 1.5 hectares. See the listing here.
Special thanks to Enzo for his time and for sharing his Costa Rica expat story with me and La Pura Vida Costa Rica dot com. I so enjoyed our conversation. How about you?
Other Expat Interviews
If you’re interested in reading expat interviews from neighboring country Panama, you can get my second book, The Gringo Guide to Panama II: More to Know Before You Go , which includes four interviews from people coming from four very different life situations. For more on expat life in Panama, visit my Panama blog here.