It’s been my dream to live by the ocean ever since I got my first taste of it as a teenager. I grew up in Toronto, and in 1985, when I was 16, my family vacationed in Hawaii. We went to a little resort where I got my first surf lesson, and I immediately knew I wanted to surf, to be near water, to live that life. In 2010, at 41, I made the dream real. I wound down the small ad agency I ran in Toronto and moved to a small town called Ojochal on Costa Rica’s south Pacific coast. I began spending half the year there and half in Canada, chasing an endless summer.
My first place was basically a shack, a few minutes’ walk from the ocean. It was 200 square feet, along a dirt road, with a little river running out back. I shared the yard with the neighbour’s chickens. When the sun was high, it was stiflingly hot. When it rained on the zinc roof, it sounded like you were living inside a snare drum. But it was an entry point to the life I craved. I began working as a freelance consultant and business coach, which I could do from anywhere with an internet connection, and I was happier than I could ever remember being.
Still, living in a shack by the ocean had its downsides. During Costa Rica’s dry season, from December to April, the dust kicked up on the dirt roads was choking—some of my neighbours had kidney stones from breathing it in their whole lives. The rainy season was just as bad. Every year I watched as creeks became rushing rivers, and rivers became uncontrollable torrents. Bridges and roads washed out, and so did parts of my own backyard in 2012 and 2013.
So I got away from sea level. Ojochal is in a little valley, partly surrounded by a U-shaped ridge, and in 2015 I moved to a small hillside house. That same year, I also left Canada behind for good, to truly dedicate myself to my new community. I got involved in charitable work, organizing lifeguards and collaborating with local groups to improve safety on the beaches (petty theft and drownings are a huge problem in Costa Rica). In 2016, I was elected president of the regional chamber of commerce and tourism and participated in the regional government’s strategic and security planning. The locals jokingly called me the “gringo mayor.” That same year, I met the love of my life, Mari, a local woman whom I later married.
It was an idyllic existence. But there was a troubling undercurrent. Climate modelling shows that Costa Rica is a climate-change hot spot, and its already volatile weather is only going to become more severe. In recent decades, storms have increased in frequency and intensity, and the dry spells between them have been longer. The country is forecast to experience reductions in rainfall over the next century—but the storms that do hit will be harder, more extreme and more damaging.
Our own experience was proof on the ground of that. Year after year there was more flooding in the rivers, and the water began charting new courses through previously dry land. Beaches and riverbanks eroded. In one nearby town, there was so much erosion along the riverbanks that one of the fishing clubhouses washed away. Our little hillside property never sustained major damage, but we had other close calls with the forces of nature.
Driving on a local road one dark night, I skidded to a stop just short of a giant boulder that had rolled onto the highway. More than once, my wife and I just barely missed huge landslides along the Cerro de Muerte, or the Hill of Death, en route to her parents’ place. An acquaintance of mine died when his Jeep was swept away by a flash flood while he crossed a ford—a low-water river crossing used often by locals. And in November of 2016, flooding from Hurricane Otto trapped my family and my visiting parents in our house for three days.
In 2017, seeking even higher ground—and a property I’d long had my eye on—my wife and I moved to a seven-acre parcel of land at the top of the ridge, overlooking the ocean. The property contained two small two-bedroom houses, and after our first year, we built a vaulted roof between them, enclosing the space to create a five-bedroom, four-bathroom house with a large open kitchen and family area. That opened to a large patio surrounding a 50-square-metre pool and hot tub, and a 180-degree ocean view. Mari is an interior designer and made the plans herself. It was our dream home.
Up there, at the top of a large hill, we were safe from floods and landslides, but we were exposed to the full intensity of nature. In the dry season, we watched the brilliant sunsets every day. In the rainy season the storms, lightning and rain were stunning. The thunder was louder than ever, booming right over us, and the tremors from the storm would shake our beds.
We dealt with lightning strikes during the rainy season. Once, our washing machine exploded after lightning hit an electrical pole beside the house. Our driveway washed out repeatedly. Falling trees cut our power and phone lines two or three times each season, until we dug a 400-plus-metre trench to bury them. And every year I cut back the foliage from the house—as the summers got hotter, we missed the shade, but it was better than a tree crushing the house.
Living in that environment, you can’t ignore how powerful nature is, and you can’t negotiate with it. That became clearer than ever in 2017, when Hurricane Nate barrelled down on the country. It had already been raining for the better part of two weeks, and the ground was saturated. Every river and stream had already overflowed its banks; tree-falls and mudslides were everywhere. I had to drive the length of the whole ridge to get to our home because the river at the foot of our street had taken over a small bridge.
When the hurricane hit, the Térraba River in nearby Palmar Norte swept away the houses and belongings of 200 residents. Relief efforts were confused and scattered. I was part of an effort to survey local damage, and I made the trip down the ridge with rubber boots, bottled water, canned food, bags of rice and beans, and ropes and chains for my truck in case it got stuck.
It was busy the first morning. Women were cleaning mud out of their houses and men were collecting water and supplies. The water had receded, leaving a brown ring—anywhere from calf to knee level—on every wall and door. Chairs, plates and furniture were scattered about. The mud was so deep I had to keep scooping out my boots. A woman named Marisol showed me her fridge, which lay outside her house, on its side. “Do you still have a mattress?” I asked. “It is gone,” she said, “but I need a fridge more.”
I put her down for a mattress anyway, and left feeling inspired by the resilience of the people, and by the efforts of those taking up collections and delivering help. By the time I got home, however, I couldn’t help but feel a bit hopeless, knowing the next storm could bring the same, or worse.
The following year, I helped co-found a new not-for-profit, the SOMOS Foundation—a charitable organization connecting and supporting local groups, development projects and other worthwhile efforts to help make communities more resilient. The need to make positive change in the region, both in the aftermath of the hurricane and in response to a rapidly growing population, was obvious.
And yet by 2019, my family—which by then included a baby son—was asking if Costa Rica was the right place for us. We started to think beyond our own lifetime, to what we were leaving for our child and his generation. It wasn’t just the hurricane, but the constant push and pull of the elements, the lack of infrastructure and the knowledge that it was all just going to get worse. At the same time, local families were being displaced as neighbourhoods filled with expats and their new homes. The environment was being degraded and made less resilient as developers filled in wetlands for beachfront condos, and burned precious rainforest to build neighbourhoods.
Every day more people were moving to this little patch of paradise, where water, policing, health care and social services were maxed out. Climate change is testing the strength of Costa Rica’s infrastructure and social supports—and the growing expat community is making things more difficult by consuming and demanding greater resources. We didn’t want to be part of the problem, nor did we want to be in the path of what seemed more and more like a future disaster zone.
So we became climate migrants by choice. My work was flexible—after all, the business consultancy I’d founded was something I could run from anywhere. But nothing else about our lives was portable. We cried when we made the decision to leave. There’s some irony in the fact that we sold our property to a family from Canada—like many others, they moved to Costa Rica to live a dream of paradise.
We returned to Canada in May of 2021, buying a house in Toronto’s Cedarvale neighbourhood—the same pleasant, leafy little community I grew up in. My son will even go to the same school I did. We’re settling into our new, landlocked life. But it’s not the same.
My lifelong dream was to live in a place like Ojochal, to experience that community, lifestyle and environment. My wife is from the country, and my son was born there. In the end though, it became clear that the best thing for our own future, and for the place we loved, was to leave it.
—As told to Maria Calleja