Foreigners Living in Costa Rica

There are some sixty thousand ex-patriots, mostly from the US and Canada, and a smaller percentage of Europeans that live here year round. It is possible to obtain residency either as a retiree or a rentista with a guaranteed income, like a pension or an investment, while others qualify who have invested in Costa Rica tourism (like me). Most enjoy an easy way of life with the reduced cost of living, a wonderful climate, homes perched in the cool mountains overlooking San Jose, exploring Costa Rica in a new SUV, and easy access to the outside world with their internet and English language cable TV or their satellite dishes. San Jose is only two and a half hours flight from Miami, three from Houston. Ex-pats tend to have their own circle of English speaking friends, and organizations. Private medical care in Costa Rica is close to US standards at a fraction of the cost. Many visitors pay for their vacation with the savings from their plastic, dental and eye surgery done in private clinics. Closer to San Jose, many ex-pats opt to live in a condominium complex with a central swimming pool and exercise building, high walls all around, full maintenance crew and twenty four hour guards manning the gate.

Many ex-pats had money with “The (Villalobos) Brothers”, an investment firm that had been in business for over twenty years regularly paying high monthly interest. In 2002 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police asked the Costa Rican government to freeze the assets of one of the six thousand investors with money in “the Brothers”, because of possible drug connections. Perhaps under pressure from some Costa Rican banks, the government decided to close the entire investment company, shooting itself in the foot. While one Villalobos brother was in jail for two years, but then released uncharged, nearly all of the investment money (estimated at four to seven hundred million dollars) remains out of the country under the control of the other brother whose whereabouts are unknown. Most of the investors are foreigners, many who were residing in Costa Rica, have so far lost their entire investment plus the high monthly interest they depended on to live. Estimates of fifty million dollars annually that used to feed the Costa Rican economy have been cut off. Many investors have been forced to return to the safety of the social security net in their home country, maybe moving into their children’s basement, and leaving behind Tico families who once relied on their financial assistance. Lawsuits challenging the Costa Rica government are in process but it will be difficult to win as judges are on the government payroll. International arbitration through the World Bank, and pending US pressure may begin to threaten future financial aid to Costa Rica.

Foreign men who start a relationship with a younger Tica can get more than they bargained for. Most Ticas desperately need money for themselves and their dependents. Cut off the money supply, like during the the above episode and whole families get hurt. Jealousy can lead to violent confrontations as Ticas still live up to their hot blooded Latina reputation. Cat fights over a man are often more violent than fights between men. One Tica smashed a flower vase over my receptionist’s head because she thought she was flirting with her boyfriend.

Investing in real estate in Costa Rica requires an understanding of Third World processes. Though most transactions are now handled on the up and up, some fraudulent conveyance from years ago are still being disputed. Others have inadvertently bought the key rights only to hotels in Costa Rican, for example, rather than outright ownership of the land and buildings. Banks charge high rates of interest, and situations have been known where a mortgage credit application has been approved by a private bank, but there is no money to lend.

Some ex-pats arrive without the pension or the investment money yet still want to reside here. They could be escaping the law, or a family member, or just their past. They could be still trying to forget their memories of Viet Nam, or are here for romantic reasons, or cheap illegal drugs, or any combination. With some, their North American families are paying them to stay away. Tourist visas only allow visitors to stay ninety days. Some go to Panama or Nicaragua every three months for seventy two hours to renew their tourist visa. Most don’t bother with this formality and take their chances. When they finally do leave Costa Rica, they may have to pay a small surcharge, so there isn’t much incentive to play by the rules.

There seems to be a high mortality rate among ex-pats. Two ex-pats staying at our inn died. One, his fourth and most successful attempt to commit suicide because of illnesses, the other had narcolepsy and fell asleep by himself in the Jacuzzi. In eight years I have heard of ex-pats dying from unanswered murders, heart attacks, and poisonous worms hiding in fruit, to falling coconuts, drug overdoses and swimming intoxicated in a rip tide. T he road system is not as safe as ex-pats are accustomed to. There are few guard rails dividing oncoming traffic, directions are often poorly marked, and pot holes have to be avoided at the last second. Motorcycles and scooters weave in and out of traffic as if there are separate laws for them. For pedestrians, it is often a matter of crossing the road when you can, hoping not to stumble, as impatient drivers demand their right of way. Bus drivers own the roads and couldn’t care less if they jam up traffic in both directions to have a conversation.

With lots of free time, many ex-pats drink and gamble and chase prostitutes, but their activities tend to be short lived. They frequent their local cantina or bar hop in San Jose’s “Gringo Gulch”, a fast paced six block area frequented by male tourists and ex-pats. Generally the older ex-pat crowd takes the afternoon shift to share stories, talk about American policy, tell a few jokes, pass out email addresses and complain how the price of electricity has gone up. It is an eclectic experience as men from very different walks of life end up talking together. Often they have their “zarpe”, last drink of the day, at the twenty four hour Blue Marlin Bar in the Hotel Del Rey, the most famous prostitute hang out in Costa Rica. Heavy security and a meat market mentality prevail. For a man just wanting a beer and enjoy the scenery, it is intimidating, and becomes an exercise in trying not to make eye contact.

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