Much of Costa Rica is gorgeous, and will remain that way. However, there are pockets of poverty and depressing shantytowns around San Jose, often filled with Nicaraguans. Cracks in the egalitarian democratic society have developed and are widening. Population pressure in the Mesita Central basin, especially around San Jose, is reducing the number of resources and lowering the quality of life given to the common Tico for so many centuries. Approximately twenty percent of Ticos live below the poverty line. It is no longer easy to raise a family. Today, San Jose has a third of the country’s population of four million people. Another third share the Mesita Central with San Jose and the remaining third live in the mountains and lowlands running to the two coasts. In the early 1960s the Costa Rican birth rate was a staggering 3.8% per annum, followed by an equally impressive decline to around 2% today. But the Mesita Central basically has no more room for agricultural workers. Some people are moving to the volcanic soils of the Valle de El General, the Nicoya Peninsula or the least desirable northern lowlands.
There is no universal welfare system. Pension contributions must be paid in to the CCSS (social security) over years of registered employment, or an elderly person will receive nothing, and have to rely on family or savings to survive. Many fathers must be chased down for family support obligations. The country has an advanced universal health care system exemplified by a life expectancy comparable to the wealthiest nations, but it means long lines at the hospitals. If foreigners or Ticos alike say they can not afford the service, it is free. Many Ticos abuse the free health care system by running to the hospitals at the first sign of a sniffle.
After entering one of these shantytowns, I still have flashbacks of a poor little girl sitting barefoot in a dry gutter. I imagine her providers are unable to afford the dollar a day to buy books, a uniform and school supplies. Her older brother is now addicted to crack. Often on the streets of central San Jose are bearded weathered old men with a stick for a cane and a plastic bag over their shoulder stuffed with their life’s belongings plodding along the broken sidewalks. Elderly women with reams of lottery tickets slung over their arms wander in search of a sale. A little mentally challenged man regularly sits on the pedestrian walkway strumming a one-stringed ukulele and singing his best for donations. At night a few children walk around the bar areas with hands extended, begging for money. Later they sleep until noon in cardboard boxes in an alley with only their small filthy shoeless legs sticking out. And my heart breaks when I think of that stray dog in the rain limping between the cars with a broken leg, trying to survive in a city that has little respect for animals.
Every building in San Jose has bars on the windows. Some are topped with razor wire. At Pizza Hut you see a young man guarding the building with an AK-47. Every large building has guards. Reality strikes when suddenly I am startled by the garbage men yelling and running down the road behind their truck, working as fast as they can because they get paid by the ton. Just before them are foul smelling beggars with their daily routes pre-planned to search through the freshest garbage before it is picked up, scavenging anything saleable, gnawing on a chicken leg and sipping the remains out of a soda can. Costa Rica is beautiful in most parts but these are reminders it still is a third world country.