Costa Rica and the Global Recession

I sold my third accommodation property in northern Ontario in 1995 and the world was now my oyster.I had grown tired of the slagging Canadian economy, I was also tired of the frigid Canadian weather and ladies. My ex-wife’s new boyfriend wanted to kill everyone (but I was at the top of his list). I had a degree in environmental studies, and had studied at a masters level in Third World Ecotourism marketing. A judge made a benchmark decision in my favor and allowed my two sons, ages 14 and 12 to reside with me, and even more incredible, to take up residence in another country. After reading the 1994 World Reference Almanac and studying all the countries of the world, the three of us and our black lab packed up our 1987 Ford Bronco II and a trailer and drove to San Jose Costa Rica.

In two days we easily managed our way on super highways to Brownsville Texas and the Mexican border. From there it took nine more days to finally reach San Jose. It was a difficult, tiring trip with the corrupt Mexican federalies and their pathetic excuses for roads, and so many borders to cross, so much paperwork at each border, bribing customs officials with large unlabeled tins of 60 cent dog meat (meatloaf for the family tonight) so they would not unload my entire trailer on the ground. I drove all day and we slept after about 11pm in the car. Latin America was harrowing, and I began to have second thoughts if I had made a big mistake. One very dark night we were following another car on an excellent stretch of straight down hill four-lane highway going about 100 kph when the car in front of me pulled into the passing lane. Without really thinking, I followed him over, and saw two white things, they appeared like butterflies ahead in the right hand lane. As I got closer and whizzed passed them, it was a huge black bull with white tips on his horns charging straight up the lane I had fortunately just moved out of. We were extremely lucky!

Finally crossing into Costa Rica one sunny morning, the landscape turned lush and green and everything seemed so nice and clean, and my mood changed that perhaps I did make the right decision. We arrived in San Jose in one piece and it was only a matter of weeks before I bought Hemingway Inn in historic Barrio Amon using vendor financing. For nine years I operated Hemingway Inn, the amazing stories I could tell you, the lifestyle, the gringos and Ticos, the laughs, but I’ll save that for another day. I put my (now) bi-lingual sons through private school, flying both back to Canada twice a year to see their mother. The oldest, Mike, returned to Ottawa to live with her while he got a degree in chemistry at Carleton University, and now is back helping me operate my second Costa Rica hotel, Adventure Inn near the airport, that I bought in 2004. My younger son, Andrew, now 25, started a family and lives in Edmonton, Alberta. So that’s my background, that’s where I am coming from.

Recently, in light of the global recession, I have been asking myself how good of a decision has it been moving to Costa Rica. I see no choice but to hunker down and survive this economic turmoil with the cards I have dealt myself. And the more I think about it, the more I realize how lucky we are to be anchored here in Costa Rica. Of course, in Costa Rica, a third world country, I have always had some problems. Certainly adjusting to the cultural differences and language has been a challenge, after being raised in Canada. It seems precious few Costa Ricans (Ticos) realize the importance of doing business with integrity, to complete a task properly without being reminded, living up to their promises, being punctual and realizing the importance of not wasting someone else’s time, being human and admitting mistakes when they occur, and willingly receive constructive advice. I’ve learned also to be sensitive to their need to save face, and try to treat them as equals who haven’t had the opportunities I have had. Regarding driving, there is no hope of us gringos (even though I am Canadian) making things much better, just drive as defensively as possible and expect the unexpected.

However, Costa Rica has a relatively educated and literate population receiving very low wages, about a fifth of what people earn up north. I don’t know how they survive. Most Ticos have ambitions to move ahead in life, though most lack the direction, the money, often the experience and the ‘get up and go’, but at least their hearts are in the right place. To me, seeing their love and devotion for their families seems to negate all their short-comings, and the First World could learn something here.

What about staving off hunger if worse come to worse in this global economy? Costa Rica soils have been dusted for longer than we could imagine with grey volcanic ask nourishing and aerating the land, producing a perpetual plethora of agricultural products. OK, apples, grapes, pears and blueberries still need to be imported after you grow tired with the other twenty varieties of fruit. All vegetables I have ever known (and many I haven’t), legumes, coffee, rice, sugar, meat, produce from the sea, nuts, many spices and even natural medicinal rainforest offerings are grow in Costa Rica without much effort. Plants have evolved to love half year wet, and half year dry. Temperatures vary by altitude and determine what grows where.

What about Costa Rica’s climate? Along both coasts and the northern plains, people enjoy temperatures hovering around 80F or 27C. In San Jose and the Central Valley expect a more spring-like room temperature, great for sleeping, around 70F or 21C. And we gringos from the northern climes sure appreciate the fact it is year-round!

If you consider the location of Costa Rica, especially regarding tourism and doing business here, it’s not bad. With present low jet fuel costs, Costa Rica is a bargain two or three hour flight from Miami and Houston. My friend just booked a return flight from Toronto for US $400. Costa Rica is attractive, it pulls people from other parts of the world to visit and live here. What a beautiful country, a Kodak moment over every hill and around every bend, two warm tantalizing seas to decide upon, jungle-clad mountains caused by the three inch a year collision of two gigantic continental plates, oceans of dense sweltering rain forests, and the flat lush northern plains, home to an angry conical-shaped volcano so big he creates his own mini-weather system.

While global tourism increases have slowed to 2% in 2008, Costa Rica has noticed only a slight reduction but continued growth revised down from an 11% annual increase to now a 9% increase, four times the planet’s average. In the calendar year 2008, Costa Rica received, for the first time, its two millionth visitor in early December. True, Costa Rica offers both residents, visitors and investors alike, hedonistic pleasures that could stand up against any global hot spot; sun, sand, sex, drugs and rock and roll.

But I truly believe this steady tourism increase is because Costa Rica attracts high quality visitors to a high quality country. Most Costa Rican tourists are well-educated, and somewhat insulated from the negative affects of the global economy. Rather than flying by the seat of their pants like hand-to-mouth party animals, Costa Rican visitors search the world wide web for destinations offering more than getting drunk on a beach. They look more for value in their vacation, and though the hedonistic self-indulgences can make up part of their vacation, they want a destination that will share learning experiences and offer real adventure participation, passive or active. They have the desire and energy to do something, an interesting change more than just a rest.

Costa Rica’s history has demonstrated time and again that it stays at arms length from most of the world’s activities and problems, not too rich, not too poor, not ostentatious. The interior mountains, jungles and snake-infested swamps halted expansion. Being the southern-most extent of the powerful Mayan and Olmec civilizations and the northern-most extent of the sun-worshipping Mesoamerican and Inca civilizations, present day Costa Rica was a hinterland of small isolated chiefdoms developing their own rules and customs, making their own survival decisions. After the Spanish arrived, the colonists got the same treatment from Mother Spain as soon as the gold was depleted. Costa Rica was just a colonial after-thought.

Residents learned to survive on their own wits, no indentured indigenous slaves to boss around. Even their first governor tended his own gardens. Ticos, short from hermanticos (little brother) evolved to cherish family values and work together with neighbors, but the climate and land were kind to them. They would hide under a roof if it rained, or pick a fruit or cook a chicken when they got hungry. Early altruistic presidents had the good of the people in mind, and ran the show using a weak base of power, letting organic economic forces dictate the future. Coffee taxes built schools, roads, hospitals and other public facilities. Little coffee farmers worked in unison with the big processing companies. Upward mobility was attainable as there were no real class and income separations. There was little need to be greedy nor aggressive, they really had everything in their day.

In 1948, Ticos even voted for Don ‘Pepe’ Figueres who abolished their standing military. But then, it wasn’t such a brave step as they knew Uncle Sam had a vested interest in democratic, anti-communist Costa Rica’s well-being.

Now in December 2008, facing a possible long-term global recession, I am realizing that Costa Rica really isn’t such a bad place to ride out and weather this economic storm. We have a perfect climate. We can feed ourselves. Our infrastructure needs improvements but it still functions. We have lots of fresh water to drink and wash ourselves in, and produce our electricity. We have beaches and mountains and rain forests to enjoy.

The world still wants to visit and live and invest in Costa Rica, including some disillusioned and disheartened gringos thinking of escaping the USA before it declines further, if they can get liquidity. And the peace-loving Ticos always seem to stay out of harm’s way. Nobody, Muslims, far-left extremists, ultra-right paramilitaries, religious zealots, purposeless terrorists, nobody is grinding an axe for Costa Rica! And although most gringos get a little frustrated at times with the cultural peculiarities of Ticos, I can almost guarantee when Tico’s backs are against a wall, this intelligent, self-guided population will work together to more than survive whatever obstacles the world places in front of them.

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