Exporting Gentrification and Development to Costa Rica (Part 1)

Costa Rica is being taken over by developers, capitalists, tourists, and expats.  I spent the summer there working for a youth leadership program and fell in love with a country that is in danger of becoming yet another exploited playground for the wealthy and privileged, including programs like the one I participated in. Like many other Latin American countries, Costa Rica is being transformed into an economic engine for developers and capitalists without any regard for its intentional and unintentional impacts on its people and environment.  There are two Costa Ricas, the one in which affluent and privileged foreigners live in, along with the richest twenty percent of Costa Ricans who hold 52 percent of the total income, and the one where Costa Ricans or Ticos and marginalized Nicaraguan immigrants, or Nicas, live in.  In places like Tamarindo, both worlds intersect only during working hours –  the locals who are the service workers making a living from the tourism industry and come into town on public transportation and or employee shuttles from nearby towns, and the expats who own many of the businesses, hotels, and restaurants, and live in town. Outside of work, the locals and the expats very rarely interact, except for the local surfers who make their living by providing surf lessons and afterward hang out for a few rounds of drinks generously donated by the tourists. Playa Grande was referred to by a local surfer as “the only beautiful thing about Tamarindo” because it has not been tainted by development or tourism.  Otherwise, many cities like Tamarindo have become the land of the expats and tourists making Costa Ricans feel like immigrants in their own land.

I have written about the beautiful people I met, and inspiring experiences I had in Costa Rica, but I also have to write about the other reality that is taking place in Costa Rica.  A reality overshadowed by the images of Costa Rica that permeate travel websites: sandy beaches, pristine waters, tropical getaways, breathtaking sunsets, and magnificent landscapes.  And of course by a never-ending array of real estate propaganda convincing folks why buying property in Costa Rica is such a great investment.

Many of the expats that have taken residence  in Costa Rica have driven property values and food cost so high that many Costa Ricans, especially those that live in towns heavily occupied by expats, can no longer afford the cost of living; it has been referred to as the most expensive country in Central America.  While for an expat paying an average of 41,1000 colones ($85) in utilities and 249,000 colones ($500) for a one-bedroom apartment may provide comfortable living, for a Costarricense or Tico who only makes 700 colones ($1.40) an hour, it proves to be an immense economic struggle. Rising costs coupled with meager salaries have created less than dignified living conditions for the locals, forcing many to resort to living in makeshift homes cobbled together by wood palettes, scrap metal, and cardboard boxes.  These are images that expats and tourists don’t expect to see in Costa Rica. They have bought into the single story of the adventurous, relaxing, and glamorous living that Costa Rica has to offer.


Many Ticos have abandoned farming to work in the tourism industry in hopes of better wages and improved working conditions. However, the exploited local workforce is often relegated to minimum wage support and service jobs which are often low-paying and limited in their potential for upward mobility.  In the villa I stayed in, owned by a Canadian expat, the manager was from Costa Rica and the housekeepers were Nicaraguans. The manager earned three dollars an hour and the housekeepers earned two dollars an hour. “We each have to do the job of two or three people. We can’t take a minute of rest, and even then, we never finish. Then the boss questions what we do all day.” Of course their responsibilities proliferated with the 40+ teenage students that were housed there throughout the summer.  Despite their working conditions, they felt they received better treatment than the employees in other lodges.

While there is a stipulated minimum wage in Costa Rica defined by very specific job descriptions, the minimum wage fails to keep up with the increasing cost of living, and is further exasperated by insidious tactics by developers and employers to low-ball wages, even more, through the exploitation of Nicaraguan immigrants.

Where Nicaragua meets Costa Rica, one can see the signs of “illegal” immigration: men with back packs hiking along the border wall, lookouts on the streets signaling the Nicas for a clear path, and cars discretely transporting migrants.  Though Costa Rica “ranks 97th in the world in per capita income, at $10,9000 a year, poorer than Mexico or Venezuela,” Nicaragua is worse off, prompting many to desperately migrate to Costa Rica.  Nicas would migrate to the United States but they are deterred by the gang and drug violence in Mexico, a country they must traverse to get to the “land of opportunity.”  Costa Rica has an estimated population of 4.6 million of which 10% are Nicaraguans.


“Nicas are cheats, liars, and manipulators,” said the manager of the villa I stayed in.  “They lie about their skills just to get a job that a Tico is qualified for, and they do so accepting a lower wage.”  The manager of the villa was also in charge of managing other lodging facilities for the same owner and did not feel that it was fair that she only made one dollar more an hour than the housekeepers from Nicaragua.  In speaking to various construction workers around the area, those from Costa Rica seemed to have the same sentiment toward those from Nicaragua.  One construction worker explained, “The Nicas are willing to do the same job for 500 colones an hour instead of 700, and even though they are less skilled, they are hired because they are cheap labor.”

There are many economic analysts who argue that the influx of Nicaraguan migrants has contributed to falling earnings, increased inequality, or stagnant poverty in Costa Rica.  While this may be true for an economic machine that operates on supply and demand, growing revenue, and cutting costs for greater efficiency, the real bottom line is the cost of the lives that are being violated through this type of economic model that exploits the worker in return for increased net earnings.   Costa Rica is considered the 4th most competitive country in Latin America, and this is in large part contributed to the signing of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement).  But in Costa Rica, it’s not difficult to observe who this economic boom is benefiting.  A dignified minimum wage is a dignified minimum wage no matter how one slices it, and using illegal immigration as a scapegoat for unscrupulous labor practices is just another way in which capitalists and developers avoid social responsibility by criminalizing people who have no political clout.

The bus drivers that were contracted to transport the students in the program I worked for were paid 8,000 colones a day, the equivalent of $16, while the tourism bus companies , many owned by foreigners, contract the buses out for $150 a day.  The “We are temporary drivers, so when this program is over we will have to struggle until travel season comes around.  And even then, the jobs aren’t guaranteed because we have to compete for work with other bus drivers.”

A woman who worked in the day spa industry explained that she was secretly building her own clientele out of her home. Permits were too expensive, so she was running an unlicensed operation.  The day spa she worked at charged $100 to $150 dollars for a manicure and pedicure, and she only received $15 for each client she served.  At home she could charge $20 to $30 dollars.  “I’ve worked at hotels where they only wanted to pay us $10 for each client.”

Everywhere you go, you are greeted with Pura Vida, because surrounded by so much nature, intuitively, Ticos understand what it means to be in the flow of life, whether things are going positively or negatively. Ticos have learned to embrace a life that is simple, yet full and vibrant.  They have succeeded at being happy and living in the moment despite the challenges that life presents to them.  And maybe this is why I am so afraid for them; for in Costa Rica, I saw what had once been the simple and vibrant, though not perfect, life of Mexico, before it was colonized by NAFTA, developers, and tourism.

In the second part of this article, I will explore the gentrification of Costa Rica through housing developments, the impact developers have on its environment and natural resources, land grabbing – the large scale acquisition of its land by foreign investors, the fishing industry and its infringement upon the local fisherman, and the dietary effects of American junk food and fast food on its people.



Gotitas de Lluvia (Drops of Rain)

Saying goodbye was difficult for the students as their session came to an end, I just didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me.  As I think about all the unforgettable experiences I lived in Costa Rica, I conclude that the pain of saying goodbye is worth those moments I lived.  Sometimes we get so close to people, and the impact they make in our lives is so life-changing, that we can’t fathom the idea of potentially not seeing them again.  We come across so many people in our lives, many for a very brief moment, like a drop of rain cascades down a leaf.  Others become part of our journeys, embracing and supporting us through our growth, the way soil anchors the roots of a tree during its life-span.

Leaving was much more difficult than I anticipated; I had such beautiful encounters there. I had started to grow roots in its nurturing soil, and was pulled out of a place, I didn’t realize, I wasn’t ready to be pulled from. People there walked around with their hearts opened, literally zinging me with love. I was wrapped in love, not only by the people in Costa Rica, but also by the students I served and some of the adults I worked with.  Of the students and the impact they had on my life I will write in a later blog.

The following are some of the little drops of rain that nurtured me during my stay in Costa Rica:

Don Gregorio

Don Gregorio tended to the volcanic mud baths in the Rio Negro Hot Springs that surround the Rincon de La Vieja Volcano. I had built a small connection with him during the few times I had been there with the students. He was a gentle, soft spoken man with an accommodating demeanor. He had hard working, brusque hands, callused and heavily worn by his experiences.  The kind of hands that could hold on to the heaviest burden and caress the most diaphanous butterfly.  In contrast to his hands, despite being an elder, his face was supple and radiant.  Aside from a few fine lines on his face, his cheeks were like two perfectly polished Pink lady apples nestling his eyes, which had a child-like gleamer in them.  He seemed to enjoy watching my antics as I struggled to adjust to the heat of the hot springs, clumsily scrubbed the dry clay off my skin, and cowardly committed to the cold river, all part of a detoxing sequence.

As I rounded up the students, I realized that that might be the last time I’d ever see that place again, and the last time I’d see Don Gregorio.  In that instant, he approached me, grabbed me by my shoulders and looking into my eyes, said, “Bueno Muchacha, ya no vienes mas?”  Confirming what I already knew in my heart – this would be my last encounter with him.  “Cuidate, que Dios te bendiga.  Eres una muchacha muy especial.”  In his eyes, I saw his sincerity, and I also saw God, and the beautiful connection our two souls had made.  I couldn’t help but to believe his words, not because they boosted my ego,  but because there was a deeper source that told me so.  Perhaps, because he seemed to believe it more than I did.

Doña Veronica

Doña Veronica was in charge of coordinating and preparing all meals for the program.  Her coordination was no easy task when you consider all the dietary restrictions she had to adhere to when designing the meals.  Some students were vegetarian, others vegan, still others were allergic to peanuts, kiwi, fish, dairy, even lentils.  On top of that she was cooking for 52 people, of which 45 were very hungry teenagers.  Every day, she showed up like magic, with a heart full of love, which manifested in the delicious meals she cooked, and a smile as radiant as the ablaze warm sunsets of Costa Rica. She knew exactly who needed to be served what, without looking at any notes, might I add.  Most of her day was spent serving or preparing for the next meal, and yet she always had time to pause, look at us in the eyes, address us by our names, and ask us how we were doing.  I don’t remember when I began hugging her, but it happened, spontaneously, the way the morning gives way to a new bloom.

The last week of the program, I was exhausted, emotionally and physically.  Being responsible for the well-being of 45 students 7 days a week had started to take a toll on me after six weeks, not to mention the challenging working dynamics that occurred when staff members also interacted with each other 7 days a week and lived on the same premises.  Saturday morning, as we were headed out for our last weekend excursion with the students, unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, Doña Veronica called out my name as I was about to get on the bus.  She pranced toward me, with her arms opened, and gave me an embracing, loving hug, the kind I looked forward to from my grandmother when I needed refuge from life’s complications. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed that hug; I needed her nurturing love to get me through the weekend.  Being so far away, with people I had only met a few weeks before, had left me yearning for the unconditional love I was so used to back home.  The kindness with which that hug was given blunted the challenges and intensity of the weekend.

Playa Naranjo

Playa Naranjo is a secluded beach in Costa Rica, and in order to get to it by land, one must ride in a 4-wheeled vehicle with a vigorous suspension capacity through the forest for approximately an hour.  The students were brought to this majestic place to surf, camp, and observe sea turtles nesting.  As the sun prepared to descend behind the robust mountains, it began to tinge the clouds with golden hues of amber, cerise, and coral. Apposite to the direction of the sunset was the most brilliant, colorful rainbow I had ever seen in my life.  I sat on the fine, bold volcanic sand marveled by this spectacle of God, pondering how I had gotten so lucky to witness that moment.  I was filled with so much love, it began to pour out of my eyes.  All of these amazing things in the world flowed inside of me like a river – they seemed to be a gift to me, like Doña Veronica’s hugs, and Don Gregorio’s words.

Don Gradvin

“Buenos Dias, Cristina.  Pura Vida!”  Was how he greeted me every morning with the most sincere and spirited smile I have ever encountered. Don Gradvin made me feel as if all of Costa Rica was smiling at me.  He exemplified the phrase, Pura Vida, a term which literally translates to pure life, but has a more profound meaning for the Costarricenses.  Pura Vida reminds us to be like a river and flow in the direction that life takes us; to persist the way the trees persist in the rainforest, but also to surrender, to let go and transform from what con no longer be, the way the host trees surrenders to the Matapalo trees, a strangling species, which envelops the host tree as it struggles for light in the darkest areas of the forest; and to remember that no matter how much or how little we have in life, life is here to be embraced and enjoyed.  Don Gradvin was my hummingbird – he brought out the joy, playfulness, and enthusiasm for life in me, and in everyone that engaged with him.

He was one of the bus drivers that drove us everywhere. Aside from fulfilling his duties as a bus driver, he also gave of himself and made all the experiences so much more vibrant by participating alongside the mentors and students, whether it was shoveling gravel, wheelbarrowing cement, or making tamales, he was always present,  allowing us to feel that we were the most important thing to him in that moment.   Even the bus rides from the service sites were exciting.  At the end of the day, exhausted as the students would be from the toil, they’d yell out, “49,”  in Spanish. The number to their favorite song on Don Gradvin’s CD.  They’d dance in celebration all the way back to home-base, where Don Gradvin would   chant “Pura Vida” as each student got off the bus.   The same words he told me as he bid me farewell from Costa Rica.


I am so grateful to God for bringing so much love into my life, whether it’s through people that exist briefly in my life or people that are on this journey with me.  Even in the midst of being so far away from “home,” I felt God’s love through the people that manifested their brilliant light. Through Katia, the year-round administrative manager to the villa we were staying in, who invited me to stay at her house my last day in Costa Rica to celebrate Mother’s day (August 15) with her family, who also welcomed me with generosity and warmth. Through Alex, one of the mentors, whose big-brother presence, even though he was younger than me, made me feel supported and encouraged.  Through Bernarda, one of the housekeepers, who despite the poverty and struggles in her life, was a vibrant and gregarious woman.  She’d surprise me with specially made gallo pinto or hand-made corn tortillas.  I appreciated her hands, and the smell of the maize when she’d make the tortillas, for in those moments, I was reminded of the way my grandmother poured her love into me through the food she made.  I’ve felt her, as much as I felt God,  in the small interactions filled with love that I experienced in Costa Rica.  As challenging and exhausting as the program could be, there was hardly a day that passed by that didn’t offer Costa Rica magic – “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stood out in stark relief” to the stressors of the program.