Redneck Riviera

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Costa Rica  ,
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Costa Rica has long had a reputation for stability, natural beauty and ecotourism. We had high hopes for our short stay. Unfortunately, the parts we saw are being aggressively developed in a way that is unlikely to make me a repeat visitor to the Pacific Coast.

We stayed a couple nights in Manuel Antonio and a couple nights in Bahia Salinas, near the Nicaraguan border. Kia had been to the beach area Manuel Antonio in 1989 when there were no luxury hotels or restaurants, and was astounded by the natural beauty. Now, there are over 25 big hotels, with construction underway for more, plus an array of restaurants, launderias, massage spas, and even a couple of adult only 'entertainment' venues. (The park itself is protected and apparently still has lots of monkeys, but unfortunately we were there during rainy season, and it was pouring buckets the morning we planned to visit.)

In an earlier blog entry I spoke about the concept of Aspenization. This is the economic evolution of many tourist sites. As ever more upscale amenities are added, the clientele becomes increasingly wealthy, the original visitors become priced out of the market and the newcomers arrive primarily for the scene rather than the scenery.

Much of the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica is undergoing a parallel, but somewhat less attractive process - it is being Daytona'd. Daytona Beach seems to primarily appeal to two groups of people, college kids on spring break and NASCAR fans. Both demographics travel in packs, impose their culture on the local populace and may choose their vacation destination based on the quantity and cost of the beer.

The Pacific coast of Costa Rica is undergoing a more gradual, but similar invasion. As we drove north, we were amazed at the large number of real estate signs in English. After passing the fourth new condominium project in 20 miles, we had to stop in.

When we knocked on the door of a small building labeled 'Pre-Construction Sales', we were met by an enormous gentleman who introduced himself as Cookie. (I would never trust a real estate salesman named after a pastry.) Cookie evidently is a refugee from the Florida condominium market who has decided to try his luck in Costa Rica since his local market has ground to a halt. He started salivating as he fired up the video, brochures and floor plans, but we told him we had only three minutes to make his pitch. I have to admit he was pretty good.

Cookie claimed that this was a unique investment opportunity, that prices were going up next week and that he had tripled his money in the last condo complex. Only $10,000 would guarantee the current prices of about $300k per condo.

They are building a set of six story buildings (this is in the middle of nowhere and 2 km from the beach), a hotel and conference center. The complex will be circled by an artificial river where you can float in an innertube with a drink in your hand until you are deposited, 15 minutes later, back at the pool and swim-up bar to reload for another lap. The whole complex will be built 'Las Vegas Style'. Nice.

Just as Cookie was getting all lathered up, Kia grabbed my hand, made a few excuses about time and dragged me from the premises. Needless to say, she was aghast.

I, on the other hand, had somewhat mixed emotions. While I would never want to visit (much less live) in one of these places, obviously somebody does or they would not be being built at a furious pace. I suspect that there are many NASCAR fans who are priced out of the Las Vegas condo market who think this is a great deal. Who am I to impose my tastes on them?

From the perspective of Costa Ricans, I suspect there are also mixed emotions. The economy is quite strong (up there with Chile as the strongest in Latin America) and most of it is fueled by tourism and real estate. If they have decided, through a democratic process, in favor of development of this type, again, who am I to impose my tastes on them? They have far less wealth than we do and they may have a different price for their natural resources.

Kia and I visited Costa Rica in the 1990's and we both had a very different experience. It was far more natural and tasteful. I believe part of that was because we visited during dry season and we went to different places before (more inland, such as Volcan Arenal and Monteverde) than we saw this time. But, also, time has probably changed Costa Rica. I will likely be reluctant to return anytime soon.

Part of Costa Rica's strength is due to a fascinating social experiment that they started in 1948 when they abolished their army. I believe this has had more impact on their internal politics than it has on foreign relations. Since this time, Costa Rica has had only peaceful regime changes. I believe this is unique for Latin America south of Mexico. I have been surprised throughout the region at the large number of politicians who come from the army. If they don't get their way, they sometimes use the soldiers to take what they didn't win at the ballot box.

Next stop is Nicaragua.
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