Costa Rica History in knife metaphorI’d say that about 1/10th of my time spent with people looking to buy property in Costa Rica’s Southern Pacific zone is spent in the actual buying/selling of property. The other 9/10ths is a mix of conversations regarding what’s involved with living here, as well as discussing the business of real estate in Costa Rica.

At its core, the lack of an actual MLS (Multiple Listing Service) colors all aspects of the business here, and I’ll go into that later on in this series. To really understand the business of real estate here, I have found it helpful to go back in time and see the progression of events up to the present. This helps to not only understand the current market but also, to project what is to come.

Early days:
I got into real estate in Dominical in 2004. It felt like the day I got into real estate was the day that someone threw the on-off switch on the market. Since then I’ve heard some tales indicating that the market was already simmering and poised to boil.

I made a sale on my first day in the business. A $60,000 gorgeous ocean view property sized at around 2 acres.  The property featured Uvita’s Whales Tail front and center. That property has gone on to have a lovely home, guest house and pool built on it. It has been re-sold and enjoys a stellar vacation rental history (link to rental page on HomeAway)

Quick overview of The Zone:
The Zone is made up of a string of 3 towns with Dominical at its northern end. The northern boundary is not a hard line but is decidedly fuzzy, easily extending up to Hatillo and at times, up to Portalon. (link to Hills of Portalon Development).

From Dominical heading south on the coastal highway you get to Uvita and then further south, to Ojochal. The area between Dominical and Uvita has a nicely laid out mountain range that runs very parallel to the ocean. Hence the handle “coastal mountain range” This means that you can travel inland from the beach just a short way and get to elevation where it is breezy and cool and offers expansive views of the ocean and coastline, attributes which make this area extremely desirable to investors, relocators and migrators (part-of-the-year residents).

More History:
Before the incoming press of foreign interest in The Zone, the Ticos (Costa Ricans) owned all the land, and their land holdings were always in the multi-hectares (1 hectare = 2.48 acres. Think 2.5 to make it easy).

There was a time in the not too distant past when land in Costa Rica was nearly value-less. There were land-grant programs whereby a man simply had to be willing to take responsibility for a property and the government would “grant” him the land, with conditions.

At that time it was not known that “nature” had a lucrative aspect to it. Instead nature was largely viewed as “in the way” and needed to be tamed, subdued or eliminated. So, one of the conditions to receiving a land grant was to cut the trees down and raise cattle.

I suspect that this era may have coincided with the “McDonalds” explosion. This is an arguable point, so let’s just say it coincided with an extreme demand in the U. S. (and world) for beef.

After some time of cutting down enormous canopy trees and attempting to raise cattle in former rain-forest environs, there was a shift in our world’s appetites; nature became an important commodity. Granted, beef has continued to be an active commodity, but it was also learned that former rain forest land doesn’t necessarily make for the best pasture land.

Raising cattle in Costa Rica was a daunting struggle. The farmers found themselves up against nature. Having to maintain former rain forest jungle land in “pasture” condition presented its trials, as well as the fact that the beef business (exporting meat, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and 3rd world infrastructure or lack thereof) made a guy scratch his head and wonder if having all this land was such a good idea.

The Tico culture was/is multi-generational. These large, granted tracts of land, would end up being populated by the man who acquired the land, his now grown sons & daughters and their families, and the grand kids (soon to also have families.)

So despite having lots of land, a condition that in first-world countries equates to being wealthy, these farmers were subsistence. They lived off of what their land produced. As a child would grow to adulthood, Abuelo (abuelo = grandfather) would simply build them a house and apportion off some land (or not) and they would continue on contributing to the sustenance of the family. The land itself was not thought of in lucrative terms.

Abuelo just happened to acquire a land grant on, let’s say, 60 hectares of land that reaches from the inland side of the maritime zone on the coast up to the highest point of the coastal mountain ridge. He’s not thinking “oh boy! I’ve got some ocean view land here.” No, he’s thinking: “man I hope this land is fertile.”

Enter foreigner:
One day Bob, a tourist, is exploring the area and decides that he’d like to buy Abuelo’s property. Bob offers Abuelo $60,000 for the land. Abuelo has never even considered the remote possibility of maybe someday having such a sum. In fact, he’s never even seen that much money. He talks it over with his family and they (very understandably) feel that this would be a wonderful thing for them to do. So, they sell their land.

Bos is a visionary. He sees what is likely coming and so he stakes his early claim. Now, keep in mind that there is no electricity to this property, the access is horseback and the water is from a nearby spring that is bubbling out of the ground. Abuelo has run a pipe from the spring to an elevated storage tank near the family homes. Bob’s a visionary in that – what foreigner in their right mind would possibly want such a remote and forbidding piece of land?

To understand this is to understand the element that is credited with making the world go round. We all have different likes and dislikes. I wonder at the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s level of focus on the personal home computing idea at the time that they had that focus. I’m not of this ilk and so my hat is off to such ones. I view the early investors here in The Zone as being made of the same stuff.

In looking back over the history of the first wave of investors here, I marvel at their foresight. My then wife and I looked at some Whales Tail view property in Uvita around 2002 and, despite its being gorgeous and nicely priced, I felt that it was simply too remote. This was in the same area where 2 years later I sold my first property.

Ok, so I said that to understand the real estate market here in Costa Rica, it helps one to know a bit of the history. Granted, we’ve gone back to what I appropriately call the first-wave of intrepid and visionary investors – The Visionaries. We’ll continue on in the next article with Bob’s next steps and incredible gains on his visionary act.

Education In Rural Costa Rica, Part 1 5

Education… it elicits warm images of smiling children, colorful classrooms and fundamental ideas like opportunity and a brighter future.  I am happy to say I see all of those elements unfolding here in Costa Rica, albeit sloooowly.

Did you know that the Costa Rican government is constitutionally required to budget at least 6% of the country’s GDP on educational programs?  In fact, the only countries that spend more on education (as a percentage of GDP) are Saudi Arabia and Norway at 9.5% and 6.8%, respectively.[1] Costa Rica also sports the highest literacy rate in Central America at 95.8%[2].  That said, there are a couple of gaps this learning curve, and I’m specifically referring to the parents and educators in this rural region, not the kids.

Elementary school classroom.

Ben and I often receive school-related questions from potential clients.  So, here’s a quick synopsis of public and private education in our region of Costa Rica.  Public school is free and for children between the ages of 6 and 13 (e.g., 1st through 6th grade).  Unlike most of the public schools in the United States, Canada and Europe, students are required to wear a uniform, typically dark blue pants with a white or light blue shirt.  The curriculum includes the usual core subjects of Spanish, Math, History, and Science.  Since 1998, English and Computer Sciences are also standard.  After kids pass their final elementary school testing, they have the option of a five-year stretch in colegio (i.e., high school in North America and Europe).

Judging from the local tico parents I have spoken with, their public school system offers a decent education for their children.  Judging from the growing number of expats living in the area, the school system is far from acceptable.  Leveraging my sources, namely my girlfriend (who has an 11 year old son) and a variety of local parents with school-age children, I embarked to uncover the real education story.

Frustration In An Emerging Country

“They don’t have school today… again!”  My girlfriend was beside herself.  Apparently, the parents of her son’s public school (he was in 5th grade) chained the front doors of the school demanding the removal of an (allegedly) drunk principal.  This comical Latin American story quickly turned ridiculous, as the protest went on for almost a week?!   Then, there was the teacher’s constant infirmity with no substitute.  Then, there was the partial flooding of the campus for a few days during the rainy season causing… yep, no school.  In reality, her son probably only attended half the number of days scheduled.

On top of that… the school didn’t have any books.  The teacher cited the importance of learning dictation and penmanship, but at what expense?  Early in the first parent-faculty meeting of the year, my girlfriend asked for an explanation?  The answer was they didn’t have any money.  Then, education in rural Costa Rica came into focus when each of the parents decided to budget money ($2.75/month for 10 months) for a “Christmas Party” for the kids.  The party turned out to be a success; the kids sang a few songs, played a few games, and ate what amounted to $20 worth of candy and cake.

This year, her son is attending a new “better” public school in Uvita.  The only problem is they don’t have any text books either.  But, hold on… before prospective mothers and fathers cross Costa Rica off the list, please allow me to share another option available.

Multi-Cultural, Global Citizens

“By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn.” – Latin Proverb

I remember when I first met Ben, and he told me the main reason he moved his family of five from Colorado to Costa Rica was because he wanted his kids to be bilingual and have an enriching life experience.  In fact, those are two of the main reasons most families move down here.  The third being… it’s a tropical paradise.  They lived in San Isidro, and they homeschooled their children who turned out happy, healthy, and yes… fluent in Spanish.

All that being said, we understand home schooling is not a viable option for some parents.  In Part 2 of this article, I will share arguably the best educational option in Costa Rica— private school.  It will also include continuing education for adults specifically, learning Spanish!  Until then, please feel free to share your questions and comments in the space below.  Saludos.


[2] United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008 (Unfortunately, in some countries literacy is defined as being able write your name.)

About Tigre

My first visit to Costa Rica was in 2002. I immediately fell in love with the warmth of the climate and people. After spending two weeks in San Jose, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side, and Tamarindo in Guanacaste, I knew there was a good chance I would return sooner than later. Sooner came just 6 months later when my uncle mentioned he was flying down to Costa Rica to close on a piece of property in the Southern Pacific Zone. On that trip I found my own piece of paradise above the small town of San Buenaventura, home to the San Buenas Golf Resort. Two years and 8 trips later, I decided to move to Costa Rica full time. Every day I am thankful for that decision.

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