Costa Rica: Recon from a Survivor's Mind
by Rusty Shackleford
10 April 2018
Run for the hills. If you're like me, it's a sentiment that regularly comes to mind.
Every instinct in the body says: Get away from population centers, get away from roads, get away from politics -- get away from all of it. Maybe for you getting away is "the woods," going to the lake, or back home to grandma's, but the nucleus of our instinct is to go somewhere safe that's away from the golden hordes of people who will certainly go crazy when serious SHTF occurs.
Costa Rica is a topic I've seen discussed in what people would like to think is a more serious and educated level of the preparedness community; so when presented with the chance to go on a rare vacation with my wife, I pitched the idea of Costa Rica to her. It was an easy sell.
It was my intent, truly, to take mi chica favorita on a nice trip, but I was bound to do some recon regarding the viability of Costa Rica as a place to possibly purchase land and use as an extravagant escape route should things in America take a seriously dark turn. This article is a preparedness-minded person's initial thoughts on Costa Rica, having been there, evaluating the possibility of setting up a permanent or retreat living situation.
First impressions upon flying into the capitol city, San Jose (which appears to be the only city major airlines fly into from the United States), is that the country is of meager financial resources and agrarian in nature. The temperature in the lowlands was 70-80 degrees in April. The temperature in the highlands is 60-70 degrees and does not vary much during the year.
Another term which could be used to describe Costa Rica on a whole is: basic.
Costa Rica has technology, of course, such as cell phone towers, satellite, and vehicles, but the day-to-day living is not anything like what most Americans will have experienced. The city roads are crowded and a bit unruly, with motorbikes weaving between cars. The country roads are less crowded but often damaged and cratered with cavernous pot holes. Pedestrians walk on the roads extremely close to traffic and are routinely passed within inches at high speeds.
I've driven from downtown New York City (Manhatten) to Staten Island, as well as engaged in "trick" driving over the years. Anyone who is not afraid to be behind the wheel, is cautiously safe and familiar with the physics of driving shouldn't have an issue driving in Costa Rica. It's not rocket science, but it's also not what we're used to here in America. Gas stations, also, are few and far between -- you will not see one on every corner, so fill up when you see one.
It was a two hour ride from San Jose to where we stayed, about 5 miles north of the city of Turrialba. Turrialba, population 35,000, is considered the central valley and the mountains which surround it are considered highlands. People often refer to certain mountain areas in Costa Rica as little Switzerland or Scotland. Although I've never been to either of those places, I have seen pictures and movies like anyone and saw resemblance with the short green grasses and mosses.
It's truly beautiful. The climate is very agreeable and makes planting and growing a year-round possibility. A real plus for the homesteader. While we were walking from the Turrialba Volcano to the Irazu Volcano (The Costa Rican Deathmarch) you really felt at a couple of points that you could have been in Europe.
The land, outside of Turrialba anyway, is not cheap. They sell by the hectacre, which is the equivalent to about two and half of our acres. For a one hectacre plot, the selling price was around $220,000 USD, or almost $90,000 USD per acre. Indeed, there may be other areas where land is cheap (or cheaper), but it's my observation that cheap land would be the exception and not the rule.
I briefly spoke with a resident of Costa Rica about taxes. General federal income taxes amount to about 30% of income earned, less expenses, which is very similar to taxes here in the USA. He also said that there is no substantial land tax to speak of -- so that may be one thing that works to a transplant's advantage in Costa Rica.
While we're on the topic of speaking with locals, I'll mention that my Spanish speaking ability is better than the average American (in Ohio anyway), but in no way would I claim to be fluent. For the reader's reference, I'm trying to portrait a palpable baseline of my ability to communicate.
To my delight, very few people spoke English in Costa Rica and if they did, it was limited. I was happy to be able to practice my Spanish under forced circumstances in which each party wanted and needed to communicate, but English was not an option.
My recommendation would be that anyone considering moving to, or even visiting Costa Rica, at a minimum be ready and willing to learn a language. Quickly. My best advice would be to seriously invest in the Spanish language a minimum of six months prior to your venture. If you already know some Spanish, bone up.
One of the reasons Costa Rica appears to be attractive to preppers is that there is already a contigent of American "ex-pats" living there. Just because some other Americans are there, does not make it a good idea. We don't know those peoples' circumstances. We did not run into any of these Americans, but from talking with locals it sounds like many of them live in American enclaves in more well-to-do areas. Personally, I think this makes you a target.
On a side note, we ran into several groups of Germans, a few French, and a couple of Brits. Many people from Europe visit Costa Rica, including a large contingent from Holland, oddly, and you will have a better chance of English speaking with these Europeans...whom also stick out badly.
Something that comes to mind when contemplating languages, locals, and foreigners, from a prepper's mentality, is that you are the foreigner. Here in America when someone shoots you a knowing glance in the grocery line it is in context of all the words being spoken, in the context of the surrounding social situation of that particular grocery store, in the context of the city you are in, in the context of who you are and who the other people are -- in another country, a foreign landscape, where you don't speak the language perfectly, you don't know the people....you have very little idea of precisely what is happening.
In leaving the U.S. you lose a very important tool of survival: contextual perception.
In the seconds it takes you to discern what is happening around you, it could mean the difference between life and death. In my estimation, it would take a solid year or more of living in the same place, plus having nearly perfect Spanish language skills which incorporate local dialect and coloquialisms before you could regain a pre-relocation level of situational awareness.
We walked from our small lodge for about 20 minutes into the small town of Santa Cruz (pictured above). My guess at the population would be about 300 people. We went into a tiny store equivalent to a very small neighborhood corner market here in the states. They accept USD in most places and readily will take them for payment of goods, but will return any change in the local currency, called Colones. When were were there in April of 2018, the exchange rate for $20 USD was about 12,000 Colones. While some staple goods were less expensive than what you would expect to see here in the states, not by much, and most were commensurate.
Another interesting aspect: Gold and silver hold little-to-no appeal.
I find success in trading silver coins for goods from time to time here in the USA, but in Costa Rica -- nothing doing. The impression I got was that they found it to be entirely worthless! We've all seen the Youtube videos you see where the guy offers people a free 10oz silver bar or a chocolate bar and they choose the chocolate.
I think it's two fold. One, they have no way to "change" the coins/bullion into money they can use. And, two, they need the money -- they don't have the disposable wealth to invest in alternative means of wealth storage.
It was very odd to me, as I understand fluently the value of metals and the value they hold for other people here and many other places in the world, but there you might as well try to hand them Monopoly money. So weird.
It speaks, again, to the basic nature of the place. They are so concerned with the day to day that precious metals are a foreign object, a tangentile non-commodity perhaps reserved for the uber-wealthy. You will not find much luck bartering with metals with average folks like us in Costa Rica. We hear people say, "You can't eat gold," and maybe this is a real world representation of that maxim.
In returning to the topic at hand, as a light-skinned Westerner, you stick out like a sore thumb. As we walked into town, numerous locals sitting on the berm of the road and/or stoops of houses or small shops took immediate interest and obviously were evaluating us. Good luck blending in unless you are non-white. If you do have the advantage of being non-white and therefore less conspicuous, you'd better be ready to back it up with coloquial Spanish because the second you open your mouth you will be outed and your advantage revoked.
On the way back to the lodge from the market, a clearly drunken local stumbled out to the street to meet us mumbling what I assume was a joke, something along the lines of "Need to know where the bathroom is?" ...using the word bano in a sly manner as though all we would know how to say is "Donde esta el bano?" My Spanish isn't good enough to come up with a witty but friendly response to disarm the gentleman, so we just smiled and kept on walking. Nothing came of the encounter, but it's a stark example of how out of place one can be when you are the foreigner. It's another thing to weigh when considering a move.
I'm not making Costa Rica sound like paradise. I feel it is more responsible to dilligently advise you of the risks associated with such a serious undertaking, rather than to excitedly tell you what a great idea it is on a theoretical basis.
It's a foreign land. Unless you speak fluent Spanish and/or have a buddy or some sort of agent ensconced in the community, it will be rough at first.
All the above warnings made, let me make some positive observations.
In the event of a calamity on a world wide scale, such as war, a widespread EMP, or pandemic, being in the remote highlands of Costa Rica might be one of the best places to be on the planet.
What Costa Rica lacks in western conveniences, it makes up for in being a society which is closer to the building blocks of civilization -- meaning it would be easier for Costa Rica to cope with and re-organize from a disaster.
Many of the products consumed on a daily basis, rice, beans, coffee, meat, cheese, cabbage, sugar, are all produced IN Costa Rica. Moreover, it's produced by many small farms. They have large farms, but nothing on the scale of those megafarms we have in America.
Certainly Costa Rica could suffer from interruptions in both local and international deliveries and it would likely be felt by the local communities. I don't know where Costa Rica imports their oil from, so certainly that could also disrupt things like local commerce transport.
It is my belief, however, again, that Costa Rica is much closer to the basic necessities of life on a country-wide basis (mainly food production) than America -- and this stands true for many other nations in the world. I've always said that if an EMP wiped out the globe, people in rural places in countries like Afghanistan, Nambia, and others would not even know something happened.
Of course big city life in Costa Rica is probably more akin to what we are used to here, with many shops and businesses at hand, fast food here and there, with no farming going on in the city proper. Just as here, the city folk in Costa Rica would be in a worse situation than the country folk. It all comes down to food and water.
Just as here, you can bet that Costa Rica would have its own golden hordes from the cities descending on the country side, "heading for the hills" to "live off the land" or go to grandma's house. Just as here, I would imagine the initial flow of people would decimate the resources. BUT. In Costa Rica, again, I think they are more pre-positioned to ramp up food production on a localized basis and make a much quicker transition to a sustainable level of farming due to the large numbers of small to medium sized farms already producing crops.
The mentality of the people, if I may be so bold as to ascertain it generally, seems to be one of having the advantage of leading a more basic, less western life. From a mental morale standpoint, you don't stand to be as damaged mentally because you didn't have as much in the first place. That's going to be good for their general welfare in a crisis.
Whether it's fancy foods or fancy roads, Costa Rica is already an unpolished place. I'm not sure how much that would change in a collapse. Americans, on the other hand, tend to lose their minds if the EBT cards go down for 10 minutes. Having a simple meal of rice and beans to many Americans is too much to bear!
Interestingly, Costa Rica is a huge producer of electricity using alternative sources like hydro-power...they sell it as far away as Mexico. Interesting factoid. They also have a very high ratio of State Preserves to privately owned land in the form of forests, etc.. It's considered one of the most eco-friendly countries on the face of the planet. There is room for the populace, if need be, to move into unoccupied territory.
One might even say Costa Rica is primed, if organized properly, to come out the other side of a world wide disaster smelling like roses.
All in all. I don't know. It's a big decision.
Personally, having seen it close up, for me, it would take many more trips and much more deliberation. A regular bungalow getaway spot would come before a full on move there...but who can afford such things.
If I had to make a snap call, I'd say you're better off in the middle of nowhere here in America. Either in the hills of Tennessee or plains of Kansas. The lowlands of Montana or rural Utah, a holler in Kentucky.
At least here in America you know the score. You have the context. You speak the language. You are at home with fellow Americans. I'd rather be in a desperate situation with family than in one as a stranger in a strange place.
...but what do I know? Good luck, God bless, and stay safe!