One of the first Building Santa Fe columns was written in the spring of 2019 from a short-term rental in Ojochal, Costa Rica. It was our second visit to the southwestern side of the tiny and progressive tropical country.
It was noted then that the area, full of American, Canadian and European expatriates, reminds one of Santa Fe in some ways. I suggested Santa Fe was the Costa Rica of the United States in that it’s safe for expats attracted from northern regions seeking retirement in warmer climes with bilingual speakers and culture and foods that excite imaginations and challenge palates.
I also noted that after being one of those Santa Fe expats for more than 30 years, perhaps it was time to consider giving up my spot in the community I love and becoming a Costa Rican expat. Three years later, that reality appears on the horizon.
My wife, Lisa, and I closed on a modest home with a stunning ocean view 2,000 feet up from the coastal highway in September 2020. Lisa found it online and worked with a Realtor we’d met in 2019 who sold us with live video feeds. We were determined to purchase before November with a fear that, had the election gone another way, an exodus of progressive boomers would have fled and funneled into Costa Rica.
I write today after four weeks of exploring our new home and meeting new neighbors, both expats and Ticos, which is what Costa Ricans call themselves.
One of those neighbors, with a lot below ours, was getting a new home built. Sitting on our porch, soaking in ocean vistas and afternoon fog, we had a bird’s-eye view of Costa Rican homebuilding. Similar in many ways, it was profoundly different in others.
Homebuilding is always a male-bonding experience, but this group of Ticos took it to another level. The owner contracted a six-man crew from Arenal, a five-hour drive north. They worked three weeks on and then left for a week off to see their families. Six days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Sundays off for lounging and laundry.
At the start of the project, they built an open-sided lean-to shed 80 feet long and 20 feet deep, wrapped in corrugated tin. With a dirt floor, it was both material storage and living quarters. Tied into the future home’s plumbing and electricity, it had a rudimentary bathroom, shower, laundry, propane cooktop and a satellite dish for TV.
Grilled bacon, potatoes and eggs wafted up at 6 a.m., to where we watched the sunrise shining on western clouds over the Pacific with our steaming mugs of coffee.
Standard footwear for Costa Rican workers, whether building homes, harvesting palm oil nuts or guiding tourists in nature preserves, are black rubber boots. For two of those tasks, it’s protection from snakes. For construction guys, it’s because of the ankle-deep, boot-sucking clay.
With a rainy season from June through November, with as much rain in a week as Santa Fe sees in a year, boots are a must. Curiously, it’s not standard practice to pour concrete slabs first and build on firm, flat surfaces. Instead, the slab comes toward the end, meaning week after week of construction mucking.
With termites and rot playing havoc on wood, most custom homes are block and concrete. But when the home is up a 30-minute, four-wheel-drive-only road, ready-mix trucks are not an option.
Instead, bags of cement, piles of sand and gravel feed the nonstop growling of the electric mixer. These days, I’m content to watch and listen. Pura vida!