25 APRIL 1992, Page 12


Isabel Wolff on what

lures Americans to retire early to Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica FROM PITTSBURG they come, from Dayton, Ohio and from Maine; from Seat- tle, Washington, from Kansas and Fort Worth, to settle in the tiny Central Ameri- can country of Costa Rica. They are retired, but most of them are young. They are Costa Rica's new rich, but they need only $600 a month. They are the Pensiona- dos, and they are here to stay.

The trickle of Americans to Costa Rica, which began in the early 1970s, has now become a flood. As unemployment and recession have gripped the United States, the Nordamericanos have fled south to a country where the dollar is still the object of worship. It may be called the 'Rich Coast', but in Costa Rica $600 a month which is what Pensionados are obliged to invest in the local economy — is very seri- ous money. Most `Ticos', as the Costa Ricans call themselves, would be lucky to earn one third of that.

There are now about 50,000 Americans in a population of only 3 million Costaric- cense. Blue-collar workers for the most part, and ex-servicemen, they say they come to Costa Rica because 'it's so peace- ful' — the army was abolished in 1949 and because of its democratic traditions, which have earned it the soubriquet 'the Switzerland of Central America'.

Costa Rica lies snugly between Panama and Nicaragua, yet it has been untainted by the violence which has beset the rest of the region. 'This is the most civilised of all Latin countries,' Lewis Lesser from Philadelphia told me. He has been a Pen- sionado for the last four and a half years since he was 42. We are sitting on the ter- race of the Key Largo bar, in downtown San Jose one evening. 'The people are lovely,' he continues, 'there's no illiteracy, the climate is perfect and the food is great.' He offers me a large prawn. 'You can eat wonderful sea-food here which would cost you mucho, mucho dollars in New York. Costa Rica [like all Americans he pro- nounces it "Coaster Rica"] is a really fan- tastic place to live.' He pauses, then his face lights up with inspiration. 'It's like a

new frontier, it's like Alaska. It's w-i-d-e open.'

I venture inside, where the atmosphere pulses with the rhythms of salsa, and Lam- bada-twisted bodies weave languorously across the parquet. The red-illuminated interior is full of young Costariccense women and middle-aged American men. I sit on a tall stool at the bar, beneath a swirling fan, next to a handsome-looking gringo of about 40. He buys me a Margari- ta, then downs his own in two abrupt gulps.

`So what's brought you to Costa Rica?' I enquire, smilingly, by way of a conversa- tional gambit.

The Latino women,' he replies. 'They're lovely, they're free, they're gregarious ... and they like American men.' He slips his arm round the waist of his companion, who looks as though she ought to be in school. His voice takes on a confidential tone. 'You know, we're on a higher plateau, financially, and they like that.'

`But what do you miss about the States?'

`Absolutely nothing.'

`Why did you leave?'

`Too many lawsuits.'

`What are you going to do here? You're still young. Are you going to work?'

`Work ? Hey, what is this?' He flings himself off his stool like a crocodile leap- ing off the river bank and stares at me accusingly.

`You're with the government, aren't you?'

`I'm sorry?'

`You've been sent by the Ticos, you're a spy.'

`I'm what? No, no really.'

`Yes you are. You're a goddam govern- ment spy.'

`No, honestly. I'm a journalist,' I say, but by then he is already half-way across the dance floor and is soon lost in the writhing mass of bodies.

The next day, Peter Brennan, a reporter with the Tico Times, explained this odd piece of behaviour to me.

`The Americans are allowed to invest in companies here, but they are not allowed to work. But some do. And then some of them are here illegally, on a tax dodge, or without the necessary funds. They get a bit jumpy if you ask them too many questions. I guess that guy had something to hide, that's all.'

When the Americans apply for what's known as 'retiree' status, they are thor- oughly vetted. Their backgrounds are investigated by Interpol, and if they have a criminal record in any part of the world they are automatically refused residency. But, says Brennan, conmen and criminals are still managing to find their way in. The problem is identifying them as big-time crooks. The government needs the gringos, and the dollars which they bring in, but at the same time they're extremely worried about bad influences, particularly drugs. So far, Costa Rica has been a relatively dope-free zone.

'In 1988 Costa Rica introduced some remarkable anti-narcotics legislation,' Brennan told me. 'If you were caught with any drugs on you, however small, you were held without bail. And in a country like Costa Rica where the judicial system is awful slow, that could mean being held for up to two years, without a trial. They had to drop it in the end and grant bail, but it shows how scared they were.'

Most of the Ticos, when quizzed about the Pensionados, display pragmatic toler- ance. Perhaps it is because 'Costa Rica is one of the few Latin American countries which has not been invaded by the United States, or had its government overthrown in a coup staged by the United States. There are not the lingering anti-US resent- ments to be found in other Central Ameri- can countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.'

But you do still hear Ticos grumble about the fact that the Americans have everything so easy. Only the estate agents are unequivocally happy to have them there because they all buy houses and plots of land.

The Pensionados are OK, I mean they're an important part of our economy and we need their greenbacks,' said one San Jose hotelier to me, with a shrug. 'But 1 really think we should stop letting them in now, otherwise Costa Rica will soon become just an appendage of the United States.' He paused. 'You know, like a little tropical Alaska.'