Our first few months in Costa Rica, we were taken aback by the intense security around homes: high gates, electric fences, massive bars covering every window and door. Many subdivisions (and some private homes) have guards, from casually dressed bicycle guards to uniformed and armed. Most U.S. citizens have a similar response to ours: we just don’t get it.
Fences are topped with all sorts of unwelcoming stuff: sometimes just a roof-over a gate or the fence to make it impossible to climb over. More often with strands of barbed wire and/or coils of razor wire, often a
double roll. Then there is the seriously deadly concertina wire. Apparently it’s coiled so that, if snipped, it whips out and makes the snipper wish he were someplace else. If he can wish at all.
Everyone has at least one dog and some of ’em don’t act that friendly. All are encouraged to bark. Businesses that keep equipment/merchandise out in the open overnight have plenty of vicious looking animals around, trained not to eat funny food. The work-around to a guard pet is a poison hot-dog… My biggest anxiety is that we’ll leave for the mall and someone will poison our dogs to get to the house. It’s been known to happen. So I leave them in the garage when I go, or crated.
Besides, who would be afraid of this face? Our guard dogs are much too sweet! A better idea for guard animals is geese and/or guinea hens. They don’t eat poison, they are vicious attackers and LOUD. You’d have to shoot them and you’d better be a really good shot! Wonder how they’d get along with the dogs?
thieves] are only after
stuff: computers, TVs, cameras, any and all electrical equipment, cash.
If you are gone for long enough, they will take the light fixtures, refrigerator, stovetop, toilets,
all plumbing fixtures, all furniture… they take EVERYTHING there is
time to take. They will most likely not hurt you, although this is not always true. And they will most likely not break-in while you are home. When you hear that ticos don’t like confrontation, that includes ladrones. That really is some comfort.
Believe it or not, you get used to seeing all the security. You get
used to the fact that when you leave your house to go to the movies, it might not be the
same when you get home. You just remind yourself it’s only stuff,
you’ll just have to bite the bullet and replace it. Or move. Or
something… at least you’ll be around to do so. You accept it to stay.
Costa Rica is such a peaceful country, no army, friendly locals, slow moving. All this security seemed totally incongruous. When we moved into our current fortress with it’s heavy-duty bars and the most expensive and up-to-date monitored alarm system available, we felt pretty secure, even without barbed wire atop our fence. That made me nervous but the house had been here for so long and it seemed pretty impenetrable. Hal sometimes talked about removing a few bars. I wasn’t having any of that. I like how impenetrable feels.
That feeling is gone for the moment. When we got back from the Caribbean, I was talking to Hal in his office when I looked at the corner window and saw the bars had been bent away from the house. Someone had tried to break in while I was gone! There’s an ugly feeling.
Two days later, we had the razor wire guy here installing a lovely, deadly looking coil of razor wire around our house. I wanted the concertina, but it was more than twice as expensive. This is $600 and completely encircles the house, including the roof next to the street. Odd how something that seemed so ugly a year ago is now SO lovely to behold…
Clearly ladrones have been watching the house. We were warned this would happen. The new gringos on the block won’t be as careful as they should be… You are told to leave your TV on loud when you leave, like there is someone home. Tint your car windows so they don’t know who all is in the car when it leaves. DON’T leave any doors open (which means the dogs have to be in or out…) Don’t tell anyone when you leave. If you leave for an overnight, hire someone to stay in your house. Tons of stuff like this.
At first, you think, "Jesus, these people are paranoid!" Like conspiracy theorists. You do it all, but you feel pretty silly.
It is extremely creepy to know this is not the first time our personal ladrones climbed that fence and looked in our windows. How else did they know the ONE vulnerable spot in the house where a skinny body could get in, not trip the
alarm, and get out with stuff?
Hal’s office, which is part of our bedroom, sports a laptop, a
monitor, a printer, all the excess electrical equipment, his camera and
assorted accessories… Our passports and extra cash USED TO BE in that
room. It was a gold mine.
They waited for the right moment and hopped the fence. But I guess Hal returned to the house earlier than expected because they ran before finishing the job. Leaving a baseball cap and plenty of fingerprints behind. Wonder if there’s a C.S.I. unit anywhere around with a lab like the one on TV?
A motion detector is also being installed in our room
this week. And all the eggs are no longer in one basket.
To a tico, $400-$500/month ($5,400/year) income is excellent… gringos are relatively rich beyond measure. The contents of our house, even discounted heavily, would provide at least a year’s income, a few years if they got the passports. Worth a day’s effort, really.
And why not give it a whirl? There is little to no enforcement and, when caught, there is little to no punishment. I’ve written about this time and again: stealing is accepted here. It’s a way of life. You gotta get over it, as tica teri likes to say.
The local police force is inadequate to deal with all the petty theft. You have to take care of your security yourself. Hence, all the bars and wire and armed guards everywhere. I prefer taking care of myself, actually, rather than leave it to a government body. You give ’em an inch…
The good news is: this is all I have to fear in Costa Rica. During the Republican debates yesterday morning, they were all talking about the tax code and the need for revision (you think?) Senator Blackball (or Blueboard or something like that) said U.S. citizens fear an IRS audit more than they fear ANYTHING. That’s our government scaring the crap out of us. Then listening to us whine about it. Although I don’t escape either of these goodies living in Costa Rica, I can’t hear the drumbeat of fear from here. Living with ladrones and razor wire seems a very fair trade.
I don’t think you’re really thinking clearly on this issue.
You’re telling us that you’d rather risk your children’s lives, than have to pay an extra couple of dollars in taxes?
The security situation is out of ccntrol in Costa Rica. Think about it: They’re willing to risk personal injury, attack dogs, barbed wire (and potentially death!) in order to steal a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff?
Don’t you think that same level of desperation will also make them not think twice about harming you or one of your children in order to get their fix?
There’s not a week that goes by, that there isn’t a violent home invasion in Escazu. You’re not “more free” living in Costa Rica. You’re living behind bars, like a criminal, while the criminals walk freely.
Hi Saratica: I am sad to hear about your attempted break-in but hey its all part of living here. My parents house has been break-in free for the last 18 years (they live in Tibas). However from 1957 to 1989 it was broken into 12 times!!! Many of them hilarious (like the time the robber forgot his shoes) to down right scary (like the time they broke into my room when I was 11 years old to steal the cable tv box while I was sleeping). The one that “derramo el vaso -spilled the glass” was in 1989 when muggers broke into the house while we were out and had EVERYTHING from clothes to furniture ready in boxes and were just waiting for a truck to pull over. My neighbor who was 14 years old at the time surprised them and scared the muggers away (imagine!) even running after them. After that incident my parent’s house has not been alone even 1 hour.
Today what worries me is not the danger of being broken into as much as the fact that most homes in CR are a complete fire and earthquake hazzard due to all this security. My wife and I used to rent an apartment for which we had to go through six different locks to get into (or out). After we had our baby we decided to rent a more expensive but definetely safer apartment in a gated community. At last I could sleep easy knowing that we could get out quickly in case of an emergency.
I agree that thieves in CR are not that violent in most cases (of course there are exceptions). I do feel safer now than 15 years ago but I am talking as a middle class tico. I do feel upper class families (such as rich ticos or expats) are more prone to violent break ins. Modern thieves of the pro kind wont risk that much to steal a microwave or DVD, they are after jewels and loads of cash. On the other hand I believe all that tight security, bars, fences, etc are more of a result of “keeping up with the Jones – security wise” chain reaction more than a real day to day threat. Thieves will find the weak link in your block and thats why you unfortunately need to keep up with your neighbors.
Our six-lock apartment? Never was broken into, however, the twin apartment next door was. They had only 4 locks (CR thieves are kind of lazy). Cya. Manrique.
Thanks for being honest and posting this information. I think people will continue to move there but at least they were warned. Personally, I am now leaning away from Central America as a retirement locale. My research for the past six months has really opened my eyes. The widening gulf between rich and poor and the ineffective law enforcement does not bode well for the future.
There are places that have not been corrupted as yet, and I will narrow my search to these locations. Take care of yourself and thanks for such an honest and entertaining blog. Wishing you and yours all the best!
“Dura Vida”, I like that but it’s not always like that. Behind those bars is a sense of freedom, funny but true. I believe we are getting educated as to how to survive in a sometimes dangerous environment. I grew up with never locking the doors and keeping the keys in the ignition. Something no longer done probably anywhere. In the U.S., there is a false sense of security and of course, immediate emergency response when you do have trouble. Not too much of that here. My fear living in the States is that terrorism is still a real threat and although we have not had another incident on the “homeland” since 9/11, just let a few synchronized dirty bombs go off and those condemning us for living under such tight security will wish they had some for themselves.
CRJones: One of the many lovely perks of being a US citizen is that Uncle Sam has his finger in your pie, his hands in your pockets and his head up your butt for the rest of your life no matter where in the world you are. Your first question is so ludicrous and insulting, I can’t even answer it. You don’t have kids, do you?
Everything else you say is on the money. Having this happen has heightened my sense of insecurity big time. If the economy makes any downturn here, won’t the ladrones be more desperate? It would be foolish to think otherwise.
If the inequity continues, if I start feeling more INsecure, if I thought for a minute my family was not physically safe here, I would walk away. I hear you. This has been a big unpleasant wake-up call. But I have to let the hysteria of the moment pass and separate my fears from reality. Your reality may win… we’ll see.
So where are you now that you believe is so safe and offers the kind of life we enjoy here: safe, good medical (we are old, you know), cultural events? Panama? Uruguay? Wyoming? Where do you think is better than here? I will look…
Hi Manrique, your experiences as a tico are so illuminating – thank you. As an expat, we are considered wealthy. We live in a big house overlooking the valley, so the illusion of big wealth is definitely here. The truth is we got an incredible deal on this house… but the ladrones don’t know that. Big house = big money.
My mom lives with us now and between all of us, our house should never be empty. We are adding some landscaping, beefing up any weak links as much as we can. As I say above, I don’t think our lives are in danger – the minute I think that, I’m outta here.
But we love everything else about our lives here so much. And we are making friends, starting to feel a part of, rather than different from. I’m willing to make SOME trade-offs.
Hi Teri: I just saw your input above – excellent points! Here my house is under lock and key. Back in the US, the feeling of anxiety is big and general and constant… yes, my house was always unlocked, key in the ignition. But the fear of who-knew-what was overwhelming. Being able to identify what exactly I’m afraid of is HUGELY comforting. At least I can make an informed decision to stay or go…
Hi Tom: I wrote you personally because it sounds like you may be gone from my blog life… But I’ll ask the same thing here: so where looks appealing to you? I may be married, as my cute husband likes to say, but I’m not dead!
I don’t think living behind bars is so incarcerating. When I first found out about it in Costa Rica I was bummed, thinking along the lines of CRJones. Except … I’m Indian, and no house in the cities there is complete without bars on the windows. Petty theft is common when there are so many poor people. We would never dream of leaving our stuff out on our roof (we live in a brownstone-type house there) and definitely not on our front steps. It made me feel much better knowing that I’d already lived like that and it never felt like jail. So really, it’s up to you whether you’re living like a criminal or not.
Sara: Would you say that Escazu is more targeted by the ladrones? Would moving elsewhere in CR be a consideration for you?
Also, I love the idea of attack geese. We have ducks as well as a neighbor who’s utterly negligent about keeping his german shepherds leashed, so we’ve considered getting a goose. I know when we get to CR that we’ll have ducks and dogs, but we’d definitely add some geese too.
I do think any place in the city: Santa Ana, Escazú, Moravia… any place where there are more people, ticos and gringos, there is more of a problem. Living in downtown Lexington is more dangerous than living out in the country. I did consider briefly leaving the city…
Everytime I think about moving someplace else in Costa Rica, I think: what am I doing? I am a target because I am a gringo. So I will live behind bars someplace I can’t get hi-speed internet and am too far away from the only English speaking little theatre group and too far to drive into the city for opera and symphony… I’m a city girl, there is no getting around it. I think for me it’s here or some other country.
Yeah. Attack geese… protection for our guard dogs!!!
I apologize. I didn’t mean to come across as critical of you, personally.
I think that every place has it’s pro’s and con’s. It just bothers me when people (not you) try to argue that living in America is more dangerous than living in Costa Rica. Well– it is. But… not for people of our socio-economic background.
You’ll probably argue that it’s antedotal, but everyone I’ve met in Costa Rica has had an run-in with crime in the past two or three years. I cannot say the same for the people I know in America, and I know many more people in America than I do in CR.
The problem with Costa Rica is that you cannot get away from the crime by living in a nicer area, like you can in other countries.
As to the question of “Where is better?” … well, it really depends on how important you rank the things that are important to you. If I was still single, Costa Rica and Panama would probably rank a lot higher to me. Ditto, if I was into bird watching, or nature hiking.
As a side note: Panama is A LOT safer than Costa Rica.
In fact, I even felt much safer in North Bogota than I did in Costa Rica. Why? Because, like in America, you have safe areas and you have unsafe areas. You don’t have the “haves” living next door to the “have-nots” like you do in CR. Uribe has really done an excellent job of cleaning things up. You’ve got culture, and great shopping, and good infrastructure. But that’s me talking, as two adults (my wife) without any kids. I don’t think I’d settle in Bogota if I had kids. I think I’d settle back in the Canada or the U.S.
There are many areas where you can still leave your door unlocked in the U.S.
My secretary lives in Harlem, Georgia. She routinely leaves the windows of her truck rolled down, with her wallet on the dash when she runs in to grab a pack of cigs at the Piggly-Wiggly. Never has a problem.
I don’t understand your uber-fascination with privacy. I agree, privacy is important– but like everything in life, it’s a trade-off. To me, the risk of the government taking my money is much, much less likely than some Tico bank-employee embezzling it, or having an express kidnapper make me withdraw all the money from my account.
Sure, those things can happen anywhere. They just tend to happen A LOT MORE in certain countries.
I understand how you’re feeling. That was one of the reasons I started living overseas, too.
But after factoring in all risks, I’ve come to the conclusion that my likelyhood of dying in a car accident in Latin America is about 10000X more likely than dying in a terrorist incident in the States.
Costa Rica Jones,
Why is your blog down? Did you transfer it and if yes, can you post the link?
Privacy issues. LOL.
I lived in South Carolina for a while, in a neighborhood where you didn’t need to lock the doors, close the garage door and once, when I left my purse on top of my car in my driveway all night, I was not surprised to find it the next morning untouched. Unfortunately, after living most of my life in Miami, I found this sense of womb-like safety creepy. Sure, no one was gonna take my purse in the Stepford-Village-of-the-Damned, but I was gonna die of boredom and end up wishing for some B-movie psycho just to break the monotony. While I am very glad they didn’t get in and take any of your stuff and I am bit creeped out what with my arrival in CR just a few weeks away, I had a feeling it was just a matter of time before someone attempted a break-in. Big house, quiet street, more bars mean more cool stuff…it sucks, but let’s hope this is the first and last time. Maybe when I get there, we can go goose shopping!
Chris: I can’t wait till you get here! Only with you could goose shopping be fun…
CRJones: Thank you for your apology. I did take it personally and, of course, you didn’t mean it that way. You make irrefutable points. It seems like crime here IS getting more widespread and more frequent. I hadn’t considered the haves being so in the face of the have-nots, but true. And by living in a nicer area, I make myself more of a target instead of feeling safer.
Although, I have to say I think some of the really rich gringos around here are financing the police force. Our guys have nice new trucks… The question is: would they come if I called, me not being a member of the country club and all?
We’ve talked off and on about going back to the US. Personal safety is not the issue for us. The government is the issue. It’s not just privacy that we miss, it’s personal freedoms being eroded by the truckload. There’s a big issue… the bottom line is that we LOVE not living in the US. May not always be true, but it is for now.
And I’m a southern girl from KY with two bi-racial children. Not in a million years would I live anywhere in the south. The only place in Florida I liked was Key West: multi-cultural, plenty of alternative lifestyles, a huge arts community… a lovely place. But now too expensive for us. I might consider Wyoming. As soon as global warming gets rid of the snow…
The other thing about CR that is not pleasing to me is that this administration seems hellbent on copying Bush: spending money on a CR drug war. Spending money making sure everyone’s cedula is up to snuff. Instead of putting thieves in jail and educating their children. That is discouraging to me. I’ve always said I wouldn’t change anything about CR. But now I would change the way they are changing… seems to be heading in a direction that will only produce more corruption, increase crime rather than decrease it and do nothing for future generations.
It’s getting too late to have such deep thoughts… thanks again for writing. Dura vida? Somedays. Pura vida is still winning…
Although it’s not technically “in the South” — you may want to check out Austin, Texas… if you ever decide to return to the States. I have a feeling that the Austin community there would provide a lot of what you’re looking for.
And while property values there have gone up recently, they’re still very affordable compared to elsewhere in the States.
And your kids would love it.
If we ever think seriously about returning to the states, we could certainly check out Austin. I’ve heard good things about it. I LOVED Houston – so big, so much stuff!!! But too big to live in, I think…