You’ll probably begin by looking for a rancho-style house with a garden, in the heart of a local neighborhood out there in the real Costa Rica. A quick taxi hurtle through the tunnel of salmon-colored walls and sentry boxes in the western San José suburbs of Escazú and Guachipelín and, actually, most of the Central Valley, is enough to establish that nobody with anything over the value of say, an iPod, lives out there in the real Costa Rica.
These days most of us, Costa Ricans and foreigners alike, live in houses behind bars or in compounds with “perro bravo” signs on the electronic gates. And if you are going to make certain sensible compromises for security and peace of mind, the gated community would seem to be the most sociable option.
Or so people are discovering, and not just here – though walls are going up along the coast of the northwestern province of Guanacaste and San José’s suburbs with astonishing speed – but also in South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela as security for a rapidly growing middle class, and in the United States, specifically Florida, where gated communities make up 10% of the new home market.
Despite the demand, we’re still uneasy with the concept, apologetic almost, for not making it out there. Social scientists warn that gated communities are divisive, carving up society by income, age and race; that there’ll be hell to pay. The Neal Stephenson bestseller “Snow Crash” looks to a future in which everyone lives in mass-produced gated communities that effectively operate as sovereign city-states.
But people like them. While they are by nature divisive (what with the wall and the gate and the guards), those who live in them often enjoy a kind of inclusive community spirit that’s hard to find on the outside, particularly for rootless people who have been around a bit. As is the case behind the walls of Residencias Los Jardines, a gated community of 26 houses on a 2.5-acre lot on a deadend street of gated communities in Pozos de Santa Ana, southwest of San José.
A Veritable Oasis
It’s a surprising place: a veritable oasis complete with palms, two swimming pools, thatched ranchos and barbecue areas. The Spanish colonial-style homes hidden in the foliage house three dogs, seven cats, a parrot and a mixed bag of people aged 8 to 80, Canadian, American, Dutch, English, Cuban, Costa Rican and German rubbing along in bizarre harmony, united perhaps by the smug satisfaction of having found a very nice spot in which to live.
Developer Brian Timmons has created the set for the lifestyle he pondered year after year holed up through Canadian winters – the sort of convivial socializing he and wife Lita enjoyed living on their boat at the Toronto marina each summer, “but on a year-round basis.” Once he considered what it was he was missing, he says in true developer spirit, “I proceeded to add definition and finally action plans to make it happen.”
Seventeen years after honeymooning in Costa Rica, Timmons began revisiting, scouting for opportunities and eventually came across “some Canadians who had bought an onion field and proceeded to develop, with no background in construction, and limited resources.”
They sold the site with six basic houses built to Timmons on April Fools’ Day, 2002.
Undaunted by the date or the fact that Pozos was more of a dust bowl than a boom town (“there was nothing along the golden mile but Matra and the Forum”), Timmons salvaged the vegetation, landscaped and created the eponymous jardines – now lush with palms, orchids, gardenias and fruit trees and meticulously maintained by three full-time gardeners – knocked down the houses, and began building vastly superior ones. After five units were built, Paul Leduc came on board as a partner, and the marketing began.
The secret to their success seems to have been having a clear vision, yet keeping flexible.
“We had a master plan and changed it as we saw opportunities,” Timmons says. They created a four-plex, for example, for people with more limited budgets. All units were sold prior or during construction; a few have resold and for a profit (a $178,000 unit sold after seven months for $250,000; a $70,000 unit resold after a year for $140,000), and he reckons there is still room for price appreciation.
That’s a bonus rather than an incentive to buy for the majority of owners.
A third of the owners are “pure investors,” another third are investors and part-time residents (getting an income through the rental management program), and another third are owners living here year-round, like Bill Hornick.
“I found out about Los Jardines on an exploratory visit through a realtor at Casa Canada. The site was about 60% complete; the gardens were done but my unit wasn’t, so I went back to Canada, put in an offer and moved down when it was,” Hornick says.
“Construction took another six months, but putting up with the noise and dirt was worth it because I got the unit I wanted, and paid less than if I’d waited until the site was finished.
I’ve bought a second unit because this property is unique. I think it will command a premium, either rent or resale.”
The properties were targeted at “baby boomer, empty nesters with disposable incomes, after a better lifestyle,” which is what they pretty much got.
“With Wi-Fi and VoIP phones, you can watch the local news from any country, follow world markets, etc., just like you were in Canada or Britain but without the crappy weather,” points out Hornick, who describes himself as “too young to retire but old enough to think it’s a good idea”, and subsidizes his life of leisure when necessary with the occasional venture, as do many.
Nevertheless, there’s a good cross-section with a smattering of younger couples, working in San José, and self-employed – two children at one end of the spectrum and three elderly ladies with 24/7 care at the other.
Says Timmons: “It’s a stable community; there’s social interaction and people get to know each other. There are people here who enjoy that and people who don’t, but it’s a large enough community that people can coexist peacefully.
“All a developer can do is put in the facilities; people have to make it happen. That was the whole philosophy behind designing the houses with terraces in front and cars at the back. You can take an evening walk, strike up conversation and, if you’re lucky, get a drink.
Spontaneous things happen – someone’s got extra hamburgers and you end up staying for dinner. Social activities develop in an impromptu way. “
Meet the Neighbors
Nick and Alison Theis, a Dutch-British couple in their 40s who moved to Costa Rica 18 months ago with Alison’s job, after living and working in Curaçao (“and it’s not safe there”), opted to rent in a gated community for security reasons.
“For that first period, a gated community seemed better,” Nick says. “When you don’t know exactly what is outside the gate, it gives a safe feeling.”
But they’ve stayed partly for the setting –“When I first walked around, I totally fell in love with the place … and we have one of the nicest houses – when I buy a hot tub the place will be perfect,” Nick says – and mainly for the social life.
“We’ve made a lot of friends here,” Nick says.“The weekly poker tournaments, the barbecues with beer-can chicken, the parties…”
Sense of community was also important to Terry Barnes, a retired professional jockey in his 50s (“and before that, a junior champion cattle roper”) who moved to Costa Rica two years ago from the U.S. state of Oklahoma with his granddaughter, Lily.
“This is home and family to Lily,” Barnes says. “Not sure she remembers Oklahoma –she’s been here since she was 5.”
Though Barnes has a new job managing a biofuel project near Liberia, Guanacaste’s capital, he’ll continue to rent at Los Jardines and come back on the weekends, not only for the place but the people.
“It’s a real resort community – resort for the atmosphere, with the fruit trees and ranchos all laid out with a grand plan,” he says. “And community: all nationalities in tune. But then a place like this will bring you in tune.”
Lily puts the majority of residents to shame by being fluent in Spanish; the working language here is English, even for the Ticos.
“I think it’s easier for everyone,” says Mary Lys, the Costa Rican girlfriend of cruise ship musician and owner Terry Quinn, kindly.
The general consensus is that the native Spanish speakers all speak much better English than the other nationalities speak Spanish (“not for want of trying,” Timmons says), and so it’s become the lingua franca.
However, Los Jardines isn’t a North American or European enclave as much as a crosssection of a new cosmopolitan society.
“Come home, close the gate and you feel like you’re in a different country,” says 33-year-old lawyer, Jorge Dengo. “And no, that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a different thing.”
For Dengo, a Tico, finding himself in an English-speaking environment is business as usual, he says.
“It’s increasingly common in Escazú and Santa Ana, and I use English in my daily work,” he says.
Having lived abroad in Switzerland, coexisting with people from different countries and cultures is nothing new to him, and he professes to like it. Security, neighbors and a place that’s well looked after factored into his decision to move into a gated community, and the quiet, the grounds and the quality of the house and its furnishings led him to choose this one.
“It feels like a beach resort,” says Dengo, who, along with his roommate (another lawyer), is possibly the hardest working of the residents, leaving at 9 a.m. and returning at 6:30 p.m. each day, and, as a consequence, after many months, has yet to use the pool.
“I just look at it from my house,” he says, though he is a regular, if generally unlucky, participant at the weekly poker night.
Romances have also blossomed here; there have been two weddings by the pool and, in early October, Residencias Los Jardines gets its first baby, though strictly speaking it will belong to former New York lawyer Brian O’Leary and his wife Andreina.
It’s all very neighborly.
For more information about Residencias Los Jardines, visit www.residenciaslosjardines.com or call 305-3965 or 282-4142, ext. 114 or 101.