San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hotel Costa Rica: Fleeing the American dream

Jan. 20, 2005, the day George W. Bush was sworn in for his second term, I and 5 million of my closest friends, neighbors and other disenchanted U.S. citizens jammed airport lounges across the land, fleeing the American Dream, scuttling away from a perceived sinking ship with George W. at the helm. As our president declared war on everybody who wasn’t wearing Levis and driving Chevys, and with the price of virtually everything U.S. going through the roof, our lives financed to the limit, we grabbed our gold American Express card and headed for greener pastures.

Whether aware of it or not, Bush was now responsible for the greatest international real estate boom ever witnessed. Backwater, mosquito coasts from Mexico to Morocco were experiencing a flood of disillusioned, stinking-rich Gringos looking for their tropical bargain. The rush was on, and every palm tree in every banana republic soon sprouted a “Se vende” sign – YES! For sale! Let’s make a deal.


Raúl’s reptilian eyes constantly darted from opportunity to escape. His thin black hair, greased back into a toxic wave, cascaded onto a stained collar, his sandblasted complexion, crisscrossed with slashes, you had no desire to know about. You had the distinct feeling you would be killed in a drive-by hail of gunfire simply conversing with Raúl. Annihilation by association – so why even take the risk?

Because Raúl was a fixer. In every tropical town, on every corner, is a fixer, usually a jumpy young male with a quick smile, a quicker mind and an eye for opportunity. A fixer made things happen. A fixer got things – anything.

And Raúl was the best. If you needed anything, from a Chinese orphan to a rocket launcher, Raúl could get it.

His services were well-known in Ojochal, the small pocket of international expats on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast where I’d built my home, and over the course of my residence there, I had used Raúl more than once. Raúl knew where everything in Costa Rica was.

And, for all his slippery exterior, Raúl was the most trustworthy man I had ever met. He always delivered.

So, once our Hotel Costa Rica neared completion, and I had persuaded my nervous family to leave their sterile comforts behind and follow me to the steaming jungle, I called Raúl for the three items the Gringo needs for survival: a black 4×4, a gun and a Rottweiler.

“If Costa Rica is so safe, why do we need this stuff?” my wife enquired.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” I replied, my voice accidentally squeaking like Alvin the chipmunk’s.

Actually, in all my travels in Costa Rica, the most disturbing event thus far had been an air-conditioning malfunction.

The only thing the pilgrim Gringo really needed was a fresh Visa card and some SPF 500 sunscreen.

We had arrived in San José the night before and were immersed in our first tropical buffet breakfast at the Meliá pool bar when Raúl appeared. His presence added an anxious air to the Hawaiian-shirted atmosphere. Nikons and laptops suddenly disappeared, and our fellow travelers eased uncomfortably away.

He gave me a greasy hug, whereupon I quickly checked my wallet and, much to my wife’s dismay, invited him to join us.

“All is ready, my friend,” he said, grinning, the morning sun ricocheting off a gold tooth.

“You da man!” I replied, knuckle-butting Raúl. Someone’s Super Bowl ring left a sizable divot in my two middle fingers.

In front of the elegant Meliá, a small detachment of bellmen stood guard over an idling black Isuzu Rodeo. Its blacked-out windows reflected their nervous faces.

Huge tires held the quivering 4×4 two feet off the pavement. Several antennae shuddered in the humid air. A large-caliber bullet hole showed in the driver-side door.

“Only driven by a little old lady to the beach,” Raúl said, still grinning.

“What happened to her?” asked my 14-year-old son, Christopher, his finger jammed in the suspicious hole.

“She suddenly took sick … had to sell it … in a hurry …” Raúl’s black eyes darted about the bellmen.

“This looks like some drug dealer’s car to me,” offered my wife.

“All the better,” offered Raúl. “Then people leave you alone.”

I opened the door. From front to back, floor to ceiling, were stacked built-in speakers. It looked like a mobile Grateful Dead concert. From a gaping hole in the dash, dozens of assorted wires hung limp.

“So, where’s the stereo? And the radios?”

“Uh, someone grabbed the stereo. And the radios.”

“Well I guess not everybody leaves you alone then?”

A tiny whine emitted from a pineapple box on the back seat. My 8-year-old daughter, Alex, unceremoniously tore off the top and peered in.

“Be careful!” yelled my wife, Vicki.

“Oh,” cooed Alex. “He’s precious!”

“Precious?” I glared at Raúl. “Not exactly the word I had in mind when ordering a Rottweiler.”

Alex now produced a wriggling, squirming, tiny replica of an attack dog.

“Better to get them young, so they know their family,” Raúl offered. “You know, so he doesn’t eat your children.”

“Great,” muttered Vicki. “Just wonderful.”

“Did you ask to see the parents?” I enquired. Every dog in Costa Rica has the markings of a Rottweiler; many, however, never get bigger than the one now licking my daughter’s face.

“They were unfortunately both at international dog shows,” Raúl stated with a perfectly straight face.

“OK, how about the gun?”

Raúl retrieved a small case from the glove box and placed it in my hand.

“It’s precious!” squealed Alex.

Inside a tiny leather case was a pistol that looked like it belonged in the Barbie collection.

“Raúl … would you go up against a gang of crack-addled Colombian thieves and their AK-47s with this?”

“Don’t you worry, Mister Steve. This is a very dangerous little gun.”

“Dangerous? How? You gonna drop it in someone’s drink? Maybe they choke on it?”

“Well, at least it was cheap, only $75, and no serial numbers, so after you kill somebody you just throw it away.”

“Great,” my wife was muttering. “Just wonderful. I want to go home. NOW.”

We were ready. Ready to carve a new beginning in a new land. Ready to re-evaluate all our priorities. Forget going down with America, forget Big Mac, HDTV and traffic, sterilized Handi Wipes and iPhones. Life was short, and we would uncover what really mattered: family, smog-free sunsets, actual conversations … and survival.

To be continued. U.S. writer and former humor columnist Steve Church owns El Castillo hotel and villa on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast (

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