San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hotel Costa Rica: Come on down!

C’mon down!” our contractor had said. “Your beautiful hotel is finished! Ready to move in!”

We now stood with him staring at the huge concrete hulk.

“But Bismarck, where are the doors?”

“And the windows?” asked my wife.

“And the driveway?” asked my son.

“And the lights?” asked my daughter.

“Very close,” he said, grinning. “We are very close now. I simply need the last amount you owe me and we will finish it up.”

“But I only owe you a few bucks and it looks like there is months’ worth of work to do here.”

“No, no, no, no, most everything is paid for, it just needs to be delivered. Pay me and it will be delivered.”

“Deliver it and I will pay you, then,” I countered. I was becoming a real hard-ass.

I really found no fault of the contractor; I was in fact tickled that he had made it this far. Being my second project with different contractors, this apparently was the Costa Rican way. My first contractor called to say, “C’mon down, it is done,” when in fact there was no kitchen, bathroom, windows or plumbing. Apparently the Costa Rican contractor assumes the Gringo owner likes finishing a project just the way he likes it. Kind of hands-on building – your own.

Perhaps it is simply too hot to argue. Perhaps you know it wouldn’t make any difference to argue anyway.

We all remained friends. Pura vida, amigo.

Hotel Costa Rica had taken two years. One year for the permits alone. Thirteen different signatures and stamps were required for the building permit itself. Everyone from the tourism minister to the environment minister, the mayor, the water guy, the local sheriff, engineers, dirt guys, tree guys, pool guys. Is there anybody in Ojochal without a stamp? The water stamp, after a long wait, was finally obtained by sneaking into the water guy’s house one night, finding the stamp and stamping it ourselves – confessing the next day. Each stamp had to be coerced from the official holder of the stamp. Not one bribe was paid, but “favors” were requested and granted until I owed a “favor” to half the Southern Zone.

“Is this normal?” I asked.

“Happens all the time,” I was assured. “Relax.”

The construction itself took a year, with a crew of 32 men pouring nearly 1,000 yards of concrete in wheelbarrows, at times grinding to a complete stop for no apparent reason.

“What the hell’s wrong here?” I would bellow on my frequent visits, sweat pouring from my sun-roasted fat.

“Where’s the tile? Where’s the roof?”

“The truck is broken,” someone would say. “Relax, Steve.”

“What truck?” I’d scream.

“José’s truck. The transmission is out.”

“Well, let’s get another truck!”

Everyone would look at each other like this was just about the dumbest idea they had ever heard.

“But this is José’s job. He was hired to get the material for your job.” Relax, Steve.


In October it started to rain. The mes triste – the “sad month,” they call it. What’s sad about two feet of rain in 24 hours? What’s sad about all the snakes and other reptiles drowning in their holes, so now they are huddled under the feet of every fat Gringo, trying to get dry. You need a snorkel to get to the car. This isn’t sad; this is berserk. Mes berserk.

The entire crew crawled under a sheet of black plastic, opened small Tupperware containers of gallo pinto and proceeded to have lunch – for two weeks.

I’d try to start a conversation in the din of the deluge.

“So, you guys ever get tired of gallo pinto?”


“So, do you guys think you’ll ever go back to work?”

“No. It’s raining.”

“When does it quit raining?”

“In about six weeks. Relax, Steve.”

“So, why don’t you go home? Come back in six weeks?”

“We can’t. We’re your crew. Relax.”

The Gringo has a lot to learn south of the border about the progression of things. One thing he quickly learns is that it is futile to introduce the Gringo “let’s get ’er done!” to the Latin “poco a poco.” You have two choices: adapt, or die of a burst heart in a puddle of sweat.

But finally the contractor had called with the good news. “C’mon down! Your beautiful hotel is ready!”

I now walked with him to the edge of the lot staring out over the voracious jungle. A brilliant yellow, smallish woodpecker landed on a tree trunk in front of us and started hammering away at the worm-eaten wood. Suddenly a high-pitched whine like an incoming missile whistled past our heads, and the woodpecker exploded into what looked like a fireworks of yellow feathers. From the cloud of feathers a laughing falcon swooped away, cackling to itself, limp woodpecker clenched in its claws.

“Welcome to Costa Rica!” my contractor said.

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

Comments are closed.