San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Living in 'The Hole'

Carlos’ two young children run in circles, playing tag on a path that winds through one of Costa Rica’s poorest neighborhoods. On one side of the path flows a river contaminated by sewage. Ramshackle homes droop down an embankment on the other.

Most of the homes lack doors and windows, revealing disheveled interiors. Carlos’ home is the last in the long line of dwellings. When visitors come, Carlos’ family members pour out to say hello, including his wife, María, his mother, his brother, his in-laws and numerous nieces and nephews. “Welcome to our home,” María says.

María and Carlos, who requested that their last names be withheld for safety reasons, have lived in “El Hueco” the past 14 years. That’s the name of their neighborhood. The hole.

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A slum that about 100 people consider home, El Hueco lies behind Jacó’s all-inclusive resorts, casinos and international restaurants. It’s the antithesis of the touristy enclave. But like the infamous beach town, El Hueco’s own prosperity is dependent on the tourism business.

“Jacó doesn’t produce anything,” Carlos said. “If there wasn’t tourism, we wouldn’t have jobs.”

Spending time with Carlos and María is an education on life in the other Costa Rica. On a budget of just $480 a month, María and Carlos make it work.  

The single room that shelters the couple and their two children is only about 300 square feet. Not an inch lacks purpose. The perimeter of the cramped space is lined with the family’s possessions, and so is the kitchen. The bathroom, essentially a toilet behind a makeshift wall, sits about three feet away from a few cots huddled together in the corner.

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Smiling family photos cover the walls, as do school pictures of the oldest child – a great source of pride. Not many in the neighborhood have the chance to hang such adornments.

In El Hueco, even an elementary education is considered a luxury. School itself is free, but uniforms and school bus rides are not, meaning many adults in the neighborhood cannot afford to have their children transported to or dressed for school. To decrease costs, some parents rotate their children in and out of school, allowing them to share one uniform. 

María has noticed that many of the community’s children run around the neighborhood when they should be attending high school. “This is not a place for minors,” she said. “Their minds are like sponges, and they soak up all the bad influences.”

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Carlos and María can afford to send their children to school because Carlos works 12 hours a day, six days a week as a security guard for a prominent hotel in downtown Jacó. He gets Mondays off.

In her position as a cook in another hotel in Jacó, María only works on weekend shifts during low season. High season also has its peaks and valleys, though. María says she is grateful for the work, and even more so for a recent raise. Recently, her hourly wage increased from ₡800 to ₡1,200 per hour.

María’s new wage is in line with the Costa Rican minimum wage for non-skilled workers in the tourism industry, and it adds up to a daily rate of just under $17, based on an eight-hour work day. In Nicaragua, where María and Carlos are from, their salaries would be at most half of that, María points out.     

Carlos provides the lion’s share of the household income, and every penny is spent with purpose. After laying out $140 for electricity, $88 for the school bus ($2 per day) and $240 for food, just $12 of savings remains from their monthly income.

With no financial wiggle room, the family and many other residents of El Hueco sometimes ask for money from tourists and locals. María said she’s embarrassed about having to do so, but she also emphasized the necessity.

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The municipality of Garabito is also an occasional source of extra income. Home to about 22,000 people and encompassing Jacó and Herradura, the municipality works closely with antipoverty programs, such as Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social (IMAS), which is funded by the national government. The organization helps poor children get an education. It also provides aid to families in times of crisis. A new community center under development will also provide free afterschool programs.

The central issue, according to Garabito Deputy Mayor Karla Gutiérrez, is volume. With the tourism in Jacó creating job possibilities, people continue to arrive in search of opportunities. “If we take out two people, six will enter. The problem is there’s no control,” she said.

Because El Hueco is one of three similar communities in the area – Cristo Rey, located in nearby Herradura, is the second largest – the issue doesn’t end with finding alternative housing for those in El Hueco. Each time one family leaves, there’s a race to claim the vacancy.

“[Residents] call family members and tell them they’ve found housing and that they can all live together,” Gutiérrez said. “[El Hueco] is used as housing for entire families, not just individuals.”

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Despite the challenges, Carlos and María consider themselves lucky – they know things could be worse.

“We live in poverty,” Carlos said, “but we make it work.”

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