For a Montanan in Costa Rica, its deja-vu all over again


T.J. Gilles

Another cruise ship arrives in Costa Rica.

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica—Back the 1990s in Montana, I noticed a bumper sticker that was at once prophetic, ominous and funny:


Ranches that generations of locals had lusted for passed into the well-greased palms of better-heeled outlanders, quaint brick Main Street storefronts became bistros and boutiques. Trust-funders, industrialists and dot-com wunderkinds migrated—for at least part of the year—to mingle with stars of the big and small screens in the Paradise Valley.

Private airstrips and copter pads dotted the Rocky Mountain Front and even the semi-badlands of Eastern Montana.

“Don’t fence me out” became a tin-horn alley lament for local sportsmen suddenly denied access to sacred ancestral happy hunting and fishing grounds.

Today, two of Montana’s three congressional members have California (and military) roots and ties. Campaign checks not provided by front organizations for the Kansas-based Koch Bros. (since the 1980s, among Montana’s biggest landowners, with the Matador Ranch providing access to federal lands) most likely are written on California banks.

To paraphrase Charles M. Russell, “It was a good land once, but it got ruint.”

So for a lifelong Montanan today in Central America, it’s like deja-vu all over again as rich gringos are in on the next big land rush.

“It’s all for sale,” is a common refrain.

Having coffee with an obvious norteamericano in San Vito near the southern border with Panama, we are offered a tour of several estates.

Coming back from shopping in Panama with stacks of goods (prices about half what they are in Costa Rica, kind of like Wyomingites shopping in Billing), one is offered a ride back to town—provided we see a couple of available properties along the way.

Not quite like Montana’s homestead era of a century ago, when land sharks greeted every train unloading along the Hi-Line. If you couldn’t locate a locator, “just walk down the street and look like a sucker.”

But close.

American expatriates cringe at the stereotypical label, “rich gringos,” but it is all relative. In Costa Rica the annual per-capita income is below $10,000—about one-third of that of even lowly Montana, which frequently finds itself among the Bottom Ten states as far as money goes.

I well recall what might be termed the looting of Montana back in the 1970s and ’80s. These barbarians came to the gates of farm auctions, estate sales, broke-down palaces like Butte or any dried-up prairie town.

Like battlefield scavengers in the Civil War or entrepreneurs looking for gold fillings among the ashes in Nazi concentration camps, these people found easy gleanings in what was once the Treasure State.

Costa Rica is a wonderful, beautiful, friendly country—and a den of thieves. Locks on the gates, bars on the windows, tall fences topped with broken glass or razor wire—motorcycles wheeled into the house before dark.

Welcome to Paradise.

I know a couple (from California, of course) who, if they must leave the house together, hire someone to house-sit, even if they are only going to town for groceries or dinner.

I stayed with one such couple at a finca they had let “grow back” to jungle from rows of coffee. The trails were nice and extensive but if I chose to walk to town I had to get the owners to unlock the gate and hope my cell phone still had a charge on my return so they could open it up again.

Even in the land of eternal spring, it ain’t all roses and orquideas. Near the beaches of Pacific Southern Zone, dozens of unfinished gaping gated condo communities lie mute and abandoned. Row after row of townhouses sit, abandonados reminiscent of when the big banana companies exhausted the soil or succumbed to disease and moved on.

Kind of like logging or mining back in Montana. When I lived in Sabalito, near the southern border with Panama, old-timers used to say, “It’s one-third of what it was,” which is exactly what old-timers a generation or two ago used to say about White Sulphur Springs—or Broadview, Lavina, Reed Point, Harlowton, Chester, Younameit in Montana.

I am living now in a tourist town where English is spoken (by European and gringo tourists) and prices are inflated both by tourists and the fact that we are at the end of a bad mountain road (in a country legendary for its bad roads) where semis dare not tread and it takes an hour to cover the final 17 kilometers (about 10 miles).

As I walked down the street today I noticed posters for yoga, Zumba, a couple of micro-breweries and a handicap-accessible vegetarian restaurant.


And at the bakery today, I happened to notice that the prices are now listed in both colones and dollars.

I love when Americans in America fume when making a call and having to “Press 1” for English.

At least so far in Costa Rica, we still have to “Press 2.”

Lifelong Montanan T.J. Gilles has retired to Costa Rica, where his efforts to change the tourism slogan to “El Mas Violento Paraiso” (the most violent paradise) have yet to bear fruit.

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