OROTINA, Puntarenas – In the park, two older men wearing guayabera shirts sat playing a game of checkers with bottle caps.
The sun beat down hard, but it was cool in the shade, and a breeze stirred the trees. The dry season had already turned the landscape outside the town to brown – miles and miles of empty pasture and fallow farmland.
A green bottle cap jumped a red bottle cap. King me.
The story of a sleepy town converted into heaving commercial and residential mini-metropolis is already a cliché in Costa Rica, yet it appears likely to be repeated once again, this time in the canton of Orotina, population about 16,000.
Located a half-hour’s drive inland from central Pacific boomtown Jacó, Orotina’s dirt roads and little block farm houses belie the millions of dollars worth of property deals going on around them as domestic and foreign developers quietly make their plans.
With a new highway under construction that within less than three years will connect Orotina to San José in a quick 45-minute ride, the town is set to become a major crossroads for the Central Pacific.
And big money is moving in.
Just southwest of the park where the two men sat playing checkers stands the so-called Palacio Municipal – the Municipal Palace, a two-story concrete edifice where Mayor Emilio Rodríguez occupies a Spartan, airconditioned office on the second floor.
A young man with a narrow face and a toothbrush mustache, Rodríguez is just coming up on his one-year anniversary as mayor, but he’s already conversant in real-estate-speak.
Ten years ago, a square meter of dirt in his town cost $60, at the most, he said. Now it’s up over $500, though most buyers are snapping up the pasture land around the town for bargain prices, sometimes bulk rates of less than $1 per square meter.
“It (Orotina) is a strategic point,” Rodríguez said. “Some people say it’s going to become the Liberia of the central Pacific.”
A quick look at a map proves Rodríguez’s point. Similar to Liberia, routes to the rest of the country radiate from Orotina like spokes from a rickety wheel. Jacó is 30 minutes away, as is the port town Puntarenas.
Caldera, another port town, is only a 15-minute drive, and a new port administrator there means expansion will be afoot in the near future. Likewise, a northward route connects Orotina to the Inter-American Highway, giving easy access to the booming tourism scene in Guanacaste.
The only conspicuously absent spoke is the one connecting Orotina to San José.
From San José, the Orotina-bound traveler must make a windy, two-hour, vomit-inducing drive along a two-lane road that encourages hair-raising passing maneuvers.
It regularly jams solid with weekend traffic heading to and from Jacó.
The inconvenience of that route was duly noted in 1977 when the Costa Rican government came up with a plan to lay a highway that would connect San José with Caldera through Orotina.
Countless delays and concession shenanigans later, that construction finally started earlier this month. The so-called San José-Caldera highway is supposed to connect the capital with the Pacific coast.
The only section of that road to be built from scratch is the 39-kilometer stretch between Ciudad Colón and Orotina.
Concessionaire Autopistas del Sol has 30 months to build the highway, after which it will operate the highway for 25 years and collect a $2.70 toll from cars who travel its length, from San José to Caldera.
“What it (will) take from Orotina to here is going to be the same as going from San José to Heredia,” said Eddy Barquero, a San José real estate broker who has done studies on the Orotina market for clients.
‘We’re Very Behind’
Mario Salas bumped his SUV down a dirt road running along a wide open expanse of unused cattle pastures.
“This, within four or five years, is going to change completely,” said Salas, the owner of the only real estate brokerage office in Orotina.
Already, Genesis Developers – the same Costa Rican company responsible for the Forum office parks and numerous condo and hotel developments – has purchased 248 hectares for $4.7 million, with plans to develop the land into condominiums.
Salas said that Korean and Chinese developers had passed through his office looking for land to develop office parks. A group of Israelis have purchased an entire, sweeping hillside, for a little more than $1 million, with plans to develop the land into a small city.
Most of these purchases take place under the radar, with big companies enlisting small names to hide behind in official paperwork as they make their acquisitions. But truth lies in numbers.
Rodríguez, the canton’s mayor, said that in recent years the municipality has been collecting surprisingly large amounts of property tax.
In 2004, the municipality expected to collect $32,200. Instead, it brought in $81,200. By 2007, real estate tax collection was up to $134,800 for one year.
Most of that revenue doesn’t come from annual tax, as the values of property in municipal registries are usually grossly understated and not likely to change from year to year.
The main source, Rodríguez said, is the 1.5% transfer tax when property is bought or sold, and even that gives a foggy picture of the size of transactions, as sellers and buyers often collude to report (and pay taxes on) a lower selling price than the actual one.
The remaining question is whether Orotina will be ready for a development boom. Water shortages, sewage dumping, crowded roads and higher crime have more often than not been the fruits of swift development in Costa Rica.
Rodríguez said the municipality is scrambling to have a zoning plan in place by next year, but acknowledged, “We’re behind.
Salas, a lifelong Orotina resident, turned to selling property six years ago when he left his post as the manager of the local Banco de Costa Rica branch. From his SUV, he looked out onto the rows of dusty vacation houses that the San José upper class is starting to build just outside town.
“Sometimes I imagine how Orotina is going to be in five or 10 years,” he said. “Totally different.”