Letter to the Editor: The story of the Cortez Amarillo, or how a country loses its own land
The Tico Times is proud to be an independent, English-language news source in Costa Rica. Our readers regularly submit editorials and responses to our articles. Send us yours: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, we are featuring a reader story from Elizabeth Aldrich.
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I, like many other gringas, moved to Costa Rica by accident after falling in love with a Tico. Not one month into my time in El Castillo, a small town on the less developed side of Lake Arenal, I was already going to Sergio’s home to meet his parents. He’d invited me to his little sister’s 4th birthday party, and I was so nervous. My Spanish at the time put me at the speaking level of a two-year-old, at best, and his parents’ English was non-existent. But this isn’t about the birthday party—although, if you’re curious what it was like, his Dad showed up with a fifth of Cacique and a lapa verde. This is about a special, yellow tree.
Amidst all the chaos of toddlers running around at a birthday party full of increasingly inebriated adults, Sergio looked at my shy expression and asked if I wanted to sneak away to see his favorite place in El Castillo. We walked across the gravel road that led to his home and down a small hill, and suddenly a magnificent tree came into view. This tree, standing alone with Arenal Volcano as its backdrop, had an electric yellow glow, as if someone had covered it in lemon-colored Christmas lights and plugged it in. He told me he loved this tree, that he’d been coming here regularly since high school to meditate and think. He loved it because the yellow “leaves” that cover the tree and fall to the ground, scattering themselves all around its base, reminded him of photos he’d seen of autumn in other countries. “It’s my dream to see fall somewhere with seasons,” he told me.
The tree, known in Costa Rica as the Cortez Amarillo, isn’t actually covered in yellow leaves but delicate yellow flowers that blossom once each year for only a few days before falling gently to the earth. If you’re lucky, the blossoms will last a few weeks, or you might get a second bloom on a particularly special year. Once they’re all gone, the tree is quite bare.
Sergio and I have now been living here together for four years, and we’ve come back to that tree many times since then, to talk, to think, to watch the volcano. Often you’ll see other people down beneath it taking selfies or family photos on special occasions, like the first day of school. Sometimes you’ll see a group of young folks splitting a 6-pack and enjoying the views.
The tree is actually on private property owned by a foreigner, but I didn’t even realize that for the longest time. There’s nothing else there save what appears to be abandoned stables, and in four years, I’ve never seen a single soul use that land. That’s how it is with a lot of the land here, though. It’s owned by foreigners but sits there empty, pristine and unused. A lot of houses here are like that too—vacations houses big enough to fit two or three typical Costa Rican homes inside of them, sitting empty for 10 months out of the year except for sporadic visits from a housekeeper.
Often when we visited that tree, Sergio and I would sit below it facing the volcano and describe the dream house we would build there if that land was ours. I wanted an infinity pool overlooking the lake, he wanted a rooftop patio. The tree, of course, would stay. The other thing we both agreed on was that we would throw lots of parties and invite the whole pueblo over to take part in the beauty of that little piece of land.
I walked past that yellow tree today, now barren and leafless, and noticed that someone had built a gate closing it off, complete with big metal spikes shooting upwards to prevent people from jumping over it and a “private property” sign. It made me sad, not for myself, but for what I’m afraid might be the future of this town. I’ll leave out my “extreme” views about foreigners who come here just to buy up lots of land, but I will say this: I cannot imagine coming to a foreign country to capitalize off of what you consider to be “cheap” land, because you had the luck to be born in a relatively rich country, and then hoarding the immense gifts that country provided you with to the point where you won’t even share what you don’t use with others. I can’t imagine being anything but wildly generous and giving to a place that gave you the abundance you now have.
El Castillo is still a very small town. There’s tourism, but there are no chains, no foreign-owned resorts, no restaurants that only serve hamburgers and awful imitations of Mexican food. It’s what a lot of people would consider “authentically” Costa Rican. Almost all of the businesses are locally owned. But it’s growing. Since I came here four years ago, buses finally started servicing the area, then the road into town was paved, then the road up to the area where the yellow tree stands was paved, a new restaurant opened, a new bar opened, and now, there’s talk of the first chain hotel coming here. As of a few weeks ago, Interbus officially does pick-ups and drop-offs in El Castillo.
Many of these have been fantastic, life-altering developments. The bus routes and paved roads have increased accessibility and made it easier for locals, most of whom don’t have cars, to make necessary trips into town. The increase in interest from tourists who like to get “off the beaten path” is generally seen as positive, too, as it brings in more business for the locally-owned hotels and restaurants in the area.
But what happens when tourism balloons and foreign investors notice the money-making potential this land has? What happens when land prices skyrocket? A lot of young people here want to buy the land in their hometown while they still can, perhaps to build houses for their future children or start their own hotels and tour offices. But they need time to save up the money, and time is running out.
I’ve heard Jacó, Costa Rica’s infamous resort city, was once a quiet village with unpaved roads, perhaps a coastal version of El Castillo. As the story goes, first came the backpackers, then came the surfers, then came the tour groups, then came the Baby Boomers looking for places to retire where they could get more bang for their buck. Suddenly, now that foreigners with money had arrived, Jacó started to develop rapidly. Roads were paved, which I’m sure many Costa Ricans appreciated, but soon thereafter, those roads no longer belonged to Ticos. As a Costa Rican who hails from Jacó recently told me, first the developers cleared out the land along the coast. Then they pushed inland a block and bought up all the property from Costa Ricans who agreed to sacrifice their ocean views for a boost in financial mobility. Then they pushed inward another block, and then another, steadily pushing Costa Ricans back into the hills and away from the beach to clear space for foreigners. Now if you go to Jacó, you’ll barely find any Tico families who own land along the beach or in the town’s center.
These people made the decision to sell. But would they have done it all over again, in hindsight, knowing how the price of land would skyrocket? Did they realize, at the time, that once you sell, you can never go back? That land can never belong to you again. The thing is, long-run financial decisions are a privilege of the wealthy.
What I’m afraid I’m watching here in El Castillo is the story of how, little by little, a country loses its own land.
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