Trouble in Costa Rica’s eco-paradise as home buyers heat up the market

At Playa Grande Surf Camp on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, visitors — including New York bankers and Australian wedding planners, plus a handful of young backpackers you might expect more easily — enjoy natural beauty for which the country is famous.

“Everyone gets up early to do yoga and surf, then they’re back on the beach at 6 p.m. to watch the sunset. Teenagers will tell you about the turtles that breed there and collect rubbish. Here people take wildlife very seriously, and it touches you,” says Andrea Forder, 48, who divides her time between her home in London and the surf hostel she owns with her American husband, Steve. Wilgus, on the Nicoya Peninsula in the Hook. Guanacaste region.

It is a region that is one of the oldest in the world. Costa Ricans – or Ticos – attribute their longevity to pura vidaa versatile phrase that can be thrown into conversation to mean hello, goodbye, no problem, or thank you, but essentially encapsulates a love of the simple pleasures of life in a place where the temperature hovers around a constant 30 C all day. ‘year.

Pioneering environmental awareness and preservation has been a cornerstone of Costa Rica’s development since the 1970s – and particularly over the past decade. The Central American country is now almost entirely powered by renewable sources and aims to be the first carbon neutral country in the world. Recently on Twitter, actor and eco-warrior Leonardo DiCaprio, a regular visitor to Costa Rica, praised President Carlos Alvarado Quesada for expanding marine protection around Cocos Island, a breeding ground for humpback whales, to an area “larger than New York State”. ”. This decision helps the country achieve its goal of protecting 30% of its forests and marine resources.

The Nicoya Peninsula in the Guanacaste region. The coast has seen an increase in real estate demand from foreign and domestic buyers during the pandemic © Hemis / Alamy

With growing demand from overseas buyers (primarily from the US and Canada) seeking a new life in this eco-paradise during the pandemic, local real estate agents have become well-versed in talking about the green credentials of the Costa Rica. “It’s one of the most biologically intense places in the world,” says Robert F Davey, owner of Costa Rica Resort & Estate Properties.

“I recently traveled from my home near the beach in Guanacaste to the Arenal Rainforest area with my son and we were visited by howler and white-faced monkeys, we saw deer, a pizote and in the mountains, scarlet macaws and toucans – all living together as if it were normal to be surrounded by humans.

But Guanacaste’s growing popularity with foreigners and Costa Rican city dwellers — who have been heading to the country’s coast and tropical wilderness over the past two years — is creating its own problems, both for its surroundings and for its real estate market.

María, who declined to give her real name, is a choreographer and actress who lives in the capital, San José, but usually drives a few hours on weekends to spend time on the beach. “We were looking to buy land in Nosara on the coast at the start of the pandemic which cost $420,000. Now it sells for $930,000,” she says. “When the borders were closed during the pandemic, many young adults and families with children left San José to go to the beach. Once the borders reopened, they were joined by large numbers of foreigners who bought up beach land and built houses for short rentals.

Although there is no official source of property data in Costa Rica, Oliver Gamble, 46, who ran a residential property renovation business in London before moving with his Costa Rican wife to Santa Teresa in 2015 , says ‘Covid escapees’ helped double house prices in six months last year. “Almost all the beaches have been developed by expats, and Santa Teresa is mostly made up of foreigners, from all over the world. Properties that have been unsold for years have been resold and resold in a real estate frenzy.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  Environmental awareness and preservation has been a cornerstone of Costa Rica's development since the 1970s

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Environmental awareness and preservation has been a cornerstone of Costa Rica’s development since the 1970s © Carver Mostardi / Alamy

Davey talks about the current “construction boom,” particularly on the luxury side for new gated communities and branded resorts, including the Four Seasons’ Peninsula Papagayo, where properties cost up to $25 million. It is also marketing actor Mel Gibson’s beachfront estate, Hacienda Barrigona in Nicoya, set in 400 acres of private jungle and with a beach helipad, for $29.75 million.

While Gibson’s Rainforest House might be the extreme, this kind of eco-friendly tropical retreat is what people come to Costa Rica for. It’s epitomized by the likes of Kasiiya Papagayo, a wooden, solar-powered resort nestled in the rainforest overlooking an unspoilt stretch of coastline near Matapalo. Its construction was designed to do as little damage as possible. “The idea of ​​not cutting down a single tree for the project was more ambitious than the regulations required, but we achieved it,” says Reda Amalou of the hotel’s architect, AW2.

Other developments are less conscientious. Although there are strict building codes in Costa Rica and the planning process is “well organized”, says Gamble – who built two homes in Santa Teresa and received planning permission within a month – there are obvious violations of environmental rules. “Many luxury hotels still pump sewage into the ocean, causing beaches to close due to water contamination,” he says. “Slowly this is being dealt with, but there are a lot of unsavory characters in this arena. It doesn’t help that the local planning offices are poorly equipped, so there is a lot of illegal activity, like building without planning or burn rainforest to improve view.

The first expats in Costa Rica, “yogis and surfers,” he says, “are greener than most.” But more recent arrivals are different. “They have big cars and a big air-conditioned house,” he says. “Residents don’t see any public spending on infrastructure and have started complaining.”

In 2017, Dawn Banks moved from Brighton to the laid-back seaside town of Potrero, popular with foreigners thanks to its international schools and proximity to Liberia International Airport. She describes the joys, for her teenage children, of days filled with barbecues on the beach and surf trips and, for her son, of going to school in swimming shorts and without shoes.

Capuchin monkeys in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkeys in Guanacaste. Strict rules govern the destruction of wildlife habitats, but some developments still break the rules © Bill Jensen Greenwater Photography / Alamy

The Banks family owns and operates the eco-hotel Libelula Lounge and Lodgings, which they bought and expanded for around $800,000. “We’re committed to sustainability,” Banks says, but increasingly feels like “a little oasis in a developing region,” she says. “More often than not, people strip plots of all their trees to clear spaces for their homes, and there are issues with the destruction of wildlife habitats, especially monkeys.”

One of the ways local authorities try to curb development, she says, is by denying water permits. Water shortages and water rationing are common in Guanacaste, and you can only get a building permit if you have an authorized water source. If you need to drill a well on your property, it can take up to four years to get the go-ahead.

While waiting to build or find the right property, many foreigners like Nosara and Santa Teresa take on long-term rentals — “and that becomes a problem for the locals,” says María. “These areas become a bubble, like New York and Los Angeles, and that’s not viable at all for nationals or locals.” In some areas, including Santa Teresa, she adds, there is “growing tension” between locals and “certain divided communities of foreigners who do not integrate well”.

Rising prices are even causing some recent immigrants to reconsider their moves, Gamble says. “A friend of mine is moving to the United States because the rental prices here are too high.”

Costa Rica can be reputed as an ecological paradise. But with increasing demand from overseas buyers and developers, some are concerned about the sustainability of it all.

What you can buy. . .

A new whitewashed house with tropical gardens in Santa Cruz, Guanacaste

Santa Cruz, Guanacaste, $890,000 A brand new three bedroom home in Tamarindo on the North West Coast. Accommodation comprises a master bedroom suite on the ground floor with two additional en-suite bedrooms on the first floor. There is also a wraparound covered terrace. For sale at Sotheby’s International Realty.

A house with a pool and lush landscaping in Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Uvita, Puntarenas, $2.79 million A 10 acre estate on the south Pacific coast near the town of Uvita. The property has a total of 10 bedrooms and eight bathrooms, including a separate guest house. There are also terraces, a swimming pool and a helipad. For sale with Luxury Portfolio/LX Costa Rica.

An oceanfront home on a promontory in Flamingo, Guanacaste, with palm trees in the background

Playa Flamingo, Guanacaste, $7.9 million A villa with 1,200 m² of living space on a promontory near Playa Flamingo, within swimming distance of Isla Plata. The architect house is on 1.25 acres including a swimming pool and landscaped gardens. For sale with Costa Rica Resort & Estate Properties/Costa Rica Christie’s.

Purchase guide

  • Foreigners have the same rights and obligations as Costa Ricans when buying property, but beware of water access in beach areas and the intricacies of concession rights when buying less 200 meters from the beach.

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