By Vicki Barnes
imageThe economy in Costa Rica is dependent on the tourists who are flocking here. Most of the visitors are Americans, plopping down dollars for a little time in paradise.

Are we Americans, with more expendable income than the average Tico, making it harder for the locals to survive? While the officials keep encouraging more visitors to come the locals will tell you that they are finding it harder to make ends meet.

We told some locals that we noticed the prices were up quite a bit from our last visit two years ago. “Tell me about it,” one young woman, a server at a local restaurant, said. She said she had to move farther from the touristy area in order to afford her rent, which makes for a more difficult commute.

Statistically speaking, the cost of living in Costa Rica has risen nearly 13 percent in the last two years, according to the country’s labor ministry (Ministerio del Trabajo).

While it is far less expensive to live in Costa Rica than in the US, the locals are not earning nearly what Americans do but shop at the same stores. According to the Ministerio del Trabajo, a minimum wage worker in Costa Rica makes about $5,400 a year.

That money doesn’t stretch very far when you are paying $2.15 for a kilo of rice, $6 for a kilo of cheeses 96 cents for a head of lettuce. Even cigarettes are $2.45 a pack – pretty cheap by US standards – is tough for those with that particular vice.

I called to enquire about an apartment for rent. I pulled the number off a handmade sign at the bus stop in Alajuela, just outside the capitol, within view of the airport. I could pay $450 a month for a 200 square foot dorm style room…electric and water included. Not a bad deal, even for a nomad on a budget, but for a hard working Tico bringing in the minimum wage, there is nothing…not a single colone…left for anything else.

When we gringos come in and pay these prices, it drives the cost up for the locals.

Of course, it’s not just Americans visiting and spending in Costa Rica. Tourists come from all over the world to take in the wonderous beauty, good food and the happiness of the people of Costa Rica.

And, the tourists’ money has transformed the country in good ways as well. The Costa Rican portion of the Central American International Highway is a fine, paved road. Many dirt roads have been paved with gravel making them far more pleasant to drive. Costa Rican children, for the most part, receive a fine education in sturdy, though basic, facilities in every community. The service jobs, though difficult and often thankless, are far better than the fishing and farming jobs that were the norm before the tourists discovered their country.

The Costa Rican people and the government understand the importance of the natural beauty of their home. An emphasis has been put on preservation. Eco-tourism is a vital part of their economy. It is probably hard to turn down foreign investors who would like to exploit it.

I realize that we, too, are part of the problem while we take advantage of their hospitality and I hope we are able to find balance with the people in this country.