Expat Prepper Diary: Surviving A Home Invasion In Costa Rica

When I first moved to Costa Rica (they told me it was the “Switzerland of Latin America”) I was surprised to find that everyone lived behind razor wire fences, gates and iron doors. Every window had bars. Every door had deadbolts.

I rented a small townhouse in a middle class neighborhood. I had virtually no furniture, except for a cheap (cheap!) sofa, a mattress that was on the floor (I didn’t even have a bed, yet!), a camping chair, a TV and a card table. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay there, so I didn’t want to invest a lot of money in furniture and then have to leave.

When I brought the TV home, it worked for about an hour and then shorted out. (Probably more a fault of the crap electrical wiring in CR than the TV). Regardless, I took it back to the store for a repair but still had the empty box sitting in the middle of my also-empty living room.

I had bought a bad ass Rottweiler I named Einstein about a week earlier. But even as a professional dog-man, Einstein was more hassle than he was worth, so I returned him to the breeder, probably a bad decision on my part in hindsight.

Two days later I was upstairs lying on my mattress doped out of my head on migraine meds. I had every light in the house on and Einstein’s giant dinosaur bone was still on the welcome mat out front. (Out front was a patio enclosed with iron bars and a deadbolted gate door with razor wire up top).

It was 7 pm and across the street some neighbors were having a party for their kids.

In my half-awake stupor, I heard a car pull up, fast. It sounded like maybe they bumped into the gate out front or perhaps the neighbor’s gate. I continued my migraine trip, figuring I’d check it out in the morning.

Then I heard another, “Bang!” and this time I knew somebody was in my house!!

I hadn’t been in-country long enough to get a gun permit but I did have the forsense to buy a machete. I grabbed the machete and started to run downstairs. Then I stopped, realizing that if they saw a crazy gringo running at them with a machete, they’d just shoot me if they had a gun.

I ran back upstairs and crouched behind the door, ready to chop anybody in half before they could shoot me.

As it turns out, they were cowards and when they first heard me running down the stairs, they turned and ran out. Or perhaps they just saw the empty TV box and ran. I’m not sure.

Neighbors called the police for me but it took them 3 1/2 hours to show up. Literally 3 1/2 hours.

Turns out the crooks pulled up fast in front of the gate door, drilled out the lock and kicked it open. Then they drilled out the lock of my front door and kicked that one open, too.

I was doing a lot of kicking, too… kicking myself for getting rid of Old Einstein.

The next day I moved to an upper class neighborhood that had a gated complex with a 24/7 armed guard. Eventually I left the “Switzerland of Latin America” because it was too dangerous. And I later found out that some crooks paid off the guard and robbed my neighbors at the new place, too.

Hopefully the U.S. won’t get as bad as Costa Rica. The Ticos pretty much won’t leave the house unless somebody (like a maid or an uncle) is at the house all the time. Most people are surprised when they hear me say that because they’ve been to Costa Rica on vacation and had a wonderful time. But dig deeper… talk to the people who aren’t trying to sell you something or who haven’t invested every dime they own and are self-deluding themselves about the security situation… and you’ll hear a whole different story.

I’ve heard all of the excuses and they usually start and end with, “Crime happens everywhere.”

Yeah, that may be true. But isn’t it interesting that they don’t let the embassy people in San Jose, Costa Rica walk around at night… even in the “Beverly Hills” of Costa Rica? By comparison, the State department doesn’t have a problem with it’s workers walking around in North Bogota, Colombia (I’m not kidding!) … which should tell you a little bit about the security situation in Costa Rica.

  1. True! I was in Costa Rica five times and finally, last year, decided to stay five months in Playas del Coco and to buy property there – in spite of the fact that I was attacked with a knife the year before, leaving an eight inch knife cut around my middle (‘Crime happens everywhere!???”). The dream of a house faded fast, mostly because of lacking security. There are basically two choices: 1. Live in a fully gated Expat community like in an American suburb (I don’t see the point!) or 2. Buy a property outside of gated communities. The second choice required a lifestyle in a cage – surrounded by iron bars and razor wires and basically hiring a full time maid or security guard to stay in the house whenever I was absent or traveling. I can’t live in a cage… I value light filled rooms and views that are unobstructed by iron bars and razor wire… One of the houses I looked at obviously had been broken into at least twice – the skylight cut out and also the mosquito screen on a roof top window had a square hole in it. It’s French owners were desperate to sell. Also, I suspect that the house had already acquired a squatter problem – when that happens, under CR law it’s almost impossible to get the squatters out. Security is a huge issue. I feel it’s time to set the record straight. Her’s why – and this is only one example:

    Over a period of five months I intensively researched CR real estate laws. These differ substantially from US and Europe. My German friend bought, paid for land and built a house fifteen years ago. All of his assets were invested in that property. Some time ago he found that he did not own the property. His notary had not quite completed the real estate transaction within the required three months. The person who registered the property within the three months, after he had already paid for it, owns it now, even though he had not invested one red cent into the place. Just imagine what can occur if the notary happens to have a close friend or relative, shares the information with them and then drags his feet a little beyond the limitation! When it comes to home invasions you can only pray that the maid or security guard you hire are honest: They may be conveniently absent from the place when their friend or cousin arranges for a quick break-in. None of the web sites touting the virtues of a Costa Rican expat life realistically and honestly address this major issue. Why? Very simple – anyone can work as a realtor without any qualification. The owners of these web sites have one interest only: To sell real estate at inflated prices to unsuspecting North Americans.

    House Number Two looked appealing, but lacked the iron bars and razor wires around the 1000 square meter property. I was advised to install this (at great expense) and keep three Rottweilers in the yard. Problem: What to do with the Rottweilers while I was traveling?

    Regarding notaries and lawyers in CR: I was told by long term residents that CR has “…about seventeen thousand lawyers and notaries – and only one of them is trustworthy…” Good luck finding one – the same goes for realtors.

    Like me, other Canadians had been to CR five times and finally bought a condo. The cost of furnishings: 20,000.00. One year later they sold everything to return to Canada at a substantial financial loss.

    Thank God that I did not invest in property or one of the high priced old cars. As someone pointed out, Ticos have little sense of responsibility. I would carry that further: Ticos have absolutely NO sense of responsibility. As charming as this sense of ‘the-devil-may-care’ attitude may seem at first glance, it gets downright annoying in real life. Examples: The water doesn’t work for two days and then comes back with a vengeance. Your place gets flooded by a burst pipe and all of your priceless possessions, including your documents, electrical wiring for your computers etc are under water.- a dangerous situation. According to the Costa Rican security guard who doubles as a maintenance man: “Why should I help? I didn’t make the water – God did it.” Add to the irresponsibility a haven for international pedophiles – yes, the ugly old North Americans with twelve year old children on the backs of their motorcycles – drug infestation and the associated crime, dirt and grime, Hell’s Angels – and CR paradise is lost!

    As for the two alternatives between North American style suburbia in gated communities on one hand and the other living Tico style in a house on the other, I found that there were considerable differences between the two groups. The latter, while undoubtedly more colourful, attracted a group of expats that clearly were Undesirables in their North American home countries, with quite a few having outstanding arrest warrants. The rest were weirdos in their own rights – hardly the right company for me!

    What bothers me very much is the words of a poorly paid Costa Rica teacher whose children scratch up (borrow, steal) enough money for the bus rides to a brothel frequented by ugly old North Americans. Why? Not because the children like the idea but because they want to help their poor families to put food on the table. How sad! At the same time at least one web site touts the perfection of CR claiming that retired older Americans are the ‘happiest group’ in CR! I wouldn’t touch that segment of society with a ten foot pole…

    Costa Rica is a beautiful country, but to me Canada is infinitely more beautiful and spectacular – so are many parts of US. I love Costa Rican people and I have many friends, both Costa Ricans and Canadian expats. Cost of living is comparable to US and Canada, especially near the beaches, but the relatively low cost of rentals near the beaches is often increased by the need for air conditioning that can run between 200 and 400 dollars. Granted, that is not the case in the central valley and some may find that they can live there quite well. I guess it all depends what standards and values you expect when it comes to quality of life. Costa Rica seized to be my top residential choice. Other areas, such as the Azores, are much more appealing in terms of price and realty laws and practices. Best of all: No iron bars and razor wires needed and crime is much less prevalent.

    For these reasons I object to the arrogance and lack of intellectual capacity of some web site owners (those with real estate self interests!) that portray would-be expats who make rational decisions NOT to live in CR as “failures” – Where is the ‘failure” in a rational choice between life styles? It is more than dealing with everyday small and large cultural differences that I could have embraced – it is the fundamental right to security, safety , responsibility and dependability. I am happy and proud of my well-considered decision not to have made a life-changing mistake I would have lived to regret for the rest of my days.

    It’s time to set the record straight. I still watch international relocations on TV – everything looks like paradise. Ever wondered why? What they don’t tell you: When a real estate transaction is conducted under the watchful eye of TV cameras, realtors and notaries suddenly become unusually honest and everything goes surprisingly well. Is this real? No. That pretty picture is just a Fata Morgana which I prefer watching from a safe distance.


    • I, actually we, are completely surprised and dismayed from the reading of the article, let alone your responding comments. Costa Rica conditions of safe being. As wannabes to continue retirement as expats in costa rica we are disheartened and now very wary of deliberately beginning a new life of rampant danger. We would love to exchange emails with you, as you are an apparent source of information and help that probably can not be found elsewhere. Should you reply, we do thank you in advance……….David and Carole

    • Hello Barbara – I’m also a Canadian. Most of the expat forums in the Internet are set up to cater to developers and realtors, and they quickly extinguish memberships of people who make honest statements like you have here. The problem with us Canadians is we have a hard time telling lies, at least most of us. I am retired but the Canadian winters, and the political pandering to imported privilaged minority groups, has driven me to Costa Rica “but I didn’t buy an expensive home there” like my friends did. I’d like to thank you for stating so much truthful information, and good luck to you.

  2. It really depends where you are. I lived in Puntarenas for a month, and my God, was that ever a hellhole. House I lived in was broken into twice while I was there, and my neighbours robbed at gunpoint on the beach behind our house. Also a random kid was masturbating just in our yard once. Fucked.

    However, I still went back to Costa Rica (call me crazy), because the first time I had visited Tamarindo and found a very different sort of place– no barbed wire, people walking at night etc. This second time I lived in Santa Theresa. I rented a cabin from a really awesome Tico couple. There wasn’t really much security, but we just had a padlock on our cabin doors and there was usually someone on or near the site, I guess… But either way, we never had any trouble, and I met lots of people who had lived there for years (originally from other places, like the US, etc) and never had any real issue. Nobody had barbed wire and many people kept their doors open. What I heard when I talked to Ticos was that it is a small enough town that all the Costa Ricans know each other, so if someone new and shifty shows up, they keep an eye out and watch them. The rest of the people living there are a combination of expats (from all over, really) who run businesses and Costa Ricans who run businesses and thrive due to the tourists (therefore, they don’t want to mess with them). This part of Costa Rica, though surely not perfect (I heard that there have been some violent sex crimes on the beach at night– rare, but still, something to be aware of), was a far cry from Puntarenas, and I would recommend it to anyone as a wonderful destination. Puntarenas on the other hand, or anywhere in San Jose: shitty, shitty places.

    • A guy I know went for a two hour walk on the beach, and when he came back home his stove and refrigerator was gone, plus his little white dog. Another guy and his wife spent forty-eight hours wrapped in duct tape and laying on the kitchen floor, lucky the AC was running and the cleaning lady had shown up when she was suppose to, which is rare in Costa Rica. All foreigners should live in gated communities with armed guards, have bars on all windows and doors, have a guard dog, plus a machete under the bed. Never go outside the gate when it’s dark even inside a car, if the muggers don’t get you the drunk drivers will.

  3. I read all of this carefully, and while the author (and some of the commenters) clearly have had a bad time in CR my experiences here after 3 years have been distinctly different.
    The two maids we have hired have both been 100% honest, and we did not hire them as a form of security guard. For $300/mth a person will cook/clean and handle all of the daily chores. What a value to have someone handle life’s little details for you.
    I live on the edge of Santa Ana and my wife and child have no fear of robbery or harm otherwise when walking at night.
    That said I would not want them to walk in the seedy parts of town at night no different than I would want them walking in downtown LA or Detroit or any other major city. This is just common sense.

    Crime does happen everywhere including the best places and the worst. CR is not a utopia, but it’s also not the criminal minefield that is expressed by some people here. Do some research and meet your neighbors — they will be your best friends and an ally against pitfalls.

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