COSTA RICA — Ruth Angulo Chacón boils a pan filled with rice and pinto beans—gallo pinto, the traditional Costa Rican plate. She turns to wash a spoon in her closet-sized kitchen and gazes out the window.
“If I pay the water and light bill, me quedo sin comer, I’m left without eating,” she says.
Ruth and her family reside in the vicinity of Quepos, an area densely populated by tourists. Located off a beaten path, their town—Isla Damas—was once the biggest contributor of bananas when banana plantations were prevalent and created larger revenue than tourism. From her backyard, tourists can be seen boarding a boat for a $65 Mangrove tour—more than what she makes in three days.
Tourism is known to be Costa Rica’s main source of income, ranking among the top tourism economies in Latin America. Annually, 67.5 percent of international arrivals come from North America—making the U.S. the main source of travelers. Ruth is just one of the many impoverished locals who struggle to live in this tropical paradise due to the heavy influx of tourists.
According to Rafael Anguero, a Tican tour guide, the president of Costa Rica changed the minimum wage and salary amount of commerce, industrial and tourism jobs by setting a max amount of $600 that could be earned monthly.
As a tour guide, Rafael can work up to 12 to 14 hours in one day and earn the same pay as someone working an office job for only eight hours—the only difference is that he can make tips.
“It’s assumed that tour guides can live off tips,” says Rafael’s partner, Jorge Hernandez Aguilera. “But you’ll never make enough tips to live off of, especially when dealing with an excessively large group that doesn’t tip well.
“The job is purely done out of love more than anything.”
For families like the Chacón’s that do not have the necessary skills to become a tour guide, their monthly earnings are far less, making about $2.50 an hour—the same price for a loaf of bread.
Daniela Angulo Chacón, 20, arrives to the house with her brother. “The tourists here do not see the reality of Costa Rica,” Daniela says. “They’re deceived because they’re only shown the beautiful, good parts of Costa Rica, not how the prices affect us and the people that are trying to make it.”
“The tourists come to Costa Rica for about a month, spend money, and then leave,” Daniela says. “They see the beaches, hotels, Manuel Antonio—the touristy places, and I think they know we need help, but because they’re not from here, they don’t care.”
The Chacón’s are not the only locals who have recognized their limitations. In La Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano, is a Guatuso reserve. Here is where Filander Alvarez and his family demonstrate an ancestral Maleku dance to tourists and sell Maleku artisans as an extra source of income.
“Everything is in the hands of extranjeros, foreigners,” Filander says. Unsustainable tourism practices are what contribute to the overdevelopment of countries like Costa Rica. Filander, however, says he understands why tourists flock over to Costa Rica; and instead, blames the government for not limiting the amount of land they can buy, and for allowing them to influence the cost of products.
“To give you a better idea, the Costa Rican beer, Imperial, is more expensive here than in other countries,” Filander says. “How is a product that is 100 percent Costa Rican, produced in Costa Rica, more expensive in Costa Rica than in surrounding countries?” A six-pack of Imperial beer in Costa Rica costs $8.50. The same six-pack can be found in the states for $7.99, and for $6 in Panama.
“In Costa Rica, no vivimos, we don’t live,” Filander says. “Sobrevivimos, we survive.”