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(506) 2223-1327               Published Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009,  in Vol. 9, No. 233       E-mail us
Jo Stuart
Real Estate
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Oxcarts and bueyes will bring in Christmas season
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

It's time to oil up those axels on the cart and give the oxen another bath and brushing. The big boyero event of the year is this weekend.

This is the Entrada de Santos y Boyeros to the city of San José. The annual event takes place on the last weekend of November each year and signals the start in earnest of the Christmas season.

The oxcart parade Sunday through Paseo Colón and Avenida 2 is preceded by a campout Saturday and Saturday night at Parque la Sabana where modern Costa Ricans try to emulate the heyday of the boyero, the cart driver, 100 years ago.

The municipality estimates that some 200 oxcarts and their teams of oxen or bueyes will make the march, starting at 10 a.m. The ox cart and driver have been recognized by the United Nations as an example of human cultural heritage. For many Costa Ricans the care and feeding of the animals is a hobby, although the muscled creatures do some work in the country during the year.

The saints or santos are the wooden figures carried by the carts with St. Joseph, the municipality's patron, in the lead.

The oxcarts once were the principal means of transportation in Costa Rica. The large wheels can handle rural roads and trails. At one time a continuous line of oxen and carts covered the trail from the Central Valley to the Pacific. By 1845, the country was exporting 11 million pounds of coffee, all of it hauled to Puntarenas on oxcarts.

And it was oxen in 1872 that hauled the country's first steam locomotive to Alajuela from Puntarenas.

oxcart wheel
Museo Nacional de Costa Rica photo
No wheels from different oxcarts are alike.
ox cart at end of 18th century
Museo Nacional de Costa Rica photo
Oxcart and driver on what is now Avenida Central probably at the end of the 19th century.

A true rail line to the Pacific was not started until seven years later, although for a time a small railroad pulled by mules tried unsuccessfully to compete with the oxcarts to move the coffee harvest. The Atlantic line from Limón was not finished until 1890, but some coffee and bananas were shipped from points closer to the Caribbean years earlier.

By 1910 when the Pacific line was finally finished to San José the coffee era of the oxcart was over.

That was a hard life. Cerro de la Muerte, the highest point at 12,000 feet in the central mountains is called that because oxcart drivers froze to death overnighting there with their animals in mid-trip.

Not until the early 20th century did the carts adopt bright colors and designs. An Italian in Escazú created what is now a national icon when he sought to duplicate carts from his native land. The oxcart parade Sunday is a photographer' dream.

So nearly all the carts Sunday will be painted with intricate designs, especially so the wooden wheels that are known the world over. The wooden yoke generally has the same designs and colors as the cart.

The steel-banded, wooden wheels make a distinctive noise on cobblestone, and that is a sound Costa Ricans do not want to hear on a dark night. That could be the carreta sin bueyes or the cart without oxen. A damned driver prowls the night seeking similar damned souls. According to the legend, the driver sought to defame an Escazú church by driving his cart inside. He had a dispute with a local priest, so the story goes.

The oxen declined to profane sacred grounds, so they escaped animal Hell. But not so the oxcart driver. He is represented in literature and sculptures as being confined to a coffin while an unearthly giant hand drags the unholy cart.

The holiday season continues downtown Tuesday with the first Christmas chorus at the Teatro Nacional. The inauguration of the portal or nativity scene is scheduled for Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. Other evenings of singing will be Dec. 8 and 9.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 233

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A.M. Costa Rica's professional directory is where business people who wish to reach the English-speaking community may invite responses. If you are interested in being represented here, please contact the editor.

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Immigration will beef up
entry stamp security system

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Dirección General de Migración is converting two more reception centers to electronic entry stamps to cut down on fraud, according to Mario Zamora, the director. He said this on a radio show Tuesday.

The electronic stamps are in use now at Juan Santamaría airport and soon will replace all the ink stamps in use at Daniel Oduber airport in Liberia and the Peñas Blancas border crossing into Nicaragua. Other immigration posts will follow.

In addition to being placed in a passport with the date of arrival, the electronic system will keep track of the issuing agent and other details.

Zamora recalled all the existing stamps used by immigration agents and issued new ones containing the agent's name in January 2008. A year ago Zamora estimated that there are 3,000 foreigners in Costa Rica with fake stamps on their passports.

Perpetual tourists leave the country every 90 days to renew their visa, and there is a strong temptation to send the passport with a third party to get the required stamp.  Frequently the third party uses a fake stamp instead of carrying the passport to a border crossing.

The electronic stamps also will make it easier for immigration officials to keep track of who exactly is in the country because arrivals will be computerized.

Another racing boat arrives,
and fourth is close to finish

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

More racing boats have pulled into port in Limón.

The latest is Groupe Bel, which sailed a distance of 5,317 miles and finished eight hours 40 minutes and 20 seconds behind the mono-hull class winner, Safran.

The overall winner was the multi-hull Crêpes Whaou!, which crossed the finish line off Puerto Limón Monday night at 10:31 p.m. The race is the Transat Jacques Vabre trans-Atlantic boat race. Safran was still some 70 miles back when Crêpes Whaou! won, but still claimed the honors in the mono-hull class.

Just 14 boats survived the Atlantic crossing and all of them are expected in Limón over the next few days. One boat capsized and a second suffered damage from a floating object.

Groupe Bel was part of the initial three race leaders that  sustained a pounding by a low pressure system which struck the fleet late in the first week of the race. But the boat was able to challenge Safran right up until the Caribbean where Safran eased away, making the biggest gains when the trade winds deteriorated. The boats were matched evenly downwind.

Mike Golding Yacht Racing, another mono-hull boat, was expected to make port between 1 and 2:30 a.m. today, race organizers said from Paris.

Telecom agency is seeking
45 more new employees

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones, a new agency formed by the law that eliminated the telecom monopoly in Costa Rica, is seeking 45 more employees for engineering, statistical, financial and legal positions. The agency also said it needs secretaries.

Those interested were invited to send their resumes by the end of the workday Monday to The agency said that the hiring will be over the next three months.

The new bureaucracy created by the law is growing fast, and it hopes to quickly move out of the offices being used now at the Authoridad Reguladora de Servicios Públicos. The agency wants its own building.

The new agency his taking its job seriously and has required all Internet cafes to submit applications in order to continue to offer telecom services like voice calls of the Internet.

The agency is financed by a surcharge on companies it regulates. The companies will be passing the expense to the consumer.

Natural grass playing field
planned for new stadium

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The new stadium in Parque la Sabana will have a grass field instead of artificial turf as can be found now in one of the local soccer stadiums.

That was the report from Casa Presidencial which said that the stadium, being built by the government of the People's Republic of China, is half finished.

Rodrigo Arias Sánchez, minister of the Presidencia, said that the stadium probably would be finished in the first few months of 2011. He toured the site Tuesday. The $83 million stadium will seat 35,000 persons.
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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 233

Can a homeowner figure the dwelling's luxury tax value?
Can a normal human compute the new tax on so-called luxury homes? Editors asked Dennis Rogers, a fluent Spanish speaker and frequent contributer, to try to do it. He's also pretty smart. This is his report.

By Dennis Rogers
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

To calculate the new solidarity tax on luxury dwellings, the Costa Rican authorities have produced an instruction manual to guide owners in determining the value of a dwelling. It is most useful in establishing if a property is subject to the tax or not, while finer levels of detail might require the attention of a professional.

Not many expats or even their local friends will manage the Spanish building terms needed, but with the instructions in hand it may be possible to get a rough estimate of Tributacion’s opinion. It’s a combination of factors that put a structure in a category with a fixed per meter estimate, which is then multiplied by the area of the building to get the basic sum. The value of the land is not included in the initial calculation. The exact value of each feature is not part of the appraisal, or is the present market value.

After adding additional value-added structures like perimeter walls, if the construction is over 100 million colons (about $170,000), an owner pays. If it’s not, the owner does not. It behooves anyone who thinks their property is worth well over that, even if it probably is, to check and see if the hypothetical replacement cost actually is under the threshold.

We set out to determine the classification of a 5-year-old house in a subdivision in a suburb of Heredia. It has four smallish bedrooms, three full baths, and ample living space.

This analysis only considers the VC (Vivienda de Concreto) categories VC6 to VC9 as those are the sort of structures most likely to harbor expats. There are similar scales for wood and even adobe buildings, apartments, condominiums, offices, churches, hospitals, and gas stations.

Structure: Everything from VC6 up assumes poured cement posts and beams.

Walls: Concrete block, with fine repello, the smoothed mortar mix on the wall. For VC6 some gypsum walls (interior) are allowed. We have none. Any walls more than 2.8 meters edge into VC7, 3 meters appears to be what will push it over. VC6 (or VC5) for us.

Roof structure: steel beams (no wood) are assumed for everything from VC6 up. VC6 is normal pitch and design. Anything with unusual angles, peaked roofs, turrets etc. is in higher levels. VC6 for us.

Roof material: Ordinary coverings from ceramic tiles to shingles and in general galvanized roofing is allowed from VC6 up. Galvanized or PVC rain gutters and downspouts. If there are stainless steel or bronze gutters that will get the structure to the highest levels. VC6 for us.

Ceilings: At VC6 gypsum and plaster ceilings are allowed, or middle quality wood tablilla. At VC7 better quality woods and custom ceiling panels show up, with the finest woods well lacquered pushing it to higher levels. Probably VC6 for us though the molded plaster ceiling tiles hint at VC7, even though they are not much more expensive than the usual fibrolit plasterboard.

Floors: VC6 has “good” ceramics or wood, VC7 “very good.” If you don’t know what your floor and bathroom tiles cost, this is the most subjective and difficult factor. Carpet doesn’t even appear in the analysis. Any marble, now-rare almendro parquet (especially with polyurethane finish) or high-end porcelain will push the dwelling to the highest levels. Teak seems to be “very good.” VC6 for us, though there is a small area of parquet floor.

Bathrooms: VC6 can have one large bathroom with high-quality fittings for the main bedroom (even a jacuzzi), one regular bath, a half-bath without shower with good ceramics and fittings, and a shower in the maid’s quarters. The number of  baths matters less in pushing to higher levels than the luxury of ceramics and fittings, with a whole section of instructions dedicated to details. VC6 for us though it’s actually three full baths and no maid’s quarters.

“Others:” VC6 allows windows with aluminum or quality wood frames, can be arched etc. Kitchen cupboards and counter top “very good.” There are instructions about evaluating kitchens at the end of the manual. Closet doors are prefab lattice type. Front door custom-made of cedro or similar. Interior doors prefab pressed wood or similar. If two stories, stairways of concrete with wrought iron railings. Two-car garage.

Increases to higher levels are not so driven by these details, requiring worked solid interior doors, good woods
subject property
A.M. Costa Rica/Dennis Rogers
Here is the subject property of the layman's estimate

in closets, luxury kitchen furnishings, and a three-car garage with good ceramics to even make it to VC9. For us VC6, though the fact that there is a small kitchen on the second floor could kick it to VC7. Also the stairway is good wood not concrete, even if incompetently done.

Depreciation: VC6 and VC7 are given a useful lifespan of 60 years, VC8 and VC9, 70 years. Our house is 5 years old. According to the formula given, D(age)= ½(age/useful life + age ²/useful life ²) our house then has a depreciation factor of .955. Essentially a five-year-old house can be depreciated 4.5 percent.

There is also a depreciation allowance for the house’s condition. However, if the house is less than 10 years old and hasn’t required any significant maintenance beyond paint and filling cracks in the repello, the allowance is negligible. In the case of our house, the allowance would be less than one-tenth of 1 percent and not worth adding to the calculation.

The scary formulas included in the instruction manual are all related to depreciation and not valuation. Especially complicated are those where remodeling has changed part of the useful life of the property while not affecting the rest. Depreciation is described in plain Spanish with a table on the side.

Additional structures: All other improvements to the residential property, including swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, fences, perimeter walls, retaining walls, gates, sidewalks, driveways, decks, saunas, barbecues, etc. will figure in the final calculation. For example, a basic pool is 215,000 colons per square meter. A 2.5 meter wall with repello is 25,000 colons per meter and can be depreciated over 30 years. Window bars (rejas) are 60,000 colons per square meter for the fanciest metal.

Outdoors at our house:

Walls: Walls made of cement blocks without repello 20,000 colons per meter and we have eight meters so 160,000 colons.

Lawn: Natural grass tops out at 1,100 colons per square meter, synthetic at 31,000. We have about 30 m2, so another 30,000 colons.

Overall appraisal? No point in saying exactly but well below the 100 million threshold if VC6. VC6 is classed at 270,000 colons per square meter, so without significant secondary construction, the house at VC6 can be 370 meters (about 3,980 square feet) before reaching 100 million. That’s fairly generous for a structure that cost $90,000 to build five years ago and could be three times that now, or 150 million colons.

Even playing it safe and declaring the house as VC7 (325,000 colons), it can be up to 307 square meters (about 3,300 square feet); ours is still far below that. With climbing levels of luxury of course the allowable size decreases, but theoretically even at VC9 the house can be 222 square meters (2,390 square feet) without reaching 100 million. So we don’t pay.

But suppose we did make it to 100 million for just the construction, then there is still the matter of the land. Tributación has on its Web site maps of about half the country’s municipalities with land values. Conspicuously absent are Cartago and Turrialba, Liberia, and all of the coastal Pacific municipalities except Quepos and most of Nicoya. At least the Central Valley areas with many expats are covered here, otherwise you are directed to your respective municipality for the land values. Good luck.
Fortunately we can look at a map that shows fairly recent values for our area and see that the lot is worth 70,000 colons per square meter, times 187 meters for about 13 million colons.

The total taxable amount is then 113 million at which the rate is .25 percent, or 282,000 colons (about $504). This has to be declared and paid electronically, though a court challenge is likely on the grounds that to own a computer is not required in the Constitution.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 233

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Drug police find that this shirt had some important secrets

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A British visitor is in jail today because anti-drug police say he tried to leave the country with more than two kilos of cocaine taped to his body.

The man, identified by the last name of Cooper, arrived Nov. 15, said the Policía de Control de Drogas. He was leaving Monday at Juan Santamaría airport when police said they saw that his hands were sweating and that he was acting suspiciously.  They checked all his luggage but failed to find anything, they said.

The drug was taped in something like a cloth vest to his body, they said. His final destination was London with a stop in Spain.

Agents noted that there have been many different ways smugglers have tried to get drugs out of the country. When necessary, police conduct x-ray exams of travelers.

Others have been caught concealing drugs in their shorts or inside various objects like souvenirs or canned produce. Sometimes agents benefit from tips by persons who know the smuggler or they obtain information from competing smugglers.
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Another section of downtown being blacked out today

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Compañía Nacional de Fuerza y Luz said that it will be cutting off power to a section in the very heart of San José today at 8 a.m. Power will be off until 4 p.m., the company said. The reason is reported to be work on the underground electrical distribution system.

The area is east of where power was cut Tuesday and includes a a section between calles 3 and 5 from Avenida 2 south to Avenida 8.

Also affected will be Avenida 6 from calle 1 to Calle 7.
The blackout includes the customer service offices on Calle 3 for the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad, the same power company and Radiográfica Costarricense S.A.

Also being blacked out is the Colegio Superior de las Señoritas.

Not being affected are the Ministerio de Hacienda on Avenida 2 at Calle 3, and the Teatro Nacional.

The company said that the Ubanización Quintana in Guachipelín, Escazú, also would be without power today from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 233

Medical vacations in Costa Rica

U.S. reaffirms its support
for Honduran elections

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The State Department said Tuesday that the United States supports the Sunday presidential election in Honduras as an essential part of a solution to that country's political crisis.  But U.S. officials are still pushing for implementation of a deal between the interim government in Tegucigalpa and deposed president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales.

In a break with some of its regional allies, the United States announced its support for the presidential election as one element of a solution to the crisis that erupted June 28 when Zelaya was ousted in what most of the world branded a coup d'etat.

The Obama administration originally had said it would not recognize the election unless Zelaya were restored to power.  But it altered that stance after the deposed leader and interim president Roberto Micheletti signed an agreement backed by the Organization of American States last month aimed at settling the conflict.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly noted that the election, in which neither Micheletti nor Zelaya is running, is being organized by an electoral tribunal that was selected and installed in a transparent, democratic process before the coup.

He said all five candidates were nominated before Zelaya's ouster and that the interim government has dropped media curbs and human rights restrictions that potentially threatened the fairness of the campaign, making U.S. backing for the process possible.

"We see the running of these elections — assuming that they're run in a fair and transparent way — we see them as an essential part of the solution of this crisis," said Kelly. "Now again, it's important that these elections be seen as free, fair and transparent, and are monitored by a credible international monitoring process.  And that's exactly what we're supporting.  We can't judge the outcome of something that hasn't happened yet.  But the process that we see in place is a process that we are supporting."

Kelly reiterated U.S. support for the move announced by Micheletti last week under which the interim leader will cede power for a week, beginning Wednesday, to bolster the election's legitimacy.

At the same time, the State Department spokesman said the United States continues to press for implementation of the settlement plan, known as the Tegucigalpa-San José Accord, which the sides in the crisis have only partially fulfilled.

A key element in the plan is a vote by the Honduran National Congress scheduled for Dec. 2 on whether Zelaya, sheltered since September at the Brazilian embassy in the capital, should return to the presidency to complete his term in office, which was due to end in January.

At least two key Latin American governments, Brazil and Argentina, have reaffirmed that they will not recognize the results of the election.  The foreign policy adviser to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Marco Aurelio Garcia, was quoted Tuesday as calling U.S. support for the election lamentable, and an effort to clean up the June coup with a new election.

A senior State Department official who spoke to reporters said the election is not an attempt to whitewash what happened in June, and that it is unfair to reject the ballot out of hand.
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A.M. Costa Rica
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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 233

Latin American news
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Swine flu cases reported
in decline in United States

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The swine flu pandemic has taken a turn in the United States. Doctors in several cities are now reporting fewer cases of the H1N1 virus, prompting some to believe the outbreak may have peaked. Still, the virus has killed nearly 7,000 people worldwide since April, and health officials say there could be another outbreak in the U.S.

At its peak, there were so many outbreaks of H1N1 flu, a children's hospital in Texas had to set up tents for its patients. Two months later, the tents are down and so are the number of people who are sick.

"At some points we were seeing as many as 70 percent of patients testing positive for the flu, and now it's down below 10 percent," said Pat Crocker, a physician at Dell Children's Medical Center.

Hospitals in many cities across the United States are seeing the same decline in the number of H1N1 cases.

Flu experts say the cities that were hit hardest with the flu last spring are seeing fewer cases now. There are also a smaller number of school closings.

"I believe it's because of herd immunity. The virus spread so widely in the U.S. to a point where 22 million people probably have come into contact with the virus,"  Pascal Imperato, another physician, said.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the virus is still widespread, and is behaving in a way they expect.

"So far, no change in the virus," Anne Schuchat said. "It hasn't become more virulent or changed genetically.  We still think the vaccine is a good match with this virus that's circulating."

But scientists in Norway say they have found a mutated form of the H1N1 virus in three of their patients. Two died.  The mutation has caused a more severe form of the flu, but health officials don't expect the mutated form to spread.

Centers for Disease Control officials still say that anyone not infected with the H1N1 virus should get the vaccine. They say even though the number of flu cases are declining in the U.S. a large number of people are still getting sick in some parts of the country.

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