Why is MacGyvering a must in Costa Rica?
In this blog, I’d like to recount an experience I had recently that is indicative of the way you’ll find product availability in this country. My story is about buying lumber. It is not particularly important taken at its face, but it exemplifies why “MacGyvering” is so prevalent, even a way of life here, why you may sometimes wonder why Ticos are resigned to settling for the second-best solution and, perhaps, why Costa Ricans can be counted among the world’s most patient people.
If you were to buy wood for a project in North America, you’d most likely head to the lumberyard or big box building materials store. There you would find a wide selection of all kinds, sizes and lengths of lumber. Except for EPA, there aren’t many big box stores in Costa Rica and the local ferreterias will typically have even fewer choices, some carry no lumber at all.
At these stores, your selection will be much more limited. Some stores do carry Douglas fir, pine, redwood or cedar, but since it is not commonly grown here, it is likely to be imported (probably from another country such as the U.S.). In any case, you will discover that the selection of pre-cut woods you are used to is going to be in shorter supply, you’ll have fewer choices, and your purchase will be quite a bit more costly here. Some stores do carry native pre-cut woods. Most of them will be hardwoods, because that is what predominately grows in Costa Rica and you should understandably be prepared to pay more.
There in the back of one was a large supply of rough-sawn hardwood planks of all various odd shapes and sizes
I promised my wife to build her a pyramid wooden planter as a location for all of our starter herbs and vegetables. Instead of heading to a big store or a ferreteria, my cabinetmaker, and now good friend, said he would take me to where buys the wood for constructing his furniture and cabinets. We got in his truck and drove about a kilometer, turned down a driveway and stopped in the midst of a complex of homes. There in the back of one was a large supply of rough-sawn hardwood planks of all various odd shapes and sizes. This wood was cut directly at a mill, probably near the forest where the tree had been harvested, many cut into rough 2” thick flat planks of all shapes, and trucked to this vendor’s backyard. These were not dried woods and many were in varying dimensions of around 115” long by 22” to 27” wide. They contained knots, checks, cracks and voids of unusable areas. The price was determined by rough measurement, “eyeballing” the unusable area, and subtracting the unusable area from the end price. I was told the wood was “similar but harder than Guanacaste.” (I still don’t know exactly what I bought).
Using my planter plans and with my friends help, I bought two large planks for a bit under $200. These two pieces were so heavy and awkward that my friend decided to return with his trailer to allow us to transport it safely and so as not to damage his truck. We are talking about two pieces of wood that could easily have weighed 700 pounds total. We got help loading it on the trailer, tied it down and returned to his shop.
Once at the shop, it took four of us to unload each plank and place it on a workbench. We had to then examine each plank to determine the best way to get the most out of what I’d purchased. We ripped the planks into 2” x 6” boards (some cuts with a power handsaw and the rest on a table saw). Then, we cut the boards into the sizes I needed for my planter and individually planed one side of each piece to make it easier for me to handle, seal and build. This process took three of us another 90 minutes and cost me an additional $15. In sum, I now had $200 worth of custom-cut lumber to size.
Then, we cut the boards into the sizes I needed for my planter
Here is the point I am trying to make. Costa Rica is a country of perhaps only 4.5 million souls total (smaller than many metro U.S. areas). In the world market, it is not large enough to have much leverage or choice in the products available for its merchants to stock or sell. It certainly isn’t large enough to carry and sell a large selection of anything that is imported or isn’t readily available, grown or produced here. It’s a matter of basic economics, of supply and demand. It is why many things you may be used to buying back home are unavailable in Costa Rica or if they are available they are very hard to find and fairly expensive when you do find them. It is also why Costa Ricans are used to finding or creating alternative solutions or substituting one product for another, adapting it and making it work for their application. For many things, they’ve never seen or had them, so they don’t miss them and/or they use or create something else to give them the result they are seeking.
It is easy here to become impatient or frustrated when you can’t find something you want, but it helps to put things into perspective. Costa Rica doesn’t generate the economic demand of much larger countries and so you won’t always find a huge selection or multiple options in the items you purchase. Costa Rica isn’t a “commodity” economy and that’s likely to be the way it will remain. You would do well to understand this fact and get comfortable with it or you are likely to be more uptight than will do your health or state of mind much good.
The author of this blog, Ticonuevo, is a US expat who moved to Costa Rica and used the services of GoDutch Realty to purchase a property in Costa Rica. In his blogs, Ticonuevo describes his own experiences of taking the step of moving to Costa Rica and getting a new life started.