Every time I leave my apartment in Costa Rica, I pass a small security booth. It is just large enough to house a full-grown adult. A striped traffic arm hovers above the street. When I reach the arm, a man emerges from the booth, smiles, and waves.
“Buenas, Robert!” he calls. “Como está? Pura vida?”
“Pura vida!” I call back.
“Oh, muy bien! Excelente!”
Then a car will approach in the opposite direction, and the security guard—Santos—will push down on a lever, which lifts up the arm and allows the car to pass through. The driver gives a halfhearted salute, and Santos salutes back.
A block farther, I stroll past a restaurant called La Cascada. An older man with a boyish face will always grimace and nod. He won’t wave because his hands are always folded over his belt. Although we have never formally met, never said so much as “buenos días,” the man always does this, as if we’re old buddies. Then he will walk to the curb, gesture to a driver, and direct the car into a parking space.
These guys are called guáchimen (pronounced “watchee-mon”), the semi-vigilante parking guards of San José, and their job is among the strangest things I’ve seen during my time in Costa Rica. They are usually middle-aged men, sometimes old men, who wear plain clothing and neon stripes. They wander the parking lot, silently waiting for cars to arrive so they can direct traffic in and out of parking spaces.
One of the perks of living in Costa Rica is that a gringo need not drive a car. Most neighborhoods are walkable, the buses are cheap and fast, and cabs are reasonable and magically appear whenever you need them. So I don’t interact much with guáchimen, at least not with the regularity of car commuters. But I see them everywhere, pacing around strip malls, mumbling to themselves in front of supermarkets, and even collecting tolls on public side streets.
“It doesn’t matter where I park,” my friend Zach told me the other night, as he drove us to a holiday party. “Some guáchiman is going to show up out of nowhere and extort me for 200 colones.”
San José is a city without meters or standardized parking spaces, and the city is absolutely flooded with cars. Congestion is so tight that the city forbids certain license plates from driving on certain days. As a street map, San José looks fairly navigable—grids of numbered calles and avenidas, punctuated with parallel plazas and parks. But in practice, San José is a nightmare of battered pavement, one-way streets, steep hills, deadly switchbacks, and sloppy intersections. Highways emerge and jumble in the most unexpected places. Drivers are aggressive, and pedestrians are daring. Every day I’m astonished I haven’t seen more accidents.
That said, Costa Rica is no Bangladesh—there are crosswalks, traffic cops, and basic signage. People keep to their lanes, and most drivers at least slow down before blowing through a red light. Ticos are famously well behaved, and few motorists drive like true maniacs. When you search for a parking space, you always know where not to park: “No estacionar” signs are stenciled right on the plaster walls. If you’re desperate enough, there are plenty of parqueos around town, the private garages and lots of any major city.
But the guáchimen are also everywhere, and they say a lot about life in Costa Rica. Where official rules ebb, private guardsmen spring up. They’re almost always men, and they usually lack education or skills. Many are farmers or laborers who moved to the city in search of better wages and got stuck watching parking lots for a living. A few are teenagers with no other prospects. One codger stands outside the local bank and wears a Mexican sombrero. The job isn’t hard, but it’s boring, and many of these guys stand around all day and night, hassling drivers and getting hassled back.
Santos isn’t exactly a guáchiman. He’s more like a security guard, although he serves roughly the same purpose. Santos is charmingly overweight, with a cherubic face and bright eyes. He is almost always smiling, like a giant infant. He is oppressively pleasant, and because I am also oppressively pleasant, we greet each other each morning with the enthusiasm of cokeheads.
“El tiempo hace perfecto, verdad?” I say, pointing to the sky. The weather’s perfect, isn’t it?
“Oh, sí! Muy bonito! Pura vida!” Santos sings back. Oh, yes! Very pretty! Pure life!
Santos hails from León, a city in northern Nicaragua, and like almost every Nicaraguan I’ve met in Costa Rica, he’s friendly and generous and I always look forward to seeing him. When he’s not working or chilling out at home, Santos is an eager fisherman, and he loves to cast reels in Puntarenas on his rare weekends off. With his cappuccino skin and ill-fitting uniform, Santo could easily cameo on a prime time sitcom—a wacky neighbor, or a gawky relative with a heart of gold. He’s also refreshingly honest: Before I visited Nicaragua, I asked Santos whether I should visit Managua.
“Oh, Managua!” he said, furrowing his brow. “It’s very dangerous. At night, someone may rob you with a gun. I wouldn’t go to Managua. You should just go to Granada.” And then he closed his eyes and nodded, as if to seal the agreement.
What’s funny about Santos is that he isn’t much of a guard. He has no weapons, not even a whistle. He never checks drivers for ID or asks visitors’ business in our urbanización. The security booth is a kind of placebo—when burglars see Santos, they assume our block is a gated community, even though it’s not. Santos is about as effective as a scarecrow; he keeps criminals away, but he probably couldn’t prevent an actual crime. Given his girth, I wonder if Santos could chase a fleeing mugger for more than a block before collapsing.
This is how many guáchimen are—I have no idea who hires them or how they earn their money. Do they have to train in something? Do they always ask for money, or just sometimes? Is there a standard rate, or is it negotiated on the spot? Do the guáchimen have a union, or a club, or even the loosest social network, or do they all fly solo? Is the job even legal, or do shopkeepers just hand out undocumented cash at the end of the day?
The irony is that most guáchimen get hired in upper-class neighborhoods, including mine. My street would seem fairly typical in Miami or Los Angeles, but in Costa Rica, our neighbors own the equivalent of mansions. We live near a long row of U.S. chains, like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell and Quiznos, and all of their parking lots have private security guards. Indeed, the sentry in front of our local supermarket shoulders a full-fledged shotgun—which will be handy, if a paramilitary group ever storms the organic coffee aisle.
As a full-time pedestrian, I pass my neighborhood’s guáchimen every day, and we have a strangely warm relationship. A leathery 61-year-old named Juan often sees my wife running, and he has invited us to join him on his own jogs around town. Mikhail, who is Santos’ nocturnal counterpart, is a shy Romanian with an estranged wife and child in Germany; on late nights, I often chat with Mikhail for a few minutes in German, and we trade anecdotes about our bizarre expatriate lives. Where drivers see an adversary—a crooked authority figure, a street urchin posing as a sentinel—I see fellow pedestrians. They remind me of the old men back in Pittsburgh, who spend their summers sitting on park benches and watching the traffic go by. They are fixtures of the neighborhood. In a world as cliquey and guarded as Tico culture, a nod and a wave go a long way.
“Hola, Robert! Robert de los Estados Unidos!” Santos calls, like a game show host, as I return from work. The sun has melted over the rooftops and power lines, and the sky is a muddy mix of orange and storm clouds. “Pura vida?” he asks.
“Pura vida,” I say.
“Oh, muy bien! Excelente!”
After living here only a few months, I couldn’t imagine Santos not there. Useful or not, he adds a human element to an otherwise impersonal suburb. If Santos were ever fired or replaced, the place would change entirely. The street would be nothing more than a street.
Robert Isenberg is a writer based in Costa Rica. He is currently staff a reporter for The Tico Times, Central America’s most esteemed English-language newspaper.