Stories about San José

La Carpio May be Costa Rica's Worst Ghetto

Updated: Jul 1, 2018


Perhaps the worst ghetto in Costa Rica is La Carpio, a district in the western part of San José. It is reported that 40 people share this cluster of shacks at the bottom of this hill.

by Michael Miller

(January, 2015)


La Carpio may be Costa Rica’s Worst Ghetto.  Very few North American expats living in Costa Rica, and even fewer tourist who visit Costa Rica, have ever heard of La Carpio.  Even fewer have ever visited it.  There is a good reason why.


La Carpio is a district of San José that lies to the west of Hospital Mexico.  It is one of the poorest places in all of Costa Rica.  It is also one of the most dangerous.


La Carpio is a remote section of San José wedged between two very polluted rivers and next to the city’s massive landfill.  It is where thousands of refugees have settled. Most of them are from Nicaragua, and they have been coming since the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980’s and 90’s.  They are almost all undocumented immigrants, and they have been mostly ignored by the governments of San José and Costa Rica.


These children walk the dirt streets of La Carpio, heading to school. They pass shacks made of corrugated tin or scraps of wood that can be scavenged from the nearby landfill.

Today there are about 35,000 residents tightly packed into an area that is characterized by appalling poverty, high unemployment, a high crime rate, and homes made of packing crates and corrugated tin.  Most of the current residents are Nicaraguans or their children.  (Children who are born in Costa Rica are recognized as Costa Rican citizens.)


Recently, a group of concerned visitors toured La Carpio.  The group included expats from the USA, as well as visitors from Europe and Asia. The tour was sponsored by the Friends of the Rio Torres and was hosted by Gail Nystrom of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation.  Ms. Nystrom and her group have spent more than two decades working with the poor in La Carpio.


These well-dressed ladies are missionaries from a local church. They walk from house to house bringing messages of hope to homemakers.

As bad as the district looked to the eyes of the visitors, Ms. Nystrom reported that there has been much progress made over the past twenty years.  Some (but not all) of the roads have been paved.  Most of the homes now have running fresh water and sewage connections from the city.  Most of the homes now have cement (as opposed to dirt) floors.   A medical clinic has been established.


A couple of schools have been built, but no high school yet.  Ms. Nystrom says, “We will soon have some students from La Carpio graduating from high school, and some will go on to university.”  She says this will be a milestone for the community.


The future could be in the hands of these eager students, attending one of the elementary schools recently established in La Carpio.

The adults in the community who are fortunate enough to find employment, work at tough labor-intensive jobs such as, cleaning houses, picking up garbage and doing lawn maintenance.  “Costa Rican society depends on them.”  Says Ms. Nystrom.  She also quickly points out that these people have a strong work ethic (when they can find work).  In her years in La Carpio, she tells the group of visitors, no one has ever asked for a handout.  They ask for work.


The group of visitors was led down a steep pathway to the banks of the Rio Torres. This is where the poorest of the poor live.  The Rio Torres runs through downtown San José (behind the city zoo and past the Rohrmoser District), and by the time it gets to La Carpio it is little better than a flowing cesspool.


This walkway leads down to the Rio Torres, where the poorest of the poor of La Carpio live. This walkway was until recently, just a slippery mud path. Because of charitable donations and volunteer labor, a stairway of cement has been built.

One of the most memorable sights of the tour is a suspension foot-bridge that crosses the fetid Rio Torres.  It is made of 4 cables that are anchored on either side of the river, and wooden slats that are supposed to provide a walking surface.  This foot-bridge would be a shaky way to cross the river even if it was in good condition.  But vandals have stolen most of the wooden slats . . . more than half of them.  Some good Samaritans, in an attempt to repair the bridge, have mickey-moused the remaining slats together, so that if you are brave enough, you can make it across.


Ms. Nystrom tells us that you will often see mothers holding their young children as they cross the rickety remains of the bridge.  Why do they take such a risk?  Because from here they can walk across the bridge to their jobs cleaning the houses of wealthy people who live far up the hill on the opposite side.  By crossing this dangerous bridge, they will save the 45 cent bus fare.


This suspension foot-bridge was supposed to provide a way for La Carpio residents to cross the polluted Rio Torres. However, it has been ripped apart by vandals, and then cobbled back together. Now only the very brave . . . . and the very desperate use it.

Much has been done by Gail Nystrom and her Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation to help the people of La Carpio. But much remains to be done. If you would like to learn more about this group and their work among the poor, you can view their website by clicking here:  CRHF.


The residents of La Carpio make do with what they can find. Here a family uses scavenged barbed wire as a clothes line.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country.  It’s beaches are among the best in the world.   The rainforests are pristine.  There are exquisite resorts.  But it is not a country without problems.  Although, the La Carpio ghetto is nowhere near Downtown San José, and it is far removed from the up-scale parts of The Central Valley, it is still part of the real San José.


Michael Miller is the author of the first and only guide book that focuses on Downtown San José, Costa Rica, titled The Real San José. Paperback copies are available for sale at selected retail outlets in San José.  An electronic version of The Real San José is available at Amazon/Kindle.  To access it, click here.


Your questions and comments are always welcomed. You can contact Michael directly by email: therealsanjose@gmail.com You can see additional stories that Michael has written about Downtown San José at his website:  TheRealSanJose.com


© 2018 by Michael Miller of The Real San José

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