Paradise Found

At what seems to be the end of the earth, on the lush, northwestern coast of Costa Rica, a tight-knit community of expat Israelis has coalesced in recent years. In between forays to the beach, they manage to make a living.

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA - Even when you get to the end of the world and turn left, as a popular Israeli movie has it, there is still a long journey ahead. Potholed dirt roads, bridges so narrow that one vehicle can barely cross, and no alternative except to drive slowly, no more than 25-35 kilometers an hour. Tangled trees and brush climb the steep slopes bracketing the road. Then, suddenly, in an instant, the jungle opens onto a sweeping vista of deep blue: The ocean simply fills the eyes. We have reached the edge of Central America and have arrived in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. Last month they celebrated the Passover seder here with more than 300 Israelis - and found out that it's not for nothing that people call this place "Little Israel on the Pacific."

The Internet site, to which some 45 million tourists around the world turn for advice, rates Santa Teresa No. 1 on the list of the 10 "most exciting" beaches in the whole of Latin America. There's eternal sun and warmth, crystalline water, soft white sand, great surfing waves, tranquility.

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Quite a few Israelis have made Santa Teresa their home in recent years. They have opened businesses, established households, had children and created a community. They are not wrestling with questions of identity; they are living the moment.

The Nicoya Peninsula, with its hooked shape, like an eagle's beak, juts out from northwest Costa Rica into the Pacific Ocean. In ancient times the area was home to the Garabito tribe of Indians, who survived on hunting and fishing, thanks to the abundance provided by the forests and the sea. The tribe was almost completely obliterated by disease and war, in the wake of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Nearly all of those who survived were enslaved and died in bondage. Until the 1990s, Santa Teresa was a small, sleepy fishing village, occasionally visited by tourists and surfers, who spread the word about the area's extraordinary features.

From a corner of a shaded yard, Avi Avraham, 42, formerly a resident of Bat Yam, observes the waitresses in his restaurant, called Zula. The place is packed with Israelis, young, tanned, their skin covered with salt. Lively, happy-sounding conversation in Hebrew is heard from every corner as hummus and falafel are consumed, or perhaps schnitzel with salad in a pita, washed down with an ice-cold mango or guanabana shake.

"Eight years ago I went on a surfing trip, came to Costa Rica and found myself here," Avraham relates. "I still remember the moment when I lay in a hammock on the beach, swinging back and forth, and said to myself, 'I will come back to this place.' I returned to Israel, sold my business, took my brother Rotem, who had just completed his army service, and headed for Santa Teresa. We started with nothing and worked hard. First we opened the restaurant, Zula, and afterward the hotel, Zula Inn.

"What keeps me here?" he continues. "I get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and stroll down to the seashore. The whole year round I start the day by surfing. In Israel I would get up, leave home on the run, get stuck in the traffic on the Ayalon - lots of pressure."

The first Israelis who settled here, about 12 years ago, were young people from Ashkelon, Avraham notes. Then came what he calls the "second aliyah," from Bat Yam and Tel Aviv. The third wave of immigration is still ongoing: people from kibbutzim, moshavim and other cities and towns. In the early years the business opportunities were very tempting. Property adjacent to the shoreline could be purchased from local residents for a song - $6,000 to $20,000 a dunam (a quarter of an acre ). Development and building were also affordable, he recalls, even for those who arrived with little cash. Israelis opened restaurants, hotels, clothing stores, surfing equipment shops and a surfing school; newcomers have begun to dabble in real estate.

At present, there are now more than 100 Israelis - singles, couples and families with children - living in Santa Teresa, and they own about 15 percent of the local businesses; another 300 to 400 Israelis come to stay here "temporarily." According to Avraham, the expats have created a very cohesive community.

"They are together all the time - on the beach, they go see the sunset together, they celebrate the holidays together," he says. "Recently, they opened a synagogue here - a vacant store became a [pluralistic] house of worship. They send out e-mails to the community with announcements about events, birthdays and whatever is of interest."

Avraham married a young local woman and is the proud father of a 10-month-old daughter. "This place has become popular for honeymoons," he says. "We are also now seeing families with children who rent a house for a month or two. They call it 'taking a break from life.' There are also tourists from all around the world, so Santa Teresa is a colorful, lively place every season of the year. The town and the beach have managed to preserve an authentic local character, but at the same time, all the tourist services exist here - for everyone from broke backpackers to wealthy travelers. You can get a room for anything between $20 a night to $1,000 in the big hotels."

The main street of Santa Teresa is also its only street. It's a dirt road, and all plans for paving it are washed away annually in the downpours that mark the rainy season, between May and December. The street runs parallel to the ocean, is surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and is flanked by commercial enterprises, including Roni's supermarket, an Italian restaurant, Amit's surfing school. Billboards tell you where to get jahnun, a Yemenite delicacy, on Shabbat, and the best falafel in town.

The most popular modes of transportation are all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles; the dress code is flip-flops, short pants, T-shirts and a two-day growth of beard.

Shlomi Marmelstein, from Herzliya, is relaxing in a hammock outside his shorefront "office," watching his two young daughters, Sivan and Gabriella, riding horses nearby. He and his New York-born wife, Adel, arrived in Santa Teresa eight years ago for their honeymoon.

"During that vacation," Adel Marmelstein says, "we decided that this is where we want to have and raise our children."

The couple bought property by the shore, between the trees, and in time built three lovely cabins for rental to tourists. They are now building a Latin American Indian-style bar that overlooks the rolling waves. "Most of the Israeli kids go to a private school, which is located a very short drive from Santa Teresa," she continues. "It's a Canadian school, and the languages of instruction are English and Spanish. There is a plan to open an Israeli, [religious, Hebrew-speaking] educational framework of some kind, but it's still in the talking stage. In the meantime, Chabad organizes educational activities on Sundays."

Shlomi's father, David ("He's 73 - going on 20," Shlomi says of him fondly ), visited his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Santa Teresa several times, until he too decided to make his home here. David Marmelstein was formerly the owner of Mama Coca, a bar in the Diamond Exchange area of Ramat Gan. He now owns a sushi place in Santa Teresa, has two young waitresses working for him - Swedish and Nicaraguan - and counts himself lucky.

"I liked the place, I had some savings, Shlomi told me there was a suitable place, so I opened the business," he says. "I buy fresh fish from the local fishermen and feed the tourists."

His daily routine in Santa Teresa? "I get up in the morning, make myself a cup of coffee and sit on the porch under a mango tree. The monkeys jump through the branches over my head, I scatter breadcrumbs for the birds and they sing to me. In my spare time I watch Israeli TV channels on the computer, so I keep up to date about events there. My roots are in Israel, but my life is here. My health is good, my blood pressure is fine."

Erez Yatzkan, 28, from Tel Aviv, one of the young generation of Israelis in Santa Teresa, has become a successful real estate agent. "I buy land for a penny and a half, develop it, put in infrastructure, parcel it into lots, and sell it to Americans, Canadians and others who want to build themselves vacation homes in Costa Rica." How much is "a penny and a half"?

"My last project covers an area of 1,000 dunams [250 acres], not far from here, which was bought from local farmers for $1.25 a square meter. After development it can be sold for a 400 percent profit. I organize groups of Israeli investors. Each of them finances part of the purchase and in the end they make a handsome profit," he explains.

More than 10 years ago, before being drafted, Yatzkan came to Santa Teresa on a surfing trip. "I slept on the beach in a tent. One day, an American guy told me he had bought 10 dunams of land for $1,000. I kept thinking about that story. After the army I studied securities trading and established a business to renovate old cars and sell them as 'collectors' vehicles.' But I kept thinking about Santa Teresa, until finally, five years ago, I left everything and came here. I spend at least two hours a day surfing, and I do business the rest of the time. Far from the pressure and noise I had around me in Israel."

The Santa Teresa region also attracts celebrities, among them Mel Gibson, who built himself a dream house on the slope of a hill above the ocean. Last year, when he hosted Britney Spears as his guest, the area was overrun by paparazzi for a few days, before the usual quiet returned. A local joke has it that Gibson, who fomented a storm in the past with anti-Semitic remarks, came to the end of the world to build himself a haven there - only to discover that he was surrounded by Jews.

In the morning, as the sun rises into the sky above the jungle treetops, and the aroma of fresh coffee wafts in the breeze, thousands of brightly colored butterflies flutter in the lush vegetation. Each type of spectacular winged creature seems to have its own flower, whose colors match its wings and from which it draw sustenance. It's all part of the harmony of nature that exists here. The locals are aware of these symbiotic relations and plant flowers that will attract the butterflies. It's likely they have also found the kind of flowers that attract Israelis.