Less Crowded Mayan Ruins and Sites in Central America

So the Mayans had predicted that the world would come to an end in December 2012 and though going by the present circumstances there does not seem any indication to an impeding catastrophe, this does not in any way take away from the fact that the ancient Mayan civilization greatly shaped the culture, thoughts and ideas in Central America. Even today, the ancient Mayan sites continue to be a huge draw in the region, and while some of the mysteries they contain have been unravelled, there is still much that has to be unearthed and understood in the right context and the right perspective. While there are several ancient Mayan ruins and sites, here are some of the less crowded ones that you may wish to visit.

Calakmul, Campeche (Mexico)

Calakmul was one of the most important cities of the Mayan civilization, home to around 50,000 people. The city dates the Pre-classic period ((300 B.C. to 240 A.D.) but it reached the peak of its existence during the Classic period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.). While the 6000 structures within the city continue to be the main draw, the surrounding Calakmul Biosphere Reserve also has much to offer. The reserve is spread over 723,000 hectares and is a paradise for the bird watchers and the wildlife enthusiasts. Besides, it also houses some stone monuments in the form of a high-relief sculpture that were popular and characteristic of the Mayan civilization.

Palenque (Mexico)

This was one of the most important cities during the Classic period and reached its golden era between 600 and 800 A.D. It was the seat of the powerful Pakal dynasty. The architecture found here includes tilted facades on the buildings and stucco-sections, features that are uncharacteristic of that period. The most notable building here is the Temple XIII, where the Tomb of the Red Queen was found in 1994. Palenque is a hot spot with the archaeologists and those interested in the written language and architecture.

Yaxchilán (Mexico)

Yaxchilán is located on the Usumacinta River Yaxchilán represents a style that was very prominent during the Classic Mayan age with architecture engraved with inscriptions and extensive sculpture. The city, in alliance with Tikal, fought a major battle with Palenque. The city represents strategic planning and was built on a peninsula formed by a bend in the Usumacinta River. Even today, Yaxchilán can only be accessed by taking a small boat up the river.

Besides, there are other sites that visitors can access including Campeche’s Edzná and Ek Balam. Even though they are less crowded than their more famous counterparts, these sites have their share of admirers and are especially revered by the archaeologists, language interest and ofcourse, the history enthusiasts not to forget the tourists. Mexico enjoys a reputation of being a popular visitor destination, which has much to offer than just the Mayan sites. There are plenty of accommodation options which visitors can choose from including private Central America villas for those who wish to stay here for a longer period.

Costa Rica: Central America’s Hidden Gem

Nuestra Señora de la Muerte.

Imaginations of a secret death cult tormented me as I rounded yet another hairpin bend on a mist-shrouded mountainside. A lightly guardrailed drop of lord knows how many hundreds of feet was just inches away.

Pura vida, hell,” I thought to myself grimly. “These ticos want to end it all and take me with them.”

I’d seen some dodgy driving. I thought African minibus taxis were the worst. But that was before I drove a rented jeep across the mountainous back roads from Quepos to San José, Costa Rica, during a rainy harvest season. Massive flatbeds packed with heavy sacks of coffee beans crawled up the steep single-lane passes. Impatient locals thought nothing of overtaking them against the traffic on the blind curves… presumably crossing themselves as they did.

“Ah, señor,” said the bartender back at the hotel, as I explained that my shaking hands weren’t due to alcohol deprivation. “Only locos make that trip this time of year.”

Call me loco, because this week I head back to Costa Rica to do it again…

Costa Rica: The “Uruguay” of Central America

Costa Rica is an unusual place.

For starters, its army was disbanded shortly after World War II in order to take military coups out of the political equation. It’s been peaceful ever since, unlike its Central American neighbors.

Like Uruguay farther south, Costa Rica has a strong track record of good governance, strong economic growth and good policies on individual rights, human development and care for the environment. Thanks to its military-free budget, it has a highly educated population, low inequality and correspondingly low crime.

The country’s focus on good living rather than political squabbling has allowed it to move from dependence on coffee and banana exports to a diversified economy embracing medical and ecotourism, pharmaceuticals and software. It has good infrastructure and communications services.

To top it all off, ticos have been at the top of global “happiest people” lists for years.

An Open Society

With 3.5 million tourists annually, Costa Rica is the most visited nation in Central America. The main nonregional sources are the U.S. and Canada, although European visits are growing fast thanks to a new international airport at Liberia on the Pacific coast. Tourism now brings in more foreign exchange than bananas and coffee combined.

The country is home to about 50,000 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians. They come for the climate and environment, but also to take advantage of a good standard of living at a lower cost than at home. You can get residence by proving at least $1,000 in monthly retirement or other income. There are currently no taxes on foreign source income.

Once you’re in, you can enroll in Costa Rica’s excellent public health care system, where you pay a small monthly income-based fee that gives you access to more than 30 hospitals and 250 clinics. Private health care is world-class, which is why many people go there for surgery. Overall health care costs are a fraction of the U.S. Private health insurance costs about $60 a month.

Housing costs are reasonable, but as you might imagine with so many foreigners around, homes aren’t super cheap. Houses on the popular Pacific coast can run to the millions, and rentals can be several thousand dollars a month. But decent family homes slightly back from the coast or inland can be had for much less than comparable properties in the U.S.

So What’s the Catch?

Unlike Panama to the south, Costa Rica doesn’t have a strong banking tradition. Costa Rican law makes it easy for government and tax authorities to learn the owners of accounts. It’s also compliant with international tax-reporting agreements. It’s not known for offshore legal structures.

That’s because, unlike Panama, the country has little history in private banking. Until 1996, the only banks in the country were public institutions. Private banks have since emerged, but they just aren’t set up for the sorts of international banking in which Panama (or the Cayman Islands) specialize. They’re just everyday retail banks, albeit solid ones.

In addition, although foreign source income isn’t currently taxed, the government of President Luis Guillermo Solís recently proposed to tax the worldwide income of Costa Rican tax residents. That status would apply to anyone who spends more than 183 days a year in the country.

The law would give credit for foreign taxes paid, which is good. But it’s unclear whether it would tax U.S. taxpayers’ foreign income that currently enjoys the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion ($100,800 per annum, double for couples). It might also lead to Costa Rican taxation of Roth IRA distributions, which are tax-free in the U.S.

The Preliminary Verdict

People often ask my opinion of specific countries. My answer is usually: It depends. What do you want from a country?

Costa Rica is a great place if you want to retire in a beautiful, safe country with a warm climate, friendly people and a high standard of living. But it’s not the place to keep your money or to set up a foreign asset protection vehicle.

But as I stress, money isn’t everything. It’s just a means to an end… and depending on your goals, Costa Rica might just be the place to end up.

What Everybody Ought To Know About Real Estate Investing In Central America

1. Determine what market is right for you and focus there

Good investments can be found in every market but whether a particular market is right for you will depend on your investment goals – do you have a speculator’s stomach? Do you want immediate access to amenities and a sense of community?

As a general rule, regions at earlier stages of a property development curve will have a higher potential for rapid capital appreciation than more mature areas but investments here will also have a higher inherent market risk. In more mature markets, the infrastructure will be better quality and the tourism industry and associated amenities more developed providing more potential for rental income.

Choose the risk/reward profile you are comfortable with and set your investment goals early. As Garry Keller notes in The Millionaire Real Estate Investor, when researching investment opportunities: “Think powered by a big why”.

2. Don’t believe the hype

In Central America there is no overarching multiple listing service (MLS) for real estate and no centralized tracking of the price properties have sold for in the past. There is no local equivalent of http://www.zillow.com for the regional real estate market. This means that the market is particularly prone to exaggeration and hype, sometimes in both directions.

Build a good network that will allow you to triangulate and contextualize information that you receive, learn from professionals and be skeptical about claims that you can flip your property for 100% more “when the next real estate tour come into town in a few weeks.” A solid piece of advice is to buy only what you see. Make up your mind on the inherent value of the property you are looking at. Don’t factor in the “new coastal road” the “new airport” the “new Marriott” into the price.

3. Understand the link between tourism and real estate

Across Central America, the areas that attract most tourism numbers also generate the highest levels of real estate activity. Add data on tourism rates into your research and seek out areas that are experiencing growing numbers of tourist visitors. It is a safe bet that real estate dollars will follow close behind.

If you dream of a vacation home in the truest sense of the word, a property that you can enjoy right now and not sometime in the distant future, then seek out established tourism destinations. You will also find that rental returns are highest here.

4. Choose a good attorney

The general level of credibility and professionalism that attorneys exhibit can vary considerably between different countries. Attorneys in Belize, for example, have a high professional standing while in other countries real estate investors have experienced shady practice from attorneys they have chosen. It makes sense to find an attorney who speaks English (unless of course you are fluent in Spanish) and who commits to keep regular communications with you throughout the due diligence and closing process. Remember that you may be out of the country over this period and communication via email may be crucial.

In some countries it is possible to get a good list of attorneys approved by major title insurance companies. You are free to choose from the list whether or not you decide to take out title insurance. (For more on title insurance see below). Real estate developers have been known to try and persuade buyers to use their own legal team for property purchasing. Our advice is to employ independent legal advise at least to review (if not draw up) the purchase contract you are signing and check the title history on the property.

5. Make title insurance a non-negotiable

We recommend taking out title insurance for all your purchases in Central America. Though the process can at times be bureaucratic and cumbersome (and realtors like to remind you of this) it can unearth potential problems with your title before it is too late. Seeking title insurance will force your attorney to delve deeply into the title history of your property and follow a set of criteria in their reporting. Seek out well established title insurance companies that have a track record of offering polices in Central America, such as Stuart Title or First American. With both of these companies your insurance policy will be paid for in the US and any claims are made to the company in the US.

6. Don’t assume you can finance your purchase

In many Central American countries it can be very hard to obtain a loan from a local bank and, where it is possible, the interest rates are not competitive to the US and terms can be unfavorable. Panama stands out in this regard as competitive financing is relatively easy to obtain. In most countries you can normally find private lenders offering loans based on refinancing US assets and an ever increasing number of developers are offering owner/developer financing although this number is still small in absolute terms.

7. Give something back

The strap line of Las Fincas a development project in Nicaragua designed using sustainable development principles is “invest with confidence…develop with a conscience.” Investing responsibly makes a great deal of sense both for the country as a whole and for your individual investment. Central America is a warmhearted region welcoming to international visitors. In order for this warm feeling to endure into the future, local communities need to benefit from the real estate and tourism activity that is going on in the country. As the community grows and develops so the foundation for real estate becomes more solid and sustainable.