“Those are all the ways you can tell people are gone,” Mr. Pagán said. “Around 2008, 2009, you started to notice the difference.”
Nowhere is the drop more noticeable than in the town square. When banks and government services offices pulled out, nobody had reason to go there. Shops started to close one by one.
“We stay open in the afternoon to clean up and sell coffee, but we could just as well close at 1 p.m.,” said Edgar Martinez, who owns a cafeteria that faces the plaza near the mayor’s office. “After 1 p.m., we sell nothing here.”
Luz Pérez, 74, spent a recent afternoon working at her sister’s souvenir shop. Not a single customer came by. She reminisced about the childhood she spent in a town busy with commerce.
“Knock on any door in this neighborhood and ask how many people live there,” she said. “Then ask how many people used to live there.”
Edwin Soto, the head of the coffee growers’ association, said it had become increasingly difficult to hold on to employees. For one, most people do not wish to earn the $5.25 minimum wage offered in the fields.
“A lot of my employees have left,” Mr. Soto said, noting that even his major-domo, who earned $9 an hour with free housing, quit to try landscaping in Florida.
Still, he doesn’t feel all is lost.
Mr. Soto’s Cafe Lealtad is one of several chic coffee shops perched on mountaintops, where the owners envision streams of visitors eager to leave beachside tourist traps for a day of serenity. His family is pouring millions into a mountainside resort.
Another local businessman, José Rodríguez, is also betting on that future. He opened Heladeria El Grito, an ice-cream parlor right beside Heladeria Lares, the famous one that former President Bill Clinton once visited, and plans to rent eight beds on the floors above it on Airbnb.
“People say I’m crazy,” Mr. Rodríguez said. “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just move into the house…