Costa Rica Notes: Travel Logistics

If you are thinking of traveling to and around Costa Rica, here are a few logistical tips as of November 2015:
  • Before you go:
    • Check http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country/costa-rica.html for traveler alerts and advice (rules do change from time to time); be sure to put the phone number, fax number, email address and physical address for U.S. Embassy San José in your mobile phone contacts (you never know).
    • Check your passport to confirm is hasn’t expired (or is about to expire).
    • Contact your credit card company and bank to let them know you’ll be abroad to avoid any surprises when making purchases.
    • Contact your mobile phone company to see what the roaming situation looks like to avoid any unexpected and excessive roaming charges.
  • There are two major international airports:
    • Fly into Liberia (Daniel Oduber Quirós International) for Guanacaste province and other far northwest destinations.
    • Fly into San José (Juan Santamaría International) for most every place else including Puntarenas province and Caribbean coast destinations.
    • We flew on Southwest Airlines from Denver to San José via Houston (William Hobby International).  The airport is fairly small, but very modern and located on the northwest site of the metropolitan area.
    • Apparently it’s possible to fly from Liberia or San José into some of the smaller airports scattered around the country, but not sure how that works or what it might cost. The tarmac airstrip outside Quepos looked to be doing a pretty good business and even had a Budget rental car outlet.
    • We arrived fairly late in the day (11:30pm) on a weeknight and found security, immigration and customs to be quick and efficient. Same for our departure which was about 9:00a on a weekday. When you head home be prepared to pay a “departure tax” in order to get your boarding pass. US$29 per person payable in colónes or dollars, cash or credit (MasterCard or Visa via cash advance). A pretty good racket (we had to pay a similar “entry visa” fee in Argentina), but one that prevents you from checking in on-line the day before, so get to the airport early, especially if you are flying Southwest Airlines with their first come, first serve boarding model.
  • Renting a car:
    • The setup at the San José airport is very similar to many U.S. airports with most of the big rental car companies present in off-airport locations (we used National Car Rental).
    • We arrived near midnight, so we elected to stay overnight in San José (using the hotel’s airport shuttle), then have the car agency shuttle pick us up at the hotel instead of the airport the next morning which they did quite happily. Strangely, I don’t remember telling National where we were staying, but the shuttle was there at 8:15a and they hauled me off to the depot.
    • Check-out was formal with the full complement of paperwork, car inspection and guided instructions to the vehicle. Very nice, but slow. No “pick your car and go” like you might see in the U.S.
    • It’s advisable (hard to tell if it’s legally required) to buy the extra insurance. Unless you have some something special going with your insurance company back home, your coverage won’t be extended internationally like it is around the U.S. (we called our State Farm agent and he just chuckled, then said “No.”). We paid with our AmEx, which came with US$50,000 in international vehicle loss & damage coverage, but didn’t cover things like insurance deductible, roadside assistance, lost car keys and a few other things. Apparently if you get into a wreck, there’s a lot of paperwork and you can’t leave the country until everyone besides you is happy. Based on my research before the trip, the extra insurance apparently makes happiness occur more quickly. So we paid for the extra insurance and brought a hard copy of our credit card’s benefits description as proof-of-insurance. Apparently, there is no local manufacturing of cars in Costa Rica and the government has high import tariffs. The car we rented was a fairly basic late model full-size Toyota SUV which I would guess would cost about US$30,000 in the U.S. (had they sold that model in the U.S., which they don’t), but down there was priced closer to US$60,000 with all the extra taxes. Cars are expensive and fixing modern cars isn’t cheap or simple, which I suppose explains all the extra this and that.
    • We also rented a GPS unit. I wasn’t sure how consistent / fast our mobile coverage would be and hadn’t really tried out the Google Maps Offline functionality before our trip. I thought it best to pay US$12 a day for the GPS and it was great. The maps and waypoints data came from a local mapping company (NavSat EzMap) and the Garmin device was easy to use. We only got lost once and it was when we were trying to use lat / lon coordinates the device didn’t seem to recognize. Some units come with a mobile network-powered WiFi hotspot, which is pretty cool if you have little kids and need some bandwidth for the old iPad tot entertainment system.
    • Gas stations are fairly frequent, at least along paved highways. If you get a diesel, make sure you know it. I was asked by one pump attendant if the car we had was gas or diesel, which surprised me since diesel have a distinct sound and their exhaust smells very different than a gas engine. Weird that a professional pump jockey couldn’t tell the difference. Speaking of attendants, employees pump for you. You can pay in cash or with a credit card (I was able to use AmEx). Prices are in colónes and volumes in liters. Our rental was sucking on fumes when we filled the tank for the first time and it cost ₡35,400 for 78.84 liters (US$67.92 for 20.83 gallons or about US$3.26 per gallon) of diesel. Not cheap, but not exorbitant and about what you’d pay in Denver if you don’t shop very hard (GasBuddy.com told me on 30/Nov/15 that the Conoco at Havana & Harvard in Aurora, CO, USA was asking $2.99 a gallon). Based on prior research, we’d been expecting to pay US$5.00 to US$6.00 per gallon for gasoline and a bit lower for diesel, but I guess that was old news from before the 2015 crash in global oil prices. We also read someplace that the government sets the price for fuel, so it’s the same every place. Don’t worry about shopping around, just pick a place that looks clean and safe.
  • Driving in the city and the country:
    • Road signs are all in Spanish and the metric system is in use, but many signs and road markings will look familiar plus your vehicle’s speedometer and other gauges will be in metric.
    • City driving is pretty frantic especially once you get off the autopistas. If you’ve driven in other parts of Latin America, southern Europe, Asia or big cities in Africa, no problemo. If you have haven’t, steel yourself. I have driven in some of these places, so I was mostly prepared.
    • What I wasn’t prepared for were the deep, steep, open ditches alongside nearly every highway (often concrete lined and looking like they’d eat your car’s front end if you went into one). It rains a lot in Costa Rica and many roads are cut through solid rock. I guess it’s not practical or cost effective to bury storm sewers as water comes running down from all over the place and someone would probably steal all the drain grates anyway.
    • Some things you’ll see:
      • Traffic lanes are narrow and may end with little to no warning.
      • Shoulders often don’t exist, so a broken down vehicle quickly creates snarled traffic.
      • Double parking is SOP for delivery vehicles which creates pretty much the same situation as a broken down vehicle.
      • One lane bridges are common. Look to see if your direction has to Yield (“Ceda”) or gets to roll through.
      • Motorcycles don’t pay any attention to lanes. They are everywhere, so check your side mirrors and blind spots before changing lanes.
      • I found that drivers generally adhere to traffic signals and many use their turn signals (surprise!).
      • Drivers are aggressive, so be prepared to assert yourself, especially in stop n’ go traffic.
    • Country driving isn’t all that different than driving down a two lane road in the rural southeast U.S. Curvy, hilly, thick vegetation on both sides. Watch for animals (mostly lizards and raccoons), pedestrians and motorcycles / scooters (often with 2 or even 3 riders). There will be some slow vehicles requiring patience as you wait for safe passing opportunities. The fastest roads are 80kph Velocidad Maximum (about 50mph), so plan your longer distance travel times accordingly. The best highways are often toll roads. Get local currency before you set out as you can’t pay in dollars or with credit cards.
    • The policia drive around with their lights on all the time. They aren’t chasing anyone and no siren. Just cruising with their lights on. Highly visible and, well, I guess it’s cool to have your lights on, right?, so what the hell. Mostly in pickups, sometimes in vans and sometimes on enduro-style motorcycles. Always with a hand gun and often with an assault rifle (fully automatic, I assume). Behave yourself on the road as I suspect traffic fines are high, particularly for foreigners who don’t want to hang around to meet with a judge. I don’t want to even think about what happens to a drunk tourist caught driving.
    • One interesting practice in the boonies is that some roads won’t have any markings. No center line, no fog lines. The roads are often wider and will accommodate 3 traffic lanes (unless one of the vehicles is a semi-truck). The trick is figuring out who gets to use that middle lane while avoiding a head-on collision. Is it the guy going up the hill? Down the hill? Whoever occupies the lane first? I have no idea if there are actual traffic rules or even a rule of thumb, but we didn’t get killed and you won’t either if you pay attention.
    • The number one tip is “focus and watch for crazy”. Because of the constant crazy (or high potential for unexpected crazy), I found that I was much more engaged driving in Costa Rica than back home. Always scanning and watching and working to avoid hitting (or getting hit by) crazy.

Another good resource: Anywhere Costa Rica – Renting a Car and Driving in Costa Rica.

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