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.

BA Notes: Renting a Car

Renting a car in Argentina is not like in the US.  It’s strange to me the agency we chose, Europcar (which is a major international agency), didn’t provide any instructions in my reservation on how the process works.  Unlike in the US, the agencies don’t have cars at the airport and I don’t believe they have shuttle buses.  Instead, they bring the car to you.  Had I understood this, we would have taken a very different approach than we did: rather than using a car service to get to our destination and going out later for the car, I would have instead coordinated a car pick-up immediately at arrival and would have saved several hours (literally).  But I didn’t know any of this until after I got there.

Before we left for BA, I had done some investigating and scoped out the address for the rental company offices.  I didn’t take long to figure out that the address was nowhere near the airport (it was actually some 20km away), so we decided we’d use a car service to get to the home of the friends we were staying with, Doug & Kelly Parker.  I figured everyone would be tired and nobody would be up for a long shuttle ride.  After we’d gotten to our destination and settled in a little, one of our hosts could run me to the car place.  With this simple plan made, I actually changed the reservation to rent from an office with an address near Aeroparque Jorge Newbery which was closer to where we were staying than the address for the office associated with Ezeiza International Airport.  BA has an international airport (Ezeiza) and a domestic / regional airport (Newbery).

After I got my family settled in, Doug and I hopped in the car and headed out to Newbery.  We arrived to discover Europcar didn’t have a service counter there.  I looked at my reservation info and we determined the address was about 10min away in the CBD.  We later found the office, but it was closed despite being about 2:00pm in the afternoon and clearly within the office hours on my confirmation.  I was eventually rescued by Mercedes, a local woman who works in Doug’s office.  She made some calls the next day and determined the office was closed because the person was shuttling a car to someone else.  Mercedes told me that everything was sorted out and I need to go to a location altogether different than the pair I knew about.  She sent a car service to retrieve us, I gave the driver the address (he knew zero English) and 20min later we arrived at the Buquebus building downtown.

Buquebus is the dominant company operating ferry services to Uruguay and other destinations around the River Plate Delta.  It turns out Europcar had a counter at the ferry terminal.  We walked into the terminal and I immediately saw signs for Europcar.  Hooray!  We followed the signs to a very nice office area with a waiting room and a bunch of cubes filled with people in matching uniforms meeting with others.  Apparently, Buquebus also has a travel agency business.  We waited our turn and then we were re-directed back out into the main hall of the terminal to a unmarked service counter.  We had walked right past the Europcar guy.  I strode up to the counter and announced who I was.  He spoke very little English, but he figured out that I was the guy that had been looking all over town for a car (Mercedes is apparently a very effective communicator and networker).  He had paperwork with my name and had the rate correct, so things flowed pretty well from there.

The only oddity was when we talked about insurance, he showed me a figure on the rental documents that was in US$ for about 4x what our rate was.  It made no sense and the language barrier was in our path.  He put me on the phone with an English speaking co-worker who explained they don’t do insurance there.  Instead, they pre-authorize a deposit on your credit card.  You wreck the car, you lose the deposit and that’s it.  Nothing else to worry about.  You don’t wreck the car, no loss of deposit.  This sounded odd to me and I couldn’t see how that amount of money would cover: a) a serious wreck or b) injuries, but it was difficult to communicate, so we went with it.  I later inquired with Mercedes about this deposit business and she too found it odd.

After all the paperwork was done, we settled on a rendezvous point for dropping off the car at the end of the week.  In the prior 24hrs, I had begun to get a picture for how things worked and we settled on dropping off the car at the United Airlines ticket counter at Ezeiza the evening of our return to the US.  We went to the car, inspected it (a late model Renault Mégane with a 5 speed manual transmission), signed the paperwork and off we went.  The car was fine all week with no complaints.  I did have to get gas part of the way through and this too was a little different than the US.  Argentine gas stations make use of the service model we had in place in the US back in the ‘50s: an employee of the station fills your car.  Simple enough provided you know how to indicate the amount of fuel you’d like (I did it the easy way and ask for “completo”… fill ‘er up) and that you remember to give the person a tip.  AR$2 or AR$3 is usually enough.

At the end of the week, we managed to return the car, but not without a little drama.  I had set a time that was a couple hours before our flight.  We checked in with the airline, got rid of our bags, then hung out in the United Airlines ticketing area.  15min after the appointed time, still no guy from Europcar.  I wandered all over looking for someone who might be looking for me (with about 5,000 other people also looking for someone) and finally walked over to the area where most of the rental car agencies had counters.  I was getting a little desperate to rid myself of the car as we had been told the security lines were at least an hour long.   I found an English speaking employee of another car company who actually knew the person from Europcar that shuttled the cars back n’ forth to the airport.  What were the odds of that?

He called the guy on his mobile and he soon arrived in front of me.  We walked to short term parking to inspect the car and sign the paperwork again.  I also gave him my ticket for the parking lot.  One disconnect was the final receipt he wanted to give me showed a much larger US$ than it should have.  I thought to myself: “Is this the deposit coming back to bite me like some sort of super insurance surcharge?”.  The Europcar guy spoke no English, but he quickly figured out  my concern and indicated it was a mistake.  He said they would mail me the receipt.  Nearly a month later, still no receipt at my home, but the credit card charges match my reservation, so I guess it all worked out.

Looking back on this, there appear to be two different scenarios.  One, agencies that have a presence at the airport.  Usually a small service counter or kiosk.  The other scenario is agencies that have no formal presence.  For both, the process is best started with making a reservation on-line.  I would NOT recommend trying to rent a car on the spur of the moment as I expect it takes a LONG time to handle such a transaction.

Scenario 1: With a Presence

When you arrive at the airport, check in at the kiosk for the agency you have selected.  The agency will work out the paperwork with you (credit card info, passport info, etc).  Ahead of time, they should have shuttled your car to the airport.  The agency staff will go out into the short term parking area to inspect the car with you.  Sign the paperwork and away you go.  It is not a fast process, but it works.  I did notice that at Ezeiza International Airport a couple of the big car companies had a few cars sitting in short term parking.   There were signs for Alamo, Hertz and Avis sitting in front of 3-4 parking spots.  So these companies at least have reserved parking spots for their cars, but that’s not the same as having a whole parking lot of cars waiting for you.  If you haven’t made a reservation in advance, I suspect you’ll be waiting a very long time for the agency to call the compound where their cars are stored, find a driver and have the vehicle shuttled over to the airport.

Scenario 2: Without a Presence

If the agency does NOT have a kiosk (e.g. Europcar), then I believe their people will meet you in the arrivals lounge at the airport with a printed placard showing your last name, much like a car service would.  The agency staff will go out into the short term parking area to inspect the car with you, work out the paperwork, etc.

Returning your car under each scenario would follow similar processes, but in reverse.  All in all, it was slow and confusing, but it will obviously be much easier the next time.  If you absolutely must rent a car in Argentina, just be prepared for what I’ve described and it should work out.  While I haven’t been to other countries in the region, I’d bet the process is similar in many places.  Just inquire ahead of time.  Good luck!

Tips

  • Be patient.
  • When filling up your car with gas, go “completo”.  Unless you actually know Spanish.  Don’t forget to tip.
  • Allow extra time to pick-up and drop-off your vehicle.  And do it at the airport.
  • Don’t lose the airport parking lot ticket.
  • Find out about insurance and deposits before you go.

Buenos Aires Notes

Well.  Where to start?  Despite having quite a bit of international travel under my belt, most of it has been for business which means I really haven’t spent a lot time getting to know the places I’ve been.  Last month I, my family and I traveled to South America and spent a week banging around Buenos Aires.  It was both frustrating and thrilling.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a trip like ours to others, but be patient and enjoy the experience: the good, the bad and everything in between.

I have a lot of content to share, so I thought I’d spread it around between this blog and my family blog:

  • Over on RockyMtnFuller.com, there are daily accounts of what we did and saw.
  • Here on OpenKimono, I am going to post a few things about language, culture and more “technical” posts talking about the challenges and tricks of traveling not only in a country where we didn’t know the language, but also within a massive city with nearly 13M residents in the metropolitan area.

Now, without further ado…

2009: A Brief Year in Review

Well.  Here we are once again. Another year come and gone. For some reason this year I feel like I didn’t really accomplish as many things as I’d hoped to.  I really threw myself into working with my Point B friends / colleagues to help our clients and our firm weather the storm, which took its toll on my personal time especially since my work assignments have been at client locations 30 to 45 miles from home, sapping away precious time driving on the days I need to be in the office.  I also gave up quite a few evenings for work-related outings plus business trips to Frankfurt (once), Hartford (several) and Seattle (once).  I believe it was worth it, but hoping to take a small step back in 2010.

Still, I did manage a few other things.  Made personal trips to Kīhei, Bismarck and North Platte.  Sold off my ’88 Jeep Wrangler and acquired an ’03 Flagstaff 208 pop-up camper.  Spent 300+ hours on soccer from coaching practices and games to coaching education and even playing.  Plus at least 100 more hours doing work with / for our soccer club’s board.  Soccer has become my number 1 hobby, dominating weeknights and weekends alike.  Made a batch of beer.  Built new friendships in the neighborhood where I live, which is something sort of new to me as I tend to hang out with work colleagues.  Thanks to John, Tinna, Mark and Cee Cee for the good times this year!  And thanks to Julie for getting me out of my office to socialize.  Helped out Erin with her school’s Flat Stanley Project.  Hosted Thanksgiving for 11 including my first fried turkey (much to learn about that process).  Sitting at 591 LinkedIn connections and 259 Facebook connections.  Posted to this blog a dozen times and 8 times on RockyMtnFuller.com.  I say it every year, but I need to write more!  Supported Bal Swan Children’s Center and Hope House of Colorado.

Now for some New Years’ resolutions.  I need to run, ride and swim more.  My mileage (e.g. only 358 run miles in 2009) was pushed down to the bare minimum and that has to change.  More beer making.  I need to work with Grace on posting to the family blog.  She’s become a wonderful, imaginative writer and should be leveraging the outlet.  A bit less soccer (although I’m not sure how I will make that happen yet).  Put the new camper to use and accrue a lot of outdoors time this coming summer.  I live in Colorado.  Time to get back to why we live here.

And I leave you with this: JibJab’s usual irreverent compilation of recent events encapsulated in their short film entitled Never a Year Like ’09.

2008: A Brief Year in Review

Let’s see.  What happened this year?  Quite a bit actually.

According to my 2008 annual report from Dopplr, I traveled 189,838 km (52% of the distance to the moon) to achieve an average “personal velocity” of 21.8 km/hr over the year.  And that doesn’t count my Nike Training Log totals for 133 runs (572 mi over 81 hrs 31 min).  I spent many, many hours coaching soccer, playing soccer, watching soccer or talking about soccer, but I still love it.  I shut down my business and opened up a new career chapter.  Bought a house, sold a house, then refinanced a house.  Hosted a family reunion for 13 and a Thanksgiving dinner for 13.  Crested 500 business connections in LinkedIn and 170 friends in Facebook.  Watched my investment portfolio crater, then shifted gears to take advantage of the market opportunity.  Grew my MP3 collection to more than 4,300 tracks (with many, many more CDs yet to rip) and converted 722 35mm slides to digital images.  I shoveled, mowed, mulched, weed whacked and leaf blowed a whole bunch.  Posted a rather lame 27 times on this blog.  Gotta do better than every other week in 2009, but not exactly off to a blazing start, am I?  I did fire up rockymtnfuller.com, so that has to count for something.

Anyway, a busy year with another on the way.

Now, I leave you with this: JibJab’s usual irreverent compilation of recent events encapsulated in their short film entitled What a @#$% Year! 2008.

Drambuie Unboxing

Aged Malt Whiskies, Spiced Honey and other Secret Stuff

Aged Malt Whiskies, Spiced Honey and other Secret Stuff

Over 250 years ago, Captain John Mackinnon helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from his pursuers on the Isle of Skye. His reward was to be entrusted with the recipe for Drambuie, which has been handed down through the generations and remains a closely guarded secret by the Mackinnon family to this day.

Weel may we a’ be,
Ill may we never see;
Here’s to the King
And the gude companie.

Through good fortune not unlike that bestowed upon John as he rescued Charlie, I received this Christmas a fine bottle of the sweet nectar that is Drambuie.  Truth be told, I asked for it and thusly did receive from my wise older sister Kris.  I am forever in her debt or at least in her debt until I’ve finished the bottle. Shouldn’t take too long.

Micro Movie Magic

If you’ve been reading my blog lately, you know I’ve spent a lot of time in the air this year. Since I always ride in coach and there’s no room for my 6’3” body to work with a laptop, I end up reading or watching movies whenever I’m not sleeping. In terms of films, both South African Airways and Delta Air Lines have pretty good in-flight entertainment systems with individual on-demand video systems.  As a result, I count 26 movies watched in the air this year. I thought I’d devote a post to movie reviews. However, since they have little tiny screens on airplanes, these are just little tiny reviews. Enjoy.

  1. Juno: A quirky perspective on teen pregnancy.
  2. Beowulf: All CGI. Angelina Jolie’s digital instance is pretty awesome.
  3. Atonement: A little depressing. My one chick flick for the year.
  4. We Own the Night: Not buying Marky Mark and Joaquin Phoenix as brothers, but there’s a really unsual car chase in a rain storm. I love car chases!
  5. Knocked Up: Incredibly funny. Seth Rogan is great and Katherine Heigl is very sweet.
  6. Dan in Real Life: Oops. Another chick flick. With Steve Carrell and Dana Cook, I expected it to be really funny, but this is a serious movie. Still pretty good.
  7. Cloverfield: Not sure I’d see it again since the outcome is spoiled now, but everyone should see it once. Good, clean monster movie fun.
  8. I Am Legend: A better kind of zombie movie. Check it out.
  9. Jumper: Just okay. Don’t expect Anakin to wield any light sabres in this one.
  10. Into the Wild: I gave up. Sean Penn goes overboard with the artistic stuff. I did like Vince Vaughn as the leader of a gypsy harvest combine crew.
  11. Charlie Wilson’s War: Surprisingly good. I don’t agree politically with the real Charlie Wilson, but the movie was a lot of fun.
  12. Elizabeth – The Golden Age: I fell asleep.
  13. National Treasure – Book of Secrets: How can Nicolas Cage play this kid-friendly, quasi action hero role, then go off to another movie where he’s a complete psycho? Whatever. A good addition to the Nat T franchise.  And it has a car chase!
  14. Gone Baby Gone: I usually hate this kind of “kid in peril” movie. But it had a lot of twists and turns and I enjoy Ed Harris (who was also in NT: BoS).
  15. Semi Pro: Goofy. Silly. Prototypical Will Ferrell.
  16. Be Kind Rewind: This is an odd little film. It was shot to look like a home movie which is funny given the plotline. The movie is a little Weird Science and a lot something else.
  17. The Bank Job: Jason Statham is cool. Typecast, but cool. I can imagine him playing David Beckham in a soccer biopic.
  18. Drillbit Taylor: Owen Wilson is slipping a bit. Just okay.
  19. I, Robot: An oldie, but goodie, as they say. High quality sci-fi is a weakness of mine. This is almost as good as Minority Report.  And it has trucks-full-of-robots-chasing-a-car chase!
  20. An Inconvenient Truth: Way better than I expected. The scariest part of this film is that it was made by a politician with clarity and who seemed to make sense. The situation must be much worse than it appears for that to have happened.  But no car chases.
  21. Leatherheads: George Clooney and Renée Zellweger try a wee bit too hard to have chemistry, but it’s not every day someone makes a football movie from this era. Good for a view.
  22. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Another favorite classic. I need to go to Wudan school.
  23. 21: The book was better.
  24. Master & Commander – The Far Side of the World: The next best thing to a car chase is a 19th century round-the-world tall ship chase.
  25. 10,000 BC: I didn’t realize that in ancient Egypt there were massive mountain ranges full of mastodons, vast jungles with super sized flightless vultures AND the giant deserts you normally associate with the region (plus you could pretty easily walk across all this terrain in a few days), but it’s right here on film.
  26. Vantage Point: This movie is good up until about the 4th run through of the assassination sequence from a different point-of-view, then it started to get a bit repetitive (literally).  Still it’s not bad.  And there’s a great car chase through the streets of Mexico City (the movie was “set” in Salamanca but not “shot” there).