What do you look for when you are thinking about a tropical vacation setting south of the border? Sun, sand, jungle, rivers, ocean, awesome climate? Well, it just so happens that Costa Rica has all that (including TWO oceans).
How many countries can claim that? During the 7 days that we explored this country we saw the bustling city life of San Jose, the absolute tranquility of the mountainous region of San Marcos.
Later we got to know the chill Pacific Coast surf towns and finally the Lake Arenal region whose crowning jewel is the looming volcano (which had lava flowing down its sides just 10 years ago!).
We saw only a fragment of this heavily jungled country but the little that we DID see opened our eyes to the yet unexplored potential of this Central American country.
Read on to get to know Costa Rica more and learn about our successes and failures so you’re better informed before you set off on your own Costa Rican exploration.
How to prepare to leave for a week
School: If you are traveling with your kids then you will want to inform their school that they will be out for that week. Otherwise you might be getting some concerned calls from the school admin!
Mail: You’ve got mail! The mail is still going to get delivered while you’re away so its a good idea to arrange with a friend or neighbor to collect and hold your mail for you during that time.
Cell Phones: Call your carrier and have them put you on the international standby plan which would cost $10/day (depending on the carrier) only if you used cell data. Keep the phone in airplane mode and turn cell data off. WiFi will not cost you anything but once you begin using cell data you will be charged $10 for that 24 hour period.
Instagram: I read a story of a photographer that was out shooting photos and posting things to Instagram and someone that followed him (and knew where he lived) recognized that he was not home and took the opportunity to rob his house. You can imagine what kind of expensive camera equipment would be a photographer’s house right? A good habit to get into is to post your Insta pics and stories after the fact.
Passports: Check your passports early on. Be sure that you don’t have any that will be expiring before or during the vacation.
Water Heater: If you have a fancy schmancy hybrid or digital water heater then you’re in luck because they usually have vacation modes. Using that mode will save you some bucks while you’re away. If you have a conventional water heater then you might consider turning it off but remember to turn it on first thing when you get back so it can start heating up again.
Thermostat: If you’re like the 15% of America that has a smart thermostat, then take advantage of the vacation settings. Again, you’re gonna want to save those bucks while you’re away spending those bucks!
Here are some basics you should know about Costa Rica:
In a nutshell, our basic agenda for our March visit to Costa Rica was this:
San Marcos: 2.5 days
Quepos: 1.5 days
Arenal: 2.5 days
San Jose and the wicked traffic
Within minutes of getting our rental car we found ourselves tangled up in the frenetic pace of San Jose traffic. People change lanes like they’re getting paid for it. You also have lanes that suddenly turn into bus-only lanes.
And my personal favorite: motorcycles. Every kind of motorcycle imaginable are zipping past you, between your car and the one next to you…on both sides of you! There is apparently a whole other type of lane just for motorcycles found between every car lane in the city.
Just do your best to go with the flow and plan lane changes and turns as far in advance as you can. Keep in mind that of all the potential tourist pitfalls, traffic accidents are #1 and ya gotta pay attention when you’re driving in THIS country!
About 1/2 hour after first getting on the road we were motioned into a speed trap of sorts and found ourselves being chastised by a police officer. He took my license and started printing out a ticket on his handy dandy wireless ticket machine.
There were 2 or 3 of them camped out there at this particular spot on the road because they know tourists and others have to make this left to get out of the city.
In Spanish, they told us the left turn we just made was punishable by a 700 dollar fine. Now our conversation was all in Spanish so just to be clear, here were his exact words:
siete cero cero dolares
“si” he said half laughing as if he was a spider toying with the fly he just caught in his web. I shot a concerned glance at Elisha as we’re both trying to wrap our heads around this.
Are we going to end up in a holding cell within an hour of landing in this country because we can’t pony up some ridiculously large amount of money for a bogus illegal left turn claim?!
He then adds that “if we pay today, the fine amount is only 100 dollars”. Suddenly it occurs to me that we are undoubtedly being squeezed for cash. What a clever little money making scheme the cops have set up for themselves.
They put out some yellow barriers at a spot in the road that they know the GPS will lead travelers past and just wait for the tourists to come to them. We told him we only had “plastico”(credit cards) and couldn’t pay this.
After some more questioning he says “well, just rip up the ticket on your last day here then”. And that was that. We ended up losing nothing more than 10 minutes of time and we were back on the road.
Crisis scheme averted. Schemes were a common theme in Costa Rica, unfortunately.
Arenal Volcano National Park: $15/adult $5/kids
La Fortuna Waterfall: $15/adult $5/kids
We had just spent the day hiking around Arenal Volcano and following that up with an awesome trip to a 200-foot waterfall (La Fortuna). As we were heading back to our Airbnb we decided to stop at the base of a bridge to check out a small waterfall and swimming hole.
This swimming hole had a rope swing so you KNOW we had to check it out! There’s a small dirt parking lot on the side of the road and 50 feet away was the river. We parked it and decided to check out the river for 5 or 10 minutes as it was starting to get dark.
We all made our way down the embankment and then scrambled along the rocks to check out the swimming hole. The rushing water made it was hard to hear what was going on anywhere else around us. After 5 or 10 minutes we decided that instead of hitting this waterhole tomorrow we were going to spend a few minutes swimming around that evening.
I decided to go back to the car to get some towels. As I came up over the embankment, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before in the parking lot…glass. Strange, I thought, I don’t remember seeing glass here when I parked the car.
My gaze then rose towards the passenger side window only to discover that the window had been smashed out. Just a few pieces of glass hanging on and the glass scattered all over the floor mat.
Just then the reality of all of this hit me like a bucket of cold water: we just got robbed! Frantically, I opened the door and looked around the car to see what was gone and what was left.
I opened up the back of the car and to my great disappointment found that our stuff was gone. All of it was gone except for a few things we had bought during the coffee plantation tour.
I guess the robbers didn’t like coffee! At this point its is starting to sink in that our wallets, money, credit cards, passports (yes, passports!) we’re all gone. And to make it worse, it all happened over a five or ten minutes span just 50 feet away and we never heard a sound.
I called down to Elisha and asked her if she had her phone with her thinking this $1000 iPhone is now miles away from us in the robbers car. Luckily, she still had it in her hand and I had left mine back at the AirBnB.
At least we had our phones and that turned out to be a very good thing. We quickly collected the kids got them in the car and got back to the Airbnb in a hurry. Fortunately, it was only a few miles away.
We started getting on the phone and canceling credit cards and debit cards. What about money?! What about the passports?! It was Saturday night and we have a flight on Monday afternoon!
Elisha called the U.S. Embassy and got a hold of a very nice woman who advised us on what to do. “Get all of your photo copies, digital proof, whatever you have to show who you are such as a picture of your ID, a picture of your passport, a picture of your birth certificate, anything you have is going to help you”, she said.
“Next you need to show up at the US Embassy in San Jose on Monday morning as soon as they open at 8 a.m”. Okay, now we had a plan… sort of. We still have a few issues to resolve.
We have no money and we’re rolling around in a rental car with a smashed window and it just so happens that we’re in a pretty rainy place (rainforests tend to be that way!).
The other issue is that we have to get to San Jose from Arenal. What we’ve learned (if we have learned anything about traveling in Costa Rica) is that it takes way longer to get from one place to another than you expect.
lf you are being told by the locals it takes an hour and a half, better plan on over 3 hours. So now we had to make sure that we got to the US Embassy in San Jose with plenty of time to begin the passport process at the US Embassy.
We had decided to leave very early on Monday morning (I think it was around 3 a.m.). So here’s the thing when you get robbed: you have to file a police report because that’s your only real proof that you got robbed and the US Embassy needs to see that when you go to get a new passport (and its important for filing insurance loss claims).
Fortunately, our Airbnb host was very nice and very accommodating and helped us every step of the way including leading me to the police station so I could file a claim with them. When I got to the police station there were three or four heavily armed and heavily armored police out front.
I parked my sorry-looking car in the front and went inside with my Airbnb host. We began the process of filing the claim and talking to the US Embassy on the phone.
This process took a while because of the difficulty in the phone line connection with the Embassy and trying to express to the police what happened. At some point during this process, one of the police came to me and said that I had to move my car from the front of the police station to the back because it wasn’t safe being parked in the front at night! Imagine that! Even parked in front of a police station, your car is not safe.
I finally left with stamped police report in my hand and headed back to the AirBnB I had my police report with the official police station stamp on it I made my way back to the Airbnb.
The next day’s hurdle would be getting a hold of some cash. Again, our gracious AirBnB host to the rescue: he had offered to have me transfer money from my PayPal account into his account and he would give me cash. We did the transfer and I now had some cash.
The last thing to resolve is the smashed window. We didn’t want to have to drive to the middle of the rainy night to San Jose with two small kids and a leaking window.
Elisha got on the horn with our rental car place in San Jose and despite their reluctance to swap the car out finally agreed to send a guy with a different car. Fortunately, we had gotten the full insurance which, by the way, is very expensive however it really paid off during this trip ($53/wk rental + $57/day insurance).
While we were waited for our replacement car we were on the phone with family back home. We had them send photo copies of any important documents we might need at the US Embassy.
So now it is Sunday afternoon and we still have to salvage anything we can from the remaining time we have here so we decided to go to the hot springs in Arenal.
There are many options for hot springs around the area. Some are very expensive and one is free. Guess which one WE went to? So yet again we parked our car on the side of the road (now with one window open to the world) this time taking everything we had left with us.
One thing I learned from observation was that all the locals had their stuff in dry bags with them in the middle of the river. I guess this is the thing to do? It’s a bit unfortunate but it’s the reality with this place.
Nevertheless the hot springs were awesome. It’s a shallow, knee deep river with slow-moving, warm water passing by. Just find yourself a little pool to relax in and you’re all set.
From there we decided to have an early dinner and get to bed early as we had an early start the next day. Being on the road through the dark mountains of Costa Rica and doing this right after being robbed, there were certainly visions of masked men waving cars over to the side along our route.
Perhaps we had seen too many movies because the trip to San Jose was the only trip that took much less time than we anticipated and there was very little traffic. The only issue we ran into was the heavy fog.
That made it tough to negotiate the ups and downs and turns of the road. We roll into San Jose as the sun was beginning to cross the horizon. At 6:45 we see that a line is forming in from of the Embassy so I let Elisha off and found a paid parking area.
While Elisha is filling out forms I am running to nearby restaurants to get food and take kids to bathrooms. We finally got in, got our passport pics taken and waited in the waiting area.
While waiting we were on the phone with Elisha’s father to get money wired to the nearby Western Union as the Embassy doesn’t take cards over the phone.
The closest Western Union was a quarter mile so I sprinted down there once we I received the message that it had been sent. I thought this was going to be easy.
Five minutes in and out. However, when I walked up to the door and opened it to see 7 people waiting in line with only one attendant behind the window, my heart sank. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, San Jose is the New York City of Costa Rica and this Western Union was no bigger than a walk-in closet.
I arrived at the Western Union at 10:33 and it wasn’t until about 11 that I saw the man behind the counter. I gave him the information about the wire. He looks it up and tells me the wired money went to the wrong country!
He told me to wait for about a half-hour to see if Western Union calls with a solution. They DID call back but they couldn’t help me. So now it’s 11:45 and by now I’m sure Elisha is probably wondering where I am.
I decide to sprint back to the US Embassy yet another quarter mile and just as I get through security I see Elisha running out of the waiting area telling me that I have to go back to Western Union as fast as I can because her father just did another wire.
Exhausted, I head back and endure another quarter mile sprint. I get into the Western Union and the man behind the counter was nice enough to let me skip some people to quickly process the wire transaction which involved 4 signatures and 2 digital thumbprints (talk about an antiquated system!) plus the $100 wire fee!
He hands me $1,000 in Costa Rican Colones and in case you’ve never seen $1,000 in Colones it’s a pretty big wad of bills. So now I have the unpleasant task of stuffing this wad of bills in my hand and navigating the streets of San Jose in the Costa Rican heat for my fourth quarter mile sprint.
Again, I must negotiate the traffic like the game Frogger and of course by now there’s a stiff headwind pushing against me. I make it to the Embassy, go through customs and hand off the water bills to Elisha.
Unbeknownst to me, during my run, the section of the US Embassy that processes passports was closing for lunch. Yes, the entire section closes for lunch! One kind woman takes pity on our situation (and our young kids that are, by now, climbing the walls with boredom) and she stays open just a little bit longer to finish processing our passports.
This whole process has amazingly taken us 6 hours from start to finish (and about $550 for 4 passports). Now it’s 12:45 and we still have to find the rental car place and wouldn’t you know it, they don’t list the address on their website.
And oh yeah, there’s two locations in San Jose. Using a rudimentary map from the rental place, we start heading towards what we think is the correct one. Just a few miles into the trip we realize that it must be the wrong one so we call the number and they talked us through getting to their location.
We finally make it to the rental car place only to find a substantial line of people waiting. We are now down to the wire and really cutting it close to make our flight.
There’s no way we are going to make the flight if we wait in line so Elisha goes immediately to the manager and gets our car squared away. Meanwhile, I make contact with the shuttle that makes airport runs and start loading luggage (at least what we have left!).
We all pile in and about 100 yards down the road I realize I’ve left my cell phone in the rental car! We swing back around, grab it and head to the airport. In the end, we arrive at our gate with 30 minutes to spare. Ugghh!
What it costs you to lose your ID and passports abroad:
-passport ($140.00 each)
-new wallet: $52.12
-replacement license: $31.50
-6 hours at the embassy (each experience will vary)
1) Get a hold of all your credit card companies and banks to cancel or freeze credit and debit cards
2) Contact US Embassy phone number for the country you’re in to get details on hours and where to go etc.
3) Try to get photo copies of those lost docs if you don’t already have ’em. It would be very helpful, however, to have those in a Google Drive or on email somewhere so you can access them.
4) Get a hold a friend or family member back home to get some money wired to where you are.
5) Get to the US Embassy early with your money in hand and expect to be there for 2 hours or more.
6) Your newly issued passports will need to be replaced with your official one within 3 months after you get home (no additional cost).
- NO bags or cell phones allowed in the embassy
- They take CC but NOT over the phone so if you lose your CC you must pay in cash (or get money wired from a friend or family member)
- You will have to pass through security to enter
- Its NOT like the movies where they welcome you with open arms like its a little piece of US soil
- Certain parts close for lunch (learned THAT the hard way!)
- Get there early! If they open at 8, I suggest getting there no later than 7.
Things We Would Do Again
- There was lots more to see and do (like zip lining, rafting and 4-wheeling) in the mountains between San Marcos and Quepos that would be worth another look.
- Car Insurance: Really…REALLY glad we got the full coverage. We would have been screwed without it. Don’t be afraid to stack on the coverage…you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!
- Quepos and that whole coastal area had lots to offer that we didn’t explore. That area would be worth spending more time in (especially considering the excellent fishing and surfing opportunities).
- Despite being robbed, Arenal had a lot to offer with the views of the volcano, Lake Arenal, the hiking and all the rivers and hot springs. Definitely worth going back…this time a little wiser about leaving our valuables in the car.
Things We Would Change
- The rental car: knowing the kinds of roads that one can encounter in this country, I think that a 4X4 with some knobby tires would have made a big difference.
- Have all your important documents in a file (accessible by computer) in the event that your passports “walk away”.
- Stash your critical documents like CC’s, passports, emergency cash etc. as close to your person as possible (using money belts, belt buckle compartments etc.). If you decide to leave it in your hotel/AirBnB, I suggest using an inconspicuous (yet conspicuous) method like sunscreen bottle hidden storage, shaving cream hidden storage, etc. For a good list of clever ways to hide your stuff while traveling, check out our article here.
- Make sure you take a pic of the gas gauge when you return the rental so they can’t charge you for gas later. We did that and it saved us from an erroneous charge.
- Bring bribe money. For real. It turns out this is a pretty common thing south of the border. Cost of doing business, I suppose.
- Here We Go app for cell-free navigation worked fairly well but it might be worth trying something else like Waze, too. According to the locals, this is their app of choice.
- Keep better track of stuff we had bought before we went on the trip. As it turns out, if you buy a given item with a credit card and it gets stolen, you are actually covered by purchase insurance. There are stipulations such as the item had to have been purchased within 3 months of the theft.
- The obvious one here is that we would have taken our valuables with us when checking out rivers and hot springs in Arenal. Our car was unattended with our stuff in plain view. Goes to show you what can happen in just few short minutes…