Cell Phones Are Now Available to Foreign Tourists

Many of my customers ask me if their US cell phones will work in Costa Rica.  My answer is an unqualified “maybe”.  It depends on the carrier.  The government owned phone company finally has some competition, and the game seems to be changing weekly.  But even if your US phone does work, it will be expensive.

However, I recently found something pretty cool.  I was able to purchase a prepaid cell phone in the San Jose airport for twenty bucks, and it came with 300 minutes of local calls.  Actually, the phone was free and I just bought the time.

This is kind of a big deal.  Until lately, non residents were not allowed to own phones.  We were there in December 2011, and heard that this was now possible.  We spent half a day driving around Liberia, and couldn’t find anything.  But the San Jose airport kiosk was fairly new.

The phone is able to accept international calls.  This is really great for a tourist that needs to be available if there is an emergency at home.  It is lso handy if you get lost in your rental car.  You can call your hotel for directions.

I was able to take it a little further.  Since I spend so much time in Costa Rica, I have always needed a way to keep in touch with my office and family.

For several years, I have had an 800 number that can be forwarded to any phone in the world.  It is only nine cents a minute to Costa Rica from the US.  When we are at our house in Costa Rica, I forward the number there.  I also forward it to hotels I am staying at.  Anyone with the number knows the drill, and will ask for my room.

I also have a callback service.  I use my laptop to trigger a “callback” to whatever number I have available.  The phone rings, and I have a US line.  I can then call anywhere in the US for fifteen cents a minute.  This works great at my house, but it is a little tricky at a hotel.

So I set up both services to be used with my new cell phone.  It worked like a charm.  This last trip was a work trip.  I attended the annual travel convention, and spent a couple of days inspecting hotels.

My wife and assistant were able to call me on my 800 number whenever necessary, and I was able to call home without any issues.  I was travelling over Mother’s Day, and it sure came in handy.  These calling services cost almost nothing to set up, and you can do everything online.  But most folks probably won’t bother with that.

But these phones could be very useful.  So I just thought I would share!  It is also important to note that these are SIM card phones.  So you can use them while travelling in other countries.  You just need to buy a new card when you arrive in the country.

But even if you used it for only one trip to Costa Rica, I think the peace of mind is worth the small cost.

Helpful travel hints for your perfect vacation

These are the helpful hints that I share with all of my clients.  It is extremely long.  You may want to just print it out! 

PASSPORT 

You must have one, and it cannot expire within 30 days after your arrival.  This is very important.  This is required by the Costa Rican government, and is non negotiable.  Otherwise, they will send you home on the next flight.  They are very serious about this, so check your passport! 

Now scan the first page with your picture and the other important info.  Now send the file via Email to yourself and a friend who is not traveling.  If you lose your passport, a good copy will make things a heck of a lot easier at the embassy.  Make a photocopy while you are at it, and carry this day to day in Costa Rica.  You can leave the original in your room safe.  Although chances are slight that you will ever be asked to produce it, the copy works just fine.  You are supposed to also have a copy of the page from when you entered the country too.  But unless you are under arrest, this copy should be good enough. 

ENTERING THE COUNTRY 

When you arrive, you will go through immigration first and then customs.  All pretty routine stuff.  There are free luggage carts in the baggage claim area, but these can’t be taken outside the building.  They are handy for going through customs.  Unless you look like an international arms smuggler or drug addled loser, you will find customs simple.  You will be asked to place all of your luggage on a conveyor belt at the x-ray machines.  They only open your luggage if they see something suspicious on the x-ray.  Once you exit the building, you have to surrender the cart.  But there are guys there to assist if you need it.  Just stay with them.  I always get a little nervous when someone grabs my bag and takes off. 

Something fun about this airport is that they have a duty free shop in baggage claim.  You can buy wine and liquor to bring into the country.  Imported liquor is expensive in Costa Rica.  So if you can’t go the week without Johnny Walker, this is a good stop.  The wine prices are good too.  We usually buy a couple of bottles for our room or to give as gifts to friends.  The shop is located to your left as soon as you arrive downstairs in baggage claim.

Do not exchange money at the official looking currency exchange in baggage claim!  See below. 

SECURITY  

Violent crime against tourists is almost non existent.  Unless of course, you are looking for trouble!  

But petty theft is a real problem.  So it is important that you keep an eye on your stuff.  Do no leave luggage in an unattended vehicle, or anywhere else.   Keep an eye on your belongings at the beach too.  Use the security box in your room. 

99.9% of the locals you meet will be very friendly, honest, polite, and willing to bend over backwards to assist you in every way.  Everyone is so nice, it is easy to relax and forget the rules.  Don’t let that happen.  When you relax, that is when that tiny part of the population is looking for their opportunity.  My best advice is to treat your belongings as if you were visiting a large US city.  Practice the same due diligence, and you won’t have a problem. 

DEALING WITH THE TICOS (the locals)  

It is almost a little embarrassing to have to mention this.  But there are some cultural differences.  Latin folks tend to treat each other with a little more kindness than we sometimes do here in the States.  Even though we mean no offense, our rushing around and efficient manner sometimes comes off as rudeness. 

The waiters will treat you very well, but there is a different philosophy in play here.  No one will fawn over you, even in an expensive restaurant.  But they will treat you like an honored guest in their home.  Play along, and be a great guest.  You will be amazed at the warm treatment you will receive.  Be demanding, and suddenly the service is horrible. 

The pace here is slower.  It isn’t laziness, it is just relaxed.  We call it “Tico time”.  So if your food takes a little while, don’t stress.  Just order another cerveza.  Also, be aware that you will never get a restaurant check without asking for it.  Ticos consider it rude to bring a check too early.  To them, it is the same as telling you to leave.  Maybe you wanted another cup of coffee or another cerveza?  Many folks mistake this as slow service or laziness.  Actually, they are being polite.  

It is best to go back to what our mothers taught us.  Say hello (Hola) when entering a business establishment.  A simple “Please” (Por Favor, or even just Porfa), goes a long way.  Thank (Gracias) everyone for everything. 

One last thing.  If things are not going well, keep your temper.  Ticos tend to be non confrontational, and polite.  Even when they are boiling inside.  Yelling at a waiter or hotel clerk is extremely bad manners (even if you are in the right).  You may not be aware of it, but this loss of control is extremely embarrassing for everyone.  Especially for the one causing the commotion. 

MONEY 

Again, do not exchange money at the official looking currency exchange in baggage claim!  The commission they charge is an outrageous rip off.  Period.  

Your US money spends well here.  Just bring small bills, and make sure they are in good condition.  The one hundred dollar bill is the most counterfeited in the world, and is always viewed with suspicion.  Don’t bring anything larger than a twenty.  

You will probably want to use local currency.  It is just easier.  Your hotel can usually change a small amount of money for you.  But they are not a bank, so they don’t keep a lot of cash on hand.  You can also get money from an ATM.  They usually give the best exchange rate.  Most big US networks (Pulse, Cirrus, Maestro, etc.) are in use here.  But not at every bank.  So when you find one that works, make note of the name for future reference. 

Stash some US money for the last day of your trip.  Costa Rican colons are hard to exchange back home, and you will get murdered on the exchange rate.  You want to spend all your colons, and live on US money at the end of your stay.  

If you are going to be using a credit card, it is a good idea to let your provider know.  They will often turn a card off when they start seeing a bunch of foreign charges.  A quick call today can save a hassle and expensive international call later. 

STAYING HEALTHY 

You can eat the food and drink the water just about everywhere.  Bottled water is widely available.  I drink it out of convenience, but not out of necessity.  So food and drink are not a concern.  I find that the biggest problems my guests encounter are sun poisoning and digestive problems. 

You are only slightly above the equator here.  The sun is a lot more intense than it seems.  If you forget your hat and don’t wear sunscreen, you are asking for trouble.  Sun poisoning will lay you out for a full day or longer.  It is just like the flu.  Sniffles, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue.  Take precautions, and you will be fine.  I can’t stress the importance of this enough. 

You should bring some Imodium or other anti-diarrhea medication.  Sometimes just a change in diet will cause this kind of problem.  The good news is that it probably is not a problem caused by bacteria.  If you are affected, lay off the fried food.  They use palm oil a lot, and it is hard to digest if you are not used to it.

There is a very slight incidence of tropical diseases.  But they are not nearly as common here as in other parts of the third world.  Most of the things that can affect you are mosquito borne.  Just use your repellent, especially in the early morning and at dusk.  Pay close attention to your ankles.  In seventeen years, I don’t think that any of our clients have come home sick.  But take your precautions.  It is always better to be safe than sorry. 

If you are going to be drinking alcohol at the hot springs, make sure you hydrate!  And no, a frozen margarita doesn’t count.  Hot springs are great fun, but extremely dehydrating.  Mix this factor with alcohol, and you can see the party ending early.  An occasional bottle of water is the smart thing to do. 

TIPPING  

All restaurant checks have a 10% tip, and some tax added.  By law, they have to give you a bill.  This 10% is a starting point.  If your waiter has been good, then add another 10%.  

If you are being transferred a long distance, make sure you take care of the driver / guide.  Tips are an important part of their income.  If you are just a couple people or a family in a small van, figure $20.00 is good.  If you are part of a large group, figure $5.00 per person, per day. 

The drivers doing local transfers in San Jose should get a couple bucks, but taxi drivers are usually not tipped.  There are usually some guys that will help with your luggage at the airport.  Tip like you would in the US.  Tip anyone that helps with your luggage at the hotel.  Figure a buck a bag for the luggage assistance. 

Don’t forget the chamber maids, figure a buck a day, unless you are really messy!  Some hotels leave an envelope in the room.  Others have a box in the lobby for staff tips.  A buck or two left on the table after the free breakfast buffet is always appreciated. 

KEEPING IN TOUCH 

The best way is by email.  Internet cafes are pretty common, although not all of them offer a high speed connection.  Most hotels now offer some form of Internet access for guests.  If you must call home, I don’t recommend that you use your US based calling card.  They usually are your worst deal, and it can get expensive quickly.  If you must call home, purchase an international phone card from a pharmacy or large grocery store.   These are sold in US denominations ($5, $10, $20), and are your best deal at about fifty cents per minute. 

LEAVING THE COUNTRY 

All carriers want you to check in two and a half to three hours in advance.  You have to comply.  This is a small airport.  If two or more big jets are leaving around the same time, the security lines get long.  If there is an elevated threat level in the US, they search every bag by hand.  You can see how this can slow things down.  

You have to pay your exit tax before you get in line at the ticket counter.  There are two places to do this.  They are located in the corners of the terminal, across from the ticket counters. The lines appear long, but they move quickly.  If the line at the closest one is crazy long, then go to the other.  There always seems to be next to no one there.  Go figure. 

I hope that you find this information useful!  Enjoy your stay, you are going to a very special place.

Driving to Monteverde

We have flown into Liberia on our last couple of trips. I like the San Jose airport more.  It is more modern and full service, and I always enjoy visiting with our San Jose hotel friends.

But the drive to Monteverde from Liberia is an hour shorter.  While American Airlines is absolutely my least favorite carrier, they have a flight to Liberia that goes through Dallas.   This allows us to avoid the headaches of the Miami airport. 

We drove up the road through Las Juntas. This is the first time we have gone this way, and it is the best road that we have found yet. There is a very good paved road from the Pan American highway that leads into Los Juntas. You have to navigate a little in town, but if you can find the statue of several Campesinos, you are on the right track. Turn here, and you are on the road to Santa Elena. There is good paved road leading out of town, and only the last twenty kilometers (twelve miles) are unpaved. Even then, this road is in very good condition and is generally not as scary as the other road up from the Pan Am. It probably is not worth the extra drive from San Jose. But if you are coming from Liberia, this is by far the best choice.

Choosing a reputable rental car company

In all my years packaging Costa Rica, the single greatest challenge has always been rental cars. Companies come and go. Less reputable companies run damage scams. Some overbook. Others do not have replacement vehicles if there is a problem, or offer proper support.  Some just have old beat up cars. 

How new are these vehicles? The roads can be tough on rental cars to begin with, and customers tend to drive them harder than they would a vehicle they actually own. Rental cars have a short shelf life.  This is important.  The better rental car companies tend to buy brand new vehicles, and turn them over before they put too many miles on them.  Turnover like this is expensive. 

The cars are sold at auction, often to other rental car companies.  So a car that one company deemed to old for their customers becomes the newest car on the lot at another company.  This is something to consider if two companies are offering what appears to be the same model and the same year at vastly different prices. 

How many offices does the company have? If you break down in the boonies, is there support close by? What if you break down at night, will someone answer the phone? 

Are you going to have a problem with false damage claims? Other than the company’s own testimonials, what kind of references do they have? It is difficult to challenge a foreign credit card charge. What recourse do you have if there is a problem?  

Will they accept any credit card coverage that your credit card offers?  There is a government mandated liability insurance that you must buy.  But sometimes you can waive the comprehensive coverage if this is offered by your credit card company. 

A good rental car is essential for a positive travel experience. Look at it this way:  A family spends $2000.00 on airfare. Say you spend another $1500.00 on hotels and tours. This means you are paying well over $500.00 a day to be there. When you factor in what you pay for hotels and airfare, paying an extra $100 for a week of is not much in the whole scheme of things. 

It is something to think about when your rental car is broken down in Northern Guanacaste. A large national company will get you a replacement from Liberia in an hour or two.  It might be difficult to get anyone on the phone at a small company that only has a few cars. 

I have seen one of the companies that I deal with bring a replacement car on a flatbed truck up the mountain to Monteverde, AFTER DARK. That’s worth $100.00. Anyone who has driven that road in the daylight will agree! 

This is where postings in the travel forums or an experienced Costa Rica tour operator is important.  You cannot make this decision based on price alone.  A US badged company is also not a guarantee.  Many of these are smaller companies paying a franchise fee.  Educate yourself as much as possible.  This is one case of getting exactly what you pay for.

Driving and Bribing

The whole reason I host this blog is to share the country I love with others.  Most of the time, it is paradise found and one of my favorite places on the planet.  However, it does have a few problems.  While the government has stiffened penalties on corrupt cops, you will still need to be aware of what to expect if you run into one. 

Most importantly, you probably won’t have any problems if you obey the traffic laws.  So of course, that is the best policy. 

We have been stopped three times, when (I have to admit) I was violating the speed limit.  The first time, I feigned a complete lack of Spanish.  But I foolishly let the police officer see the contents of my wallet, and there were quite a few bills inside.  I hadn’t driven in Costa Rice much before this, and I was intimidated enough to give the guy $40.00.  I really regretted it. 

The next time was a little scary.  The road was a little remote.  The cop got me out of the car, away from my wife.  He spoke perfect English, and told me it would take hours to find a judge to pay the fine.  I paid the bribe, only because this guy was so smooth that he scared me.  I was afraid if I refused the bribe, he may suddenly “find” drugs in my car. 

But these two experiences hardened my resolve not to pay again.  So my third run-in actually turns out to be a fun story.  This happened recently when my wife and I were driving down the Pan Am highway, only a couple of hours after we arrived in the country. 

We rode right into a speed trap.  The stop was legitimate. I was speeding. I gave the cop my passport and license. He took them and asked me to walk back to his car with him. I had just stopped at an ATM, and had a huge wad of cash with me. I waited until he stepped away, and gave all my cash to my wife. I retained 10,000 colons (about $18.00) and joined the cop. 

He had a tattered traffic law book, like something issued to a student driver. It was in Spanish, and he had the fine for speeding underlined. He explained to me that he really did not want to give me a ticket that he (falsely) claimed would cost $200. He offered to give me a “warning” if I paid 20,000 colons on the spot. I was pretending not to speak much Spanish, and we chatted a little in “Spanglish” while discussing this. I was determined to talk my way out of this situation. We finally settled on the 10,000 colons that I had pulled out of my pocket, and he took it.   This is less than the fine would have been.

During our conversation, he saw the several CR stamps in my fairly new passport. He asked me what I was doing in Costa Rica. I gave him my business card. I explained that I was there working with ICT (the government tourism bureau) on promotions for Costa Rica. I noticed a look on his face when I mentioned ICT. I told him we were scouting locations. 

My Spanish was improving by the minute. I could see he was a little uncomfortable, as he processed this new information. I looked for an ID on his uniform, and saw that it was reversed and tucked under his vest. He noticed me looking. So I stepped to the side and looked at the number on his car. He definitely noticed this, and stepped with me to block my view. I stepped back to the other side and continued the conversation. I think I was asking about locations. I continued looking at the number on the vehicle. 

The guy suddenly gave me back my passport and license, and the 10,000 colons! He told me that since this was my “first time in Costa Rica”, he was letting me off without a warning. He told me to be careful because there were lots of police on the highway that weekend. Then he told me to go. Now. I quickly obeyed. 

To be fair, this is only the third time that this has happened to me in twenty years of travel in Costa Rica.  I guess that three times in twenty years is not a lot. But I have driven daily in the US for almost forty years and I have never been asked for a bribe by a cop here in all that time. 

I love Costa Rica, and never enjoy speaking negatively about it. But this kind of thing is more common than folks like to admit. 

If this happens to you my advice is to be polite.  It sometimes helps if you don’t speak (or pretend not to know) a lick of Spanish.  Keep any large amounts of cash out of sight.  Unless you are in an accident or driving drunk, the fines are usually pretty small.  You can just pay them to your rental car company.  Don’t pay a huge bribe.  The ticket will have the police officer’s information on it.  You can complain later.