This is a trip report that is a couple of months overdue. I took my first trip to San Jose last August (I got an unbelieveably flight and hotel package, total price being cheaper than I have seen for just the airfare!) So I decided to give Costa Rica a try.
Me: Single traveler, extensive travel in Latin America and the Caribbean (Costa Rica was my 4th Central American country to visit), understands Spanish very well, speaks Spanish at an intermediate level with a foreign accent, and basically a budget traveler.
My trip was for 4 nights. If I had more time. I would have loved to explore the country more I confined my entire trip to San Jose and it's immediate surroundings. Though I have a lot of interest in visiting beaches, national parks, seeing lots of wildlife, my main interest during this trip as the Ticos. I figured I would get a taste of Costa Rica for a few days and if I had a positive experience, I'll go for a couple of weeks next year for my regular vacation. I'll confine my report to general perceptions and logistics.
Arrival: SJO airport very nice, modern. Arrived at 11AM, a VERY long line in Immigration. It took over an hour to reach the baggage claim. After collecting my bags, and going through customs, (involves just running your bags through an xray, I was bombarded with all the taxi offers. I had absolutely no intention of taking a taxi from the airport. I did not have much luggage, so even though it was my first time in Costa Rica, it was public transport for me!
I had zero colones in my possession on arrival, and the ATM's dispense relatively large noted for public transportation, so my plan was to use the bank upstairs (NOT the ripoff exchange booths on the arrivals level) Once outside, I crossed over to the parking garage, went up the elevator and went back to the terminal on the departure level. I was aware beforehand that only ticketed passesngers are allowed in the terminal proper. I wasn't sure how strict the guard would be for this, so I printed out a phony reservation confirmation for a flight to Panama leaving that afternoon with my name on it in case I was asked. Turns out it wasn't necessary. I just walked right in.
Once inside, first thing was to pay the departure tax so I won't have to worry about that when I leave. I paid the $29. This was the only time I used US dollars during my stay. Next to the departure tax area is a small branch of BAC San Jose bank that exchanges money at the non ripoff rate. (the posted rate for USD was 493 colones, the same rate the bank had on it's website at that time.) I changed a bunch of money here and got lots of small denomination notes. Then it was outside the terminal again, down the elevator, and walk to the main road.
The bus stop is along the road on the other side o the parking garage. There are also a couple of normal red taxis that are circling around the area off of the airport property looking for passengers. I've been told that you can avoid the high costs of the airport taxi by just taking these taxis. Though they are metered taxis, I would agree on a flat rate for this trip. 10000 colones should be plenty to anywhere in the middle of San Jose, es. I waited 5 minutes for the bus, confirmed the bus was headed to San Jose and not Alajuela, paid the 535 colones and hopped on bags and all. Upon arrival in San Jose, I got into my first taxi of the trip and directed him to my hotel. The meter was turned on without my having to ask and I paid 1700 colones to my hotel (Casa 69 in Barrio el California). So 2200 Colones spent for door to door hotel transportation. Not a bad start.
I had a nice stay at Casa 69 and I have written a review for that hotel.
San Jose in general: For all the talk here and in other places of just how "sketchy" San Jose is, I didn't find it that bad at all! I walked around all over the place in the daytime. I am accustomed to third world cities and there are many that are far worse than San Jose. At night, (like after 10pm) I would take a taxi around. They are cheap and plentiful.
Sights in the city: I didn't particularly care for the fact that many of the attractions in the city had prices for Ticos and Residents and others for visitors. I tried arguing the issue (in my functional but less than fluent Spanish) when purchasing a ticket (5500 colones to the museo de oro!) but I didn't get anywhere. Beause of the high prices, I didn't see as many of the attractions as I would have liked. The museums I did see: 1) Museo de Banco Central- the best of them all, but nothing world class. 2) Museo Nacional- interesting. 3)Museo del arte costarriense- nice beacuse it was free. Some interesting artwork. The Teatro Nacional was a beautiful building that I enjoyed from the outside, as there was a $7 charge to go inside and tour it (maybe if there was a concert I would buy a ticket to see the inside and get a show too). I would have liked to see the zoo but I heard that there were protesters outside so I said maybe next time.
Food: I mostly ate in the market and found the food to be quite good but prices a little high. Breakfasts were about 1600 colones with eggs, gallo pinto, plantain, cheese, and coffee. Casados ran about 2500 more or less. All the food was good and filling. I bought lots of fresh fruits and vegetables to eat as well and they were well priced compared to home. I would also eat at cheap places like hole in the wall style places that sold pizza by the slice to go or empanadas. I stocked my fridge with supplies from the AM/PM and the Mas x Menos that were very close to my hotel. The Nicaraguan Embassy was right around the corner from my hotel and there were women selling vigaron and baho during the daytime that was cheap and delicious! I did eat at a couple of sit down restaurants with a tico and found the prices a little more than what I was expecting. As for booze, I was surprised how expensive the Imperial was, even as a domestically produced beer. 750 colones in the supermarkets, 1500 more or less in bars and restaurants.
(You can start to see a general pattern in my report, which will form my biggest con in my Costa Rica experience. )
Taxis and other transport: One of the positives about Costa Rica is the great public transport, including intercity buses and tourist shuttles, as well as taxis, which aren't terribly expensive. All red taxis have meters. During my trip they start at 595 colones for the 1st KM, then 595 per KM after that. These are the rates in San Jose and surrounding cities and suburbs, Rural taxis run at 755 colones for each KM after the first. Many of the rural taxis will not have meters. No worries, if you know where you are going, just look at the distance on your computer or phone on Google earth and it will tell you the distance. If you are out in the little mountain towns or by the beach, and your distination is 5.6km away, just go 755 x 4.6km plus 595 and that will be 4068 colones or $8. Now you have the ballpark idea of what the fare should be so you can confirm this with the taxi before you leave. A of my taxi experiences in San Jose were good, except for my last. Fares in the city were never more than 2000 colones.
Shopping: The only things I brought back from my trip was several bags of coffee ( I bought Cafe Rey Tarrazu coffee- delicious) and several large bottles of Salsa Lizano which I fell in love with (and still cook with quite often here at home)
As for the Ticos, they were all wonderful. Everybody was very friendly and gracious, a much higher percentage of them speak English than in other central American countries I have visited. IN the evening, some great meeting spots were Club Oh!, Al Despite Bar ( a bit of a taxi ride from the city center) Cinema 2000, Bochinche, and Parque Nacional. One thing that was surprising about San Jose was that everywhere you looked there were cheap hotels boldly advertising hourly services (3 horas, 5000) and tthings of the like. Most other latin cities I have visited have these kind of establishments, but they are more low key and do not advertise their services so boldly.
Going back home: I repeated my taxi/bus journey in reverse to get back to the airport. I took a taxi from the Nica embassy (a few steps from my hotel) to the TUASA bus station. Here is where I had my only negative experience with a taxi in San Jose. I was so used to the drivers putting on the meter without me asking that I didn't notice he didn't put it on. It kept blinking the 595 colones but never went up. I didn't notice this until most of the journey was done. I didn't say anything at that point. Fortunately I heard about the best way to handle this. I had paid 1700 colones for the same journey a few days prior. We were in heavy traffic and accoring to my iphone, the distance was just over 2.5km. Upon arrival at the bus station I got out, took out my bags and handed over 2000 colones without saying a word. He didn't like that and wanted 3000. I told him "en tus sueños. tu no pusiste la maria, entonces te pago lo que me da la gana!" He then went on in Spanish with some nonsense that the meter was on, etc. I added a few insults in Spanish I can't repeat here for good measure and told him to beat it and slammed the door (they hate that!) and walked away. He just drove off. This kind of soured my last impression of Costa Rica as all my other experiences had been wonderful. I told this story later on to Tico friends I had met during this trip and they said I did the right thing. Took the bus back to the airport for 535 colones. Lines for security were very long at the airport. (I was thanking myself for buying my departure tax beforehand). Food prices past security were borderline criminal.
Overall Impression: Even though my trip was confined to San Jose, I could see from the plane that Costa Rica is a stunningly beautiful country and has tons to offer.
-Friendly welcoming people.
-A high level of education for this part of the world.
-Excellent tourist infrastructure.
-Loved the climate of the San Jose area. Did not miss air conditioning in my hotel-even in August! It got downright chilly at night!
-Though I didn't personally experience it, I spoke to lots of people on the plane who had nothing but rave reviews for the medial care. Top of the line!
-Not as corrupt as other Latin destinations, and police that are highly protective of tourists.
Of the cons, the one that stuck out most with me was cost. Part of this is my fault because of other places I have traveled. Most of my vacation experiences have been either 1) All inclusive resorts on beautiful beaches, and a very cheap prie where I just unplug and relax (like Dominican Republic) or 2) Exploring beautiful colonial cities and buying all the cheap beautiful arts and crafts to take home (like Mexico) or 3) a trip with a combination of both. Costa Rica really doesn't have much of either. (There are some all inclusives but they are NOT cheap!) Of the four Central American countries I have visited I have found Costa Rica by far the most expensive as far as costs of food, everyday goods, etc. Really, the only things I found a bargain were fresh fruits and vegetables, ttaxis, and public transport like buses. In any given stall inthe market in Granada or Managua, I could get a plate of food for a buck and a half, in Costa Rica it was closer to five dollars! This didn't ruin my trip, It just came off a a surprise that the prices were much more Americanized than I thought. With this knowledge, I can more easily budget for my next trip, where I can spend a couple of weeks and explore the rest of the country, spending a good amount of time in San Jose or Escazu and taking tours to the volcanos or to Manuel Antonio, and then spending some time on the beach in Brasilito, (that looks like a more budget friendly beach destination.) If I can get a good deal I'll probably be able to go back in March. Can't wait!