No Bandidos at Banks….and Gas Stations ???

No BandidosFor more than 65 years, Costa Rica has had no standing army.  In December, 1948, President Jose Figueres publicly handed the keys to the nation’s military headquarters, Bellavista, to the Minister of Education. President Figueres announced that Bellavista would become a national museum and the military budget would be redirected to education, healthcare, and environmental protection.  With a literacy rate of more than 96%, a national healthcare system available to all, and environmentally protected lands equal to about 28% of Costa Rica, I’d say Figueres’s goal has been achieved.  But it should come as no surprise that in a poor country crime is problematic particularly where money is involved.

I filled-up my rental car with gas for the first time on a trip from Playa Flamingo to Playa Tamarindo. Standing outside the gas station in plain view was an armed security guard complete with shotgun and Glock.  He looked like he knew how to use them and would not hesitate to take action.  Although his presence was somewhat unsettling to me, I filled up and left uneventfully.  On my next visit to the gas station, the armed guard was similarly placed and vigilant.

Gas stations (at least the ones I’ve visited so far) are not self-service.  Attendants pump your gas, wash your windshield, and handle the transaction.  I started talking with the attendant as he filled my tank and asked about the armed guards.  He told me that because of the amount of money on hand at gas stations they are prime targets for robberies.  In a country that is slightly larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined and where the average per capita income is a little over $7,400 per year, I can understand why a lot of cash on hand would be a target for those desperate souls trying to escape poverty.  The good news, according to the attendant, was that robberies were rare in the coastal touristy area we are in.  He said robberies are more problematic in the urban areas such as San Jose.  Still, it was disconcerting as it isn’t typical to openly see that level of security in the USA.

As an aside, in Costa Rica, the price of gasoline is set by the government and distributed to gasoline retailers by the state oil refinery, RECOPE. The price of gasoline is the same at all gasoline outlets across the country and is now ¢739 per litre (about $5.40 per US gallon).  It costs me about ¢20,000 to fill the tank ($40 US).


Using the ATM

Mostly, I’ve used ATMs to get cash in the local Costa Rican currency (+/- 500 colones (₡) per US dollar).  Although US dollars and credit cards are widely accepted, we decided to use the local currency as much as possible, particularly at small farmer’s markets and roadside stands, loaded with delicious fresh fruit and vegetables, to minimize exchange rate differences.  Doing so also gives us a little more feel of the local culture.  Although I am not yet an honorary Tico, I feel less like a Gringo when using the local currency.

Going to the bank added an additional level of security.  Our good friends, Sam and Sunny (buenos amigos), are visiting from the USA and wanted to change some dollars to colones so we needed to actually go inside the bank…a first for me here.  As Sam and I approached the frosted window doors, you couldn’t see inside the bank from the outside.  A guard inside a closed foyer saw us approach and opened the locked door for us immediately asking us to empty our pockets on the table.  He then passed a metal detector wand over each of us. Once he did that, a second guard opened the next locked door (also with frosted glass) to permit us entrance into the bank.  Both were armed.

We must have looked as clueless as we were because the inside guard asked why we were there and helped us with the kiosk that gave us an appropriate service number.  Much like waiting at the deli counter or DMV at home, you waited for your number to come up on the screen telling when it was your turn and what teller window to approach based on the type of transaction you need.  Everything inside the bank was watched by the guard and recorded on video cameras.  Once at the teller window, a showing of the passport was all that was required for the transaction (USA banks won’t even talk to you if you don’t have an account with them).

Seamless, quick…and secure.

Renting a Car in Costa Rica…

Rental CarIn my life I have, on rare occasions, been cheated, gipped, ripped-off, shortchanged.  Minor events to be sure (11 donuts in the one dozen bag), but renting a car in Costa Rica takes the feeling of being ripped-off to an entirely different level.  Because we are living on top of Billy Goat Hill (see earlier posts), renting a car was a necessity for us to even get to the beach…actually TO the beach wasn’t the issue as gravity is a powerful force–getting back to the condo was–gravity again.  It is a vertical climb up the hill requiring rappelling gear and helmets to get up safely !  I suspect a portable defibrillator would not be out of the question.

There are a few things to know about car rentals in Costa Rica.

  • Bargain rates are almost impossible to find, particularly at this time of the year (high tourist season).  Understandable.
  • My home auto insurance only covers me in the contiguous 48 states, not in any foreign country.
  • In order to use the insurance with my credit card, I needed to provide written evidence from the credit car company of the coverage provided.
  • You must carry the liability insurance mandated by law.  The Damage Insurance (collision) and Rental Car Theft coverage are optional BUT if you damage the car or it is stolen, they will simply charge your credit card for the damages/loss.  Given that automobiles in Costa Rica are on the expensive side compared to USA prices, your potential liability is significant.

The rental price per day was on the high side of reasonable and probably a just a tad higher than what you would pay in the USA per day.  At this time of the year in Costa Rica, it is even difficult to find a rental for the period of time we plan to be here (2 months).  I rented a 4WD Hyundai SUV.  For the 54 days we will be renting, the cost was $1,903 including “all taxes and fees” or $35 per day (+/-).  The phrase “all taxes and fees included” falsely leads one to believe the price quoted is the bottom line.  Not so.  Because I had done some reading about car rentals here, I knew insurance was going to be an issue.

I called the rental agency to find out the cost of the insurance and was told the required liability insurance was $12 per day and it covered up to $20,000 of damages.  For $15 per day, the rental car company would cover 100% of the liability damages.  I thought for $3 extra per day, why have the worry and it sounded like a pretty good deal to me.  Much to my surprise at the time of signing the paperwork, what the agent on the phone meant was the unlimited liability coverage was an additional $15 dollars per day (yep, $12 + $15 = $27/day for liability insurance).

The rental company was quite clear that if I was using credit card company insurance, I needed to provide written evidence of coverage.  I contacted my credit card company and they emailed me a letter to that effect within the hour.  My credit card company covers Car Rental Loss and Damage Insurance but not liability.  Even so, however, the language in the letter says, “All benefits are subject to the terms, conditions and exclusions of the Policy.”  This set off alarm bells in my head since I had no idea what the terms, conditions and exclusions of the policy were.  And I had no time to find out since the rental agent delivering the car was sitting in my rented living room.  Chalk up another $9 per day for the Damage Insurance and the Rental Car Insurance (that’s $12 + $15 + $9 = $36 per day for insurance).

The agent who came to our condo to deliver the car, Luis, was one of the most pleasant people I have met so far in Costa Rica.  He spoke very good English, was very tolerant and helpful in my attempts at mangling Spanish, and took his time explaining everything.  Interestingly, Luis knew it was a rip-off, admitted it was, but his hands were tied because Costa Rican law requires the car insurance and the insurance is a monoply.  There really was nothing he could do about it but explain the options and leave the decisions up to me.

In the end, I chose to carry the full coverage this time.  Had I declined the Damage and Rental Car Theft insurance, in the event of an accident, the rental company would have simply charged my credit card for the amount of the damages and handed me the paperwork to deal with my credit card company regarding the insurance.  I didn’t want the hassle or the potential liability this time around.

Next time, I would probably take the limited liability for $12 per day ($20,000 maximum) and further investigate exactly what the credit card company policy is regarding “the terms, conditions and exclusions of the Policy.”  Although taxis and shuttles are widely available as are local buses, having our own transportation to explore the area and for side trips to the mountains (e.g., Arenal Volcano) has expanded our experiences here in Costa Rica.

I’m thinking of starting a car rental insurance company in Costa Rica….


Soda…it’s not what you think !

Soda La Perla de Pacifico--best food in Huacas !
Soda La Perla de Pacifico–best food in Huacas !

When our son Mark was younger, he and I went on a number of motorcycle trips together that, at one time or another, took us as far south as southern North Carolina, and north through upstate New York into Canada crossing the bridge at Windsor, Ontario and into Detroit.  We made it a habit to avoid the chain restaurants and focus on the local eateries along the way.  As a result, we discovered some interesting tidbits from local people that we would not otherwise have learned (e.g., how Horseheads, NY got its name).   Prior to Heide and I coming to Costa Rica this year, Mark and I were reminiscing about those motorcycle trips.  Mark, wise man that he is, said, “Look for a place where the Ticos are lined up and there will be the best food.”

Saturday, I wanted to get away from the tourist areas and experience more authentic Tico cuisine.  Here in Playa Flamingo, it seems the majority of Ticos I encounter are service personnel in restaurants.  Because tourism is the number one industry in Costa Rica, all of these service folks are “Americanized.”  Most speak passable English and, as a result, (USA) Americans are not forced to use the local language.  Even many of the restaurant menus contain options like “American Breakfast” with prices in US Dollars ($) rather than the local currency Colones (¢).  So it would seem that to come more in contact with the Tico culture and people, we needed to leave our comfort zone.


We decided to have lunch at a soda in Huacas, a small town to the southeast of Playa Flamingo.  A soda is a small, inexpensive, family run restaurant in Costa Rica with fare more traditional than the typical tourist restaurants in the area and they are open-air.  We ate at the Soda La Perla del Pacifico (The Pearl of the Pacific).

We drove to Huacas and spotted a couple of sodas and decided to try this one.  Honestly, from the outside, this is the kind of place you would simply drive by in the USA and never dream of stopping.  However, as we entered, I was struck by the sense of pride Gabino (the owner)and his family showed in making us feel welcome.  It was like he was inviting us into his living room.  Through his broken English and our broken Spanish we got along just fine.  His smile was infectious and you couldn’t help but feel like part of the family.

I was particularly impressed with how clean and neat everything was inside the soda.  Even though the tables and stools were obviously handmade, unfinished wood and long-used, they were spotlessly clean and there seemed to be a pride about it.  Gabino answered our many questions about the menu choices and helped us with the correct pronunciation of words we were mangling in Spanish.

Howler monkey in the tree at La Perla de Pacifico

The food was some of the best we have had so far during our stay in Costa Rica and we all had trouble finishing the portion size.  It was served with pride.  We started a conversation with Gabino’s wife (brief because we just don’t have the vocabulary yet) and she happily waved us into the kitchen.  I instinctively grabbed the camera as I got up from the table and, to our surprise, there were three howler monkeys in the tree just outside the kitchen window (bars on the window, of course).  The monkeys were just leisurely enjoying their lunch while we were enjoying ours.

Heide and her sister Teri at Soda La Perla de Pacifico
Heide and her sister Teri at Soda La Perla de Pacifico

The food was delicious, our hosts were gracious and welcoming, the price per meal was just ¢3,300 (about $6.60) for more food than any of us could eat.  As you can see in the picture to the left, a good time was had by all.

There is little doubt the weather here is spectacular (even as our hometown is getting 12-18″ of snow dumped it), but immersion in the culture and talking with Ticos is the real gem of Costa Rica.

“Give me your tired, your poor…”

THE of many !
THE hill…one of many !

I was outside early this morning waiting to see the sunrise over the mountains beyond Potrero Bay to the east of us.  I have no doubt that at 6:00 AM my appearance screamed, “Gringo!”  As I sat on the wall along the road, a young couple was pushing a bike up the long, steep hill talking pleasantly with one another.  When they got closer, their conversation stopped and they looked seriously at the ground as they approached where I was sitting.  In my best (so far) Spanish, I said, “Hola!  Buenos dias.” and I was struck by their response–they immediately looked up and broke in a very big smile and responded, “Muy bien.” (very well) and then resumed their previously interrupted conversation.  I’d like to think the smile was because an obvious Gringo was friendly and addressed them in their native Spanish.  An alternate explanation and not totally out of the question, of course, is they were laughing at my accent and/or pronunciation.  I’ve discovered that very subtle differences in pronunciation are somewhat like a dog whistle to those of us from the USA…the sounds are simply inaudible to us.  I’ve heard it said that Americans have a “lazy tongue” when it comes to speaking foreign languages–we tend to slur our words and not pronounce the vowel and consonant sounds distinctly.  We also have a lazy ear because we often don’t hear the distinct sounds spoken to us.  For example, my greeting of “Hola! Buenos dias.” means “Hello. Good morning.”  However, a very subtle difference in pronunciation such as “Hola! Buenos dios.” (note the “o” instead of the “a” as in dias) means, “Hello.  Good God !”.  Not exactly sure which I said to the young couple.

lady-liberty-by-pasnAs I’ve been observing American tourists for a few days now and their interactions with the Tico people, quite a few of them have no clue about any Spanish words or phrases whatsoever.  I would have thought they would at least have learned a few rudimentary phrases before embarking on their trip to a foreign country.  In their interactions with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, and service people, there appears to be an attitude of, “I can find someone who speaks English (or enough English) so I don’t need to learn/use any of their language.”  Yet, I’d wager, these very people are some of the most vocal critics of immigrants who come to the United States (legally or otherwise) and do not speak any English.  It struck me how hypocritical we Americans can sometimes be.  As guests in a foreign country, it is common courtesy to learn at least a little of the host country language.  How much you learn may depend on the length of your stay.  But for any trip planned in advance, learning a few key words and phrases and using them shows respect for the people and their beautiful country.

Costa Rica is home to some 50,000 folks from the United States according to the US Department of State.  Lured by the beautiful countryside, exceptionally friendly and welcoming people and the favorable climate, it is a popular destination for tourists and those looking to retire frugally.  Americans seem to live in clusters here and stick together.  I wonder how many of them actually speak the language.

Food for thought…


Costa Rica…The Adventure Begins


View from my writing table on the balcony…

Meeting new people, experiencing other cultures, and perhaps learning a new language (one can only hope, Amigo) places traveling on my list of life’s enjoyments. Heide and I have embarked on a two month trip to Costa Rica and, happy to say, we aren’t missing the 8 to 10 inches of snow our hometown received yesterday.  I am sitting on the patio listening to the waves break on the beach and the birds sing in the morning.  It doesn’t get a whole lot better.  And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about leaving winter behind.

We arrived in Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica on Saturday.  Planes were on time, connections went smoothly, and the assistance we got from a few folks with Heide’s handicapped access was amazing.  A thousand thanks to Luis (at the Liberia airport) who helped us expedite customs and immigration.  Even though he spoke limited English and we spoke almost no Spanish, it was a smooth entry into Costa Rica.  He was a tremendous help and comfort as he was the first person we encountered in a foreign land.

Many thanks to Vicky Goodloe, Real Estate Consultant with Blue Water Properties.  Her patience with my endless questions over the past few months and recent days is much appreciated. Renting a place for two months sight unseen in a foreign country is a risky business to be sure, but Vicky’s description of the condo and Playa Flamingo were spot-on.  We worked from afar to find the right housing while in Costa Rica and working through Vicky was a smooth, reassuring process.  She has a warm and welcoming personality and is a very professional real estate consultant.  Vicky kindly took me to the grocery store to pick up a few things to get us situated and I appreciate that she did.  We needed some basic necessities like food, snacks for what pretended to be the “Super” Bowl and a few personal items (e.g., shampoo, soap, etc.).  We’ll have wheels today so getting around will be easier.

Jorge Mendez, Property Manager, was waiting for us when we arrived on the shuttle from the airport.  At the end of a very long travel day, it was nice to see a smiling face in the parking lot. He helped us into the condo with our bags and showed us around to get settled.  His offer of help in the future was very reassuring.  Thank you, Jorge.

Playa Flamingo is a wonderfully quiet, peaceful, and friendly beach community in the Guanacaste Province in the northwestern part of the country along the Pacific coast.  The Nicaragua border is just to the north.  It is unexpectedly hilly here with quite steep inclines (45 degrees might not be an exaggeration) and everything is uphill both ways…!  Billy goat heaven to be sure.  It looked flatter on Google maps !!!  I suspect we’ll be in Olympic walking form by the end of the trip.  I’ve gotten off to a good start yesterday with walking twice and swimming some laps in the pool.  I hope to increase the distance on both walking and swimming in days ahead.

Today the rental car arrives and we will be off exploring.  Vicky told me where the local produce market is so we’ll be stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables locally grown.  We’ve been here three days now and it’s time we get to the beach to start working on my tan.

Like Bilbo, we are off on an adventure.  Although no dwarves are involved, I have, in fact, forgotten my pocket handkerchief and I am sure we will encounter some trolls, giant spiders, dragons.  More importantly, magic elves are appearing everywhere and I have no doubt we will end the trip with a dragon treasure worth more than gold.

Share the journey.  Stop by periodically.