Money

The local currency in Costa Rica is Colones.  They do also accept US dollars in most places.  Now we all know that exchange rates change daily, so if you are planning to travel to Costa Rica it would be best for you to check what the current exchange rate is prior to leaving from a reputable source, so you don’t end up being taken advantage of by currency exchange places once you land.  Here are some quick money tips for traveling Costa Rica.  Below the bullet tips are more in-depth explanations and ramblings on money:)

  • Avoid airport exchange rate centers.  They are notorious for giving the worst rate and for slapping on extra charges.
  • Carry smaller bills.  Many places won’t accept $100 bills due to counterfeit issues and many places don’t like giving lots of change out from larger bills.  So stick with $20 (10,000 colones) or less.
  • ATMs: If you are in a larger city, get there EARLY!!!  My first night in San Jose as I wandered the streets I looked for places to exchange my money for local currency and for ATMs to simply get out some local currency.  However the lines for each of these tasks were easily a mile long.  No joke!  Perhaps it was because I arrived on a Saturday, that perhaps was the only reason for every line being that long, but in any event it was enough for me to decide not to join the lines but rather to wait for a less crowded area to get or exchange money.  I have never had to wait in line in smaller locations such as La Fortuna, Puerto Jimenez and Puerto Viejo.
  • Store money smart: As a general travel safety tip, I would recommend to store your money in different locations.  For example, I always had a little bit of money in my travel bag for incidentals like taking the bus or getting something to eat.  But the vast majority of my money was stored in my bra.  Ok, perhaps that’s TMI, but I’m just being honest here:)  The more prepared traveler would perhaps consider a money belt or other clever device that looks innocent enough, but that stores the majority of their money.  Just food for thought!

Now for the ramblings…

Generally speaking, 500 colones is equivalent to 1 US dollar.  So 1000 colones (also called one Mil) is 2 US dollars.  The one Mil bill is actually quite cleverly designed.  It’s plastic believe it or not!  Practically indestructible and I would assume recyclable… They also have a 2,000 bill ($4.00 which is also my favorite bill because it has an image of a shark and coral reef on one side) a 5,000 bill ($10.00) a 10,000 bill ($20.00) and a 20,000 bill ($40.00).  I don’t know if the bills get higher than the 20K one, and honestly I’ve only seen the 20K bill once.  In general it’s best to have smaller bills (10K or less) since many places either won’t have the change for larger bills, or won’t want to accept them because you will be taking all their change!

That brings me to another quick point.  Avoid bringing $100 US dollar bills here.  They have had a lot of problems with counterfeit $100 bills and many places will not accept them because they aren’t sure that they aren’t counterfeit.  I have personally seen this occur to a few travelers at a hostel in Manuel Antonio.  They tried to pay with a $100 bill and were asked to pay with another form of payment because the hostel owner couldn’t verify that the bill was real.

Most places that are tourist related will simply use the base exchange of 500 colones to the 1 US dollar.  So for example, if you have a tour for 15,000 colones, they will accept $30 US dollars no problem.  Other places however are much more in tune with the exchange rates and will convert the colones to US dollars using the current exchange rate.  So if the exchange rate is low (i.e. less than 500 per 1US) then you could be paying more dollars out than if you simply had colones on you.  Unfortunately there isn’t any way for me to say “use this place or that” as per the places that will use the 500/1 rate vs. the places that are checking rates daily.  It’s simply something that I noticed along the way.

Sodas

In Costa Rica, Sodas are not carbonated sugary or diet drinks.  Rather they are cheaper restaurants that feature both local flavors and “fast foods” (i.e. hamburgers and fries and other tourist aimed food).

I particularly love eating at sodas, primarily because of their cheaper prices, but also because of how they vary from region to region.  My favorite thing to eat is “casados” which literally means marriage and is used in this reference as a marriage of food.  For anywhere from $3.00 to $5.00 you can feast on a plate of rice, beans, salad, a veggie of some sort (varies by region, soda and day), your choice of meat or vegetarian (chicken, beef or fish) and often times a few slices of sweet fried plantains for dessert.  All of this deliciousness is served on a single plate and is very satisfying!  Whether you are on a budget or not, I would highly recommend a stop in a soda or two!!

One interesting note on this topic: pollo is chicken, carne is beef.  While carne literally translates to meat, they mean it to mean beef.  It’s quite humorous sometimes because vegetarian friends of mine have stated to waiters that they don’t eat meat (i.e. carne) and are happily told that they also serve fish or chicken if they don’t eat carne!  So if you are vegetarian, be sure to specifically say “vegetarian” and skip the statement that you “don’t eat meat” or you too will be offered other meat varieties that aren’t beef.

When dining out anywhere in Costa Rica, unless you are dining out at very high-end places, do not expect your wait staff to wait on you hand and foot as they do in the states.  They will come by to get your order, deliver your food, and when you ask for it, deliver the bill (la cuenta).  They will not come by to see how your food is or whether you need a refill for your water and they definitely will never ask you if you are ready for the bill.  Don’t take this personally- it’s just the way the culture is.  If you want or need something during your meal, simply get the attention of someone working and they will come to you.  And when the time comes for the bill, once you get the eye of your server a simple mimic of writing a scribble in the air also suffices as asking for the bill.

Volcan Poas

Volcan, as you may guess, means Volcano in Spanish.  This particular volcano however was not a cone volcano, but rather a geyser.  It is apparently the largest active geyser in the world! But I’m getting ahead…

I took a bus ride to the volcano with all my gear in tow thinking there was a town nearby where I could stay for the night, and not really fully understanding that the volcano was located in a National Park… Therefore NO sleeping facilities… In any event, the ride there was almost entirely uphill and quite cloudy.  There literally were times when I had to stop watching the road and just trust that the driver knew what he was doing because it became so cloudy at times that it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead!!

We reached the National Park entrance and all tourists on the bus were asked to get off so we could pay.  All National Parks in Costa Rica cost $10.00 for tourists to enter, but if you are local it’s cheaper.  I’m not entirely sure how much cheaper, but none of the locals had to get off the bus to pay, but rather they were all counted up and paid for by the bus driver.  It was standing in the line to pay for the park where I met two fellow Americans.  One was teaching English to students in Alajuela, and the other was a retired gentleman who was going to head to Puerto Viejo after a short stay in Alajuela to potentially retire there.

Once all the payment business was over we loaded onto the bus and were dropped off in the bus parking lot…  Perhaps now is the time to bring up again that since I was thinking that I could stay the night in or at least very near the park, I had brought my backpack with me… Well, when we were all getting off the bus, since I wasn’t sure whether we were going to have the same exact bus on the way back down, I thought it best to bring my backpack with me.  But what this meant was that I was going to get a bit more exercise than I had signed up for originally, lol!!  Basically I hiked all around the park with my dang backpack cinched on me and cursing every time I had to walk uphill, lol!!

In any event, after getting off the bus I simply followed the signs and my two new friends up the trail to the volcano.  My oh my what a view…

Isn’t it just fantastic?!?!?!  Ok, now I know it doesn’t look like much, but believe it or not you are actually looking at the volcano in this picture.  Everyone looked and looked and looked around for some sign of where exactly this volcano was, but because of the low clouds, all you could see (as above) was mist.  My two friends and I hung around for a little while longer and agreed that this (the dense fog) was probably the reason we were given 3 hours to hang around the park.  Apparently dense fog is quite common at this volcano and one must be very patient if they want to actually see it.

Patience wasn’t very high on our list however, and since there were two other trails that led to a lake beside the geyser volcano, we decided to try our luck and see whether the lake was visible.  Up and up and up we hiked through dense jungle forest on teeny concrete paths until again meeting our final destination.  And can you believe it???  The lake looked exactly like the picture above!!  Nothing but dense fog!!

Once again we resolved to simply hang out for a little bit and got to chatting.  And then it happened… In mid-sentence one of my new friends gasped at the image that unfolded in front of us.  The clouds suddenly lifted revealing a beautiful green lake!

This beautiful view literally only lasted about 10 minutes and then the fog once again swept in and obscured the lake from view. Thinking perhaps to try our luck at the geyser we immediately left (all downhill thankfully) and headed back to the geyser.

The rain started to pour down on us as we went down and I even had to stop to put on my poncho before getting too soaked! Once back to our original station at the geyser, the fog once again showed no signs of lifting. But about 10 minutes later, just as it had at the lake, the fog miraculously lifted and you could see the geyser!!

Just as the mist came and went within 10 minutes at the lake, the same was true for the geyser!  We really lucked out on our timing for this trip!!

After waiting for the fog to close back over the geyser, we headed back for a snack at the cafe in the park and awaited our bus.  It was on the bus ride back that I was offered a free couch for the night at the girls place.  I accepted the generous offer and we were all dropped off in Alajuela.  The rest of the night was spent hanging out with my two new friends and the girls boyfriend.  We had a great dinner at a local soda then wandered the streets for some ice cream at a chain place called Pops.  Personally I wasn’t impressed by the ice cream there, but many people seem to enjoy it, so to each their own!

On to La Fortuna

Back to Costa Rica

Buses

Ok, buses in Costa Rica…  First let’s dispel one of the myths of buses here.  No, there aren’t any “chicken buses” (i.e. buses where live animals are allowed to be taken on).  I have heard Nicaragua has those, but I haven’t run into any of those anywhere so far.  In fact, friends of mine were rejected from riding the buses because they had their dogs with them.  The buses are for people only.

You have many bus choices really but the primary one is this: do you want to spend lots of money?  Or do you want to save money?

Perhaps it’s really not all that cut and dry with this decision really, and this is why:

Expensive buses: they have Greyline buses and other lines that charge upwards of $40+ to get to a destination that with the local buses would only cost a few dollars.  However, you will get air conditioning on these buses and you are guaranteed your own seat with no one potentially standing in the aisle beside you.  So those of you who are claustrophobic, this may be your best option.  You are also pretty much guaranteed on these buses to ride with a ton of other tourists as well.  Locals do not ride on these buses perhaps due to the expense, so if you choose this route, you will be missing the fun times of meeting and chatting with some locals.  This option is a lot faster though than the local buses as they take you directly to your final destination (sometimes there are a couple stops along the way but nowhere near as many as with the local buses) so if time is really of the essence, this may be your best travel bet too.

Unfortunately riding these buses does not guarantee you a smooth ride (only a comfortable one) as many of the roads are bumpy and wind around a lot!  So if you get car sick as well, you may want to consider having a calming agent with you regardless of which bus type you ride on.  The final important note with these buses is that tickets must be purchased in advance.

Cheap/local buses: this is the only mode of transportation I have used and let me tell you, it’s an experience!  Each one has been a bit different but all good.  Some allow you to keep your bag with you (my backpack) and others insist that you put it under the bus.  Now for traveling safety I have always been told never to part with your bag.  However my backpack has never contained any super important stuff (i.e. clothes and toiletries only) so while I was ok with parting with my bag, I did always try to score a seat near the window or standing space near a window so I could check that my bag wasn’t being removed by someone else at one of the various stops we would take.  In any event, these buses can get very, VERY crowded!  All the seats can fill up quickly and then they will continue to stuff the bus aisles with people and their various belongings.  There have been a few times that I’ve felt a little claustrophobic, but drowning my surroundings with music from my iPOD has helped!

The best kept secret for finding these buses and when they run exactly is thebusschedule.com.  It provides information for all the local buses that run within each Central American country!  Simply go to the website, click on the country you are in, fill in the information (from where to where, date and time- I usually always put 05:00 for time so I can see the entire days schedule) and voila!  It will show you all the options and times, the duration of each option and how many changes you will have to make.  It really is a fantastic site and is all I’ve ever used when traveling around!

You don’t have to purchase any tickets in advance, you just get on and when you are ready to depart they tell you as you are getting off how much you owe.

That reminds me of another little tip.  If you choose the local buses I would recommend to always double check with the driver that they are actually going to the destination you want.  This really serves two purposes: #1 that you are on the correct bus and #2 asking the driver puts a little bug in their ears as to where it is you want to get off.  The drivers are very good at their jobs and are quite good at recalling where to make sure and announce which stop is which for those who have specifically asked about them.  Because let me tell you- none of the stops are marked in any fashion.  As a back-up to ensure that I get off where I need to, I always strike up conversations with locals so they know where it is I want to get off and therefore they can help me get off where needed.  The locals have been invaluable in this way!!  I have never had a bad experience in speaking with locals and asking them for help.  Each have been amazingly accommodating and helpful!  There have been times when my little dictionary, maps and games of charades have broken out for us to completely understand each other, but that’s all part of the fun:)

Another difference with local buses is that vendors will come on board at certain stops selling drinks and little things to eat and such.  They hang on for a few stops or several stops depending on how much their products are in demand.  This can definitely make the buses more crowded, but again it’s all part of the fun of the experience in my book.

So in summary for the cheap buses: you are not guaranteed a seat, you definitely won’t have any air conditioning (but you can open the windows!), you won’t get to your destination on time (always add about an hour to two hours from when they say you will arrive), your personal space may be violated at times, you may have to keep an extra keen eye out for your personal belongings, BUT you will miss the local experience and chatting with locals going the other route.  As I said, I’ve only ridden the local buses and plan to continue always riding the local buses.  To me, the experience and the people make the trip much more fun than an air-conditioned tourist bus:)

San Jose

I should start by saying that I really didn’t have a plan.  None of this trip was planned exactly.  The farthest I ever got with “planning” was that I was going to sell everything, quit my job and travel out of the Country.  But that was it.  Seriously, nothing beyond there.  So when I landed in the San Jose airport (located in Alajuela) I didn’t have any further idea of where I was going to even sleep that night or what my next move was…

Many would find that crazy especially since I had the time to figure it all out, but in my mind I was just interested in the experience and the challenge of having to figure it out as I went along.  I have always done my best work when thrown into the deep end of the pool and in a way, planning to NOT have a plan was my own personal ocean:)
Walking out of the airport I was immediately ambushed by tons of eager faces and voices all asking “Taxi???”.  I turned them down and asked someone nearby where the bus station was instead.  My thoughts were to get out of San Jose immediately and get out to a more typical Costa Rica town: more nature, less city!  As I made my way toward the buses I suddenly thought “well, one night wouldn’t hurt and I could use it to get my barring”.  So I headed back to the taxis and met a couple of other people who were asking if I wanted to share a cab to San Jose.  I took this as a sign that ok, I could stay one night in San Jose!

In retrospect, had I really understood that the airport was in Alajuela (which I did have a foggy memory of my brother telling me that, yet it somehow wasn’t solidified in my mind) I would have just gotten a taxi to downtown Alajuela…

In any event, about a half our later we were in San Jose and had dropped off my two taxi buddies at their various locations.  The taxi driver then turned to me and (all in Spanish) said- “where are you off to?”  I replied that I had no idea, but asked what he would suggest?  I stated that I wanted somewhere cheap- the cheaper the better in my mind!  He politely stated however that he would much prefer I stayed somewhere a little more pricey, but it would be in an area he considered safe for a single traveler.  I acquiesced and was taken to a little B&B near the downtown area.

After settling in I spent the rest of the afternoon getting lost and trying to get directions on where downtown actually was!  I ran into a few people on the street who I trusted to ask questions of and they assisted me very kindly- but each person also emphatically told me to either get back to my B&B prior to the night-time or take a taxi back.  “Muy peligroso” was what I was told.  Mainly because the drug addicts come out at night and petty crimes apparently aren’t unusual in San Jose.  Though there are crimes everywhere, I took the locals advice to heart and made sure I was back at the B&B by 6pm (yes, it gets dark here by 6pm everyday, year round!).

San Jose was a bustling, constantly moving city!  There were people everywhere!!  In the markets, hanging out in the parks, moving on foot or in their cars or on bikes going to their destinations.  Movement everywhere you looked!  Buildings weren’t very tall but they were everywhere all squished together as far as the eye could see, thus blocking any real view of the beautiful nature that surrounds the city.  McDonald’s, Quizno’s, Pizza Hut and other U.S. food chains were also everywhere!  I hate to admit, but as I was getting a little tired from all the travels and walking around all afternoon, I did drift to a Quizno’s for dinner.  The shame, I know!!  But crowds and areas with lots of hustle and bustle tend to wear me out fast and it was nice to get a little food that I could relate to, so to speak.  I knew there would be plenty of time to taste local flavors and I was certainly looking forward to that, but for the time I was happy with the Quizno’s.

After my bite to eat I did a little internet research at my B&B for Volcan Poas.  My cousin, who is a “seasoned” Costa Rica traveler said it was a good day trip from San Jose, so I decided to check out what was available there (hostels and such) for a trip the next day.  I found a few hostels online and took down their information so I could look them up once there.  I also had to get the bus situation understood because San Jose has 4, yes 4 different bus stations all in different locations from one another.  Depending on where you want to go to, that decides which bus terminal you need to show up to.

As I settled into the B&B to sleep, a huge thunderstorm settled in overhead… Now for those of you who know me, you know that I absolutely ADORE thunderstorms!!! In fact, so much that whether a place has thunderstorms on a fairly consistent basis is actually a deciding factor for me on whether I will plan to live there or not.  I know, I know- sounds absolutely nuts picking a place to live based on thunderstorms, but hey, I follow my passions no matter what form they take!

On to Volcan Poas

Back to Costa Rica

Packing Tips

Ok, so I figure I should spend a little time going through what I consider to be the essentials on what to pack when traveling.  Now, regardless of whether you are traveling with a backpack or with luggage, I would still suggest all of the below to be included.  Between the wisdom and suggestions of my mom on what to be sure to include and my own experiences, so far I have not needed to purchase anything extra to survive my travels thus far:)  So below is a running list of suggestions on what to pack for your travels:

  • Shorts and T-shirts
  • Nice casual outfit for evenings out (aka dressin’ to impressin’!!)
  • Sweater (yes, sweater) and long pants
  • Underwear and bras of course (men, you can skip the bras unless you are into some crazy kinky stuff I don’t know about and frankly don’t want to know about;))
  • Shoe variety (I brought 2 sets of flip-flops and a pair of keens which have been invaluable throughout the trip!!  They serve as my hiking/general exercise “boots” and even my riding “boots”!  And they aren’t that bulky so they don’t take an excessive amount of space up in my bag.)
  • Poncho (thanks mom!!)
  • Bathing suits (more than one as it takes 2-3 days for anything to dry around here and slipping into a wet and cold bathing suit isn’t all that great!!)
  • Compact caboodle to put in all toiletries (I found a fabric caboodle that came with many storage areas and even little travel bottles that I filled with hydrogen peroxide, shampoo, lotion and tea tree oil bug spray.  Mind you this was in my backpack and not in my carry-on so there were no airport security issues)
  • Compact sleep travel kit (as mentioned before I happened to purchase mine on the flight over and it’s come in handy many times!!  Pack included blanket, air pillow, eye mask and ear plugs)
  • Towel (not all hostels provide you with a towel, and even if they do, sometimes it’s just a better idea to use your own!! Also, I have a second towel that my sister gave to me a while back.  I believe it is from Japan but it is very small yet acts like one of those sham wow towels while actually still having the feel of a towel)
  • BUG SPRAY!!!!!  (ok, now I really didn’t have any need for bug spray until I reached the Osa Peninsula, but in general this is a good idea!!)
  • Water bottle (my mom and I found this great water bottle called vapur: it’s a eco-friendly reusable plastic water bottle that is also BPA-free and the best thing about it is that when it’s empty, it’s as flat as a few sheets of paper, but when filled it simply expands and allows up to, if memory serves right, a half a liter of water!  It also comes with a carabiner for easy clipping to your body or pack!)
  • Hands-free headlight (I got one with three modes of lighting and it has come in great handy!!  Whether used for a night tour, light to get home after late-night fiestas, during blackouts that actually occur more often than not or simply in my own home when the 3 of the 4 light bulbs suddenly decide to burn out all within the same hour!)
  • Plastic bags (these are really essential too!!  They are great for stuffing still wet clothing into or dirty clothes into to separate them from the rest of the dry and clean clothes while traveling from one place to the next)
  • First Aid Kit (I bought one from Bass Pro Shop that is quite compact and has a lot of handy stuff including a syringe and gloves.  I’ve added to it extra bandaids, Neosporen and tea tree oil for bug bites)

September 17th, 2011

Dropped off at the airport around 3am, my journey was about to begin.  I hadn’t slept entirely well the night before due to many factors really- nerves, had I packed enough?, ideas of what may lay ahead, but most of all fear that I wouldn’t be allowed in the Country to begin with…

Let me explain: all the online posts I had read pertaining to traveling to Costa Rica stated that you had to have proof of leaving the Country prior to entering.  In other words a bus ticket or a return plane ticket showing that you were going to be leaving within 90 days of arrival.  I had no such proof.  I had only purchased a one-way ticket there.

What I had later learned is that many airlines- Spirit, Air Mexico, etc will not allow you to purchase a one-way ticket online.  Or if they do, once you arrive at the airport you get slapped with the happy news that you have to pony up some more money for a return ticket… kinda sneaky if you ask me, but the good news or best advice rather if you find yourself in that scenario is to simply buy a refundable ticket and cancel it after printing your proof of a return flight.

One example of the kind of trouble one may run into without a return ticket from CR was of a couple who flew in to Miami (as part of the journey to CR) then were denied bording access to the plane to CR because they didn’t have a return flight!  They ended up having to get back to the ticket sales desk, only to find one airline open, purchase a ticket, haul back through security and get on the plane in the nick of time!

Though I was nervous about not having a return flight, I said to myself that if I wasn’t meant to go to Costa Rica, then I would have complications getting in.  If not, well then that was just one more sign that I was supposed to go.

The flight was quite pleasant as I slept for most of the time.  I traveled on US Air and made one of the best last minute travel purchases while on a flight: a sleep pack that included a little blanket, air pillow, eye mask and ear plugs all condensed in the size of… well frankly this little 10″ netbook I’m currently working on:)  It has come in handy time and time again!

My most nerve-wracking moment was when I arrived at the San Jose airport (which btw folks isn’t actually located in San Jose, but rather Alajuela- but I will speak more about that later).  Would I get past Immegration with only a one-way ticket???  Indeed I did:)

On to San Jose

Back to Costa Rica