Saturday, February 18, 2017

My Costa Rica Trip Day 1

Warning: Long post ahead as I'm transcribing my notes in on my recent trip to Costa Rica. We were there from Tuesday January 24th until Thursday February 2nd of this year.

1-24-17 Day One

It's seven pm local time and I am as exhausted as if I'm ninety years old instead of a mere 56. Mostly because we could not sleep last night. Both Jim and I only managed about an hour, or maybe less, before the alarm clock sounded and we had that long drive to BWI airport.

When we got there we ended up taking much too long to find the Parkway Parking lot. Usually when I travel out of BWI I leave the car in long term parking at the airport. Not this time, went to the cheapest long term parking. Beware if you chose this option at BWI. Parkway does not have a sign up anywhere, is actually just the parking lot of a Comfort Inn in Linthicum, Maryland, a good ten minutes from the airport and you'll be waiting for the shuttle bus. We were cutting it very close for boarding times for the first flight. I was freaking out.

Jim is the lucky eternal optimist born with a lucky horseshoe up his butt. While I'm the cranky old broad grounded more in reality. It works for us. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the gate agents at Spirit Airlines at BWI designated us 'TSA Pre Check'. Which meant instead of schlepping shoeless and coatless over the carpeting in the TSA security area after a long wait in line while having to divest of laptops, keys, cell phones and other electronic devices while going through the scanner we got to keep on our shoes and coats plus not unpack a darn thing. No scanner, no wanding, just being escorted in a security area with no line or being felt up. Sweet!

We slept from Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale, even had an empty set between us, unheard of on Spirit Airlines! I'm convinced it's Jim and Jim's luck rubbing on me.

But upon landing at Fort Lauderdale it was beyond crowded without enough seating for everyone. Once we were on the flight the airline told us that the flight was overbooked, making numerous appeals with perks to get at least ten people to give up their seats. They also pitched their own credit card three times on the flight. On this flight we sat next to a nice looking young guy. I tried to chat him up a couple of times but he could not be bothered to even pretend that he'd heard what I said. Very odd. Am I that scary?

If you fly into Costa Rica through San Jose be prepared to hurry up and wait while going first through passport control followed by customs. Once you're routed through the various checkpoints and luggage x-ray points you'll be besieged by the local cell phone companies, rental car agencies and money exchange agencies, all with one goal in mind - trying to separate the unsuspecting gringo traveler from their money at the worst possible rates. Don't fall for it. The competition for your business gets worse as you step outside the building and face the competition for taxis and rental cars.

There are better places to rent cars just off the airport, like the guys we always use -Adobe. They picked us up at the airport for the hair raising ride to their office and our rental car for the week. Cheapest rates for a car in country and they have offices everywhere. One word of warning, always get the supplemental insurance on the car. If you can afford it get the higher option. More on our car adventure later and the need for the best level of insurance you can afford.

Some other travel tips -

  • Never exchange money at the airport. The exchange rate is terrible! Any bank will allow you to exchange dollars for the local currency - colones - as long as you have a valid passport with you. The bigger banks offer the full exchange rate unlike the airport money exchanges.
  • Bring more money than you thought you would need. It's sort of a tax on tourists that the locals will try to make a little bit off you if they can. You'll go through the colones quicker than you think!
  • Most people and places will take dollars and credit cards too. Check with your credit card company on exchange rates. Many cards charge a money exchange fee for foreign transactions. Usually it's pretty low. 
  • If you take a taxi anywhere insist that the taxi driver run the meter. More on this tomorrow. 
  • It's not necessary to deal with the cell phone companies at the airport to use your cell in Costa Rica. One of the first things that happened when we arrived and switched on our Iphones our cell phone company, Verizon, pinged us with messages that they had a reciprocal agreement with Kolbi and Claro that allowed us to use our phones in country for a small fee.
  • Expect to haggle for many things you buy!

    Once we left the Adobe office we faced what has to be one of the most hair-raising experiences of our lives. Driving and riding in San Jose, Costa Rica. I've driven in Rome, driven the Ringstrasses in Munich, Germany and had some crazy taxi rides in Mexico City but neither prepared me for the chaos that is San Jose. Last time we picked up the car and fled the city for Manuel Antonio. This time we had to get across town to our hotel.

    The problems with driving in San Jose are these - bumper to bumper high speed traffic as in think L.A. or D.C. on the Autobahn, guys wandering between cars going fast speeds to sell bottled water, mango slices or bags of fried plantains. You seriously have to dodge these guys!

    The other problem with driving is that there are swarms of guys on tiny motorcyles zooming in and out of traffic without a care in the world. How they don't end up ground beneath the wheels of an 18 wheeler I don't know!

    GPS did not recognize our hotel so the poor guys at Adobe had to program in the judical courts right next door to the hotel to get us there. We drove through parts of the city that made me afraid, grinding poverty right out of a third world nation and through nice areas too. I guess any big city is a stew of various types of residents.

    Another big problem with driving in San Jose is the fact that the way the streets are numbered makes no sense at all. You might think that Calle 2 would come after Calle 1, but it might be Calle 2, the next block being Avienito 26 followed by Calle 90. No decipherable patterns at all. Same for the house numbers.

    We got to our hotel that first night, Casa Cambranes, before dark and made the acquaintance of our host Carlos, his wife Natalie and their completely charming and delightful cat Marvin. One of the first things out of his mouth when checked us in was asking us if we were running away from Donald Trump. He was the first of many Ticos I met who had no liking for the new president.

    Our gracious host Carlos with his mischievous feline Marvin.

    We checked in, grubby, hungry and exhausted but had to hike uphill to the nearest mall about four blocks away to exchange money at the Banc San Jose for that day's going exchange rate. One lovely and delicious meal later of typical Tico food of rice, black beans, salad and grilled chicken it was a short walk in the warm evening back to the lovely and quiet Casa Cambranes. There were many young people out and about during that walk and you could smell copious amounts of marajuana being smoked openly on the streets. We went to bed early, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the traffic, windows open to catch a deliciously cool breeze. Hard to believe we left bitter cold less than twenty four hours before.

    The view from our hotel room towards the active volcanoes nearby.

    Another quick note about Tico customs that is so important to know. Most places will not allow you to flush toilet paper, it has to go in a waste basket next to the toilet. Yep, it's a thing here.

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