We Did What?! How Saving $20 Cost Us $320
We consider ourselves pretty savvy travelers (and most people who know us would agree), but did we ever screw this one up! When arranging our transportation from Antigua to the airport in Guatemala City for a 12 noon flight, we were given the option of a shared shuttle for $10pp or private shuttle for $39. The shared shuttle was to leave between 8:45 and 9:00 am (with the private shuttle we set the time), and it was supposed to be an hour trip to the airport when leaving at 9 am. We went with the shared shuttle. So….?Que paso? Chalk it up to:
a. We forgot that we are in Latin America and imagined that we were somehow transported to Switzerland while we slept.
b. Our brains were fried from four weeks four hours a day of learning Spanish.
c. Being on “manana” time having been in Latin America for a month.
d. We forget all about the terrible traffic we encountered leaving Guatemala City on our way to Lake Atitlan.
e. All of the above.
We enjoyed our usual breakfast routine and were at the door waiting at 8:45 am. Ian tried to check us in online but the Internet was being flaky…..so began our day of missteps. Our shuttle showed up at 9:20 am and we were the 2nd pickup; we still had three more pickups, one of whom wasn’t ready. After everyone was loaded, we pulled over to fill up with gas. We left Antigua at 9:45 am. About 30 minutes into the trip, we hit major traffic and the drive ended up taking almost two hours instead of one. We arrived at the airport at 11:20 am and were told that our flight was already closed. We had visions of thousands of dollars in last minute airfares. Luckily that wasn’t the case. Copa Airlines would put us on the same flight the next day for an additional $96 each and a hotel by the airport would cost us $100. Looking online with his phone (3G data, so slow), Ian found that we could go on an Avianca flight at 6:30 pm that would get us to Costa Rica at 9:00 pm for $160 each. When we tried to book the Avianca flight, the cell service was so slow the booking process kept timing out. No problem: Avianca’s counter was right across from Copa’s, so we went over and stood in line. The agent at the gate wanted $186 because of an extra fee to book at the airport. She told us about a restaurant across the street with free WiFi if a drink was purchased, so we opted for that. Everything was going great but at the final step, the WiFi died. After 15 minutes of trying, we switched back to cell and kept getting error messages that the flight was sold out. Hoping that the flight wasn’t sold out and resigned to paying the airport fee, we went back into the airport, only to encounter a closed Avianca check-in counter. Everyone went to lunch and wouldn’t be back until 1:30pm. We returned at 1:20, were the second people in line. At 1:40, agents started showing up, in no hurry to go back to work. We waited our turn, our agent couldn’t sell tickets, we were told to go to Window 37, we walked over there and it was closed with no agent. An agent finally showed up at 2 pm. Luckily the flight wasn’t sold out, and for some reason, this time the agent gave us the Internet price, we have no idea why now and not earlier. But we’ll take it! For this flight, the agent did check that we had an onward ticket for leaving Costa Rica. We had already purchased our ticket from Panama to Columbia and that was good enough.
Our luck changed as soon as we cleared immigration and security. We figured out that the Priority Pass membership that came with our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card would get us into the Copa Lounge: free drinks , crackers, comfy seats. The flight to Costa Rica was uneventful. A little poorer, much wiser, leave plenty of time when in Latin America!
Arriving In Costa Rica
As soon as we landed in Costa Rica, we got our first hint that things were going to be different. This airport had heard about crowd management and the line was orderly, and we waited only about 20 minutes. In Guatemala, the immigration officer didn’t ask us anything, just stamped our passport. In Costa Rica, very different: the agent wanted to know our professions, where we were staying, and how long we were going to be in Costa Rica. He did not ask for proof of onward travel so we didn’t mention that we would be flying from Panama and doing a land crossing from Costa Rica to Panama. A pretty good rule of thumb: probably best not to volunteer any info not specifically asked.
Exiting the airport, working our way past the taxi mafia, we arrived where the Uber app gave as the pickup location. Yes, they have Uber in San Jose, Costa Rica! Our original plan, pre mind lapse, was to take a city bus from the airport to downtown San Jose. Given that we were arriving at 10 pm instead of 2 pm, we opted for Uber. Met our driver and were on our way, $10 for about a 30 minute ride. He didn’t speak much English, we were able to have a halting conversation with him. Once we left the airport, the second thing we noticed was that it was quiet, no noisier than the US – the nonstop din and constant smell of exhaust fumes of Guatemala was gone. Our hotel for the evening in San Jose was Costa Rica Guesthouse for $26 per night with a shared bathroom, kind of like a hostel with private rooms. Perfectly adequate but we did feel a bit like parents crashing the kids party.
Playas del Coco
The next morning we had to be at the bus station by 7 am to buy tickets for our bus to Playas del Coco, a beach town that’s popular with expats and snowbirds, and is in the driest area of Costa Rica, in the Guanacaste province. (We probably could have arrived at the bus station at least 30 minutes later, but then wouldn’t have had time to enjoy our yummy Tico breakfast.) Another Uber to the bus station for $3.50. This driver gave us instructions for taking an Uber in Costa Rica: one person in the front passenger seat; that way it looks like friends are picking us up. The taxi lobby group is strong in Costa Rica so Uber is not officially sanctioned, and taxi drivers have been known to cause problems for Uber drivers. We had fun with this driver, he spoke good English and helped us practice our Spanish. Ian told him about Guatemala and said that we liked Costa Rica better, when the driver gave him a strange look we realized that he’d said it backwards, laughs all around. We bought our bus tickets without a hitch, about $16 for a 5 hour bus ride for two people, not bad. At the bus station we got breakfast from a soda (a local Costa Rican restaurant that serves traditional food): two eggs, sausage, gallo pinto, and two coffees for $6. (The breakfast plate was ample to share.) At 15 minutes before scheduled departure, the bus pulled up, called our destination and we started boarding (big bags underneath the bus – all our electronics were in the day packs we kept with us). The bus trip was relaxing, comfortable, uneventful, with lots of green scenery. Dropping down from the highlands to the beach, the temperature went from mid 70’s to 90 and humid.
Our Airbnb was everything that was described in the ad. Three floors (one an open air covered rooftop lounge), two bedrooms, full kitchen, water that’s safe to drink, we are paying $56 per night.
After the intense last month, it’s been nice to chill at the beach. Our new tough routine:
- Coffee and breakfast in the unit on the third floor covered lounge
- 1-2 hour walk on beach (the beach is a 10 min walk from the condo), a dip in the ocean at the turnaround point to cool down
- Dip in the pool to cool down on our return
- Lunch in the unit
- Catch up on reading that we missed last month, internet, etc., while it often rains outside.
- Walk into town (about 20 min) for happy hour ($2 drinks) at one of two bars, both of which are expat hangouts. Which one to visit, our decision for the day. Watch football or talk with some of the expats – we’ve met quite a few who seem happy here.
- Have dinner in town
- Walk back to our condo, greeting the security guard on arrival
We’ve had two field trips this week.
- The first was to Playa Hermosa, the next beach town north, also popular with expats and snowbirds. The beach is a little nicer but still with the grayish brown sand that Playas del Coco has. It’s a much smaller town and a car is definitely required, whereas it would be possible to live in Coco without a car.
- The second into Liberia (the closest larger town) because Ann needed a routine appointment with an ear specialist and she was able to find one there at a private hospital, Clinical Hospital San Rafael Arcangel. We took the local bus about an hour, which we discovered aren’t air conditioned like the long distance buses. Waiting ten minutes (inside the bus) for the bus to depart was agony, but most of the Ticos didn’t seem to notice, and once we were moving it was fine. The appointment went well and was $88 which we believe is quite a bit less than a specialist in the US would have cost. An interesting thing happened: Ann’s appointment was for 5:00 pm, we checked in at about 3:40, and she got called about 5 minutes later. Did the doctor have cancellations or did the higher paying gringo go to the head of the line?
Summary Playas del Coco
What are our thoughts about Costa Rica (specifically Playas del Coco) after one week at the beach? We are evaluating places as potential expat destinations, not as places for a vacation. Hawaii is our gold standard; if the cost of living there wasn’t so high, we would live in Hawaii for retirement. But Hawaii is too expensive for our budget, hence the search for alternatives.
- Playas del Coco – Is a funky beach town which took Ian a few days to warm up to.
- Beach – Coco beach is not as nice as most in Hawaii, the water is not very clear, and the sand is a grayish brown, not light tan or white. But it’s a very pleasant beach to walk on and at about 4.5 km long, it’s good exercise. It is bisected by two rivers (streams) which are a problem to cross at high tide. We wonder if the ocean water would be clearer in the dry season.
- Playas del Coco is more expensive than Guatemala, but that was expected.
- Buses are a very inexpensive way to get around. The only problem is that they work in a hub and spoke pattern like some airlines. So easy to get to the main city in an area, not easy to get to the small town 10 miles down the road. To get to that small town, a taxi is required.
- Groceries at Playas del Coco are about equivalent to the mainland US and cheaper than Hawaii, a bit more for any packaged goods. We had heard that imported goods were more expensive – no problem, we thought, we will just buy the local Tico product. Turns out the local Tico products are most likely going to be priced the same as the imported product. Maybe the local companies would rather make more profit than take market share?
- Bug spray ($10 a can) and sun tan lotion are expensive.
- Happy hours (11 am – 7 pm at one bar) are cheap with $2 drinks but no food specials.
- Restaurants are about the same as mainland US and cheaper than Hawaii. The local sodas are quite reasonable at $8 for a meal.
- Mosquitos – We are here at the end of rainy season and they are vicious; even putting bug spray on, they are still biting, especially legs. Which given the prevalence of Dengue and Chikungunya is a bit worrying.
- Weather – Seems more humid than Hawaii with no trade winds to temper the heat. Wouldn’t want to live here without A/C, and this is the cool season. Locals have told us that in March and April, it can get close to 100.
- Six month rainy season.
- Real Estate – Studio condos seem to start around $50K and go up to about $70K, 1 bedrooms start at about $70K, with 2 bedroom condos starting at $99K. These prices are all without ocean views, at least double to get an ocean view. Single family houses seem to start at about $250K. We’ve seen lots of condos and houses for sale. At least one expat told us it can take a long time to sell a property. Long-term (6 months or more) rentals are in the range of $450 and up. We even saw an ad for a furnished 2 BR 1 Bath ocean view condo for $600 per month, including utilities.
- Residency can take a while. Costa Rica used to target retirees with programs similar to what Panama and Ecuador offer now but has since moved onto Eco and Adventure tourists. One expat we talked with has been waiting two years for residency.
Next week finds us in Tamarindo, another beach town a bit further south, larger and with more tourists, especially surfers. After that, we are unsure. Our initial plan was to go to Jaco (another beach town closer to Manual Antonio National Park) followed by the Central Valley (cooler highlands), then to the Caribbean side. Given Costa Rica’s higher cost of living, do we stick with the original plan or head off to Panama? Our only requirement is to be in Panama City by December 8th.
Ian & Ann