Costa Rica Expedition

Traveling the Country in a Rental 4x4

20140212 - 20140304

  Final update: 20140306 from San Diego, CA

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Arenal Volcano as seen from our hotel.

All photos copyright, Bill Caid 2014. All rights reserved.

The Trip

Time marches on and despite our efforts to the contrary, we all get older.  Kathleen is no exception.  Though her attitude is timeless, chronological age continues unabated.  Since she is celebrating a "zero year" birthday, I decided that there would be no more appropriate present than 3 weeks exploring Costa Rica.  So, armed with a fast internet connection and a quest to get a fuller understanding of the area, we got some round trip tickets and a rental 4x4 reserved.  Our plan of attack is rather random: get the car and head out with only the first night night at the hotel planned.  Everything else will be ad hoc.  Given that this is the "high season" (translated as it does not rain so much) this approach might present some interesting challenges with regard to lodging.  But, we have our guide books (likely the exact same ones as every other gringo in-country) so we'll research it on the fly.

Tracking Our Location Via The SPOT

Some years ago, after a scary mechanical failure in the canyons and mesas of southern Utah, we decided that we need a better way to advertise our position and call for assistance if needed.  Kathleen found out about the SPOT which is a GPS locator that transmits your coordinates via satellite so that others can see your location.  The location is plotted on Google maps and a "bread crumb" feature is available for an additional fee.  We have the enhanced service, so you can see our historical path back 50 updates or so.  See our current location plotted on Google Maps in Real-Time via SPOT satellite geo-locator device.  This page is "book-markable" and is updated approximately every 15 minutes, but may miss updates due to inability of our transmitter to reach the satellite.  The communication is "open loop" so the device never knows if it's messages are actually going anywhere, it just keeps trying until the next update is available.  If we are in a congested urban area with high buildings (like Manhattan) or in deep canyons, the position may not update.  We try to send an "OK" message once a day just to let everyone know that we are, in fact, OK.

Connecting and Contacting Us While on the Trip

Because of internet connectivity issues on a previous trip, we purchased a MiFi cell phone modem that allows us to connect nearly anywhere there is 3G service via cell phone (which is most of the cell phone service area available today).  But, as we all know, cell phones are useful many places, but not everywhere has coverage, particularly in the remote areas of the western U.S.  Our phones and the modem are enabled daily so you may contact us, although it may take a few days for us to respond.  But, we will respond.  My email, spelled out, is "bcaid at yahoo dot com".

Trip Details

The link table below contains links to the photos and dialog for each of the days of the expedition.  This table will be updated as the trip progresses.

Links to Daily Adventures
Part Dates Adventure Locations
San Diego, CA to Arenal, Costa Rica
Arenal Paraiso, Costa Rica
Arenal Hanging Bridges to Lake Arenal
La Rana Arenal to Monteverde
Monteverde to Playa Hermosa
Playa Hermosa to Brasilito
Brasilito to Nosara
Nosara to Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa to Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio and Rain Maker
Manuel Antonio to Turrialba
Turrialba to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean
Exploration of Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo to Volcan Poas
Exploring La Paz Waterfall Park, Part 1
Exploring La Paz Waterfall Park, Part 2
Volcan Poas to Alajuela


Conclusions and Advice to Travelers

This was a great trip by any standard.  We had a time but there were some things that were not expected.  First, we planned on purchasing a SIM card for our WiFi hotspot and the plan was to use that hotspot as our network access point when we were rolling.  That was a fine plan but the execution was flawed for several reasons.  First, it was a true pain to get the account working.  Purchasing the card was easy (it did require a passport) and cheap (about $2) for the card.  But we failed to note several critical items along the way, the biggest being our phone number.  It was clearly printed on our receipt (in Spanish) along with a bunch of other numbers so we missed it.  Second the network name was never provided.  Kathleen did figure it out, but it took days and plenty of effort to finally both my global phone and the hotspot working.  Due to lack of knowledge of the phone number, we graciously added minutes to several stranger's accounts until we figured it out.  Our mistakes cost about $100 but in the end it did work as advertised.  I have a saying that "there is no learning without money or pain".  In this case, we are both much, MUCH smarter.  The hotspot did have excellent coverage and once we figured out how the system worked it was easy to add money to the account, one month at a time.

We were surprised by the level of cell phone coverage in the country.  It is much higher than expected and there were few, if any, places that we did not get a strong signal.  There were towers everywhere and multiple vendors to choose from.  Due to the roughness of the terrain and the remoteness of many places, landlines never had a chance and were supplanted by cell phones before the lines ever existed.

We were also surprised by the availability of WiFi at hotels.  Every place we stayed had WiFi.  Except for the time in our vehicle, the hotspot was not required.  Some of the WiFi access points in hotels were MANY TIMES faster than our cable modem service at home.  Photo uploads took seconds, not minutes or hours.

Planning ahead on things is required when it involves travel or money.  We called our banks before we arrived and told them of our travel plans.  We had no trouble whatsoever using our credit cards, but that seemed to be the exception for some folks.  On our exit from the country, there were several people who were sweating it out at the rental car counter because they had not told the bank of the travel and the cards were blocked on the first attempt at a charge.  To the bank, it looked like a fraudulent transaction.  They spent a lot of time on the phone to get the issue resolved.

There were plenty of ATM machines but we only used BCR - Banco Costa Rica.  Their system worked with our debit card (we did call ahead) and their machines had English as an option and would dispense both Colones and Dollars.  There is a fee of course, but they did work.  We were surprised that dollars were accepted everywhere.  The rate is 500 Colones to 1 dollar, which may or may not be the actual exchange rate.  We switched to local currency on arrival using the ATM and change from dollar-based transactions as the currency exchange method.

You must pay an exit fee to get out of the country and the fee is priced in dollars, so don't spend all your money before you leave.  They will take plastic for the exitt fee.  The statistics we saw showed that 40% of the country's tourist traffic is from the U.S. so I guess it is not all that surprising that the fee would be dollar based.

We were very careful about security of our stuff and never put ourselves in a position where we were at risk.  Petty theft is a real issue in the country and we were warned time and again about it.  Our rental 4x4 came equipped with a special hardened lock on the shift lever and we were instructed to use it anytime we were not physically in the vehicle.  Every hotel we stayed at, with one exception, had a locked, guarded parking area with roving guards around the perimeter of the place.  We never had any issues, but due to our choices, we never provided the opportunity to be exploited.

With only one exception, we did not put ourselves in a position where we were driving after dark.  In Costa Rica, driving is a contact sport and we saw more crazy antics in one afternoon than I have seen in 45 years of driving everywhere else.  We had several very close calls including with full-size oncoming 18 wheelers.  The narrow roads and tropical gutters instead of a shoulder provide a "unique" driving experience.

I did get a touch of food poisoning once, but the exact cause was not fully clear.  It passed quickly and did not have a lasting impact.  The tap water is safe to drink and it generally tasted OK.  We chose to purchase bottled water due to taste, not safety and drank it almost exclusively except at meals when we drank "agua de la casa".

Prices in CR are comparable to the U.S.  We jokingly called it "Costy Rica" and that is pretty close.  The northwest district is a state called Guanacoste which has nice resorts, some with nightly room prices exceeding $4000.  We renamed it "Gonnacostya" and that seemed appropriate.  I don't think your expectations will be met coming to CR looking for bargain deals relative to U.S. prices.  That said, there are cheap rooms around, but usually you get what you pay for.  Our minimum room price was abut $60 and the max was about $200/night.  Food prices were comparable to the U.S.  Fuel was more expensive at around $6/gallon but priced by the liter.

All told, CR is a very tourist friendly place with well developed infrastructure.  It still has a third-world feel to it when you get into the back country areas.  But that feeling quickly dissipates when everyone you see is texting on their phone.


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Copyright Bill Caid 2014