A couple months ago I saw a segment on HGTV (I was stuck in hotel room and nothing was on) about people buying homes in Costa Rica. At the time I was trying to figure out where to take a vacation, so I decided to check it out. Costa Rica is not too far, it’s got nice beaches, and it’s relatively low cost.
I booked my ticket through Yahoo’s Farechase, which is a nice little application, and booked my hotel directly after doing some quick searches online. I wanted to go to Tamarindo, which is a small beach town on the Pacific side. It looked like a perfect small, quit place to relax. I also decided that I should probably at least spend a day checking out San Jose.
After my limited research, I made a poor decision on air travel. I booked a flight plan through American Airlines that would have me leave from Medford to LA, then LA to Miami, then Miami to San Jose. With layovers and flight time, the trip took 18 hours! This was not a smart move on my part. I saved about $200 on the ticket doing this, but on the way back I had an overnight layover in LA, so the hotel cost me $200 anyway. I should have booked directly from LA to either San Jose, or Liberia airport. I know for next time.
The trip for the most part was uneventful. I slept a little on the plane, but was still exhausted when I got in. I arrived at the airport, pre-paid my exit tax, had my passport checked, and walked on down to get my luggage, which I was happily surprised to see made it to my destination. I exchanged some dollars into Colones at a rate of about 500 colones to $1. The pound is worth 1000 colones right now!
I went outside to get a taxi to my hotel. All the taxi’s are red in Costa Rica, which makes them easy to spot. I told them my hotel name, pre-paid at a window and was off. The weather was nice and I was able to see much of the city as we drove in.
One off note here; I noticed some markings on the road in the slow lane. They looked like a heart with a line about it. I asked the cab driver if that was a marking for an ambulance lane. He looked at me a bit surprised and said that it was to mark where people died from being struck by a car. I pointed out that there are a lot of them, and he agreed. I asked why are they only in this lane, and he said maybe people didn’t make it any further. That was sort of a macabre idea, and I wasn’t sure he wasn’t screwing with me.
We made it to my hotel and he dropped me off. The hotel I booked was the Hotel Del Rey, which is a big pink building. I picked it because it was in a central location, the staff all spoke English, there was 24 hour room service, high speed WiFi, had a small casino, and seemed to cater to Americans. I did read some reviews that say the bar is famous for being packed with prostitutes, but I don’t really drink much, and that would just lend a bit of local flavor to the place I thought. Well as it turns out that while they cater to Americans, they cater mostly to American men who enjoy going to Costa Rica to take advantage of the legal, low priced, prostitution. It wasn’t just the bar that was filled with prostitutes, it was the entire lobby.
After checking in I was shown to my room on the 2nd floor. The room was awful. It was dingy, smelled funny and was incredibly small. I asked if there was any possibility of getting a better room, but was told the hotel was booked.
I took a quick shower and put on some fresh clothes. I then heard a knock at the door. It was the bell hop that helped me with my bags. He said he gave me the wrong room. Thank god! I told him I already used the bathroom and some towels, and he said that wasn’t a problem. He would just send up someone to clean the room again. I gathered my bags quickly and followed him up 1 floor to what appeared to be the same exact room! I asked why they needed to switch me if the room is just the same room on a different floor. He said he didn’t know.
I went down to grab a bit to eat. I had heard of a rib place (JR Ribs) in the area which was supposed to be good, so I asked for directions and headed off. After getting a little lost of a couple minutes I was able to find a small sign that pointed to JR Ribs, and followed that.
JR Ribs is a nice little rib place with a very big sign. It’s down a small side street that dead ends and seems like an odd placement for a restaurant. I noticed a lot of the restaurants look like they used to be big homes that were converted. The ribs were very good. Not as good as some well known rib places in the US, but a very nice meal, especially after not eating for the past 15 hours.
I headed back to my hotel while it was getting dark. I took a short, much needed nap for a couple hours and decided I need to check in with the office. I tried to get online, but it was requesting a password. I called downstairs and asked for help. They said I had to come down to set it up.
When I went downstairs I was told that I needed to pay for Internet access separately. I said okay and asked if they can just bill my card. “Do you have cash” the guy at the desk asked me. This would become a common theme at hotels for me in Costa Rica. I said I did, but I would rather charge it to my room. He said he couldn’t do that. So I paid him cash, having a pretty good feeling that the cash just went into his pocket.
I went upstairs with the password he gave me and it worked fine. I decided to try Skype. After being on the receiving end of Skype International calls, and cursing their cheap asses under my breath as the calls get dropped and fade out, I was very surprised to hear that the people I called had no idea I was using Skype or out of the country. Skype has really come a long way in the past few years. Part of this may be that I was using a pretty pricey Plantronics wireless headset that plugs into the USB port.
After checking emails, doing some work, and making some calls, I closed up my machine and decided to head downstairs to see what’s happening.
Walking off the elevator the noise level reminded me of getting off an elevator in Vegas. People talking and laughing, slot machines, bad music. There was one major difference though; literally 100’s of girls walking around half nude trying to the attention of about 40 – 50 guys. I walked over to the Blue Marlin bar in the hotel and was amazed to see a ratio of about 10 to 1 of women to men. For any guy this would look great, except for the fact that every one of these women were prostitutes. I’m not generalizing here, no non-working girl would go into this bar. I have to admit to like being smiled at and talked to by beautiful girls as I walked by. But it does get old after while having to turn them away. I don’t like being rude, especially to women, but the women here are not good with subtle.
I also had to watch where my eyes wandered. If an attractive woman in a revealing outfit walked by in most bar, most guys may look. Here that means an invitation for them to now sit down and try to negotiate a price. After about 30 minutes I decided to head back up stairs…alone and get some sleep.
Sleep was not good at the Del Rey. The casino is loud and keeps going all night. I had no window, except one that lead to a the hall way. So the room was stuffy, and I got to hear people going back and forth all night. The bed also sucked.
In the morning I got up, checked email, made a couple calls and headed out with my video camera to the streets of San Jose. There are always people hanging out in front of the Del Rey begging or trying to sell fake Cuban cigars. Getting past them can be difficult at first, but after the second time you just learn that you have to be rude and ignore them. If you try to be polite and say no, that just invites more conversation. I took some footage of buildings and traffic. I stopped in a small store where I was quickly advised that walking around with a video camera was a bad idea. I went to another store and was told the same thing. By the third store the clerk not only mentioned it, but seemed genuinely surprised that I made it this far with the camera. So, after making a small purchase, I decided to give in to the advice of the locals and bring my video camera back to the hotel.
Some of the shop people had recommended that I check out a street a couple blocks away with a lot of shopping. So I headed down and found the main shopping strip. There were a lot of shoes and clothing stores, as well as fast food. Wendy’s, KFC and McDonalds were readily available. It was now after 2pm and I hadn’t eaten yet, so I stopped at a place called the News Cafe. It has a news ticker in front displaying American news. I ordered the Chicken Cordon Blue, which was good but came with some sort of brown gravy over it.
The restaurant was part of a hotel, the Hotel Presidente. The name sounded promising, and the lobby was much nicer (and hooker free), so I inquired about rooms for when I got back from Tamarindo. I booked a suite for a decent price of about $130 per night, and then noticed a Realtor office in the lobby with a sign for Tamarindo. I wanted to check out properties there, but never heard back from the Realtor I emailed. After a few minutes of talking to the person at the desk, she put me in touch a guy named Steve in Tamarindo. Steve was a pretty cool guy who spent a lot of time in my old neighborhood in So. Orange County, so we got along well. He agreed to show me around a bit and I wanted to take a look at some condos in Tamarindo.
The next day I packed up and went to the airport for my flight to Tamarindo. If you weigh over 250 pounds, you have to buy a second ticket, so there was an unexpected expense. To make matters worse, my credit cards were stopping one by one. I guess I should have gave them a heads up that I was traveling outside the country. Also, my cell phone wasn’t working, so I should have done the same with them.
I got on the plane which was incredibly small. It had harnesses instead of seat belts, which seemed a little scary. It was short, uneventful trip to Tamarindo. The airport there is nothing but a shack with an airstrip that has horses and cows walking along side of it.
The town of Tamarindo is incredibly nice. It reminded me of a rural version of Laguna Beach. It has a beautiful beach with great surfing, plenty of shops, fine dining and art galleries. The prices are high at many of the places, even by US standards. Dinner by myself cost $45, with no wine or dessert. The people are very friendly and there appears to be no crime.
I stayed at the Hotel Diria, which is an incredibly nice piece of property right on the beach. The room was decent, although the bed once again sucked. The view made up for it and overlooked the ocean nicely. I spent some time trying to relax on the beach, but I don’t relax easily. I went over to the bar there and ordered some grilled shrimp and a Diet Coke for lunch. I took a quick stroll around the town, which takes about 15 minutes total and headed back to my room for the night.
The next day I had to try to find the Realtor, which proved to be challenging even though it ended up being pretty much right across the street. They don’t seem to use street addresses in Costa Rica. Every time I saw the address for a hotel or anything, they always just use cross streets. That coupled with the fact that Tico’s are notoriously bad at giving directions makes getting around sometimes a challenge. I eventually found his office and felt sill for it taking so long.
Steve and I took his car and he gave me a tour of the area. There is an awful lot of construction going on right now and it looks like this will be one of the most American populated towns in Costa Rica soon. The properties were incredibly high priced even by US standards. Most of the homes were going from $500k and up. But of course it is a beach town, so it’s cheap when compared to a Laguna, Malibu or even Miami.
After the tour I headed back to the hotel for dinner and swim. I tried to get Internet in my room, and the manager was continually shaking me down for more money, cash only of course for every little thing. This is one negative thing about some of the people in Costa Rica, especially from what I have seen in the hotel. The manager at the Diria acts more like a street hustler from NY. He seems to always have some sort of crooked idea about how to get an extra $10 from you.
The swim was great. I was hoping they would have a hot tub, but they didn’t. That worked out okay because the pool itself was very nice. After my swim I went down to the beach with my iPod and watched the sunset on the beach. Sitting there watching a perfect sunset while listening to Roger Waters’s Comfortably Numb was pretty close to perfect, and I found myself relaxing a bit.
The next morning I got up and met the Realtor for an early lunch. He took me to this great little place on the beach that had insanely good Coconut Cream pie. I then headed back to the airport for my flight back to San Jose.
I didn’t care much for being back in San Jose. The noise and crowds were annoying and I realized I could have benefited from at least one more day in Tamarindo. San Jose was not a place I was going to be able to relax. On the up side, I was able to check into the Presidente, which is 10 times nicer than the Del Rey. I spent the evening talking to a local at dinner at Tony Roma’s, which is in a nicer part of town. The next day was my last, so I did my shopping for gifts. I got a great deal on a very nice leather duffel. I mostly just hung out and until dinner and spent that having a good talk with an American expat who gave me a lot of good info about what it’s like to live in Costa Rica.
The next morning I headed to the airport on a taxi ride from hell. When we hit traffic near the airport, the driver actually went into the opposite lane of oncoming traffic and drove in reverse for about ¼ mile up to the exit of the airport, where he then drove backwards through the exit to the terminal. The best part was, he didn’t seem to think this was a big deal.
The flight home was really long with an overnight in LA. Like I said, next time I’m going direct from LA.
Some basic tips on traveling to Costa Rica:
1.Don’t stay at the Hotel Del Rey unless you’re just looking for hookers.
2.They are not big on power outlets in rooms, so bring a power strip if you have a lot of stuff to power up.
(check my post about Costa Rica power outlets here)
3.Make sure to check out JR Ribs.
4.Don’t buy the cigars the people on the street are selling, they’re fake.
5.If you do buy Cuban cigars, get them from a reputable vendor and remove all labels. The stick them i a box mixed in with Costa Rican cigars.
The most important thing to remember, especially if you go to Tamarindo is that the pace is slower. Don’t expect things to be fast. If you slow down a bit yourself, you’ll have a better time.
[tags]costa rica, tamarindo, hotel del rey, blue marlin, san jose, hotel presidente, jr ribs, hotel diria, condos in tamarindo[/tags]