Friday, 18 December 2009

On Shopping (a gringo perspective for visitors or those moving here)

Costa Rica is not a "shopping country" except for the 3 weeks before Christmas when everyone has an extra month of pay to spend on the kids or on major appliances or mattresses. Christmas is a delightful and happy time of year here due to that 13th month of pay known as an "alguinando" (a legal requirement of all employers in Costa Rica).

The rest of the year there is no so called "disposable income" (what loony came up with that phrase?). As Costa Rica is a very "local environment" everyone tends to buy things locally. Since there are not that many stores and nobody has much money this tends to save a great deal of unnecessary expenditures (well except the month of December).

If you are a visitor to Costa Rica you should be aware that there are very few uniquely Costa Rican items anywhere in the country . . . but you may want to think about adding these to your itinerary to help support local folk (make sure stuff is made in Costa Rica).

There are plenty of souvenir shops but none like this one. In San Jose just north of the center you'll find a lovely shop called the Namu gallery - about 40 mins from here. They collect and sell only indigenous art from groups like the Borucans and the Maleku. Their sales help support these indigenous communities. Namu is a one of a kind in Costa Rica and is doing the right thing.

You can also visit Boruca - about 5 hours south of Alajuela (easy to get to, drive past Manuel Anatonio) and a spectacular visit in a beautiful village where most of the folk are somehow connected to the selling of intricately carved and painted masks and the police station is shuttered closed. You need a 4*4 to get to the village but worth the effort.

You can visit the Maleku if you travel to Arenal as do 80% of our visitors but nearly nobody goes another few km to the Maleku reserve. The Maleku can organize tours for you that your hotel can hook you up with to visit things like poison dart frogs, medicinal plants and a "museum" (really a twig hut but a great visit where you may be able to find a necklace made from Gar fish scales). The people are wonderful and need your support . . . they make some art such as rain sticks, iguana covered drums etc.

You may not have heard about the Chorotega? Yup right on your way to the northern and central Guanacaste beaches near Santa Cruz - distinctive pottery in pre-colombian styles.
You can visit the Bribri in the Caribbean zone . . . take a day trip to Yorkin (if your trip includes Puerto Viejo or Cahuita), a delightful indigenous group - and the largest in Costa Rica . . . the trip is by dugout and they make chocolate, bows and arrows as well as the occasional painting (which you should snap up because their output in nearly zero).

Many tourists also visit Sarchi, the home of the wood workers of Costa Rica just 30 mins from the Pura Vida Hotel. You'll find all kinds of local wood stuff and things like our famous rocking chairs (very good for pondering about peace) and ox carts and such. If you go, try and visit the last authentic waterwheel driven oxcart factory still run by the nearly octogenarian Alfaro brothers - find the big church/giant oxcart and wander around about 300 meters north and west of the church and you'll see their ancient factory. Make sure to leave a small donation in the box for using up their time showing you their wonderful ancient contraptions.

Finally, there are more but you'll also find interesting things in some hotel gift shops - look for locally produced items - often wood but sometimes some nice ceramics - in particular the famous PEFI ceramics (also at the Pura Vida) made by the daughter in law of Don Pepe Figueres (the guy who established modern Costa Rica and no doubt pondered peace in our time after he abolished the army in 1948 while sitting in a famous Sarchi rocking chair). You may have to work on these things but they'll be worth it :-)

For people moving here, we advise stuffing a container with good plumbing and electrical stuff. If you do not use it you can always sell it. Such items are expensive here but over the last couple of years have become more available. A few things like 3-way dimmers are impossible to find and some products seem to be being dumped here (such as safes where the keys don't work).

For housewares we recommend Cemaco - a local chain with branches around the country - good quality and selection. For gringos in need of a Home Depot fix, we have a smaller chain called EPA (3 stores - Escazu, San Pedro and Heredia - and growing) - but still most home fixit stuff is bought at little ferreterias on most town street corners. These little stores are troublesome if you don't speak Spanish and you need to describe a plumbing fixture to the runner who seeks such things. However, we highly recommend trying to support the local economies which is what we use local people and local businesses if we are going to build something.

For furniture we have most stuff made now through a local expert carpenter in our village and a guy with a shop in Sarchi (the woodworking capital). It is also good to be on good terms with a local welder - we have 2 or three we know - one who makes beautiful windows and doors. For kitchen stuff, there is a commercial kitchen supply house in Pavas called TIPS - they have the best selection and anyone can buy there. There is no real diferentiation or discrimination - if you can find a wholesaler you can often buy small amounts at wholesale prices.

For appliances we have a duty free purchasing area at Golfito in the zona sur - a long way from here. few people recommend this anymore as it is too far and the prices are not much different to places like Pricesmart in Escazu. All the gringos have a Pricesmart card - good prices on things like fridges, generators (yes, some people need them), dog food, rice and bulk stuff like that. An finally for our guest building a house in Dominical, yes we have a Walmart here - it is in Escazu and is disguised as a Hipermas store so nobody gets upset. It is a vast and sad place. I think the better options are above.

Finally when buying things that need fixing like lawnmowers and such, get it from the local store - they need the money more than you and they love fixing things. Every town has a fixit shop and they will fix almost anything you can think of. We just recently found a place for example that will put wheels back on suitcases.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Renting Cars and things that look like a good deal

I sometimes equate Costa Rican bureaucracies to the evolution on the Galapagos Islands . . . if you run into a blue footed Booby, you should not be unduly surprised.

This is something we send all our guests:

If you are arriving in the evening we advise not renting a car that night - take our free taxi to the hotel - driving in the dark is no fun in countries WITH great drivers and good signage (and Costa Rica has challenges with both). 
Ask that rentacars be delivered to the hotel the morning after your arrival at the breakfast table and picked up on your last night if you like.  You can hand us the keys and your bill can be faxed to the hotel that night.  In the morning we call you a taxi at any time - it is usually here in 2 or 3 minutes.  Make sure rental car quotes in Costa Rica always include the mandatory basic government insurance (cannot be declined in Costa Rica), taxes and car delivery to the hotel or at minimum a free shuttle.  Recent internet quotes neglect to include that - usually adds $10 to $20 a day.  Also check that your credit card covers car rental CDW in Costa Rica (most US ones do, many European ones do not).  CDW does NOT remove the mandatory basic insurance (whatever your internet quote may say - this is a quirk of Costa Rican insurance only) but it will reduce the cost.  

Of course many guests still go ahead and find "great Internet quotes on car rentals".  This is one of our guests this week for example:

"Thanks a lot, that gives us one more day on the beach.  Our car was from (International named car rental company name deleted) for a total of $199." 

I asked if his original quote included insurance?

"An insurance charge of $38/day was added on."

"We didn't know about that mandatory charge until we got to the car.  $20/day of insurance was mandatory, and $18 was optional.  The $199 was for a week.  It looked like all cars for 7 days and under had the same charge."

As I try to explain to some guests before they get here, the "total charges"  for most of the quality rental outfits are all about the same for a similar car.  I just don't think it's right for you to get to a rental counter thinking you have a tab for $199 and discovering it is $339 (with mandatory insurance of $20 a day).  Make sure your quote includes this!

The second blue footed Booby that may follow for some is "won't my insurance work in Costa Rica?" or "are there other insurance companies in Costa Rica?".

The answers are no, no, no and no.  First you ain't in Kansas and second for reasons of our unique evolution, Costa Rica nationalized insurance many years ago as a favor to the people of the country not trusting them with the financial wizards of independent insurance.  So insurance here (for now anyway) is sold only by the government - an agency known as INS.  This will change as CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) gets implemented but for now there are no options.  And there is only one price for a specific car . . . so you can't shop for insurance when there's only one shop.

The final unique Booby of my tale is known as "what if you have an accident?".  Well let's hope you bought all the mandatory insurance (no options there) and you bought the optional (what I call "zero deductible" insurance as about 80% of renters eventually decide to do).  You may choose to carry the CDW insurance on your credit card which will save you a few bucks, euros etc.

But if you have an accident the whole road often stops for you.  Literally.  You first call your rentacar company (if you have no cell phone, do not worry borrow one from a gawker - there'll be many, or the person you hit if they don't feel too badly about it).  Then you or they will call INS and you must move NOTHING until INS arrives.  Even if you are blocking the main trade route to Centro America!  Move nothing cause the INS person must determine fault and who will pay.

If you were at fault, INS will pay.  If they were at fault, INS will pay.

We spent 5 hours behind an overturned beer truck accident once on the main highway to Nicaragua wondering about the discussions ahead of us about whose fault it might be and who should pay.

Just another blue footed Booby kind of day,  Berni

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Rural Costa Rica and Costa Rican Spanish

This is an interesting rural web site Rural Costa Rica.  In particular because it contains a nice discussion on Costa Rican Spanish Costa Rican Spanish Guide.  For example:


noun, adjective
'Tico' is what Spanish speakers often call Costa Ricans, instead of the formal costarricense. Costa Ricans also refer to themselves as 'ticos', so the terms is by no means pejorative. The popular explanation for the nickname 'Tico' is the common usage of the '-itico' diminutive suffix in Costa Rican Spanish.



This is what Costa Ricans shout when they're at the door of someone else's house. It is simply a word to signal their presence in leiu of a doorbell

 As the women's group states on their home page:

"The Santa Fe Women's Group welcomes you to Rural Costa Rica. The Women's Group, a dedicated group of 19 women from Santa Fe de Guatuso in Costa Rica's Northern Zone, has a number of different projects and activities that show what real Costa Ricans are all about. The group has executed projects in biogas and reforestation, and is pursuing possibilities in a rural tourism initiative in Costa Rica's Northern Zone to take advantage of the natural beauty of the Guatuso region in a responsible, sustainable way."
A biodigestor at work in the community.

The web site has no map and the area referred to by the women's group doesn't really exist on a map . . . the community of Rio Celeste is usually thought of as a waterfall rather than a particular place people live . . . but these are merely the challenges of a rural adventure in Costa Rica.

If you'd like to visit the area they will point you to this phone number 506-2479-7062 - Christian speaks English - more info can be found here Costa Rica Rural Tours - he can be reached by email at  If you need a connection to explore the efforts of a number of rural associations in the area - he represents 12 of them - contact him directly.  He can set up tours to Rio Celeste area - a full day trip - either with a guide they will send to travel in your car or a van for a bigger group.

If you need transportation to the area we can help you at our other web sight :Insight Costa Rica

Friday, 4 December 2009

Tippage and bargaining in Costa Rica

A returning guest asks about tippage in CR.  In particular should he tip for short taxi rides or long tours.

First it should be noted that both tipping and bargaining are not natural parts of the local culture.  We get a lot of guests who have had a totally different experience in their own culture e.g. wacko reaction from a New York cabbie they once stiffed or when traveling e.g. making a deal for a rug in a Moroccan market or bargaining for a deal in Tijuana on a stuffed local zebra.

You see the locals don't really tip very much.  Taxis are generally inexpensive and used a lot for short trips and a 2000 colone 10 minute trip usually won't get a tip.  Buses are very inexpensive and almost never tipped by locals.

Locals also don't like to bargain or "make deals" . . . if they have come up with a price for something, they actually hope to get THAT price.  This ain't Tijuana.

However there are a couple of ways you can get a "deal" . . . nearly everywhere will give you a deal for cash - from 5% to 15% depending on the product or commodity or how far you are from civilization.  But you have to ask as it usually won't be offered (well except in gee gaw shops in Jaco).

Also many folk will give you a discount for volume . . . buy 5 or 10 of something and you may be able to make a bargain.  But only if you are talking to the owner . . . Costa Rica is a country of very small businesses and thus there is a strong likelihood you ARE talking to the owner.

These thoughts were triggered by a question about tipping $5 for a 10 minute taxi ride to which I replied "John, oh please don't do it . . . you'll cause massive local inflation . . . a 10 minute ride from the airport costs $6 or $7 . . . or about 3000 to 3500 colones. If the driver is a suicidal maniac tip nothing at all and let him know what you think of his driving prowess cause nobody locally will tell him he's an idiot cause they'll get tied up in bad chi and negative quedar bien.

If he's a nice guy tip $1 . . . if he goes out of his way i.e. lends you his cell phone or hand gun, stops off at a bar for a round of drinks for everyone in the car, actually stops at traffic lights, allows old ladies to cross the road and such . . . he gets a $2 tip . . .

As for a "transfer" to Arenal . . . there is no expectation of tips on a big bus . . . if the driver got a few bucks from everyone he'd be a very happy person though.  Particularly if he drove well, didn't overtake concrete trucks on blind bends, used actual signals like turn signals, didn't take short cuts on bridges that swayed a lot, actually stops at traffic lights, little old ladies etc.

If it was a tour as opposed to a transfer then that's a different matter.  Same goes for trips in small vans where you're likely to get an engaing and interesting driver . . . a good driver/guide could make the Arenal trip into an excellent adventure. Then maybe $5 or $10.

Well IMHO, Berni