Recently returned from our 2nd trip to Costa Rica, this time we went with a group of friends. Our plan was to fly into San Jose and then drive to Dominical, dividing our stay between a few nights in Dominical, a few nights in Manuel Antonio, and the last leg of our stay would be in Jaco (meh).
I am an informed traveler, and I always read the travel warnings and advice provided by the state department online. One of the warnings for Costa Rica is that organized crime is a problem. Elsewhere on various forums I've also heard from others to get the heck out of San Jose as fast as you can due to crime. Please heed these warnings. I know that many probably visit without a problem, I'm sure expats live there hopefully without issues, but you aren't an expat, you are a tourist, you are traveling like a tourist which means you are carrying larger amounts of cash and personal belongings and luggage, so many expats may argue it's safe but keep in mind they are a different demographic than a tourist. I will warn you to travel with caution and if you are visiting other areas of Costa Rica, it's fine to go through San Jose as a throughway, but my best advice is don't dilly dally, leave San Jose as soon as you can.
We flew a red-eye into San Jose so our arrival would be early enough to travel during daylight hours given that we would have a 3 1/2 hour drive down to Dominical on the main highway. I DO NOT recommend traveling at night, especially from San Jose. We arranged a car rental through Budget, WHICH I DO NOT RECOMMEND, for reasons soon to be stated here.
Here's an example of what the state department refers to as "organized crime", and I want to share my story not to deter others, but to make you aware of the importance of being aware of your surroundings. We believe we thwarted a potential robbery at the airport.
We planned to exchange money at the airport, and after doing research, I knew to avoid the exchange booths right outside customs and baggage area (poor exchange rate), so we went upstairs instead and found a money exchange kiosk that was a corner unit next to the exit doors that go outside the airport (the exchange booth is across from ticketing agents on a corner and right next to a big white pillar where the exit doors are).
Here's where things start to go wrong.
First red flag - my husband and I walk up to the exchange booth telling the gentleman (very light skinned, maybe 5' 6" pointy nose, curly short medium brown hair and a jutting hairline, really skinny guy) we want to exchange money. He tells us we have to wait a few minutes, so we stand aside and wait. There WAS a girl at the booth, but he moved her when we walked up and now this guy was supposed to help us. Why???
When he's ready to help us, he immediately tells us we can't count our money at the booth, he instructs us to walk away (INTO THE OPEN) and count our money where our activity would be seen by everyone. There are no kiosks or platforms or desks to count your cash discreetly, it's just open airport, so we attempted to be discreet by standing by a pillar while count our cash but we are highly visible to anyone watching us, and I realized after the fact that we were being watched.
We do not travel with valuables or jewelry, and we know better than to flaunt cash that we are carrying, but we obviously don't look poor. Intuition is telling me that something is wrong here. What bank doesn't let you count cash at the window? After counting our money, we walk back to the counter to exchange cash, and now this guy gets a phone call from someone, takes that call while we wait (hmmm), and then proceeds to assist us. There were other reps there available to answer the phone, why him?
The second alarm bell goes off in my head when this guy counts our money back to us THREE TIMES, and each time he does it, he gets louder and louder and louder to the point that I began to realize without a doubt something shady is going on, because...
The third alarm bell is the shady character standing behind us, his eyes intent on the exchange rep counting our money back, and each time the rep counts the cash, this guy steps closer, the rep gets louder, the guy steps closer again, the rep gets louder... it was so obscenely loud you have to be completely oblivious not to notice.
The fourth alarm bell is throughout this entire debacle, I'm now facing my husband who is facing the rep, so from my vantage point I can see that the shady character to my left standing directly behind us and I see he has his phone up to his ear, but all in a span of five or so minutes throughout this entire exchange process, the shady character doesn't say a word on his phone, he just holds it up to his ear, stares at the rep behind the window, and literally as soon as the rep finishes his THIRD count of our cash, the shady character starts speaking into his phone speaking in Spanish, which I do not understand, but I do understand that he said Colones which of course is the Costa Rican currency.
I realize what's going on, so I turn and stare at this guy to let him know that I'm aware of what is going on. I got the group together to warn them. I believe we are still being watched at this point from afar. I don't know how many others are involved in this, but it becomes more apparent as time goes on.
We complete the money exchange and my efforts to be discreet at this point are futile because we are obviously being watched, but I put the cash in the money belt around my waist. I was not going to use the bathroom in the airport to stash my cash in privacy because at this point I thought it would be a poor decision to meander into the bathroom by myself.
We proceed to Budget Car Rental which is nearby and they tell us to go wait for the shuttle outside the airport across the street in the parking garage.
We were unclear on his exact directions, he told us something about going upstairs or perhaps we misunderstood, so we went upstairs only to come downstairs and eventually found the banner for Budget Car Rental in the garage where we wait for the shuttle to take us to Budget Car Rental's office.
My point in telling you this is that throughout this process of wandering, we eventually realize that the shady character is following us.
We find our way to the parking garage and there is a cinder block wall pretty far behind us and we only have standing room. So we wait, and wait and wait for an absurd amount of time for the shuttle. This long wait was no coincidence, I believe the shuttle delay was intentional and organized but I'll get to that later.
As we are waiting, myself and four other travelers are standing there and two women walk up, they don't have any luggage, they look like locals, and more alarm bells go off in my head because they both keep looking at me specifically and giving me strange smirks. They know I know what's going on, and we eventually begin to realize they are in on this, and once again I'm going with my intuition.
The women then proceed ALL THE WAY BEHIND US, almost to the cinder block wall which was odd and of course intuition told me something was off about this, and they stood off to the side where they can view around a wall to see if someone is standing on the other side (from our vantage point, we can't see that area), lets just say it's not the obvious place a traveler would choose to stand while waiting for a shuttle. One of the women keeps rubbing her lower stomach. I'll tell you why...
One of the female travelers with us is getting tired of standing, because that's what happens when you are waiting this long, and across the roadway from the parking spaces for the shuttles are small cement pillars that you can sit on. They are spaced apart by four or five feet. So my friend walks over and sits on the first pillar on the very end next to the wall that we can't see around. In a few minutes, I proceed to walk over to sit next to her, but as I'm walking, one of the local women that were standing well behind us at the cinder block wall WHIZZES past me and takes the only pillar next to my friend and proceeds to engage her in casual conversation - asking her questions, where are you going, etc.? She's attempting to give the illusion of being casual but I know what's going on here.
See what just happened? Now they are trying to separate us. I go sit on the next pillar, and my husband who has a very built bodybuilding physique stands next to me. Both my friend and I begin to notice the other girl who is still across from us by the cinder block wall keeps touching her lower stomach. If you weren't aware of what's going on here, it probably wouldn't even be noticed. At the same time, my friend who the second women is trying to distract with conversation, glances to her right (the local woman is sitting to her left) and notices that shady guy peeking around the corner at us. He has a perfect vantage point of the woman at the cinder block wall, and we believe she is signaling to him where I stashed my cash, hence the reason she keeps touching her lower stomach.
But, they aren't getting past my husband who is standing next to me, and not only do I have a duffle in front of me, but I am holding my other luggage in front of that duffle. If you were to try to rob me, you'd have to get through my husband, our friends, and get past my two pieces of luggage where I don't have any cash stashed.
Finally, an employee of Budget arrives with the shuttle van, parks it in the parking space, and then he heads back to the office as to get something. More stall tactics? Perhaps. Maybe he's hoping we are tired and will just set our luggage at the back of the shuttle and proceed to get in. Logic tells you that's what most weary travelers would do after waiting an obscene amount of time, and an unassuming traveler probably wouldn't realize what could potentially happen if they throw their luggage in back and the doors are left open. We didn't do that, even though he opened the doors. He then returns and it is obvious he knows the other two local women that are standing here without luggage because he is carrying on conversation with them as if he knows them well but he appears somewhat nervous. Perhaps expecting something about to happen but it doesn't because we are watching this debacle unfold.
He finally begins to load the luggage, and at this exact moment, the moment when most travelers would leave the luggage to the employee and walk away to enter the shuttle, the shady guy following us walks around the corner right past the shuttle where he COULD HAVE grabbed our luggage and ran off with it.
My husband and I knew what was going on and we were prepared for what was about to happen, at this point I think they were at least hoping to snatch some luggage from us, so we both turned our backs to the shuttle directly facing the shady guy walking past, and I actually photographed the guy with my cell phone at that point, and one of the local women without luggage was still smirking at me and literally started laughing as I was doing this - she's standing right next to me (why is she still standing here at the back of the shuttle? she has no luggage!) and she's laughing because she knows WE KNOW exactly what is going on.
We did not walk away from the shuttle or get into it until all of our luggage was inside and doors were shut. The Budget Car Rental employee would not even look at us, and he looked really nervous. I'm going with my intuition here and I believe this employee at Budget Car Rental was in on this whole debacle - I do not think it's a coincidence that we waited over an hour (was it closer to 2 hours?) for a shuttle to take us from the airport to Budget Car rental which is merely minutes away. An unassuming traveler may not have noticed any of this, so this is why I say, trust your intuition and always be aware of your surroundings.
We proceed to Budget Car Rental office location offsite from the airport, and on the ride over the local woman without luggage keeps turning around (she's sitting kiddy corner ahead of me) and continues turning around smirking at me. I smirk back. You're not going to take advantage of me.
We get to Budget Car Rental and of course, local girl #1 and #2 go into an area separate room from the Budget lobby but in the same building, and they are in there for an hour and a half or more just talking with and meeting with that Budget employee who drove us over here. There are other reps helping us and other customers. We spent more absurd amount of time waiting and waiting and waiting, we must have waited another two hours or so for a vehicle we had reserved weeks before. We waited so long that although we had an early flight arrival, we will not reach Dominical until after dark, although it's only 3 1/2 hour drive from San Jose, and Budget Car rental office is mere minutes from the airport.
It's probably no surprise at this point that although many other customers were being helped, shown their vehicle, inspected their vehicle with assistance from staff, signed off on their vehicle, and rode off in their vehicle, we were more or less left unattended even though we checked in with the staff and questioned them periodically. More stall tactics??
The shady Budget Car Rental employee kept watching us from the parking lot and would look at us, and then proceed to text on his phone. Finally my husband got up to approach him after he noticed this behavior, and like I said my husband is a built guy, and so is another traveler with us, and the Budget Employee looked up from his phone and took off like a bat out of he** after seeing my husband begin to approach him.
He did not assist us, and we were left sitting there with our rental vehicle sitting in the parking lot. Finally someone came out to help us after we inquired once again and we were told that the person who was supposed to help us left for the day. Hmmmmm. We inspected the vehicle for damages and we took photos of any damages - I HIGHLY RECOMMEND TAKING PHOTOS in addition to them documenting the damages on paper. Even though they documented the damages, they still asked about the same damages upon return and asked my husband to verify that they were not additional damages in the same area. Really??? So my husband said yes, I have photographs to prove it. **Be aware and do your due diligence**
As we begin to load our luggage into our rental vehicle, my husband is still watching this Budget Employee who is still there hanging out in a corner of the parking lot with the two local girls who shadowed us at the airport and they are sitting in a car, but not as a driver, they are the passengers. It's not surprise at this point that all three of them leave together - the budget employee and the two local girls, in a car that definitely was not available for rent on their website, and the budget employee was driving it.
These women were not tourists, they were locals that were there to assist with an attempt to rob us of either our cash or our belongings. The fact that we were aware and the fact that we made it known that we were aware and did not leave any opportunity for them to rob us, I believe we thwarted a potential robbery.
So here's my final advice to you - don't exchange money at the airport, it's not worth it and really not necessary. I personally wouldn't do it again. There are too many eyes watching. Go to your final destination - I think there were three tollways from San Jose to Jaco and it cost us a total of about $3-4 American dollars for the tolls, and you can pay in either dollars or colones. They take American dollars everywhere. In fact, every where we went, we weren't quoted colones, we were always quoted American dollars and had to request the conversion to Colones since we had exchanged our dollars to colones.
If exchanging money is important to you to get the most bang for your buck, wait to go to a local bank. The local banks have a lobby that you walk into INDIVIDUALLY. Everyone else waits outside, and you are behind frosted glass so nobody can see if you are drawing cash, making a deposit, or where you stashed your cash. We saw these lobbies in Uvita (South of Dominical), and throughout various cities when we traveled from Dominical to Jaco. I would much rather use these lobbies as opposed to the exchange booths at the airport.
I would also suggest to other travelers - even if you aren't a backpacker, wear a backpack that is secured around you with several straps. You are less likely to be targeted by a bag or luggage snatcher and I surely wouldn't keep large amounts of cash in any of your bags. Keep it on your person.
The shady guy that was following us around the airport was obviously a local, and he was carrying a HUGE back pack. I mean, HUGE. I think this was intentional because had he snatched our luggage my guess is that backpack would be used as a diversion so that we would be unable to grab him, we only have a backpack to grab as soon as he turned to run and a huge one at that which he would probably drop and we would likely stumble over it. It's a deterrent.
Those other women were obviously trying to separate me and my female friend from eachother, and would continually try to engage her in conversation whenever I would walk up to talk to her, and they would ask questions about our destination -- this is an attempt to distract her and come physically between us in an obvious attempt to separate us. Don't separate from your group. Stay together, be wary of others approaching you with small talk, and get out of San Jose.
My intuition tells me the employee at the money exchange booth was possibly in on it. To make us walk away from the booth to count our cash is absurd and had we not been weary travelers at that point we probably would have had the sense to refuse and walk away.
I believe the two local women without luggage were in on it. I believe the employee at Budget Car Rental was in on it. I believe the absurdly long wait at the airport was organized, and I believe we were left unattended at Budget Car Rental for a reason, and I will assume they knew their time was wasted on us as we weren't giving them any opportunity to rob us, and probably had considered their odds with the three men traveling with us and the fact that we stayed together.
I'm sure it's no surprise that on the way back home, several from our group exchanged money at the same kiosk in the airport and the money being counted back to us wasn't counted THREE times over. Nobody was forced to count their cash away from the window. I watched the same guy who assisted us on our way in, and he also wasn't speaking in an excessively loud volume when counting funds back to the customer he was helping, nor did he repeat it over and over and over.
I am also in the process of notifying the American Embassy of our experience, but according to the state department they are already aware of organized crime in Costa Rica. This is it.
Would I go back to Costa Rica? Absolutely. I would just get out of San Jose fast, I would not use Budget Car Rental ever again (I would use Adobe Car Rental which I've heard many nice things about), I would travel in groups and always be aware of your surroundings, I wouldn't exchange any cash at the airport nor would I travel with anything of value that I couldn't handle parting with. I would also probably travel with a backpack for reasons stated earlier. I would probably even take a shuttle from the airport to my destination, I think I recall that you can request a shuttle for $190 for up to four or five people from the airport to Manuel Antonio, which is not a bad deal.
In terms of the money conversion - this was my easy way to convert the money in my head from Colones to the American dollar.
1000 Colones is about 2 American dollars. That's not exact, but it's a general guideline.
Take the 1000 and double it. That's 2000. Remove three zeros, you have 2 American Dollars.
If you have 10000 colones, it's $20 American dollars. Take 10000, double it, now you have 20000, take away three zeros and you have $20. Again, it's approximate and varies based on the exchange rate. But if I were shopping in Dominical and I had 10000 colones the local sellers would tell me it's $20.
So there you go.
We felt safe in Dominical, we felt safe in Manuel Antonio, and we also felt safe in Jaco though I would not walk the beaches In Jaco at night. Add to that, Jaco is really HOT compared to Dominical and Manuel Antonio, and the rip tides there are VERY VERY STRONG. I had a hard time standing in water up to my knees, it's not a place I would recommend for swimming and if you do your research there are many many deaths each year from drowning due to strong rip tides. It's no joke, heed the warnings.
If you like beaches, Visit Playa Biezans in Manuel Antonio (Locals go here and it's really beautiful, but go at HIGH tide, you can doggie paddle over the rocky bottom out to a nice sandy area that's easy to stand in and there's great snorkeling, you get chair rentals for $10 (2 chairs and an umbrella, and a Tupperware to store all your beach gear) and really really polite wait staff that will bring you drinks. Highly recommend. You park at a trail and take a really short hike down to the beach. At low tide it's much more difficult to access to water due to rocks near the shore.
The bar scene gets a little shady at night in Jaco since prostitution is legal there so while some of the beach bars are fun during the day, prices double at night and you get a very different scene when prostitutes are being brought in by the carload and being carted away with men who frequent them. Personally, I would not return there. I didn't feel unsafe per se, but it's just a little shady at night with the activities going on. Jaco is fun if you want to meander the shops in town for souvenirs during the day and walk around, but the prices get better the further south you go and I got the best handmade ankle bracelets in Dominical at a steal of a price. Dominical by far was our favorite but if you love monkeys Manuel Antonio is the way to go. We had monkeys visit every day at our rental in MA (Casa Amiga which is part of Jungle Creek Villas).
If you go to Dominical (laid back hippie style surf town), stop at Tortilla Flats and ask Kenny for directions to Playa Ventanas - I want to say it's in the Uvita area or just beyond that, it's easy to find.. It's a short drive south but oh my goodness, the backdrop of the beach is absolutely stunning, it's a vast beach and we spent hours there boogie boarding the waves. There are mini caves to explore, water caverns in the rocks where you can see these water channels that go out to the ocean, the tides are much easier for swimming (highly recommend a boogie board, it's fun to ride the waves), the parking is secure, I think you pay a $3 fee for the whole day, there are bathrooms there and vendors who sells refreshments and ice cream and the likes, and other vendors selling towels and beach wraps. The backdrop is a mountain and it's like a scene from the movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio. Absolutely beautiful. It's not touristy or overcrowded.
I also highly recommend downloading the WAZE app on your smart phone and get an international plan (we have Verizon and we could pay $10 per day or a monthly fee of $29 or so for an international plan). The $29 is a better deal considering we used the app more than three days. WAZE is a GPS that will help you find your way around. We were really impressed with it and for one of our rentals all we had to do was type in the name of the rental and it came up on WAZE by name and took us there with impeccable directions.
You may also want to consider downloading WhatsApp on your smart phone (it's a free app) if you are traveling with larger groups. It's free with wifi so you can communicate with others that have it installed on their phone without using any data, I just created a group in the app, named the group "Costa Rica" and added everyone that was traveling with us so if we separated we could still communicate without turning our data on our phone since not all of us purchased an international calling plan. You can also communicate with others at home too if you want to check in periodically, and for free at that, you just need wifi which is plentiful in these areas. Highly recommend.
I'll post more on those particular areas in the respective forums.
Hope this info helps other travelers. Feel free to message me with any questions.