Bienvenidos a Costa Rica! Pura Vida!

This was the greeting that met us at every turn at SJO (the airport code of the San Jose airport).

After making a short(er) flight from Winnipeg to Toronto on Jan 15, we left Toronto for SJO the morning of Jan 16. The flight itself was uneventful, albeit a bit tiring, being about 5½ hours long. And good thing we brought a few snacks with us, as they no longer serve meals on Air Canada flights (at least in the economy section!) – not even a salty mouthful of crunchy bits. It used to be that they would serve SOMETHING during flights over 3½ hours. Guess not anymore. And they only came around once with something to drink.

So with our grumbling tummies and on the verge of dehydration, we made it through the customs area and immigration at SJO. We picked up our bags at the luggage claim, being grateful that our packs made it, and grateful they made it intact. Then with Corissa leading, we headed out to the “waiting area” – which is outside the building. Only those with tickets/boarding passes (and staff) are allowed to be in the airport. Otherwise, those picking people up – friends, family, drivers, etc. – have to wait until the travelers exit the building. Our hotel offered airport shuttle, which I called and confirmed 2 days prior to us landing. We were told to look for a driver holding a sign with our name on it.

Corissa had done this before, a couple of times, but this was new for Jesse. And he was beginning to get a bit overwhelmed. Sooooooo many people. Shouting for our attention. “TAXI?! TAXI?!” “Where are you going?” “What’s your name?” “Need a car?” “Rent from me!” and so on.

No sign with our name. No one calling OUR name. No one to meet us.

Ok. What now?!

We were approached by someone who looked “authoritative.” Meaning, he was dressed nicely and spoke English. He asked what we were looking for, we told him a shuttle to take us to our hotel, and he lead us to another gentleman of “authority.” All the while, you can imagine how leery we felt, not sure if we were walking into a trap of some kind. But this new person knew exactly what to do…he had the connections to get us to our hotel. He made a couple of phone calls, waited with us, and then helped load the packs into the back of a “tourismo” mini-van shuttle. Still on edge, we got in, and allowed the driver to bring us to our hotel – praying that he would actually bring us there! Fears relieved, he did.

As we got into SJO late afternoon, it was still bright enough to see the sights. Corissa pointed out things to Jesse that she remembered – places she walked or ate at or shopped or an area where a friend had lived. And as it turned out, our hotel was right next to a shopping complex where Corissa had been before.

The hotel, City Express, was clean and efficient (the pic is our view from our 6th floor room). And the front staff was courteous and knew enough English for us to have conversation. The young man gave helpful advice and directions when asked. Or so he thought… so WE thought…

As we had to head to Playa Potrero the next morning, we knew the most cost-effective way to do so would be to take the “Tico” bus.

Before we write more, here are a couple definitions:
Pura Vida: this is a Costa Rican term that defines their way of living – literally translated means Pure Life. They use this saying when greeting others, or when things don’t go as planned (a shoulder shrug and Pura Vida seems to make the situation A-OK), or when completing a business transaction (buying groceries, for example), or just whenever.

Tico/Tica: this is the lay term for the Costa Ricans. Tico is male; Tica is female. (Nico/Nica is the same inference but for Nicaragua – and since these 2 countries are neighbours, we do hear Nico/Nica on occasion).

Back to the story:
So to take the Tico bus means basic services – getting from point A to point, well: Z! There’s a starting point and a destination, but many stops – pick ups and drops – in between. The bus has no A/C, no toilet, no TV/radio. Basic efficiency. And for about $12 a person – instead of $50 or more per person for a semi-private shuttle.

We were told, and as Corissa has experienced in previous trips to CR, that is was best to go to the bus station the day before the expected trip to purchase tickets, as the buses often fill up early. We didn’t want to miss a seat on the next morning’s 8am bus, so we inquired at the hotel front desk as to how to best get to the bus station yet that afternoon in order to reserve our seats.

Our friendly and helpful young front desk attendant told us that cost-wise it was better – and oh-so-easy – to hop on city transit to take us to downtown San Jose…take the bus to the “end of the line” then walk the 3 maybe 4 blocks to the bus station.

In Costa Rica, there are numerous bus lines/companies. One services one area of the country, another services another area, and so on. We knew we had to use a specific bus line (Tralapa) in order to get to Playa Flamingo in the Guanacaste region of CR.

So we heeded the detailed instructions – mapped and all – from our friendly front-desk staff, and hopped on a city transit bus (just over $2 each) to get us to inner city San Jose, aka the “end of the line.” And yes, standing room only on the bus 🙂

We made it to the end of the line, and followed the detailed, mapped instructions. Three blocks down. No sign of the Tralapa Bus Lines terminal. One more block. No bus terminal.

Corissa: “Discúlpeme señor. ¿Dónde está Tralapa autobus station?”

(Gotta brush up on español!)

Random señor: “Una cuadra más y tres cuadras izquierda.”

Jesse: “What did he say?”

Corissa: “I think he said one more block then three blocks to the left.”

And off we went.

By this time the sun had set, and we were in a nasty (NASTY!) part of town.

Safe, easy, that’s what the front desk young man had said … this was not the safe and easy we had imagined. We were on edge.

Ok. One more block down. Then three to the left.

Nope. No Tralapa. No buses of any kind.

So we ask one, two, three, four more people to point us in the right direction. EVERYONE gave us totally different directions.

Finally we stopped a taxi driver, asking the same.

He invited us to jump into his cab. HE KNEW WHERE IT WAS!


Ummmm…..wishful thinking. He brought us to one of the other bus stations.

“Jaco is ok?” he asked.

“No, Playa Flamingo, señor.”

He asked another taxi driver who was standing idly by his car. Chit chat. Ideas bounced.

“Ohhhhhh! Ok! I take to right one!”

He brought us to yet another bus station.

“Limon is ok?”

“No no no, señor. Playa Flamingo con Tralapa por favor.”

Another taxi driver came into the conversation and gave his 2-cents. Confidence boosted!

“Ohhhhhhh! I know!”

Off to yet another station.

“Nicoya is ok?”

“Nooooooooo! FLAMINGO! TRALAPA por favor!”

At this point, he made his third or fourth phone call. And asked yet another of his colleagues.

FINALLY: another driver came over and LIGHT BULB MOMENTS ENSUED!

OK! On our way!

When we got there, Jesse and I looked at each other…we were speechless. We had walked by this place on one of our many directives from the Ticos. You’ve got to be kidding!!!

But the thing was, Tralapa was now closed! That’s why we didn’t see it. The station is literally a hole in the wall. A steel door closes the area where 2 buses can park, if they back in parallel, inches from each other.

Now our driver was sorry for the circles and circles we made in our excursion with him. He got out of the cab and banged LOUDLY on the steel doors. Thankfully, a couple of staff people were still there. The first one who answered the door was a friendly Tico who knew about as much English as we know español. Almost none. After making some gestures and writing some things down, nothing was accomplished. Then he called another gentleman over who, YAY!, spoke English very well. We explained our dilemma and the reason for our “late night” adventure (although it was only about 6pm). He had sympathy for us, but could not sell us tickets for the morning. We expressed our concern over not getting seats – but he reassured us that there were still plenty of seats available for the 8am ride into Playa Flamingo. He suggested we be there at 6am to ensure we get seats.

WHAT?! 6AM!!! The whole reason for us to find Tralapa the day before was to avoid such an early morning – and avoid the possibility of not getting seats!

Oh well. Pura Vida?! (insert shoulder shrug here – and a BIG sigh)

At this point, since we were so turned around, disoriented, and frustrated (not to mention HUNGRY as we hadn’t eaten anything but Tim Horton’s bagels on the flight, about 6 hours prior to this situation), we would not have been able to find the city transit “end of the line” stop again – which now would be the “start of the line” as we would be heading out of the city into the suburb of Alajuela.

So we bit the bullet and negotiated a price for this cabbie to take us back to our hotel. Since he’s a “San Jose” driver, he was not familiar with the suburbs. Thankfully, the Tico at Tralapa who could communicate in English stuck around and translated for us. Phew. Pura Vida 🙂

Since we figured that finding this particular bus station was NOT so easy to find (as our friendly and knowledgeable hotel front desk young man lead us to believe), we also negotiated this same cabbie pick us up the next morning and bring us back to Tralapa – but picking us up only at 6:30am. We needed that extra hour. We were exhausted.

Our cabbie brought us back to City Express, safely and securely, and came inside to converse with the front desk staff. The young man could not believe our story! And when we said where the Tralapa station was, he then admitted that he had been mistaken – he had given us directions to another station.

OK. Time to refresh ourselves and get something to eat. ASAP.

After a quick bathroom break and water ingestion, we walked across the street to the Cariari Plaza…and had casado con pollo at RostiPollo. This is a traditional CR dish consisting of rice, beans, a salad of sorts, often a fresh tortilla, and meat – chicken in this case – and often enough for 2 people to share. Delish.

Then we made our way into the Plaza, which helped Jesse calm down a bit as the Plaza, while being distinctly Costa Rican, has a North American vibe to it.

All this time, Jesse was quite overwhelmed. He wasn’t acting it out so much, but internalizing it. He was quiet and withdrawn, and definitely did NOT want to take the lead in any way. At least the meal helped bring him back a bit – food to a Levair is like Neosporin to a scrape! A healing balm. MMM MMM good 🙂

At the Plaza, we found a Kolbi/ICE dealer. Kolbi and ICE (pronounced eee-say) are one of the cell phone providers here in CR. Corissa had gotten a SIM card for her unlocked iPhone the last time she was in CR; now we put $20 towards her CR number so we could use CR cell service to make calls and/or text when not able to use wifi.

Hmmmmm……when the vender put the $$ towards the number, there was nothing that came up to state the SIM card was invalid. Yet even after walking around the Plaza for an hour, we still had no service.

We went back to the hotel to ask our front desk staff young man. He couldn’t find any reason why it wouldn’t work. He called our number, but it said that the number was no longer in service. He tried calling Kolbi/ICE, but it was just a recorded announcement that hung up on him.

Ok. Keep the statement of payment and we’ll figure it out…mañana.

Time to go to bed. It was a VERY long day. We had spend time and $$ that we didn’t need to, and we were emotionally overwhelmed.

End of DAY 1 in Costa Rica. We had been in CR for only 4 hours…and it was only 8pm…

More adventures in DAY 2…