casita by the beach in Playa Sámara, Costa Rica

Six Lessons (Re)Learned in Costa Rica

July 29, 2015 | ,

In early July, we left Granada, Nicaragua, and headed to Playa Sámara on the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica (that’s our little casita by the beach in the photo). It’s been pretty smooth sailing, but we learned quite a few things along the way!

Update: Right after I wrote this post, I got sick with dengue and never got around to publishing it! So there are many more lessons learned in the past few weeks, which I’ll have to write about in another post. And yes, I’m feeling much better now. 🙂

I’m willing to pay more for convenience, but it might not save any time.

These days, it seems we find less pleasure in the journey—we just want to get there already, and typically try to avoid long, complicated travel days if possible.

We decided we didn’t want to bother going the totally DIY route from Nicaragua to Costa Rica (which would entail cobbling together an assortment of buses and taxis to get from Granada to Liberia), so we booked with TicaBus, which cost about $28 one-way from Granada to Liberia in northern Costa Rica.

Yes, the DIY version probably would have been cheaper, but it was nice to have everything taken care of and just hop on and off the same bus for the border crossings. While that was more convenient, we realized that it probably took longer, despite the higher cost.

We waited for two hours at the border leaving Nicaragua, while the TicaBus guys took care of getting all our passports stamped, and then about 30 minutes to enter Costa Rica; it probably would have been faster to not be part of a big group so we could go through on our own and not have to wait for anyone else.

Nicaraguan border with Costa Rica

Waiting to get stamped out of Nicaragua

Once again, we chose convenience for the second leg of the journey. Instead of taking two buses (and transferring between bus stations en route), or taking a somewhat cheaper shared shuttle (for which we weren’t sure we would arrive in time, and didn’t want to deal with getting from the bus station to the airport, where the shared shuttle picks up passengers), we hired a private shuttle to pick us up in Liberia and drive us to Samara.

This cost $135, which was many times more expensive than the bus, but having someone waiting to pick us up and take us door to door really felt worth it (and we were even able to have him stop along the way so we could get some food, since we’d eaten very little since getting up at 5 am).

Thinking about price vs. convenience vs. time made me think about something I’ve heard about choosing a product/service: you can’t get good, fast, and cheap, so you have to pick which two are most important to you.

No matter how experienced a traveler you are, you still need to prepare for entering a new country!

I had a hunch my prepaid SIM card from Claro in Nicaragua would work in Costa Rica, because I’d seen some ads on TV advertising as much. So when we realized the bus to Liberia was running late, I thought I would call our driver to let him know (thankfully I had the number because I’d saved the ride voucher in an offline notebook in Evernote—I had already learned a couple weeks earlier that you have to set up offline notebooks while you still have Internet!).

I kept getting an error message that the number couldn’t be completed as dialed, and I realized I must need to enter something additional to make a call to a Costa Rican number, but didn’t know what it was. I also discovered that while I had service for texts and calls, the 3G no longer worked, so I couldn’t look up the information. I felt pretty stuck, and was annoyed with myself for not researching all of this in advance!

When in doubt, ask for help.

For some reason I didn’t think to ask anyone on the bus for assistance making a call, so we just crossed our fingers that the driver would still be waiting for us when we arrived about an hour later than he was supposed to pick us up, and nearly two hours later than we were supposed to arrive.

We got dropped off on the side of the highway in Liberia, and there were plenty of taxi drivers offering us a ride, but no one with our name on a sign as promised. We kept shooing away the taxi drivers, saying we didn’t need a ride, but then it hit me—when all these guys eventually give up and leave, we’ll be stuck on the side of the road with absolutely no clue what to do!

So I told one of the guys that someone was supposed to pick us up, but we’d arrived late, and he wasn’t there, and was there anywhere else he might be waiting instead, or…

He asked me if I had their phone number and I said yes, I have the number, but no way to call. He pulled out his phone, I handed him the number, and he called and told the shuttle company exactly where we were and that we needed to be picked up.

He pointed out where we should wait, wished us well, and left. Less than 10 minutes later, our driver pulled up with his “Amy and Roberto” sign in the front windshield, and we were on our way.

Having a flexible schedule lets you make decisions on the fly.

After spending a lot of time researching and thinking about Costa Rica, we decided to just book the first five nights and figure out the rest later. It’s a good thing we did, because we ended up really liking Playa Samara and decided we wanted to stay there longer.

And, because we were already there, we had a sense of what else was available in town and were excited to be able to accept our host’s offer of a greatly reduced rate to stay for another two weeks.

(Also, choosing a very small, family-run place gave us the flexibility to change our plans, and negotiate, that we probably wouldn’t have had if we’d stayed at a bigger resort like I’d originally been considering.)

Travel plans need to mesh with work and vacation schedules.

We were pretty much on vacation for 10 days after we left Granada, which was lovely. And because there were a lot of other places in Costa Rica we were curious about, we were starting to consider a fairly chaotic itinerary for our remaining few weeks here after leaving Samara.

But we realized that the first two weeks of our visit to the States in August will also be fairly busy and not leave much time for work, so we really need to focus on work now.

This means less moving around and more staying in places with good Wi-Fi. Of course this doesn’t mean we can’t explore or that it’s all work and no play; we can still squeeze in excursions while we stay in one place, and take a couple days en route from one place to another to see something new.

The beach at Playa Sámara, Costa Rica

The beach at Playa Sámara, Costa Rica

Self-catering is an easy way to save money.

As we had heard before we got here, Costa Rica is definitely more expensive than Nicaragua (and Mexico, where we were earlier this year), and on top of that we chose to extend our stay at a place that is quite a bit more than we usually spend on accommodations, so we were grateful to have a kitchen there (which wasn’t something I’d been looking for, it just happened to turn out that way).

Of course it’s also important to pay attention to how much groceries cost! We unknowingly spent about $12 on a block of cheddar cheese on our first shopping trip here; it seems every time I head to a new country I make at least one such budget-busting purchase before I start to get a handle on costs and exchange rates. Of course I’ve since decided that cheddar cheese makes me happy and have bought it again despite the cost (I figure it’s still cheaper than going out!).

These same lessons apply pretty much anywhere in the world; it just so happens that I (re)learned them in Costa Rica!

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