Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Costa Rica with Kids - Part 1 - Car Rental Scams and Lost in San Jose

Costa Rica has long been on my bucket list and this year we finally decided to actually go. Our travel buddies from last Thanksgiving were onboard as well and pretty soon another family of friends decided to join us so on Saturday, Nov 17 our group of 6 adults and 4 kids boarded a TACA Airlines flight from Washington to San Salvador and after a short connecting flight on LACSA we landed in San Jose at 9pm Saturday night.

We had decided to rent three SUVs so that each of the families would have freedom to do as much or as little as they wanted and after a lot of online searching we had pre-paid the rentals through Auto Europe who in Costa Rica work with Thrifty Car Rental. Costa Rica has very complicated car insurance laws (some call them scams) and the government requires each renter to buy mandatory liability insurance through them. In addition, there is lot of petty theft from cars so CDW insurance is highly recommended. With both of these combined many times the insurance cost is much higher than the actual cost of the rental. But we were lucky and through a fluke in Auto Europe’s web site we got a pretty decent rate so we showed up at the car rental counter certificates in hand ready to get our cars and begin our vacation.

Not so easy though… Upon arrival we were told that our reservations were cancelled and the guy at the counter did not seem to much care what the 10 of us would do as a result despite various attempts (yelling, begging, using the kids) to get him to care. Finally, after a call to Auto Europe and an anxious hour of waiitng, we were told that our reservations are OK but they do not have any cars at the moment so we can either get a cab (for a 3 hour ride…I don’t think so) or spend the night at a local hotel and come back in the morning. Another hour of arguing and waiting went on and then miraculously three SUVs appeared. However, they were larger than what we had originally paid for so we were told we had to pay extra for them. At this point it was pushing 11 pm so we agreed. At the end of the day, I think the whole thing really was a scam to get us to pay the extra money which the night clerk probably pocketed.

By the time the cars were ready it was pushing midnight and raining. We had decided to make the drive to Manuel Antonio, our first stop on this trip, that night in order to have the full day at Manuel Antonio the next day. We had downloaded a Costa Rica map on our GPSs (highly recommended as many streets and even highways there have no names or numbers) and we were on our way. However, we had decided to follow each other in case something happened on the road and our car was last in line following a gray SUV in front of us which we assumed was our friends’ car. We drove for about 10 minutes when we got a call from them (also highly recommended is to have an unlocked GSM phone and buy a pre-paid SIM card at the airport; we bought one for $10 and it lasted us the whole week) and it soon because clear that we were following a random car moving in a random direction and not friends’ cars. We tried to re-trace our steps but it was dark, raining and we had no idea where we were so we circled around some industrial areas for about 30 minutes getting more and more anxious by the minute. Luckily, at one point I saw a sign for a Marriott hotel so we stopped for directions (honestly, I was ready to stop there and spend the night, that’s how lost we were). A nice local taxi driver tried to give us directions but they consisted of things like “make a left and when you see the Shell building don’t turn there, drive to the next brown building and then when you see a sign for route 27 don’t turn there, go over the bridge…”. So we paid him $20 and we followed him to the intersection where our friends were waiting and then finally at 1 am we were on our way.

I have to say that the drive from San Jose to Manuel Antonio was the easiest part of that night. You drive for about an hour on Rt 27 and then for about 2 hours south on Rt 34 (I believe this is the new Pam American Highway) and the road conditions are perfectly fine even at night. No, it is not a US highway with 4 lanes each way but it was a nice paved road with two lanes, good signage and very little traffic. Without a hitch we arrived in Manuel Antonio in three hours and quickly found the house that we would be renting for the next few days. The house was gorgeous but we only had enough energy to move the kids to the beds and crash in bed ourselves just as the local roosters were beginning to wake up and the monkeys started howling under the early morning rays.


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