Arriving at San José airport the first thing you notice is the heat, and then the rather pleasing fact that unlike a major UK airport you don’t have to negotiate several miles of terminal to make your exit.
Departing the plane you quickly enter baggage reclaim which is populated by a couple of underwhelming duty free shops, several currency exchange counters, an ATM and a Kolbi mobile SIM counter.
Buying a SIM card
Collecting a SIM card here is highly recommended as the cards themselves are not as readily available as in the UK. Several “tourist” SIM packages are available with a Cost Rican number and combinations of data and free minutes. Our 2GB SIM came with 30 free minutes and set us back $20. The counter doesn’t accept credit cards so be sure to have some colones or dollars on you. We paid $26 in the end owing to a non-functioning ATM so having to use a currency exchange counter.
Leaving the baggage area you’ll need to scan your bag through customs handing them the customs slip you completed on the plane. This should be straightforward affair unless you have a suitcase full of body parts.
Several car rental counters are available after customs. If your rental company isn’t there you’ll likely find a rep and shuttle bus waiting for you outside along with several locals to guide you to them for tips.
We’d booked with Thrifty due to the rental being inclusive of most additional charges and having read plenty of horror stories of costa rican car rental. A short shuttle ride and we arrived at their office.
The Thrifty staff were helpful, informative, and engaged in the usual upsells. We passed on collision damage waiver at a whopping $17 a day and also on the Satnav.
Should I rent a SatNav?
Google Maps was more than adequate for us. We’d downloaded the entire costa rican mapping to our offline maps so had the whole country covered. The Thrifty counter clerk helpfully informed us that Google Maps has a habit of sending you down one-way streets, a feature that’s by no means unique to Costa Rica! With the mobile data as backup those were our navigation needs sorted.
Do I really need an SUV?
I’d strongly recommend an SUV – many of the more remote roads are unpaved and/or are peppered with vicious potholes. Even the urban streets can be tricky to navigate with fiendishly high kerbs and deep storm drains. Our car was a Diahatsu Terios in the “compact SUV” class which was fine for two people plus luggage.
As you’d expect our rental came with a spare tyre, jack and an explanation of our responsibilities. The staff usefully briefed us on the typical tourist targeting scams before we set off. The vehicle was pretty battered so we took a lot of photos to capture all the scratches. Thrifty are sitting on a goldmine if they’ve managed to charge previous rentees $1200 excess per scratch and then not fix them!
Leaving Thrifty is very straightforward. Just join the highway and head on down to your destination.
First night stopover
We’d booked a night at the Hotel la Rosa de America – a modest option 20 mins from the airport on the outskirts of Alajuela. The room was basic with ceiling fan “air-con” but did the job. The staff were friendly, meals pleasant and the roof kept the unabating torrential rain from our weary heads.