Sunday, May 21, 2017

Costa Rica 2017, Part 1

our AirBNB living room
Our 21-day March journey to Costa Rica was our eighth trip to the República de Costa Rica since 2004. One could say that we’ve fallen in love with the country, its people, its cultural diversity, and yes, its abundant bird life. And they’d be correct. We’d come to appreciate Costa Rica so much that we seriously wished to explore the possibility of immigrating. Immigrating? You mean moving to Costa Rica to become a legalized citizen? And live there? Indeed yes. And with that thought in mind, we factored in an extra week prior to our bird tour to investigate all the pros and cons of immigrating.
Long before our arrival we had exchanged a series of emails with an immigration attorney. By the time we arrived on March 1, we already had a pretty good picture of what was involved. The purpose of our week-long visit was two-fold: obtain first hand legal advice and start the process, and, get impressions about long term living in Costa Rica from a couple of experienced ex-pats, Jeni and Rob Evans, whom we’d met during our six week cabin rental near San Ramon in 2015 (the subject of our two-part blog entry https://tomandcarolsykes.blogspot.com/2015/08/cabinas-el-castillo-part-1.html)
Carol had investigated various options of where to stay for our first week and settled on trying an AirBNB in San José. There is no shortage of AirBNB’s in San José but she narrowed our search to the North Sabana Park neighborhood based on two criteria. It offered easy walking distance to Jeni and Rob’s plus it was a reasonable commute to the immigration attorney's office. Reservations were made with the AirBNB's owners who were very responsive answering our many questions.

Sabana Park soccer stadium complex -
the first modern sport and event arena to be built in Central America
The nearby Sabana Metropolitan Park housed a national soccer stadium, artificial lakes, lots of green space, walking trails, a jogging track, an in-line skating track, picnic areas, and an art museum, the Museo de Arte Costaricense, located in the former terminal building of the old Sabana Airfield (JFK landed there in March, 1963). The large size of the park was no doubt due to its previous use as an airfield. Kudos to the city for keeping the space open for public use. It had also not escaped our notice that the park is an eBird hotspot.
In the past we’ve managed to find someone to drop us at whatever airport we were departing from (in this instance the Tucson airport). The advantage was leaving our truck with our RV. However, circumstances this time dictated that we employ a park-and-fly which included a free airport shuttle. Mercifully, our late morning flight didn’t require us to be up hours before daybreak. It was with relative ease that we transitioned from the RV park to the American Airlines ticket counter with time to spare.
Having printed our boarding passes the night before, we thought we were well ahead of the game. However, on that very day, American Airlines had changed their boarding pass layouts and boarding process, handily negating our printed boarding passes. We also learned that our check bags required a fee. This was the first experience with ANY airline charging checked bag fees for an international flight. Or, as the ticket agent explained, American Airlines "doesn’t consider traveling to Costa Rica an international flight". Really? Try and get on a plane leaving the United States without a valid passport and see just how un-international that turns out to be.

In order to reduce stress and streamline our boarding, we chose not to use large carry-on luggage. Instead, we opted to use backpacks. Easily carried and stowed in overhead bins or below our seats. As we boarded, it still amazed us just how much luggage people bring aboard an aircraft and expect there to be ample storage. And, how the airlines seem to let them get away with it. But with airlines charging so much for checked bags, who can blame them? Wonder if we should be taking our own toilet paper?
Our connecting flight in Houston went smoothly and by late afternoon we had landed in Costa Rica. Being the only recent plane to arrive, we sailed through immigration. On our way to retrieve luggage, Tom purchased a SIM card for our phone while Carol stopped at a Duty Free to purchase a bottle of single malt scotch for our guide (a custom we had started on our second trip to Costa Rica). Having passed through customs and with luggage in hand, we texted our hosts who had agreed to pick us up at the airport. A half hour later, we were getting a quick tour of our AirBNB.

our two-legged hosts, David and Sofia
our four-legged hosts
Our hosts, Sofia and David (pronounced dah-VEED) turned out to be warm, gracious hosts. And they had two cats! Any anxiety we had about our first AirBNB experience quickly evaporated. Our separate bedroom and bath were more than roomy and downright comfortable. We were given space in the fridge and a key to the condo which allowed us to come and go as we please (just leave the key with the security guard at the gate and retrieve it upon our return).
The next morning, David had already left for his job at Intel where he works as a programmer. Sofia was working from home that day. Her work involved reviewing grants for companies wishing to implement green projects. Actually, David also could work from home as necessary so their schedule for being at home remained pretty flexible. A bonus for us as we got to spend a fair amount of time learning more about their lives and they about ours. And, learning how to use their espresso/cappuccino maker.

Jeni and Rob
The first day's priority was meeting with Jeni and Rob at their San José apartment about a half hour walk away. On the way we encountered a Starbucks. During the process of ordering coffee we discovered that Starbucks in Costa Rica does not a) honor our Gold Cards, b) award points for purchases, and c) has no terminal to scan our Starbucks apps. To top it off, the quality of coffee, in our opinion wasn’t up to Starbucks standards.
We had a wonderful time reconnecting with our expats friends who we’d first met in 2015. They are definitely staying in Costa Rica for the long haul. Their roomy fully furnished apartment is on a dead end street with minimal street traffic and noise. It has a private balcony where they spend a good deal of their time outdoors. Within easy walking from shopping areas and close to bus stops, for two people comfortable with an urbanite lifestyle it is perfect for them. But would this lifestyle suit us?
While enjoying Jeni’s fresh baked bread and brewed coffee, we peppered them with a laundry list of questions covering banking, phones, internet, mail, and health care. We congratulated Rob on his full-fledged hobby, "Costa Rica By Bus" Facebook page providing help and tips to other ex-pats and tourists alike. Basically anyone interested in, and in need of, public transportation. 
After making plans to meet again for dinner in a few day's time, we walked to a nearby Pali supermarket to pickup a few basic breakfast items (milk cereal, bread, coffee), However, Pali didn’t have the one essential ingredient: peanut butter. A Pali employee suggested we try the Parque Plaza Rohrmoser where there was a Mas Menos, a much larger supermarket. Although quite a bit further to walk, we did indeed score peanut butter. We also happened upon a very nice bakery/deli in the same mall and stopped for a late lunch.
We wound our way back to our AirBNB after walking what we estimated to be about 7 miles. This could certainly be conducive for a weight loss program. Just before early evening, we headed back out to find a place for dinner and settled on Rostipollos, a place recommended by Jeni that specialized in chicken. By the time we returned it was well after after dark and we were more than ready for bed!
Our meeting with the immigration attorney, scheduled for the next morning, lead to another new experience: using Über. Tom had downloaded the Über app to our iPhone (now with a Costa Rica number), and had taken an online crash course on how it worked. Hmmm. Perhaps using the term 'crash course' isn't the most confidence building? Anyway, pretty easy to use as it turned out.
Costa Rica doesn’t do Apple Pay so the Über account was tied to our credit card. To summon an Über taxi simpky launch the app and choose a vehicle size: ÜberX or ÜberXL (XL is a larger vehicle if a group has four or more passengers). The fare for each choice appeared below each Über vehicle type. Just type in a destination, and push the summon an Über button. The tricky bit involved street addresses. In Costa Rica there are no numbered street addresses. Instead, people rely on distances from known locations. Seriously! Want to find a restaurant? It’s located 100 meters south of the Pali Supermarket found on (fill in a street name). It really works best if you type in a location’s GPS coordinates (many businesses have these as part of their address). Typing in the name of a business often auto-fills. A known location close to your destination will also work.
The app hones in to one's GPS coordinates via the program so the Über driver, via his/her phone, knows precisely where to pick up customers. Sofia and David pointed out that for the Über drivers to accurately find us at their condo complex that we should always summon one while standing outside the security gate; not while standing inside the condo. The interior condo GPS coordinates will incorrectly send an Über to a nearby road not directly connected to the condo complex.
When launched, the app displays all available Über drivers in the surrounding area (they looked like ants running around).  When one responds, the app displays the driver’s name, a photo of the driver, a description of the car, and the driver’s ETA in minutes/second along with a real time map of the vehicle’s approach.
When the vehicle arrived we simply got in and off we went. The app followed the route real time so we knew precisely where we were at all times plus it continually updated our ETA. The beauty of the app is that one doesn’t need to speak Spanish (or Italian, or German, etc.) since all transactions are completed via the phones in languages consistent with the phone’s owner’s spoken language.
Once the ride was complete we were offered the opportunity to rate the driver (up to five stars for best). Within moments, we received an electronic receipt of our ride showing the amount our credit card was charged plus a link to a map to review our route. After having been ripped off by a few Costa Rica taxi drivers in the past we found the whole experience very satisfactory. Rather than sorting out public bus schedules (sorry Rob), we depended upon Über for our transportation to and from the attorney’s office.
The attorney, Rafael Valverde, and his assistant, Dawn Drummer (Rafeal’s wife) had been helpful answering questions via email long before our arrival. But we still needed to meet in person to physically deal with documents, pay a retainer, and complete additonal initial steps necessary to jump start the process.
An interesting side note: Rafeal had at one time worked with Robert Dean, the artist responsible for all the illustrations in our birding field guide. Dawn, an avid birder herself, had never met our friend, guide, and field guide author, Richard Garrigues. She insisted that she would faint dead away if she ever got the chance to meet him in person.
Once we signed the necessary documents and paid our retainer, we needed to link to the firm’s website to fill out U.S. State Department and Costa Rica Immigration profiles and a service agreement form (all this could be accomplish back at the AirBNB). We made an appointment to be picked by one of the firm’s assistants the following Monday to have our photos taken and fingerprints collected, all part of a background check. Goodness! What have we done!?

a typical soda scene in Costa Rica
In less than an hour we were back out on the street and seated at a local soda. By the way, if you ask for a ‘soda’ in Costa Rica, you won't get a soft drink. Instead, you'll be directed to the nearest locally owned family-run cafe. Sodas are a great place to find inexpensive home cooking (the stick-to-your-ribs variety): rice and beans, mashed potatoes, fried empanadas and stewed chicken. But, if all you really want is just a soda beverage, try asking for “un refresco”. We ordered eggs and toast and discussed what he just committed ourselves to!
We’d seen reports on eBird that a pair of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks were being seen at Sabana Park so after our Über ride back to the AirBNB, we grabbed our binoculars and covered the five block walk to the park. Not that these ducks were life birds but they were a species of duck not seen very often in Costa Rica (as opposed to the far more commonly seen Black-bellied Whistling-Duck).
The park is immense but following Google maps on the iPhone (as well as the handy offline free map of Costa Rica), we located the man-made ponds and the whistling-ducks in no time. The park is surrounded on all sides by numerous retail establishments with no end of places to eat. Pizza was on Tom’s mind which we easily found at a local American chain - Goodfellas. Not half bad. We could order pizzas by the slice. Robert de Niro would have been pleased.
Later in the afternoon, Sofia invited us to join them for an evening meal at a favorite Lebanese restaurant, Lubnan. Dining on a medley of Israeli, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern dishes, we had a relaxing talk with Sofia and David learning much about how they first met, their schooling (both obtained their Masters attending university in Paris), and how they decided to enter the AirBNB program.
Sofia announced that the next day, Saturday, they were going to visit Sofia’s mother who lived on a small farm just outside of Atenas. Would we care to join them? Well, it just so happened that Atenas was one of a handful of towns where we had considered living after we immigrated so of course we would love to ride along! There was a chance that we would be spending the night so we packed our backpacks with that in mind.

once past the bridge construction bottleneck, it was clear sailing
The drive took a bit longer owing to the bridge construction. Not that our route would take us through the construction - just that everyone else on a weekend heading out of town was using the same routes to avoid traffic congestion. The irony, of course, was congested traffic on a road with no construction.
It’s not uncommon on sections of roadway where endemic traffic congestion occurs to find numerous ephemeral street entrepreneurs selling a variety of items to eat and drink. Stranded in your car, you can buy cell phone chargers and holders, toys, all kinds of food (munchies), sunglasses, hats, .etc. At large intersections you may find performance artists, juggling or gyrating their way to a day’s worth of coins. Sofia suggested we try a favorite of hers - a bag of fresh but unripe mangoes. They tasted like green apples and were best eaten with a dash of salt. Not bad. Better than the turtle eggs our guide in Colombia suggested we try (we didn’t!).

enjoying some cold cervesas while waiting for our order to go
On the outskirts of Atenas we stopped at El Chiringuito, an Italian restaurant known for its pizza and lasagna. We placed an order to go to share with Sofia’s family. Apparently there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Atenas due to a large number of Italian immigrants. At least in Atenas we would not starve (and we dare say, our waistlines would suffer more than they already have).

Mateo
Aurelia, Sofia, David, Sofia's mom, Loly, and Carol
Sofia’s family home is a large comfortable house situated on a hill overlooking a deep forested valley. Pulling into the yard we were immediately greeted by Mateo, the family dog. We were introduced to Sofia’s mother Loly and Sofia’s sister, Aurelia (recently graduated from college), and promptly set about preparing the Italian takeaway augmented with local fruits and vegetables, some of which were blended into juices. Loly didn’t speak English but Aurelia was quite conversant - everyone happily translated for Loly's benefit.

what a comfortable home - outside and in!
By late afternoon it was decided that we would indeed be staying the night and that we would need to make a grocery run for breakfast supplies. And, as long as we were out and about, see a little of the town then dine at another Italian restaurant “Pizzeria La Finca” which was also was the site of another Costa Rica micro brew (5inco Amigos). Micro brews in Costa Rica have certainly taken off since out first visit in 2004!

Keel-billed Toucans
Loly, Carol, Aurelia
las mujeres hermosas - Aurelia, Sofia y Loly
In the morning a pair of toucans in trees next to the house and a howler monkey in the distance beckoned us outside. We took a short walk around the property with Mateo in tow. Apparently Mateo and the howler monkeys don’t see eye to eye. We were told that on occasion, howler monkeys have chased Mateo with branches and sticks. Now that’s a sight we would have loved to have seen (without any harm coming to Mateo, of course)!

Sofia's aunts had this incredibly vocal parrot - we thought it was a real person speaking
Tom accompanied Sofia to pick fresh clementines, "mandarinas" (tangerines) from the family orchard followed by a late morning brunch. And who would have thought that a blend of carrots and oranges would taste so good?! By mid afternoon, following a meeting with some of Sofia’s aunts and cousins at the farmette next door, and, generous heartfelt offers to please come back and visit, we headed back to San José. Thankfully there was far less traffic congestion than we had encountered on our way to Atenas. That evening we finished filling out more online forms the attorney required before turning in.

some of the lads at immigration office
Monday morning, as promised, Alexandria, the attorney’s assistant, picked us up via Über and took us to a police station to begin processing. There was a long line of locals waiting to deal with various immigration and drivers license issues but Alexandria, as our advocate, got us bumped up to the front. In no time at all we were photographed, answered all necessary questions, and had our fingerprints taken (the old fashioned inking technique). One more stop for our passports to be photocopied and then to sign our Power of Attorney forms. Just as we were signing we realized that Tom’s was P.O.A. was incorrect. Another would have to be generated which required Alexandria to return to the office. She promised it would be available to sign later in the day and offered to swing by the AirBNB when it was ready.
After being dropped off near our neighborhood, we stopped for a late morning snack at “Cosi”, an international upscale chain of restaurants with a casual dining atmosphere. It reminded us of a cross between an Applebee’s and Starbucks. Pricey but good.

entrees at Andale Chee
After a brief rest back at the AirBNB we headed out to meet Rob and Jeni for an early evening meal at “Andale Chee”, a small Argentinian restaurant/bar they had highly recommended. Excellent garlic shrimp over garlic potatoes. This is where we were introduced to Michelada, a beer-based cocktail made with what might seem to be wacky ingredients: lime juice, hot sauce, Worcestershire, and at times tomato (or Clamato) juice, served in a glass with a salted rim (the rim salted with spicy “tajin” - pronounced ‘tah-HEEN’). While we ate we bombarded Jeni and Rob will more follow-up questions about banking, money transfers, credit cards, and “how do you handle (fill in the blank)” questions.
We had phoned Alexandria to stop by the restaurant rather than at Sofia and David’s. When she arrived it turned out to be a bit of a reunion for Rob and Jeni. Alexandria was the same assistant who had helped them when they were applying for immigration status in 2014. We also learned that Alexandria had once been married to an American and had at one point, lived in the Tucson area.
The next morning, March 7, we were up early and out the door by 6:30, eager to try the coffee at the highly recommended Juan Valdez. Apparently Juan Valdez isn’t an early riser. The store wasn’t open yet. The Starbucks we had visited earlier was just up the street and surely we could get coffee there. Our route took us past a McDonald’s but it too wasn’t open yet (this would never happen in the U.S.!). We got to Starbucks just before 7:00 only to discover that it too wasn’t open! How do people in Costa Rica (a country where we never find a bad cup of coffee) function before seven in the morning? Delivery men attempting to drop off supplies said not to worry. The store would open in a few minutes. We waited in chairs on the store's outdoor patio. By 7:15ish, Starbucks opened.

Museo de Arte Costaricense (former airport terminal)
On our way back past McDonald’s we found it open and stopped for a bite of breakfast before heading back to the AirBNB. The rest of the morning included doing laundry, researching online sources for immigration information, playing with the cats, pinning down the cost of hiring an Über airport transfer, and sorting through more possible banking options. And more playing with the cats. Part of the afternoon was spent birding back in the park and wandering over to investigate the former airport terminal-now-museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed due to an in progress changing of art displays. Just our luck!
We spent more time exploring for a spot to purchase wine which we found at a “Fresh Market”, kind of an upscale Trader Joe’s, then hiked back to Andale Chee for another meal before heading back to Sofia and David’s and our last night in the AirBNB.

breakfast prep while David gets a head start on the day's work
The next morning, as promised the night before, Carol prepared breakfast for Sofia and David. In the one week we’d spent with them, they came to feel like family. We thanked them profusely for their hospitality and bid them farewell as they departed for work. We finished packing our bags, petted the cats goodbye, and hailed an Über ride to the airport. A ride that would normally take us 20 minutes turned into 45 minutes. At fault, the ongoing bridge repair project. But we had anticipated for such a delay and arrived at the airport in time to grab our free shuttle to the Hotel Buena Vista without feeling rushed.

our room with a view
Checking into the hotel we encountered a woman sitting in the lobby wearing binoculars, and jotting notes in a journal. Surely a fellow birder? We asked her if she was going on a birding tour. No. She only had just returned from a tour. When we asked who her guide was, she replied, "His name was Leo”, but could not recall the last name. “Leonardo Garrigues?, we asked?.  “Why yes, that’s his name!”
We explained that Leonardo is the eldest son of Richard Garrigues, our friend and guide, and, the author of the field guide she was holding. While she waited for her family to pick her up from the hotel, we shared our spotting scope, showing her birds seen at the rear of the hotel.

local brews now available at the hotel
Part of the afternoon was spent getting our gear ready for our upcoming bird tour and tracking flights of our incoming group. With the sun well over the yardarm (some where in the world, surely), we eased into happy hour. We highly recommend the spicy margaritas and local micro-brews.
While seated at the bar we met a group from Switzerland who were on their last few days of a Costa Rica adventure. By 8:00 p.m. our group (minus one who would be arriving the next day) checked into the hotel, thrilled to be in Costa Rica. And, thankfully, just in time for dinner.

sightseeing in Alajuela
Costa Rica students honoring the international women's march
our group touring Alajuela
Over dinner we discussed options of how to spend our ‘extra’ tour day.
Typically we would venture into San José's historic district but the threat of long traffic delays owing to bridge repairs scuttled that plan. Hotel staff suggested visiting the nearby provincial capitol of Alajuela. Lots of shops, restaurants and museums. And only a ten minute ride away by taxi. Sounded like a plan. We agreed to meet behind the hotel at 5:30 when, according to the hotel manager (himself an ardent birder) bird activity would be robust. Oh, and he promised coffee would be ready as well. No further encouragement needed.
The next morning, fortified with coffee, we traipsed the hotel grounds for birds, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then summoned Übers to Alajuela where we spent the morning playing tourist. By early afternoon we were back at the hotel, relaxing an awaiting the remaining member of our group to arrive. Pura Vida!