A Day in Real Life

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Blue skies, clear water, soft sand, monkeys, toucans and sloths… and a fruity drink with an umbrella while swinging in the hammock or chillin’ on the lounger.  Vacation in the tropics is a wonderful getaway from the everyday, and a time when we can relax and leave all our worries behind.

But as anyone who has done it can say – being on vacation and living somewhere full time are two very different things!  

Don’t get me wrong, it is incredible to live somewhere with perfect temperatures every day of the year and be surrounded by incredible beauty.  I am grateful every day to be here. 

The problem is, if your only source of information when planning a move is International Living and Condé Nast, you will be wearing some funky rose-colored glasses.  It’s critical to recognize that it’s not perfect, or easy.  There will be cultural differences, language difficulties, social isolation and many other challenges to overcome.  If you’re prepared these things are manageable, but they catch many people by surprise.

There are a significant number of expats who come to Costa Rica with the intention of staying permanently who will decide to leave after just a few years.  For some it was always open-ended, or a medical or family emergency arose, but for others the necessary adaptation is just too much.  Processes are often slow and redundant compared to the fast-paced culture we’re used to.  What may take an hour, day or week at home can take 2 or 3 times as long, or more.  Patience is the most valuable virtue!

I have a personal example to share that may be enlightening (and some insight into how amazing the Costa Rican people are)…

Receiving a shipment

I was expecting a package via DHL that contained a laptop, and it was supposed to be delivered to the local depot here in town.  A Spanish email notification popped into my mailbox that it had arrived, with information that indicated there was additional documentation necessary and a fee due.  Hoping that it might be at the local depot and I could just pay the fee there, I went and showed them the arrival notice.  The woman said that it wasn’t there but should arrive later that day or the next day.  I asked if I needed to go to the airport as per the email instruction and she said no.

Hmm.. I knew something was up, so consulted with local friends who helped decipher the instructions.  I could pay over $80 US for DHL to take care of it, or go to the “Terminales Santamaría Alajuela, del Aeropuerto Juan Santamaría”, second floor DHL Express window.

Ok, no problem.  I’m only 25 minutes from the airport.  I’ll just drive there and find this window on the second floor.  I’m sure someone will speak English because you know, it’s the airport… 

I park and walk with my email in hand toward the terminal entrance.  There are always a lot of guys there to help tourists with their transportation, baggage, etc., and one of them asks me if I need help.  I tell him that I’m looking for the DHL window and show him the email.  He tells me that it’s not here but at another building, and calls over a young guy and says “he can go with you to help”. 

Great, my new friend Pedro!  He asks where my car is, and I realize we need to drive somewhere…. ok.  I pay the parking at the airport and we drive down the street to the cargo warehouse terminal… aahhh.  I probably should have realized this, but I’m still green. 🙂

Terminales Santamaría


Pedro shows me where to park and we go through the security and head into the building.  No one here speaks English.  I’m already feeling beyond grateful that the universe brought me this guy to guide me through the process and answer my questions, since even at this point I would have been lost. 

We go to the second floor DHL window and he speaks to the woman, gives her my info and we wait while she generates some paperwork.  I pay the document fee. 

Great, now we get the package, right? 

No, first we have to go downstairs to the customs officer.  It’s about 5 minutes before 1pm and the sign says lunch break is until 1 o’clock, so we wait, and wait… and about 15 minutes later he arrives. 

We go in and Pedro hands him the paperwork.  They speak too fast for me to understand everything but I know that there’s a question about the declared value. 

Pedro says “There’s a problem.  The value says $1,500 US and it should only be around $500 for a laptop”.  I don’t understand this at all, since I’ve always heard that electronics are far more expensive here.  I explain to him that it’s a business laptop and that $1,500 would be a reasonable cost back home, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

The customs officer makes a note on the paperwork and sends us back upstairs to the DHL window.  There is no one there now, so we wait… and wait… and wait. 

About 20 minutes later the woman returns, does something with the paperwork, and hands it to us.  We go back downstairs to the customs officer.

He looks it over, gives it to us and we head to another area near the warehouse where we take a number and, you guessed it… wait. 

Finally we get to the desk and the woman enters some information.  She talks to Pedro and attaches a sticky note to the paperwork – we have to go back to the customs officer because she’s not sure if it should be under my name or the name of the DHL depot. 

He confirms that it’s my name, and we go back to the warehouse desk.  She’s disappeared, so we wait. 

After she returns and finishes entering whatever she needs to do, she tells us to wait for access to the warehouse.  The warehouse area is secure so we have to wait to be called in to have the package inspected by the customs officer. 

After about 10 minutes we are called in.  We sign in and I’m given a key to a locker where I have to deposit my purse.  We go over to open my package that is sitting on a table and make sure the contents are what was expected.  The customs officer comes and looks it over, gives it the ok and tapes up the box.  I reclaim my purse and we walk back to his office.

He enters more information and gives us a ticket – a charge for 72 colones, the equivalent of 15 cents Canadian – which can only be paid by credit card. 😀  We head back to the cashier window and I pay, and then return to the customs officer.

He processes more information, and sends us back to the warehouse desk where they process yet another payment. 

FINALLY, 3 hours after arriving, we are able to go to the warehouse window, show proof of payment, and receive the parcel.

I couldn’t have done it without Pedro’s kindness and assistance.  He hadn’t even had his lunch break and took all that time with me, and even gave me some Spanish lessons while we waited, so I was sure to give him a good tip for his time.  He’s a perfect example of how much the Costa Rican people embrace others, and are always happy to help.

It’s important to remember that nothing was perfect back home either.  I can think of many cases where you could slap your head in wonder or be frustrated because someone didn’t show up or some bureaucratic process took forever.  It’s just more prevalent here, so if you’re an A-type personality you’ll want to get your Pura Vida on before making the move.


Feature image credit:  Gerd Altmann via Pixabay


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