Moving to Costa Rica – My Experience!

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Do you ever look back at something and wonder how you ever pulled it off?

Getting here was one of those experiences for me.  Sure I had a plan, but how did it go?  It’s one thing to create a plan but we all know that things usually don’t turn out quite the way we want.

Preparation

My move involved travel from Winnipeg, Canada to Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) with 3 dogs, including an 85lb Rottweiler cross.  I needed a direct flight from Canada to Costa Rica with no layover in the U.S. to minimize the stress on the dogs.  My big guy had to travel as manifested cargo due to his weight, which meant I couldn’t arrive on a weekend since the SJO customs warehouse is closed.  Even in pre-Covid19 days it was no easy feat.  There were no direct flights from Winnipeg and the weekday direct flights from Toronto didn’t start until November 1st.

Ok, November 1st it is.

But I still had to get to Toronto.  I really didn’t want the risk and complication of putting the dogs through a layover.  Plus it was the end of October and the aircraft on the Winnipeg to Toronto route didn’t have climate controlled cargo holds, so I discovered it wasn’t an option anyway.

Alright, I can still do this – I’ll drive to Toronto!

It would be a 2 day trip.  I would drive 8 hours each day, only in daylight, and allow time for doggie breaks and quick meals.  I booked an overnight in Thunder Bay and Sault St. Marie, and then a night at a Toronto airport hotel before the November 1st flight.  Not ideal, but it was my only option and I was determined to do this.

The Final Days

I had quit my job and gave myself 2 weeks to finish clearing out the house.  The last few days before leaving were crazy and I couldn’t have pulled it off without a solid plan.  I sold my car at auction and picked up a rental so I could do last-minute errands like dropping off donations, picking up last minute items and making final banking arrangements.

The dogs’ health certificates had to be completed by the vet within 10 days of arrival in Costa Rica and their vaccinations updated, so each of them needed a last-minute vet visit.  Then the certificates had to be stamped at the local CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) office the morning before leaving.

Check.

Return the rental car and pick up the cargo van from Enterprise Truck Rental that would be our chariot to Toronto.

Check.

Last minute packing – what to take, what to leave behind.

Sigh.  It will all be worth it, right?

Ok, I admit I wouldn’t want to relive that last morning.

I had to be on the road from Winnipeg by 9:30 am or risk driving the winding, relatively remote highway into Thunder Bay in the dark.  The air mattress refused to inflate the night before so I rolled off a stack of patio cushions at around 5 am (one of those times when you really appreciate close friends and neighbors who can bring you patio cushions at midnight), scrubbed the sleep from my eyes and started frantically packing the final items.

My neighbor also brought over a scale so I could weigh the 2 totes and 4 large suitcases.

*Insert expletive here*!!

They exceeded the max weight of 70 lbs for oversize (and no, I still don’t regret bringing my kitchen essentials) so there I was – repacking 2 totes and 4 suitcases, pulling out the “nice to haves” – when I should have been on the road.

I had a moment.

There is no way I can pull this off.  Just give up already.

But like we do when times get tough – we press on.  And I had quit my job, sold my home, was out of my rental and had nowhere to live… it helps to have motivation.

The rejected items were put aside to leave with a friend.  I loaded up the van, made sure I had all the paperwork for the dogs, passport, wallet and bags, one last stop at Starbucks for a latte, and…

We were off!

packed cargo van
Loaded up and ready to go!

 

On the Road

The adventure had begun!  I had the music on, almost everything I had left to my name, and the dogs.  Freedom!

empty road northern Canada

They were long days of driving with just restroom stops, refueling and grabbing a bite to eat when necessary, but the dogs were great passengers.  The smaller two slept in their kennels and my co-pilot Varro draped himself across the passenger seat, snoring to the music.

Varro riding shotgun

 

The hotel stays were booked in advance using BringFido and I highly recommend doing this if you’re traveling with pets.  It isn’t easy to find a hotel that will allow 3 dogs, especially with 2 large dogs, and their service was excellent.  One booking cancelled when they confirmed the size of the large dogs, but BringFido notified me immediately and helped secure an alternate hotel.

I didn’t know what to expect with the dogs when it came to their behavior at the hotel, or how I would manage them alone.  Would they bark at every sound?  Refuse to settle down?  Pet owners can probably relate – they always surprise me.  They took it all in stride and didn’t bark much at noises in the hall.  I swear my little dog Tulie was dreaming about her new life, living like a princess.

Tulie the princess on a hotel bed

 

It was raining when we arrived in Toronto.  I settled into the hotel and anxiously awaited the next challenge – how to manage all this stuff and 3 dogs?

Departure from Toronto

I had recruited my friend Jennifer (who lives in Toronto) to fly down with me, so she arrived and waited with the dogs in the lobby while I made the trip to return the cargo van.  Thankfully it was a late flight so we had plenty of time to get the dogs checked in.

I had arranged transportation from the hotel to the airport with Paws En Route, a service who transports animals to appointments or the airport in the Toronto area.  It required two trips- first to get my big Rotti cross to the Air Canada Cargo warehouse to be checked in and then back to get everything else over to the departure terminal.  Their service was a lifesaver and I couldn’t have done it without them!

Like any good pet parent, I was a wreck that day.

Varro suffers from separation anxiety and was nervous and unsure when we arrived at the Air Canada warehouse to get checked in.  No surprise, with all the forklifts and noise and commotion.  He had to be checked in 3 hours in advance, endure a 5 hour flight, and then another hour or more clearing customs on arrival.  It was going to be a rough day for him.

I had to remind myself that it was one hard day in exchange for a better future.  They would living in paradise, with plenty of outdoor time and me at home instead of being away at work for 10 hours.

I completed his paperwork, said goodbye and left with a pit in my stomach.

Air Canada Cargo warehouse

 

Then it was our turn.  In hindsight I wish I had arranged a porter for our check-in at the airport.

Even with two of us it was impossible to handle 2 totes, 5 bags and 2 dog kennels on those little airport carts where you have to hold the handle down to move.  We had to leave one baggage cart behind near the door – I know, an airport security no-no – while we got the dogs over to the check-in counter.

Finally an Air Canada employee helped us get into the check-in line where I paid the baggage fees and then we moved to the over-sized area for the dogs to be checked in.  They were taken out of their kennels for a security check, put back in without their collars or leashes, and the doors zip-tied shut for safety.

Waiting for security check

Arrival in Costa Rica

At the Airport

When sending your pet as manifested cargo you will require a customs broker on the receiving end in Costa Rica.  I had made arrangements with José at Pet Lounge for this service.  He helped Varro be processed through customs, and then delivered him to the hotel where we were staying nearby.

The other two dogs were supposed to be delivered to the over-sized baggage claim area but there was some confusion and they were taken to the warehouse and had to be returned to the airport.  There was a lengthy wait to pick them up but it gave us time to collect the baggage and get a porter to help us through immigration and customs.  This process was very easy – the customs officer just took the dogs paperwork, gave it a quick look and waved us through.

Once you are outside of the Juan Santamaría airport (SJO) there is a small grassy area in front of the parking garage across from the airport entrance where pets can relieve themselves on arrival.  TIP: have an easy-access place in your luggage to keep the collars and leashes along with nail clippers or something to cut the zip-ties on arrival so they can get out to pee!

I had pre-arranged our transportation from the airport to the hotel, which was provided by Arturo Sáenz-Garcia. I have used his services before – he is fantastic and speaks excellent English.

Airport Hotel

Our flight was a late arrival, around 9 pm.  My travel plan anticipated the exhaustion after days of driving and the stress of the flight so I had booked a 2 night stay at nearby Adventure Inn to decompress with the dogs before going on to the rental house in Nuevo Arenal, which was a 4 hour drive away.

It is a great location close to the airport and very pet-friendly.  The staff were fabulous and even helped with transportation arrangements since we now also had the extra grande steel crate to transport.  We were able to get the dogs out for a good walk, pick up essential grocery items nearby and chill out by the pool before packing up again for another drive.  I think it’s fair to say the dogs enjoyed their visit!

We had arrived!

Feature photo credit:  Ross Parmly via Unsplash

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