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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Caving to the Convecience of a Car

So, with all this recent talk about transportation via bus, I feel obligated to inform everyone that toward the end of January, Lisa and I actually bought a car. That's right, a car. More specifically, a 1985 Suzuki Samurai. Basically, we wanted something inexpensive, efficient, that we could beat up without too much worry, and that could get us pretty much anywhere in the country we wanted to go, and this car fit the bill. Really what got us thinking about a car is when my parents came down and rented a car, which I drove for a week and started to enjoy the freedom a car provides. What clinched it was when I rented a car to drive Lisa up to Rio Celeste (in Tenorio Nat'l Park) - a location you can't reach on a bus - for her birthday. Buses are cheap, cars (and gas) are not - especially in Costa Rica where you can expect car prices to be 30-50% higher than in the states - but not having to conform to bus schedules (and being able to travel where and when we want) among other things makes up for it. Wow, I feel like I just wrote a Master Card Commercial:

Suzuki Samurai - $3000
Gas - $4 per gallon
Repairs and Upkeep - $400
Having the freedom to travel when and where we want in Costa Rica - Priceless

Anyway, if you think you'd also like to buy a car in Costa Rica and have some questions, let me know and I'll try to help you out, but I'd say the best resource to find used cars for sale is this website: Oh and Lisa and I will be selling our car towards the end of May, so if you're interested, let me know.
And here's our Suzy (or Sammy - depending on its gender) at Playa Carrillo:

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting Around Part 2: Costa Rica Bus System for Long-Distance Travel

Presumably, if you are coming to Costa Rica (and living in the San Jose area - which is almost inevitable), you are going to want to take as many opportunities as possible to travel extensively around both Costa Rica and its neighboring countries (remember, every three months you'll have to leave the country for 72 hours - see Border Run post Here). If you're on any kind of a budget, you'll be using Costa Rica's long-distance bus system to get to the beach, the mountains, or anywhere else you'd like to go. Lets start with the good news: 1) transportation is extremely inexpensive (you can get just about anywhere in the country for less than $10), 2) You don't have to deal with the heartache of driving in Costa Rica - trust me it's not always fun to be behind the wheel here, and 3) you can get just about anywhere you'd like to go by bus. And the bad news: 1) Your travel schedule is dictated by the bus schedule (which explains why Lisa and I have on at least 3 or 4 occasions left our house at around 4:30am to catch the early bus from San Jose to our travel destination), 2) The trips can be much longer than if you were in a car, and 3) The buses, although much nicer than the city buses (which are like 25 year old school buses, see THIS POST for more information), are not always very comfortable (some have air conditioning, many others do not).

The two most important resources that I can provide to help you understand the bus system are 1) the Bus Schedule (which contains destinations, travel times, departure times, etc) and 2) the Bus Station Map (which is a map of San Jose that has labeled most bus stations according to where the buses from any given station will take you).

Download those documents by clicking below (links are also available under "resources"):
Costa Rica Bus Schedule (.pdf)
Costa Rica Bus Station Map

Finally, Lisa and I went to Montezuma, which is a small surf town on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, this past weekend and pretty soon I'll write an entry talking about that trip, and for those of you interested on getting around Costa Rica, I'll take that opportunity to explain how to take a bus to Montezuma (it's perhaps one of the most complicated trips you'll take via bus because you have to take BUS->Ferry->BUS->Small Bus->Montezuma). Pictures will be added as well.

Hope this all helps, leave comments if you have any further questions/comments about the Costa Rican transportation systems.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Random notes on living in San Jose

By Ole

I'm bored and I've nothing better to do. I should go swimming or something constructive like that, but I'd rather write. So, since I don't really have anything specific to write about, I'll just conjure up a hodgepodge of information. This is mostly relevant to people who don’t speak Spanish. Note: For some reason most of the apostrophes are tilted, often the wrong way. No idea why.


There seem to be several different types of taxies in this city. Some charge you for distance, and some apparently charge you for something else that I’ve not quite been able to figure out. There are expensive and cheap taxis and I don’t know how to tell the difference between them, but it generally appears that the red, relatively new taxis with yellow signs charge you more than most. I’ve crossed San Jose in taxi and paid both 2000 and 5000 colones.

Explaining directions can be somewhat tricky if you’re used to relating to maps and street names. That’s not gonna work here. The local geography is based on landmarks. For instance, to explain how to get to my hostel from downtown, I tell the driver to go to KFC on Paseo Colon, then two blocks north and one block east. That’s also how addresses are typed out here. Again, example: “JC and Friends. De KFC en Paseo Colon, 200 Norte y 100 Oeaste.” That’s the address. Generally, most people will give you directions based on landmarks. Regardless how obvious it seems to us how to find the corner of 10 and 4 without referring to landmarks, especially since the city is built in a grid, well, I tried that a couple of times and in both cases the taxi driver ended up calling our destination point to get directions he understood. Just a matter of having learned two totally different systems of reference, I guess.

Getting a taxi is effortless downtown but in the smaller suburbs may require a phone call. Shops and pubs will usually help you out with this, and if you need a bus....


Both Bruce and I have talked a bit about buses and here’s more.
Finding your bus stop is futile without help from people in the know. Don’t even try because you will almost surely fail. On the stretch of Paseo Colon I live nearby, there’s eight bus stops and none of them are marked. Some have sheds. A couple are just a specific place to stay on the sidewalk to indicate to the bus that you’re waiting for it. Two or three of them go in generally the same direction, but the rest go all over the place. To get the correct bus, you need primarily to know the name of the area you’re going to. That will help you to the bus that at least is more or less correct. You also need to know the name of a landmark or two nearby your destination, to get the correct bus stop. Everyone around you will help you out, especially if you make an effort, however atrocious, of speaking Spanish. Bus in Spanish is ‘autobus’ with an accent over the u (which I can’t find on this keyboard), and is often referred to as simply ‘bus’, pronounced like, well, like bus is said in Norwegian. I bet that helps you out. I’ve no idea if this is correct, it most likely isn’t, but what I do is go ‘Disculpe. Por favor, autobus de [destination]?’ and indicate the bus or the bus stop. That gets me to the bus. If I’m unsure of the exact stop, I will usually ask someone in the bus (middle-aged ladies are a sure bet). What precisely I ask depends on how certain I feel of my Spanish skills on any given day, ranging from simply saying the name of the landmark I’m aiming for as a question, or ‘Disculpe, parada de [name]?’ (again, I’ve no idea if this is correct Spanish but it works for me). It’s a good idea asking this as the bus is entering the area in question, since any reply that involves something that sounds like a number and ‘mas’ is good. The natives will usually answer in full sentences, but mostly I can glean the piece of information I need and repeat it back to them: ‘Dos mas?’ Two more?

Asking for directions

There’s no way around knowing what 1-10 is in Spanish to get by in San Jose. Any number of directions, both on a bus and on the street, will involve numbers, just like in English and Norwegian. In other parts of Costa Rica, namely the heavily touristed ones, you can usually find someone who speaks English. That’s not the case in San Jose, which is not very touristy. While you can find people who speak English (try kids and teenagers if you can get them to talk to you), you’ll have to get by on Spanish whether you like it or not. Key phrases are ‘disculpe’ (excuse me), ‘habla despacio’ (talk slower), por favor (please), ’mi no habla Espanol’ (I don’t talk Spanish) and gracias (thank you). Using these, and armed with the knowledge of some major landmarks (to know where north is, primarily) and numbers 1-10, you will be able to find your way. It’s a grid system, as mentioned, so distances are usually measured in number of blocks. I’ve no idea what left and right is in Spanish so I use a lot of sign language to support my questions and answers. There are two things you should do to make sure you get to the right place. 1) When you ask a question how to get somewhere and they reply, repeat their answer to them in your own words using gestures as needed. This is a simple correction mechanism for errors in understanding. 2) Ask more than one person. This is very important in San Jose because Ticos will give you wrong directions for a variety of reasons (they dislike not being able to help). The longer the distance involved, the more people you should ask on your way for both direction correction and making sure that you are actually headed to the right place.

You may have heard a lot about how dangerous the city is. But in full daylight and in crowded streets you shouldn’t worry about betraying the fact that you have no idea where you are or what’s going on. Use your discretion, and if you get into a seedy area (which can be detected by a number of different ways), either keep on walking and act as if you know, or simply go around the block to get back to the more crowded areas (which is what I do in the rare case I get into an area I really feel uncomfortable about walking in).

Well, that's it for now.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Oh, my ego!

Got recognized as 'the Norwegian guy on CCC' for the first time today. I'm a star!


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Buses - additional info

By Ole Larssen

I just read through Bruce's post about buses and felt that I wanted to add some more info. What he fails to mention (since he's not actually living in the city but has crawled off to a comfortable suburb, the wimp) is the overall geography of the area. That is, you have San Jose, which is a sprawling city housing around 350 000 people over an area which size is totally out of relation to the number of people living here. There's numerous suburbs within the city area itself, but there's a ton of suburbs outside the actual city area which all fall under a general definition of "San Jose" but are really vastly different places and not accessible by foot unless you have a day to spend. Heredia, where Bruce and his better half lives, is an example of that. My point is that there's actually three different bus systems within San Jose - the intra-city, the Greater San Jose (serving all the outlying suburbs) and the inter-city. The intra-city bus system is somewhat chaotic (especially when you start using it), but is frequent and reliable in the sense that if you have a slight idea of what's going on, you will usually end up where you're headed (and there will always be 30 buses around to take you away if you missed). The Greater San Jose bus system, on the other hand, is less frequent (meaning between 1-6 buses an hour) and, because of the extremely complex road system making up Greater San Jose, much easier to mess up on - simply because of the distance and the complexity of even the simplest bus route. You really need spot-on directions to get where you are going, much more so than the intra-bus system, in my experience, because the city San Jose is built up with a grid system and usually has a rather obvious landmark system to help you orient yourself. This is not always the case with the outlying suburbs.

All that being said, I've had very little problems navigating the city using the buses. What Bruce also neglected to mention (for some obscure reason only known to people living in the suburbs, I bet) is that the easiest way to ensure you get to where you are going is not asking the bus driver, but the people waiting at the bus stop. My Spanish ought to be punishable by death, but using "Por favor, autobus de (insert area name)?" gets me everywhere. What you do is simply ask the people hanging around waiting for buses and they will, in my experience, be glad to help you out, especially if you make an effort of speaking Spanish (however horrendous it might be). Most people direct you elsewhere if you're in the wrong place, and on the bus itself they will usually do follow-ups on you, making sure you get to where you are going. For instance, a lady who helped me get to San Joaqin (Greater San Jose) told me/indicated to me when she was getting of that while this was her stop, I was going off three stops further ahead (which in my Spanish = "dres mas"). I really like the people living in this city partly because of that.

So that's my two cents. I'm really starting to like this city - I've been here for about three weeks now, and been sick for two of them. But now that I'm kind of putting my head outside my hostel, and the work situation slowly is coming to a correct course, I really like what I'm seeing. I currently reside in the western part of San Jose, which is, much like the rest of the city, rather random, noisy and grungy, but (again, like the rest of the city) has a million redeeming characteristics to it. Except the Coca-Cola area, which really has no redeeming qualities except the amount of buses there.

Getting Around: The Costa Rican Bus System Part 1

By Bruce

Prior to coming to Costa Rica you hear a lot about transportation - almost always in a negative sense. "Pothole Paradise" is one nickname that aptly describes road conditions throughout much of the country (although I will say it's hard to have pot holes on unpaved roads, which are also quite common). But really, to most of us planning to move down to Costa Rica (or already here), driving around really isn't much of an issue because we won't (or don't) have a car. So that brings me to the question at hand: How DO you get around here? And what is that system like?

In short: "Public buses" and "well, it's really inexpensive..." Me explico. I would say that there are two "classes" of buses in Costa Rica: 1. City buses and 2. Longer distance travel buses. You will use both. Extensively. City buses are often of the big yellow Blue Bird denomination (although repainted by the bus companies) and allow you to relive that exciting time in your childhood in which much of your social life revolved around the hour or so spent going to and returning from school. You know what I'm talking about, that time when your social status was defined by your seat's proximity to the back of the bus. I guess what I'm saying is that you'll be riding old, often cramped and uncomfortable school buses to get from one part of the San Jose area to the other. It's not necessarily fun, nor efficient, but you can get just about anywhere in the area and you can get there without spending more than a buck.

So how do these city buses work? Basically, you walk to your nearest bus stop (sometimes they are formal - having a bench and perhaps a sign denoting which buses will stop there - and often times they are common street corners where the only indication that it is a bus stop is the presence of other people standing there waiting. So you walk to the bus stop and wait for a bus that is going your direction to approach, and with about 25-50 meters between you and the oncoming bus, you raise your arm and shake your hand (much like haling a NY taxi with a spasming wrist). Really, everyone has their own bus-haling style, just as Major League pitchers have their own unique windup, and you'll just have to develop your own style once you're here.

At that point, you climb onto the bus, hand the bus driver your fare (usually denoted by a sign on the window, although it never hurts to ask), and proceed to an empty seat. If there isn't one available, you enjoy your ride standing in the isle. Personally, I would recommend, at least at the beginning, asking your bus driver as you pay him to make sure the bus is passing by wherever you're going ("Senor, este bus pasa por INSERT DESTINATION?" usually gets the job done).

Finally, keep in mind that it will take time to get this process down, and no matter how hard you try, you will inevitably get on a bus that will take you in a direction other than the one you hope to go. This has happened to me numerous times, and really, the best thing to do is just ask the bus driver to confirm you're going the wrong way, and get off at the next stop and try again. That's good for now, in Part 2 I'll discuss bus travel to other parts of the country (beaches, mountains, borders, etc.).