So…Golfito. Simply put, this place is the definition of insanity.
Definitely “an experience”, but probably not one I’d care to repeat. We woke up crazy early Friday morning: Mary, Carlitos, Cecelia, and me. Our bus left San Jose at 6:30 on a seven hour drive, stopping a few times at sodas for snacks and bathroom breaks where you have to pay for entry-for ¢100 (about $0.20)-which seems insane to me but apparently is not uncommon in countries outside the US. The trip down goes along the Pacific coast and so I could see the ocean at some points. Otherwise I just read; I got through three books I had saved up on my Kindle, including The Fault in Our Stars, which I had downloaded because of all the hype but didn’t expect much of. It was surprisingly good though.
Costa Rica is approximately the size of West Virginia so I never cease to be amazed at how long it takes to get from one point to another. The mountains are one of the big hindrances, along with a lack of roads. The main roads are nice enough but there are few of them so there seems to be a lot of winding around and backtracking. It’s “a small country of long drives” as Carlitos put it.
We got to Golfito at 1:30pm and joined a small crowd at the gates to get our cards. Here’s the thing about Golfito: the town used to be home to the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company, which has a fairly interesting history itself, but I’ll try not to bore y’all too much. So the United Fruit Company was this huge conglomerate that had a monopoly on a lot of goods in Central America, in particular bananas (90% of the banana market at one point, in fact), and had a great deal of influence on the economy and politics (which were already fairly corrupt), which is how the phrase “banana republic” was coined. When the business shut down the people in Golfito and surrounding areas were left without jobs. So the Costa Rican government decided to create a duty free shopping area there to boost the economy, drive tourism, and provide employment. Which backfired slightly because now hardly anyone buys their appliances and expensive items anywhere else. Why pay taxes if you don’t have to?
There are, however, certain conditions: for starters, you can’t actually purchase anything the day you arrive. So you apply for a free TAC (tarjeta de autorizacion de compras) card that allows you to purchase up to ¢500,000 (about $1000) worth of goods.
But the card isn’t valid until the next day, which forces most people to stay overnight, a good deal for the hotels and restaurants, naturally. You can only spend $1000 per semester, so $2000/year. And you’re limited on what you can buy as well; only one air conditioner per every 5 years, 1 fridge every two years, $40 worth of chocolate per semester, etc. Naturally people have found a way around the rules. Since Mary and Carlos had to furnish two of their rental apartments this year they put one fridge in her name and one in his, using up both of their limits. So the fridge Mary bought for the house in Puntarenas is now in my name. There were also people coming up to us offering to sell the unused portion of their spending limits-which we didn’t need since I shared my ¢1,000,000 limit (it was doubled since I didn’t spend any money the first semester of this year)-and lottery tickets (they sell these everywhere here, people just wander around with dozens of ticket strips trailing from their arms. Mary was especially excited about the extra spending limit-that woman is professional shopper I swear. There are about 40 shops, mainly household goods/appliances, but some cosmetics, liquor, clothes, toy stores thrown in. We spent a few hours after we got there Friday going from shop to shop, comparing prices, Mary bargaining with the shop clerks. Then we got dinner at another soda, found a hostel for the night, and went to bed early.
Saturday morning we got up and had an early desayuno (breakfast) and were back at the market when it opened at 8am. It was packed, much busier than Friday, and I was told that was because of the overnight excusions coming from San Jose. Large groups of tourists (and some locals) will take private buses leaving around 10 or 11pm and arrive in Golfito early to get a jump on shopping. I don’t really know what the advantage is since they can’t buy anything yet, and I wouldn’t want to be driving those roads overnight (more on this later). Anyway, we finished making all our purchases (well, actually, I got bored halfway through the morning and read my book at a picnic table in the shade, while the others would periodically come back and drop off purchases for me to keep an eye on while they shopped) and then the fun really began.
Somehow we got all of our purchases to the gate (including, but not limited to, the aforesaid fridge, a stove/oven, a washing machine, a fan, a 42” TV, speakers, toaster oven, a couple of bedding sets, a vacuum cleaner, coffee maker, water cooler, microwave, air conditioner unit, and various other small paraphernalia) where each item then had to be loaded onto giant conveyer belts and passed through inspection. The agents checked every single receipt and checked them against our TACs to make sure we were with our limits. The larger items had to go through a separate gate and since they were in my name my passport had to be checked repeatedly. Once we got through to the other side it was another set of chaos: agents from a dozen different delivery services running around with dollies. I had already been warned about these guys; “Just say no to anyone who comes up to you”. Apparently some people hang around either to take your money, without transporting purchases, or else load your purchases onto a cart and simply take of with the goods. Mary had already made arrangements with one the reputable delivery companies so we waited for them, walked all our goods over to a warehouse, to be delivered Monday, and then went to catch our 1:30 bus back to San Jose-just barely in time too.
The route back to San Jose winds through the mountains, instead of the coast, and takes an hour longer. Why they couldn’t just take the same route back I really couldn’t say, but it was pleasant enough for the first four hours or so, reading, or watching the pineapple and banana plantations zoom by. The sun sets around 5:30 here and after that it was too dark to read. We got stuck for a half hour or so at a police checkpoint. Golfito is half an hour away from the Panama border and apparently people have been known to smuggle goods in from there, where the prices are even cheaper. Some enterprising citizens ran along beside the stalled traffic selling mamons and bags of fried plantain chips through car and bus windows.
They told everyone to have passports ready but the officer who boarded the bus hardly even glanced at me. Mary says they look mostly for Nicaraguan or Colombian immigrants and couldn’t care less about Americans. She said I didn’t need a passport since I had blue eyes (which I get so many comments on here). Apparently there are a lot of Americans who do actually overstay their visas, sometimes by years, but the government leaves them alone since they have boosted the economy here.
We stopped for dinner in Buenos Aires and then headed into the mountains, where we embarked on Mr. Toad’s Wild ride. There were just enormous walls of green forest stretching straight up on either side of the road, which wound around crazily, uphill, downhill, with sharp turns and two narrow lanes. It was pitch black by now, pouring rain, fog rising out of the valleys, with no streetlights anywhere, and rare even to see guardrails. Golfito was considerably warmer than San Jose, nearly 100F, and the mountains were freezing by comparison. Actually they were just freezing, period. We made a final stop at a little grocery store/restaurant about 40km outside of San Jose, where Carlitos advised me that we were actually in what the locals call Las Colinas de Muerte, literally “hills of death”. Good to know. On the upside, I found strawberries for ¢1500/qt. Berries are harder to get here and not nearly as good as at home. In the grocery stores they’re about ¢3800/qt. so I was pretty happy with my bargain. Even though we could see the lights of San Jose from above, it took another hour to wind down the mountains and we finally reached the bus station around nine. The moral of the story: Just pay your taxes people, it’s not worth it.