Making a Stop @ Omaha, Nebraska!

Me @ Omaha! January 2013, pic taken by the sister.

Me @ Omaha! January 2013, pic taken by the sister.

Hello again! There’s been a couple months gap since my last entry and this portrait of me in Omaha showing up here. What happened since then? Why the hell am I in Omaha?!

Okay, let’s take it easy, haha.

Not too long after the last entry in Costa Rica, I started to not feel so good and after discussing it with friends back in the States, we decided it would probably be best that I come back home. That was around mid-October, if not late October. Came back, got better then the holidays happened.

My sister now is moving to Seattle, Washington with her brand new car and most of her stuff from DC with me tagging along so she can make the cross country trip safely and get a bit settled in her new digs. That’s why I’m on this road trip.

Tomorrow, we should be seeing Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse out in the Black Hills of South Dakota!

San José, Costa Rica: Photo Essay

Reflection of the Metropolitan Cathedral

A couple days ago, Jonathan and some of us from the hostel decided to go on a walking tour of San José. We walked around downtown the whole time, seeing Teatro Nacional, Yellow House, a couple of parks, and a few more. I saw this as an opportunity to snap as many pictures as possible before venturing out to more exotic locales.

Inside the Metropolitan Cathedral

The cathedral was open to visitors, while everyone basically got their looky-see then left, and I crouched nearly on the floor to get this shot.

Fish-Bird Water Fountains

This fish-bird water fountain fascinated me. They are fishes with a bird coming out of its mouth. They were outdoors, right above Museos de Banco Nacional.

Sideway view of the water fountain heads.

A better view of the heads.

Old Fort Tower.

This is an old fort riddled with bullet holes; although I’m not really sure why the bullets found their way there.

Plant growing in a wall

When I travel, I tend to look at everything at every direction. That was how I found this plant growing on a wall, approximately two stories high.

A small but ornate building

The National Museum

Now, I have a whole batch of pictures to process (about 250) and once I get them done, there will part two and possibly three. The next photo (see below) is a hint on what’s yet to come!

Your hint for the next batch of pics.

Tourist Taxes — Yes, They’re for Real!

Santamaría Airport, 2012

Earlier, I came across one of my favorite blogger’s post on mint.com about a traveler’s experience with Tourist tax upon leaving a country in the European Union. As fortunate as we, Americans, may be with crossing borders to the only two countries neighboring us (Mexico and Canada) without being caught surprised about paying before leaving, that is highly unusual. 

About a month ago, I decided it would be fun to cross the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border by foot. I had to spend nearly an hour getting my papers in order just to leave Nicaragua then spend another hour getting my papers in order to enter Costa Rica. Would I do the crossing again? Sure! But not on foot. At that time, I was fortunate enough to have been a bit more prepared about those fees thanks to another experience I had earlier this year.

The first time I had to leave Costa Rica for the States, I was totally unprepared and a bit shaken from the ordeal I had to go through and pretty much was shocked when the airport said I couldn’t leave the country without paying $28 bucks for a piece of paper saying I’m allowed to leave. That was my exit tax for leaving the country by air. 

Because I had never planned on leaving the country by air (which reduces the tax significantly) and never thought to research about it based on my experiences walking in and out of Tijuana with only a driver’s license and cruise ships. That was my mistake — luckily, I had barely enough cash to get the stamped document which was promptly taken away from me when I got my boarding pass. Paying to leave the country is more common than not and it would benefit you to remember this when you arrive in a foreign country.

Why the Tax?

In the case of Costa Rica’s Juan Santamaría International Airport, they had a big sign explaining the main reason why this was required: to maintain the airport and it’s tarmacs. Rather than burdening their own people with extra taxes to fund the airports (which accommodates those who do NOT live in the country more often than not), Costa Rica decided to stick the bill on those who are traveling to and from the country by air. 

The airport, I’ll admit, is one of the nicer places of San José.

Some airlines include this fee with your boarding pass (not for all countries, though) and always double check with the airlines for such fees. In Costa Rica, you can easily buy this exit ticket before you leave the airport for your vacation and deal with no hassles about it when you return to depart for home. The counter for the taxes is upstairs, front of the ticketing agents for various airlines. 

Don’t get caught off guard with these taxes!

Let’s Talk Money

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is this: “How are you paying for this?” The truth be told, the two times I had to return to the United States had something to do with money among other things. For the first timer traveling abroad, a loosely planned traveling can end up costing a lot more than a meticulously planned trip.

Here’s a bit more detailed tips and information based on my experiences. 

Currency Exchange Information

Fortunately for the travelers from the United States, your dollars are pretty much accepted worldwide. It is advisable to carry some US dollars on you in case you are low on local currency and there isn’t an ATM nearby. Many currencies worldwide do look like Monopoly fake money enlarged. The sooner you disassociate the relationship between Monopoly and the local currency, the better it is for you.

Basically, currency exchange is trading your money in for their money. There are two main types of exchange rates, the fixed exchange rate and floating exchange rate (there are more, but these two are what you must be aware of).

The first exchange rate, fixed exchange, is pretty straightforward: the trade is always the same. Today, tomorrow, or next week, pretty much the same rates. This makes it very easy to continually calculate prices to dollars. For example: the Chinese Yuan and the US Dollar.

However, things get a little complicated with the floating exchange rates. These rates changes all the time. It may be possible for you to exchange money today only to discover you could have gotten more if you waited another day. This means if you want to exchange for the most money possible, then you must check the exchange rates before your trip begins and almost daily during the trip. For example: the European Euro and the US Dollar. 

Useful Tips to Prevent Overspending

In order not to go home bankrupt, create a budget and stick to it (I know it is a cliché, but it is still really true).  

From that budget, find out the currency exchange rates, so you can figure out how much to spend using the local currency, either per day, weekly, and monthly, beforehand. This way, you can easily subtract what you bought from your limit with local money.

This isn’t Wal-Mart. When possible, haggle! You can negotiate your own price of things if you stand up and request reduction repeatedly and get the thing for less than sticker price. 

One means exactly what it means: the US $1 does not equal the lowest denomination of paper cash. In the case of Costa Rica, for example, the lowest possible bill would be 1,000 colones (the red bill). This can be a bit deceiving because both bills have the number one, but a thousand colones is the equivalent of $2 US dollars. Therefore, 2,400 colones is NOT $2.40 dollars; it is roughly $4.80

Using credit cards and debit cards will quickly bankrupt you. The cards are loaded with fees and mumbo jumbo. The card companies will think nothing of charging you $14 dollars for international transaction, ATM fee for not using your bank issued ATM, and the exchange rate (more often than not, slanted in the bank’s favor).

Always carry cash on you. Cash is universal, it will work wherever you go. If you are exchanging US cash to the local currency directly at a bank, you may be required to present your passport before the bank can make the exchange. Your driver’s license is only accepted in the United States; so, leave that behind and carry your passport.

Feel free to add to this post in the comments below. 

A Few Words on San José, Costa Rica

Food market @ San Pedro

The Heart of Costa Rica.

Unlike the Washington DC of the United States, the capital of Costa Rica happens to be a few things rolled in one: it is the political center (like DC), cultural center (New York, Los Angeles), commerce center and the main transit hub (NYC, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami, etc.) of the entire country. The country is roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The city also has the largest concentration of Costa Ricans. It’s easy to get lost in this place. 

Downtown is the main feature of the city, filled with shops, casinos, food, people, activities, museums, and historical landmarks. Remnants of the old Spanish colonial era can be found scattered within the city limits, many of them standing next to modern buildings and shacks recently built. Some of the notable places to see in the downtown areas would be Teatro Nacional (National Theater), National Cathedral (with a giant sized statue of the late Pope Paul II), Coca-Cola district (red light district, I’ll write a bit more on that in its own entry), the mercados (be sure to secure your pockets!), art galleries, coffee shops, and many more. 

I feel this is worth noting: many things in this city that can be bought is usually priced much higher than if you went out to the countryside and did your shopping. Also, if you have no talent for haggling, then make it a rule to only pull out your wallet for a purchase once. Only once. This trick will make you a seasoned pro in haggling. 

Same goes with saying this line: “No thanks.”

Languages

Since San José is the international hub for the country, many, if not most, Costa Ricans (Ticos), are able to speak English. Although, English can be found pretty much everywhere, Spanish is the dominant language and it IS recommended that you learn a little bit of it. It goes a long way, especially when you leave the city.

Also, having had this discussion with a couple of people who teaches Spanish in the area (one from Colombia and the other from Spain), I’ve discovered that they speak Spanish slightly different than the others. Their rolling of the r’s aren’t as prominent as it would be elsewhere. In addition, the way to greet people around here would be, “Buenas,” rather than “Hola.” I’m sure there’s tons more I haven’t noticed. 

Downtown San José

Religion

The Catholic Church has a stronghold here in the country. It becomes more and more apparent to me that being a Catholic is a birthright rather than something you convert into and because of that sentiment, politics are slightly different in this country. Unlike in the United States, social deviancy such as homosexuality, fornication, not attending churches and making laws against the Church’s doctrines isn’t perceived as an affront to their religions. 

Be warned though, the Ticos do observe religious holidays and ensure minimal activity goes on during church hours on Sunday. 

The People and Culture

As one of the richer nations of Central America, many Ticos are fiercely proud of their nationality and do not appreciate being regarded as a third world citizens. This city has a beautiful diversity of creeds, ethnic groups, and, more or less, all sorts of people around. Most Ticos have the beautifully blended look of the indigenous and spaniard heritage in them. 

Telling them they’re beautiful all the time isn’t enough to justify how really beautiful they are. 

Conclusion

San José is one of the places I’d strongly recommend anyone going to visit, even if it’s a one time thing, for their bucket list. The nice thing about the city is that is is pretty much located in the center of the country and any bus drive to the order should not take more than six hours (the oceanside towns are usually around four hours away); so, you never really lose a whole day to traveling. Also, the scenery is breathtaking and I would always recommend taking the morning buses anywhere because it gets really dark at 6pm and you will miss out on the beauty. 

I love this place so much and have been here for quite a while, to the point where I’m actually planning out different guided tours (in American Sign Language, of course) for the country. A couple packages includes: the Jungle Adventure (Monteverde/Arenal), the Cities of Costa Rica (San José, Cartago, Liberia), and the Pacific Beach Bum (Manuel Antonio, Puentarenas, and Malpais). 

Before I forget, I’m sure I probably left a couple things out and if you have any questions or want to add something to the entry, feel free to do so in the comments below (or email me!).

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