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TRIP REPORT: FAMILY OF 5 FIRST ADVENTURE IN COSTA RICA (or how we survived rental car glitches, the flat tire scam, volcanoes, big waves, and driving in this Central American paradise . . .)

TRIP REPORT: FAMILY OF 5 FIRST ADVENTURE IN COSTA RICA (or how we survived rental car glitches, the flat tire scam, volcanoes, big waves, and driving in this Central American paradise . . .)

Old Aug 5th, 2007, 08:23 AM
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TRIP REPORT: FAMILY OF 5 FIRST ADVENTURE IN COSTA RICA (or how we survived rental car glitches, the flat tire scam, volcanoes, big waves, and driving in this Central American paradise . . .)

We are a family of five (dad, mom, daughter age 19, sons ages 17 and 13) taking our first trip to Costa Rica. Frankly, while Iíve always been interested in traveling in Costa Rica based on things Iíd heard and read, itís never been at the top of my list of places to go. However, this summer my older son, as part of his high school graduation requirement next year, had to spend at least three weeks in a foreign setting doing physical activities, language or culture study, and community service. He chose to go with three school friends to Costa Rica in July on a program organized by Adventures Under the Sun ( http://adventuresunderthesun.com ). His itinerary consisted of a week backpacking in Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninisula and kayaking on the Golfo Dulce; a second week taking intensive Spanish and performing community service in Escazu, a suburb of San Jose; and a third week in the Sarapiqui region (Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui) doing community service interspersed with outdoor activities such as whitewater rafting and a canopy tour. Although we had planned a different family trip for summer 2007, by late April we decided my older sonís time in Costa Rica presented the rest of the family with an opportunity and justification for pulling the trigger on that ďweíd like to do that somedayĒ notion of traveling there. Older son has promised to post a separate trip report of his experiences, and I hope to hold him to that.

When I first conceived of this trip, I knew we would have about ten days to work with and had a vague notion that we would want to meet older son in San Jose at the conclusion of his trip and spend a day or two seeing the city. We also wanted to sample ďnatureĒ in the rain forest, including visiting a volcano if possible, and as the family loves beach time and water sports, I also wanted to spend a few days on the Pacific coast and do some surfing if possible. However, after consulting this forum and reading some guidebooks, spending time in San Jose did not seem to be a worthwhile option, at least for this first trip. Many, many thanks to volcanogirl, roadadvisor (Luis), Earthtraveler, Pat Hewitt, shillmac (aka The Human Costa Rica Travel Encyclopedia?), floridafran, cmerrell, tully, hipvirgochick, and many others for their timely and informative replies and posts on this and many other Costa Rica topics.

The facts that so many activities were centered around Arenal and we might be able to see an active volcano there were appealing. Some business colleagues suggested Manuel Antonio or Tamarindo for the beach portion of the trip, but the more I read about those two places, the more I was turned off by the increasing development at both locations. I set my sights instead on less developed Mal Pais and Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula. I made a tentative itinerary of flying to San Jose (or, more accurately, Juan Santamaria Aeropuerto 20 km west of San Jose), spending the first two nights at Peace Lodge near Poas, driving to the Arenal/La Fortuna for several days there, then on to Mal Pais for beach time, then back to the San Jose area for a day before departure. Ordinarily, I like to make all the arrangements for family trips myself using the Internet and e-mail. However, because we decided to take this trip relatively spur of the moment (seems to be our method for a lot of trips) and the travel dates were fast approaching, I opted to use Mark, our local travel agent who handles our business travel arrangements. As you will see below, Iím glad I made that decision.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 08:45 AM
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My local travel agent Mark told me that the logistics of Costa Rica booking and confirmation, especially at the last minute, can be difficult, so he prefers to work with Way to Go Costa Rica, ( http://waytogocostarica.com/index.php/costarica/ ), a U.S. agency that specializes in Costa Rican travel. After a week or so of research, they were able to book the Peace Lodge for only the first night after our arrival, and instead offered me an appealing option much closer to the airport ó Xandari in Alajuela. This made sense because we couldnít meet older son in San Jose at the conclusion of his trip until the day after our arrival anyway. The agents and reviews I read on TripAdvisor and in this forum convinced me that three nights at Lost Iguana Resort was the best option for Arenal. The agents also told me that all the Mal Pais hotels that interested me were booked during our entire trip window, so they suggested four nights at the Harmony Hotel in Nosara as an alternative. After some quick research that seemed like an appealing alternative, along with two nights back at Xandari near the airport to wrap up the trip.

Quite frankly, the more I read before departure, the more apprehensive I became about the prospect of driving my family through Costa Rica. First, I was not convinced that the car we had rented, a Mitsubishi Nativa or equivalent, was big enough for our tall family members. However, we were reassured that if we arrived at the airport and the car we reserved was too small, we could easily switch to a larger one. More to the point, however, was my concern over the quality of the roads, the seemingly high rate of automobile accidents that occur in Costa Rica, and the petty scams or even more serious crimes that have been reported by travelers using rental cars there. For example, I read that the last twelve miles of the drive to Nosara are over dirt roads that cross several streams that can occasionally flood during the rainy season, and that four or five years ago, tourists on this route had even been held up. I find that traveling with my family ó even though our kids are now older and largely self-sufficient ó always introduces an element or feeling of vulnerability that I donít have when traveling alone or even with my wife. Nevertheless, the freedom of movement and spontaneity that the rental car offered, along with favorable descriptions of driving in Costa Rica in a number of posts on this forum, convinced me that we could do it.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 08:46 AM
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What follows will be my report, as time allows, of our experiences. I hope that my thoughts and comments will be of special value to those who are considering traveling with their families to Costa Rica for the first time and will welcome and try to answer any questions, but perhaps Costa Rica travel veterans will also find some nuggets of interesting or useful information here.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 09:01 AM
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Thank you MRand. I am reading your trip report...and very anxious to see what happened next...and also MUCHAS GRACIAS for mention my name in your post...I am very glad to know that my humble costarican opinion work in some way to plan your vacation...Thank you...thank you again!!

Luis
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 09:07 AM
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Hello MRand,

I am looking forward to reading about your travels. Did you actually encounter the flat tire scam? Yikes!!

From your previous post at the Lost Iguana, it sounded like you were enjoying the ambiance of beautiful Costa Rica.

Welcome home, and keep on writing. Enquiring minds want to know! ;-)
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 10:12 AM
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Wed. July 25

Afternoon: Three hours after a delayed departure from Miami, weíre dropping through the low clouds into the Central Valley on final approach to the San Jose/Juan Santamaria airport. My first impressions of Costa Rica are small patches of dark green that occasionally appear through the broken gray clouds below. I have the sensation that there must be tall mountains on both sides of us, but canít make any out. Weíre seated near the exit row of the airplane, so weíre some of the first passengers off and breeze through immigration and customs in about 10 minutes. Iím not sure what Iím expecting, but Iím surprised by the size and the modernity of Juan Santamaria airport. Itís named after the Costa Rican boy martyr who in the 1850s, along with his countrymen, successfully resisted the efforts of the American filibusterer William Walker and his mercenaries to impose a slave-based economy on Nicaragua and Costa Rica. My youngest son is amused by all the American restaurants in the terminal, such as Schlotzkyís sandwich shop, Burger King, and Churchís fried chicken. Itís about 3:00 p.m. local time, as Costa Rica operates on the equivalent of our Central Standard time zone and does not observe daylight savings time, so night falls early even in summer. For us, this will result in an early to bed/early to rise routine throughout the trip.

As promised in our travel agentís itinerary, after leaving immigration but before customs weíre met immediately by a Destination Costa Rica agent who has our name along with a few others printed on a dry erase board. He sends us to collect our checked bags and proceed through customs. Destination Costa Rica ( www.destinationcr.com ) is the local agency in San Jose that Way to Go Costa Rica has worked with to make some of our arrangements, including the rental car. We wait only a few minutes to collect our bags, and thereís no line as the customs agent quickly reviews and takes the form we filled out on the plane and directs us to ground transportation. Again as promised, another Destination Costa Rica agent is waiting to walk us to the terminal parking garage and take us by van to Adobe car rental agency, about a five minute drive from the airport. There the fun begins.

The four wheel drive vehicle thatís been reserved is small ó way too small ó for the four of us, and we still have to pick up my 6í3Ē older son and all his gear tomorrow. No larger cars are on the lot, and although Adobe has larger vehicles in its fleet, they are all rented for the time we are planning to be in Costa Rica. Alexe, the very helpful Adobe desk clerk and the first Costa Rican with whom weíve had any meaningful contact, calls Destination Costa Rica for us. Grace, the nice lady there, offers to call other Adobe locations for us and get right back to us about locating a larger car.

She calls back about 45 minutes later, as the afternoon begins to wane, saying that neither any other Adobe offices nor two other agencies she has contacted have any larger cars for the duration of our trip. They can only offer to rent us two small cars for the same price for the trip. Obviously, that defeats the purpose of a family trip and I quickly imagine nightmarish scenarios of two cars getting lost or separated for hours.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 11:40 AM
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mrand - thanks for the mention, hope I helped in a small way, though I'm nowhere near the # of trips & experience of suzie & shillmac!

Your trip sure sounds like it's off to a bust, don't leave us hanging with the car situation! I'm sure it gets better since you put paradise in your title. Looking forward to the Harmony Hotel part, as that's yet another place I've had on my "list" (which is about up to 50 or so) since it opened.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 11:58 AM
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MRand, I'm not sure if I really do or really don't want to read the rest of your report.We leave this Tuesday on our first family trip to Costa Rica. Our families sound very similar, although are 21 yr old son can't make this trip, our 19 yr son and 14 yr daughter will be traveling with us so we'll have 4 instead of 5 this time. I have been planning this trip for 5 months and I also, found the posts of those you mentioned extremely valuable. I couldn't have planned it without them. I haven't heard the rest of your rental car story but the flat tire scam is gonna be scary to hear.I guess there's no turning back now, and we really ARE looking forward to the trip so I guess I'll read on! Just knowing that I'd better expect the unexpected! Thanks for writing your trip report.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 12:25 PM
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tully and agswimmer - not to spoil the story, but you're absolutely right. My reference to paradise signals that everything turns out well. ags - don't want to create any undue anxiety for you. After a stressful initial 24 hours we had a fantatsic trip and I'll bet you all will too. Your concern, however, prompts me to take as much as I can of my "chill" day to hammer out at least the first part of the report before returning to work tomorrow - don't want anyone canceling any plans because of something I said!

Wed. July 25 (contíd)

I appreciate that I have little time or ability to deal with ďsituationĒ on the ground here, so this is where having a good travel agent who has assisted me plan the trip comes in handy. The Adobe clerk graciously calls Mark, my local travel agent, who immediately puts his people on the case. Within 30 minutes, he calls me back, informs me that he has spoken with Way to Go Costa Rica and they have arranged ground transportation that, as we speak, is on its way to pick us up in 10 minutes. They will, at no expense to us, take us to Xandari for the evening and return tomorrow morning to take us to our reunion at the airport with our older son and deliver us to one of three agencies where they have located larger rental cars for us. It sounds like renting a Mitsubishi Montero from Avis will meet our size requirements. He also says that Way to Go Costa Rica has agreed to cover the difference in any rental car rates we were originally quoted and what we ultimately have to rent to get our trip underway.

The promised 10 minutes stretches into 30, but then sure enough, our angel in distress emerges from the passenger seat of a large van. Her name is Maribel Barquero Abarca, a young Tica fluent in English who has recently started an airport/Alajuela/San Jose area shuttle business. She apologizes profusely for the delay, saying she and her driver were delayed by a parade for the Annexation Partido de Nicoya, a celebration that occurs in the country every July 25th to celebrate the decision of Guanacaste province to join Costa Rica instead of Nicaragua. We load our gear in her van and pepper her with questions on our 20 minute ride through Alajuela (a much larger city than I expected) and up the northern heights to a high ridge above the city and the Central Valley. Xandari ( www.xandari.com/description.html ) is a colorful, welcome oasis after a long, somewhat stressful day of travel. After checking in our two rooms, we enjoy drinks and a relaxing dinner in the cool twilight air on the Xandari terrace. Cannon and fireworks boom in the valley, winding down the Annexation Partido festivities, and thousands of lights begin to sparkle in the valley below. The vacation high is starting to set in. In retrospect, perhaps a little prematurely.

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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 12:27 PM
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Leaving this coming Tuesday, agswimmer? How exciting! I hope you have a wonderful time!

I was a bit paranoid about the flat tire scam myself last year. As we headed out of Alajuela after picking up our rental car, I would nervously watch the rear view mirror everytime we hit a stop light. We luckily had no issues. I'm certainly hoping that MRand had no major issues either!

Once we were out of town and in the beautiful countryside, my anxiety about such things subsided, but I think defensive driving and awareness of your surroundings will never be amiss (anywhere you go!). Anything CAN happen, but the rewards of travel usually outweigh the risks. I hope you'll post a trip report when you return!
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 02:09 PM
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Welcome back, MRand - I'm sensing that things are getting better, but that "prematurely" comment sounds like foreshadowing...

Can't wait to see how it all turns out. Thanks for posting a report. I've always been curious about Xandari, so looking forward to hearing the rest. And I think it's amazing that your son was required to spend 3 weeks abroad - great idea.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 04:20 PM
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Thurs. July 26

Morning: Weíve left the drapes open all night because of the spectacular view of the valley below and morning light wakes me up about 5:00 a.m. The air on our terrace is fresh and bracing and the sky is mostly clear with just a few clouds clinging to the purple mountains across the valley. Breakfast at Xandari is excellent. In fact, every breakfast we will have on the trip will be outstanding, and as you might expect, each one is centered around fabulous fresh fruit ó papayas, mangoes, and pineapples. This meal is also included as part of the price at all three hotels (Xandari adds a modest charge for preparation of eggs dishes) where we will stay, which adds substantial value when traveling with a family of five.

Maribel arrives as scheduled at 8:30 to take us down to an eagerly anticipated reunion with older son and to work out our rental car dilemma. She says that she had worked at Xandari for a few months, but because the bus dropped her at the bottom of a long, steep hill that she had to walk up every day to get to the hotel, she decided to go into business for herself. Maribel majored in tourism in college, which will be a frequent theme of our guides throughout the trip. She says that she and her business partner/driver bought the larger van we are in several months ago to accommodate larger groups and families who need transportation.

We see children heading to school, and she tells us that the Costa Rican school year extends from February to early December with a two week hiatus in early July. Even though itís north of the equator, their ďsummerĒ break between grades occurs in December and January roughly corresponding to the dry season.

Surprisingly, there is a typical Dennyís restaurant just a few hundred yards from the airport. It is the appointed location for our rendezvous with our son and his travel group, the rest of whom are immediately returning to the U.S. They have not arrived yet, so the rest of the family stays at Dennyís to wait on them and Maribel and her driver take me to the main Belén office of Avis in Costa Rica several kilometers east of the airport. There they have a low-mileage silver Mitsubishi Montero ready to go and it looks like it just might accommodate the entire family and gear. Not that it makes any difference, because there is nothing larger for me to rent.

Avis offers an EzFind Costa Rican GPS system for an additional $8.95 per day. I have what in retrospect turns out to be a very good road map ó the Costa Rica map from International Travel Maps series that I ordered from Amazon. (Before departure, I could never locate the Berndston & Berndston map that shillmac so highly recommends.) Nevertheless, based on its indispensability on a previous family trip to Italy, I accept the GPS. This will turn out to be worth its weight in gold, and frankly I now canít imagine traveling in Costa Rica without one. On reflection, the GPS would probably be worthwhile for at least two or three times the price as very few streets and highways in Costa Rica are marked with signs, and the networks of smaller, streets, roads, and lanes in both urban and rural areas can be confusing at times.

Avis also has a mandatory sheet that the renter must review and sign before renting a car. It lists a number of cautions about driving in Costa Rica, including a scam that has been reported in the vicinity of the airport in which car tires are punctured and the car is followed by thieves who offer assistance changing a tire and then abscond with some of the renterís possession while they are distracted. It commands that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you accept assistance from anyone other than an authorized Avis representative who can be accessed via an emergency number provided on the rental documents.

It takes about 20 minutes to rent the car, then I drive back towards Dennyís to enjoy breakfast with the family and older son and his school group before we head out for Arenal. Iím trucking down the Pan American Highway at about 50 mph when suddenly traffic comes to a screeching halt. Iím astonished to see perhaps a dozen youngsters spaced out over a couple of hundred yards standing on the broken white lines between the middle and inner lanes of the highway selling souvenirs! Either they are causing the congestion or taking advantage of it to sell their goods.

After a 10 minute or so delay, the GPS directs me right to Dennyís and Iím relieved thereís a uniformed guard in the parking lot. I park in the first available space closest to where heís stationed. After a brief joyous reunion with our older son and a quick breakfast with his group, I tip the guard 1000 colones ($2), we load our sonís backpacking gear into the Montero, and at 11:00 a.m. weíre finally off down the Pan American Highway towards San Ramon where we will divert off the main highway to Arenal. Itís a partly cloudy day, the vehicle seems adequate for our needs, the highway seems to be of very good quality, and Iíve psyched myself for the drive to Arenal.

Right off the bat, Iím confused at an interchange, misread the GPS, and erroneously exit the highway back onto a boulevard heading into Alajuela. A quarter mile or so later, I execute a U turn, get back on the Pan American, and continue towards San Ramon. After five miles or so, Iím struck by the odd handling characteristics of the Montero. Itís driving like the steering is a little too loose or the vehicle is a little top heavy, but I assume thatís simply because Iím not used to its handling characteristics. After a few more miles, we hear a loud thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka and the car begins to list noticeably to the right. Damn! Only ten minutes on the road and already a flat tire? No way. I specifically eyeballed the car, all four tires, and the tire pressure at Avis and everything looked fine.

I slowly work my way to the outer lane, but the shoulder is muddy as far as I can see. I finally locate what looks like a flat, hard spot off the shoulder to pull over. Iím in front of a mechanicís shop and used car dealership across and down the highway from a large Dos Pinos dairy facility in outer Alajuela. (The green Dos Pinos logo will be ubiquitious across Costa Rica.) Ten days later weíll pass by the same site and then Iíll have my bearings and realize it was a decent place to have car trouble, but right now Iím new to the country and have no idea where I am or where Iím pulling over.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 06:03 PM
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Welcome back MRand & Family! I'm glad I was able to give you a tip or two for your trip planning, but I can see already from your trip report you will be giving dozens more back!

Good job perservering with your travel agent on booking hotels, and also with the rental car snafu! Is Xandari hoytie-toytie or good for families/kids?

Looking forward to hearing about what you all enjoyed best, and more on family dynamics on the road
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 06:33 PM
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I keep "refreshing" this site hoping that MRand has posted some more of his trip report. I'm on pins and needles waiting to hear.
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 07:07 PM
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Thurs. July 26 (cont'd)

Sure enough, the right rear tire is flat as a pancake, but there are no visible nails or tears in the tread. I immediately remember Avis's admonition to not accept help from anyone, and fully expect a trailing car to appear at any minute offering help. I advise the family to crack the windows, lock the doors, and not to accept help of any kind from anyone. I then walk through the gate to the small office of the used car dealer where a young girl, probably in her early teens, sits reading a book. She does not speak English, but I point to my car outside the fence and to the emergency number on the Avis rental folder, and motion that I need to call them. Probably far more trusting than the situation warrants, she graciously dials the number for me and I soon have the local Avis representative who speaks English on the line. He emphatically advises me that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should we accept assistance from anyone other than the authorized Avis representative whom he will dispatch immediately. He asks where we are, and of course I have no idea. A man who I presume is the young girlís father and owner of the lot appears at the door. She quickly explains the situation to him in Spanish, and I hand the phone to him mustering ďDonde?Ē, one of the handful of words and phrases I recall from my year of Spanish as a high school senior. He takes the phone and gives to Avis what I presume are detailed instructions in Spanish on my location. After the call, he tells me in his halting English that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should we accept assistance from anyone other than the authorized Avis representative who is on his way.

When I return to the car, the family relates that a couple of cars have slowed down, but no one has stopped to offer help. The promised 10 minutes stretches into 30 or 40 and we all begin to sweat in the noonday heat. I stand outside the car talking to my wife, sons, and daughter inside, trying to create the impression to the cars whizzing by on the highway that nothing appears to be wrong and Iím simply carrying on a nonchalant conversation.

Sure enough, our second Tican angel in distress within the last 24 hours, a small young man in a red Avis shirt, emerges from a white pickup truck and begins to pull a commercial size car jack from the bed of his pickup. This is all the bona fides I need, and within another 20 minutes or so, he professionally changes replaces both back tires with new ones while my family and the luggage remain in the Montero. He shows me the deflated tire. When I inquire ďcuchillo ?Ē (knife), he replies ďSiĒ and shows me a clear puncture mark made with either a knife or sharp screwdriver in the sidewall of the tire. I shake his hand firmly and tip him a 10,000 colones (about $20 US). By this time, weíve attracted a small audience -- the owner of the used car lot and one of the proprietors at the mechanics shop next door. They signal the young Avis employee over, and I see him animatedly describing what has happened to our car as he motions to the tire and a pantomimes someone puncturing it with a knife. As I get back in the car to drive off, a beat up car with a couple of rough looking guys slows down and rolls by slowly on the shoulder, but then it speeds up and continues down the highway. Had their quarry escaped, or is this just my paranoid imagination gone wild at that point? No way to tell.

As we return to the highway, I still canít figure out where the tire was punctured. I think it is highly unlikely that it occurred at Avis, because everything looked fine there. Perhaps it happened when I slowed down to a crawl in the traffic jam with the young highway peddlers. The only other opportunity seems to have been in the Dennyís parking lot, but the car was largely in our view while we ate breakfast as well as in the view, as I mentioned, of a uniformed guard in the parking lot. Did it happen when he looked away? Was he in on the scam? Had we shaken a tailing vehicle that followed us from Dennyís when I made the wrong initial turn towards Alajuela, then returned a few minutes later to the Pan American Highway? Again, no way to tell for sure. But the bottom line is, thanks to the help of several Tican Good Samaritans (the young girl, her father/proprietor of the used car lot, the Avis mechanic), by 12:30 p.m. weíre up and running again on the way to Arenal. Whew!
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Old Aug 5th, 2007, 11:23 PM
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Thanks for the detailed report MRand.
Happy to hear you didn't have to chase off banditos in addition to your vehicle troubles.
Looking forward to more of your adventures in Pura Vida land.
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Old Aug 6th, 2007, 06:06 AM
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Wow MRand! Thank goodness things worked out okay with the car tire! So unfortunate to start a vacation out on a sour note.

This report is becoming quite the engrossing read! Now that the rocky start is out of the way, I'm looking forward to the good stuff!
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Old Aug 6th, 2007, 06:10 AM
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MRand - really enjoy and appreciate your report. We (family of 4, teenage DD and friend) are going to CR this Sat (8/11) for the first time. Have been pouring over these posts and searches for weeks. Will spend a week in MA area. Big issue for us has been rent v driver so appreciate your insights. Anxious to hear more.
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Old Aug 6th, 2007, 10:19 AM
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MRand - my husband and I have visited CR the past 13 or so years and have similar car stories. Your wonderfully written description puts me in mind of two cautions I want to share with others:
1. in case you stop at a gas station pump & are encouraged to move your car to another pump, don't do it. Either use the pump you are at or go to another station. We got stung with an excessive price for a fill up outside Liberia when we did as requested and moved to what was likely a pump with an altered read out.
2. make certain the gas cap is returned, once the car tank has been filled.
Carol L
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Old Aug 6th, 2007, 10:34 AM
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Wow, what a trip report so far! You have a great style of writing, I'm engrossed! I'm sorry your trip got off to such a rocky start though and I'm looking forward to hearing about the rest of your time in CR!
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