Let’s start with the context…
After completing our journey from Mexico to Bahia Santa Elena, we were left with a substantial challenge in order to officially arrive in Costa Rica. Yes, we were anchored by the land of Costa Rica, but technically, we were not allowed to set foot on the ground before completing the appropriate administrative processes and paperwork. We had been spared from these uninteresting, yet necessary, endeavours since we had spend months in Mexico (and there, also, the clearance had been hard to complete), but Costa Rica, along with its annoying extra Covid protocols, was going to prove stressful!
First, we could only enter the country in one of the designated marinas along the coast, which sounds reasonable when wanting to make sure travelers, and possibly virus spreaders, don’t wander, unchecked, inside the country while trying to clear in at the various custom and immigration offices. Sadly for us though, marinas are notoriously expensive in Costa Rica: we would have to pay around $100 for a night where we would pay as low as $20 a night in Mexico, and these $100 are for a relatively cheap Costa Rican marina… To aggravate our case, the first marina on our path, Marina Papagayo, doesn’t want to handle the clearing process for its customers (like it has been the case each time in Mexico). Instead, they require that cruisers take an agent to handle the arrival and immigration process, a service that makes the marina fee look cheap in comparison. Because of that, way ahead of our arrival in Costa Rica, we were emailing with all the agents we could possibly find online to try to find the cheapest. After a couple of conclusive and inconclusive emails (“we don’t serve Marina Papagayo”), we figured that the one recommended by the marina was the cheapest, for the modest sum of $350… (hear the irony!). After an unanswered attempt to negotiate the price, we gave the green light to Ernesto to be our agent. Of course, we could have sailed down the entire country to find a marina where we could check-in on our own, but, we would have missed the whole country, and, remember, we had an appointment with our friends in the coming week. So we gave an official arrival date to Ernesto so that we could book the marina and arrange all the procedures: we were to officially enter the country on Monday, June 21st! A little of an aberration to have to give a solid departure date (an imperative on our way out of Mexico) and a solid arrival date. To be on the safe side in Costa Rica, we chose the Monday following the week we had planned to arrive, hoping for enough margin to make it in time in case anything went wrong during our time at sea. To be granted entrance in Costa Rica, no Covid test was required but a proof of health insurance very specific to Costa Rica was required – it had to cover housing for the entire duration of a potential quarantine. These insurance aren’t too expensive when you travel for a couple of weeks only, but our travel dates are open-ended so we need the insurance for the entire duration of the visa, 90 days, which can quickly add up to another modest sum! Entering Costa Rica started to feel like we needed to be Ricos (rich) ourselves! Again, a fair amount of research went into finding the cheapest options possible for these insurances. We had selected our options when leaving Mexico, but not officially subscribed to anything or obtained the necessary attestations.
Already during our 5 day trip, we received a bunch of emails from Enersto requesting information and documents about the boat, in order to prepare our arrival process. I know it is his job, but I couldn’t help being outraged at the reminders prompting for the documents quickly: first, the solid arrival date, now believing we have reliable internet access in a middle of a passage? Don’t these people have any idea of what it takes to arrive by boat into a country?
All in all, it wasn’t bad that we arrived on the Thursday preceding the Monday of our official arrival. First, we still had to cover 30 miles or so to reach the marina from Bahia Santa Elena, and, second, the couple of days would also allow us to figure out our insurances and coordinate with the agent. The little mobile internet that we were getting from an international SIM card acquired for that trip, sadly, wasn’t reaching all the way in the sheltered bay. We weighed anchor a couple of times and wandered outside, drifting back in slowly as we were dealing with our administrative situation using 3G.
Most of the time, we were the only boat in Bahia Santa Elena, surrounded by a green paradise of trees that extended all the way to the water at high tide. The sigh reminded me instantaneously of one of the arenas of the movie Hunger Games, very green and tropical. Fish looked very interested in our boat, and in us too actually… creepily coming when we’d put a foot in the water. “Any idea of what a piranha looks like?” The weather was still stormy, but the high mountain surrounded the bay made us feel safe. It definitely attracted the lightning, which is good for us! We took our first rain shower, which felt delightful after 5 days at sea. We saw a few fishermen and a Costa Rican coast guard panga came check us out, they asked Yalçın if we were a “Tico” (the Costa Rican way to say “Costa Rican”) to which he replied that we were “Frances y Turco” using his best Spanish. Only later did we realized that it was probably a way to note our absence of courtesy flag, the flag of the country you are in that you have to fly on your port side, higher than any other flag as a mark of respect. We simply did not have the Costa Rican flag onboard (due to an order of flags that got lost by the US postal service prior to our departure and the lack of opportunity to buy such a flag in Mexico despite looking hard since Baja California!), and we figured that flying the yellow quarantine flag could possibly just highlight the fact that we weren’t checked in yet, which we hoped wasn’t an issue, but, who knows? Anyway, the coast guard didn’t seem to care much and didn’t come back.
We left our shelter on Saturday for a pleasant afternoon and sunset sail into Bahia Papagayo, with very little wind at times but a good chance to listen to our captivating audiobook about the Greek crisis in the Euro zone, by Yanis Varoufakis. Our sailing route crossed the path of a blue hull sailing yacht heading North, the first in a really long time (possibly since Baja)! Fun fact: we would meet its Canadian crew later in Costa Rica and they also looked at us with binoculars and determine we were cruisers too. In both case, the steering vane mounted on the transom gave us in!
After a gorgeous sunset, the lightning show started again, customary as it seems in Costa Rica. We anchored in Playa Mata de Cana, a little cove in the North of the Gulf of Papagayo from which we could see the marina and hear our first howler monkeys. We used the Sunday to coordinate with the agent around the insurance and get the QR code Graal which would grant us access to the country. Sadly according to Ernesto, Yalçın’s insurance didn’t get approved and he was working on it. Since we wanted to make sure the proceed would only take a day at the marina, we decided to postpone our official arrival to Tuesday, the 22nd, a precaution that turned out useless as a couple of hours later Ernesto came back to us informing that his push for Yalçın’s insurance had been successful. We enjoyed one more day without officially being anywhere: according to our passports, we left Mexico but haven’t arrived in any country yet. We were in limbo, as I like to call it, in this space that can’t be reach when you cross borders by land or air…
Here we go: our most expensive cruising day!
On Tuesday morning, we had an appointment with our agent and the marina at 8:00AM. Somewhat nervous and hoping everything will go on according to plans, we weighed anchor, motored towards the marina and hoisted our quarantine flag as requested by the marina. By the entrance and prior to 8AM, we hailed the marina on the VHF. We were early and they asked us to stand by outside. We turned off the engine and started drifting very slowly in this flat water, waiting for our fate. Yalçın made coffee. As soon as it was ready, the marina called back with a slip number, allowing us to come in. We turned the engine back on, I took the helm and we proceeded slowly towards our slip where 3 or 4 dock hands caught our lines and tied us up in a space that would normally fit two boats. We were asked to stay onboard until further notice and time started to pass. By 9, I started to be alarmed, wondering if anything had gone wrong. I texted Enersto and hailed the marina on the radio. They confirmed: we had to stay onboard. A few minutes later, Ernesto confirmed Jose, his man, was waiting for us in the marina. Damn, and we are waiting for him on the boat? The marina hailed us back on the VHF, saying that our agent was walking towards our boat. Soon, we met Jose, who, after looking at the outboard, invited us to the marina café to complete the paperwork: “it would be nicer”. For sure! We took the necessary documents with us, and followed him, now puzzled at the necessity of checking in in the marina, if it wasn’t for quarantining us aboard until a form of health inspection (like we had in Mexico). But indeed, the process would be less painful in the marina cafeteria. Jose went to buy us some apple juice and was drinking some form of Red bull himself – we later learned he had been driving for 3 hours in the morning (from Puntarenas) to make it early to our appointment. The man from the customs was the first to show up. A thin dude in a purple shirt and fashionable sunglasses, who looked more like a party boy than an officer. But he had the badge and got to work to prepare our temporary import permit (TIP) for the boat in one of the offices provided by the marina, and also after receiving a drink from Jose. Jose had all our documents photocopied and we didn’t even need to show our actual passports. Next, two women from immigration showed up. Pretty uninterested to communicate with us, they also benefited from the generosity of our host, powered by our fee… Jose asked for my signature on a couple of documents (including an absence of Covid symptoms declaration that had been filed without even asking us any questions). Indeed, since I would stay on the boat by myself for a dozen days, I was to be the official captain of Tire-Bouchon in Costa Rica (we think of ourselves as co-captains and Yalçın was official captain in Mexico, also for funky immigration reasons!). Soon, we got our visa stamps and the two women from immigration left. It started to become clear that the original plan had changed, for the better. Ernesto had told us we would drive to all these officials’ office with our agent. That part seemed worth starting early as we would need to reach Liberia, the closest town with an international airport. But less than an hour after starting the process, we were seated with an agent from the Port Captain office. She inspected our documents and Jose explained that we would receive the national Zarpe from her office by WhatsApp in the afternoon. I pointed at a couple mistakes in our names on the crew list document that was supposed to become this Zarpe, and we were done. We walked back to the custom party guy in the marina office to get our TIP. And that was it. Jose politely, almost embarrassed, asked for the paiement. He couldn’t accept credit card, which was quite inconvenient given the sum. But no worries, “the marina has an ATM that delivers dollars”. Sadly, the machine didn’t have that amount of money. We had to use our reserve of US dollars. Jose walked back to the boat with us, proudly describing the beauty of his country. When we arrived by Tirb, I pointed out at a cute little bird taking a bath in the marina water. Without hesitation, Jose dropped to his knees and lied down on the dock to attempt to save the little one, who, it turned out, was not taking a bath, but plain drowning. The rescue took Yalçın to stun a fat fish that had views on the little bob (bird over board) and pull the latter up using the boat hook on the other side of our large slip. In the meantime, I dug up the $350, which turned out to be the precise sum we carried into our grab bag (the bag we would take with us in case we’d need to abandon ship). I was glad we had the money at all. Jose gave us a receipt and his phone number, offering his help in case we needed anything in the future. And he would be a man of his word: he gave us the times for the bus from Puntarenas to Liberia, a few weeks later, when we were desperately looking for that information, which is inconveniently not on the internet, when we needed it to organize our friends trip back to the airport.
At 10AM, the check-in process was officially completed and we were legally in Costa Rica. We had paid for the service but couldn’t deny it had been efficient! The marina night seemed to be the unnecessary expense here, and we were tempted to plan an escape but already, the marina American manager, Dan, had showed up in a golf cart indicating he would be waiting for us in his office to complete the marina check-in at our earliest convenience. He left. We set up our little rescued birdy on the deck with milk and bread crumbs. He looked in bad shape. I quickly disposed of our week accumulation of trash, trying my best to properly use the 4 recyclable bins at the end of the dock. Sadly, I had missed the general waste one and inevitably made mistakes trying to fit everything in the recyclables. At least, I was relieved, the marina didn’t ask for our kitchen trash as they had indicate in a previous email (we had strategically disposed of our compost on a regular basis to cut another possibly outrageous fee). We then went to meet Dan in his office. He took his due and explained to us the “concept of this marina” and its place in the “project”. We were in a resort project and this entire part of the peninsula was made of private roads and basically far from any convenience we usually look for when paying for a marina: the closest grocery store was a $100 taxi ride away for instance, and literally, more accessible by boat! Dan contemptuously informed us that the rest of the country was very rainy when we said we were staying for one night only. He casually recommended that we stay a couple of months in his marina… And stated that he would need to see our national Zarpe before we leave. He encouraged us to ask questions but most often replied “this is a concierge question” before walking us downstairs to the shop and lobby, where a very helpful concierge showed us a map of the nearby towns and where to get groceries. We finally bought our Costa Rican courtesy flag from the shop, a trophy we were allowed to substitute to the quarantine flag at last, and got ourselves a celebratory lunch at the marina restaurant (nothing else around anyway!). When we made it back to the boat, our little bird friend was gone. Bye bye petit bird!
We used the rest of our time in the marina the best we could. I had to rework the journalistic article I had been working on, with a deadline for the following day, so some reliable internet was welcome. Yalçın took on himself all the boat chores (refilling the water, cleaning the decks, the laundry, etc) and more. He shaped some wood to engineer a mosquito net for our companion way hatch and repaired the broken wooden slabs of our dinghy. We also used the most fancy showers we had seen in a while: the marina offered entire personal bathrooms that felt like home, a delight! Despite our haste, we didn’t manage to leave the slip until quite late the next day (we had officially check out at 2PM though, to make sure we wouldn’t be charged another night). At 4:50PM or so, we left the slip in a hurry, direction the fuel dock to refill our diesel before leaving. Not entirely sure of what was happening, I inquired several time “Muelle de combustible?” to the boats sailing around it. An employee ended up answering me that it was too late and it was closing at 5. I explained we were leaving and needed fuel, with a lot of “por favor”. The employee accepted to help us and indicated a spot to tie to. From there, we waited diligently for 20 minutes for the sport fishing boats by the only working pump to raft-up painfully and take a bunch of pictures. When they were done, the fuel dock employee helped us move the boat to their spot. We were finally ready to fuel, when Dan showed up to lecture us: “we had created a mess”, “we were prevented his employees to go home”, “they were missing their buses because of us”. We apologized, explained we had arrived earlier and had waited for other people to be done. It didn’t matter, Dan was determined to lecture us and/or reassert his position of good manager caring for his employees. Once he was done ranting, he asked how much fuel we needed, gauged it wasn’t much and ordered his employee to serve us. My deepest thanks made him flee and we had just wasted another 5 minutes on the schedule of his employees that he pretended was so dear to his heart. We got our fuel, and while we drove a ridiculous distance with a golf cart with the employee to reach the store where I would pay, I apologized and thanked warmly the worker to have stayed to serve us. Contrary to Dan, he seemed understanding and happy to help.
After that “mess”, we left Marina Papagayo with a boat half tidied up. It was too late for us to reach Bahia Hermosa where we wanted to go grocery shopping the next day, so we went back to our now familiar Playa Mata de Cana, which we now knew was part of a fancy resort project…