Shopping (and Traveling) as the Costa Ricans Do

At what lengths would you go to get a great deal?  Nowadays, with Black Friday, Prime Day and the emphasis on sales it should be easy to find a sale price on whatever you’re shopping for.  Not so in Costa Rica. “Black Friday” has of course been copied/mimicked, but the discounts don’t correspond to anything close to what is offered in North America.  Amazon? The other day I found a $40 item that shipped for free in the US. However, to get it to Costa Rica shipping and taxes would add an extra $176(!). Yeah, you read that right.

So what do Costa Ricans do to get some price relief?  There is one option, and whether it ends up saving you any money in the end is up for debate.  Let me explain.

There is a small coastal town called Golfito, located on the southern pacific coast, some 212 miles from where I live.  To travel this far is usually to see a national park, however here is where you come for discounts. In the mid 1980s the government set up a tax free zone in this region for consumers.  Taxes, sometimes up to 70-80% on certain items, make this an attractive option to buy. There is a catch though. Well actually there are many catches which I found out as I went through this process to buy some appliances for my house..

Besides being 212 miles away (about 6 hours on Costa Rican roads) you couldn’t just come, buy, and leave.  You see, each Costa Rican has a yearly allowance of 4 minimum salaries to spend tax free in Golfito. That amounts to a little more than $3,000.  The government tracks this by requiring you to pick up a document before entering the free trade zone to shop. The catch is you can’t buy the same day you pick up this document, thereby forcing you to spend the night in Golfito.  They do this intentionally to provide for the local economy. Thanks to this you can find quite a few hotels and restaurants that basically survive from this restriction.

So we got our document and actually pre-paid a few things at the stores, and would just come back the next day to check it out with customs.  One thing a lot of people do is take advantage and go shopping at the Panamanian border as well. The border is only about an hour from Golfito and prices are much cheaper than in Costa Rica.  In order to fit all this in we departed San Ramon (where I live) at 4am and wouldn’t arrive to the hotel until almost 10pm after going to both Golfito and Panama.

The next day we had to be back in Golfito by 8am to check out our things.  Actually, we didn’t have to be back by 8am, but since it was a Saturday it is when a slew of tour buses arrive from San José and inundate the area with buyers.  I couldn’t believe the lines people were in to buy deodorant, cologne, hairspray etc. It was such a mess as the stores were not equipped to handle lots of people.  Due to the free trade restriction you can’t

long shopping line
Typical Saturday AM

just pick out your item and check out. First you have to go to an invoicing station where the store takes your document and applies the amount you spent to you allowance.  Then you have to go to another counter to pay for it and then you have to go to another area to actually pick up your purchases. And that was only if you could carry what you bought.

I, on the other hand, was looking to furnish a house.  I got a refrigerator, washer and dryer which you wouldn’t believe the process I went through to get it back to San Ramon.  It went something like this:

Day 1:

  1. Walk the store with salesperson, view items.
  2. Check price, see discount price, then negotiate an even better price.
  3. Register items on document, pay for them.

Day 2:

  1. Return to store and go back to cashier for some other authorization I had no idea what the point of it was for.
  2. Open packages and insure that everything works correctly.  This was a good idea, but just terribly time consuming. Unpack everything, plug it in, check the features and then repack it all.
  3. Store wheels packages out to the sidewalk in front of their store.  Keep in mind you are entirely enclosed in a customs zone and shoppers can only walk between the stores after getting in the area through a customs checkpoint.
    hand cart operator
    “Appliance” taxi #1

    So here we are with 3 large appliances just dropped on the sidewalk for us to figure out how to go on our merry way.

  4. Hunt down “appliance taxis”. These guys just run around the free trade zone to help people move their appliances to the customs check-point.  It cost us $9 for them to move our large appliances about 300 feet.
  5. To get our appliances through customs and out to the car we had to hire other “appliance taxis” that charged us $12 to move the items another 500 feet.  The whole customs process is almost laughable though as the officer takes only a quick glance at our paperwork and waves us through.
  6. Our vehicle was not big enough to take our appliances so we found a transport service that would bring our items back to San Ramon.  When I say found a transport service, I mean we wheeled our items to the backside of a hotel and left them on the sidewalk, handed over our receipts to the shipper and got a hand
    street hand cart transfer
    These are the $12 guys.

    written receipt in return.  I emphasize the handwritten part as I actually wrote the receipt myself with instructions from the shipper!

  7. Receive items at home two days later.  Pay freight cost of $60. Not bad for 212 miles in Costa Rica.

 

As you can see it was a ten step process over a two day period and believe me you weren’t given a guide upon arriving to Golfito.  Luckily, I was with my in-laws and they knew a thing or two about improvising. For instance, I knew I had to hire the “appliance taxis”, but I had no idea where to tell them to go.

My mother in-law knew about the place behind the hotel from ten years ago and didn’t even hesitate telling the taxis to go there.  How did she know the guy would be there? What if he wasn’t? Luckily, he was there and it was all laughs and giggles as she is friends with him from childhood and he has brought items back to San Ramon for years.  That’s why I didn’t feel nervous hand writing my own receipt and just leaving the appliances out on the back stoop of the hotel.

It’s moments like these the American in me wants to scold my in-laws for being so loose with things of value.  It’s not like I’m sending back a pair of shoes, I could have easily bought a 70 inch flat screen that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable just wheeling out into the street not having the shipping arranged prior.

All in all things went well, but did we really save any money?  Of course we didn’t pay any tax, but what about the gas, lodging, food, “appliance taxis”, and the time/sleep that was given up?  I pestered the other Costa Ricans I was with on the way back in regards to this and they basically told me that you have to treat the experience as a vacation and enjoy the journey.

When looking at it from that perspective I can see the benefit.  I spent 10+ hours in the car with four Costa Rican women and got all caught up on the latest gossip and jokes going around.  We also stopped off at the beach to enjoy breakfast and we could have stayed extra days to visit other relatives or to just enjoy the beach had we wanted to.

For me personally, as long as there aren’t any major snafus, I’m OK with the hoops you have to jump through to get anything decently discounted by going all the way to Golfito.  There are about five steps too many, but if you only do it once every 5-10 years it’s not that big of a deal. Besides, I shouldn’t have to furnish a house that often.

 

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