A. Personal Adjustment
Any time people dramatically change their circumstances, a certain level of stress accompanies that change. The longer the stay, the more significant the stress can be. This could certainly be the case during your visit. Sights, sounds, smells, and tastes will be different than you are likely accustomed to, and the social network of family and friends that you are accustomed to at home will be more distant. These issues are addressed in the Pre-Departure Orientation section of the 'Preparation' page. We will also address these issues once you are in-country. Despite the challenges, by the end of the stay participants always note that they are more self-assured, independent, and better aware of themselves and the world around them. Following are some suggestions in adjusting to Costa Rican life:
1. Try not to compare Ticos (Costa Ricans) to where you are from, and especially try not to judge them. The same applies to other group members. As one past participant concluded, the most important thing that he learned was "that 'better' or 'worse' doesn't exist, things are just different" (Bechtold, 2002).
2. Try to be aware of how you are feeling at any given time. Talk with others you feel comfortable with about those feelings and try to determine the cause. Also, be aware of out-of-place behaviors of others in the group. They may also be having difficulty adjusting.
3. Try to 'buffer' the expectations you are accustomed to. Expect things to be somewhat different, rather than the same. For example, expect things to take somewhat longer, be less rigid, and to see more trash around the streets than you may be accustomed to seeing at home.
4. Dress-up more. Clothing is historically very much connected with social class in Costa Rica and throughout Latin America, although this is somewhat less true with youth today. Your relations with locals will be smoother if you dress accordingly and try to present a clean appearance. This is especially true if you're dealing with officials (e.g., police, border officials, immigration officers), when it's also a good idea to act as respectable as possible.
5. Be creative about finding positive, enjoyable ways to spend your free-time, other than getting into a habit of going to local bars. There are various social activities available in the community including movies, dance, sport, and recreation. Many people also spend time socializing in the central park.
6. Be aware of safety at all times. Although San Ramón is very safe by almost any standards, you can still have trouble. All of the following guidelines apply after dark: Never loiter in or around central park; always walk in groups of two or more (especially women); stay within the main area of town (the better lit areas); and always be aware of people around you.
7. Adapt to the local customs. You are more likely to be accepted and respected if you are willing to adapt to the customs and habits of Costa Ricans. You can never become a Tico, but you can become a foreigner with 'tiquicia.'
B. Group Dynamics
You will be spending a great deal of time with other students and faculty, most of whom did not choose to go because they knew you were going. Please pay special attention to internal group dynamics. Because participants are often overwhelmed with their new environment and what they are feeling, they are often less aware of their responses to this more intense level of personal interaction that we all must adjust to. Occasional disagreements and tensions are inevitable. However, if we are aware of the circumstances we will be better able to deal with such situations when they arise. Please remember that communication, acceptance, tolerance, and respect for each other's individuality and privacy are crucial under these circumstances. For guidelines in this regard, see the Respect for Others section on the 'Policies' page.
C. Support & Assistance
The stresses of being immersed in a foreign culture are real. We are available to help you, in whatever ways we can, in dealing with those stresses. We will also have periodic group meetings for discussing adjustment issues and other matters.
The national currency of Costa Rica is the Colón, although U.S. Dollars (USD) are widely accepted and often quoted because their value is more stable. Click here to see the current exchange rate, or use the universal currency converter.
B. Obtaining/Changing Money
Money can be obtained or exchanged in a variety of ways in Costa Rica as follows:
1. Cash. You can exchange Dollars cash for Colones at any bank, although exchange rates do vary somewhat. You should have your passport on hand to exchange cash (though some places may accept a copy). If you are staying with a homestay family, they may also be interested in exchanging money with you, and may give students a better exchange rate than you can get a banks.
2. Traveler's Checks. Traveler's checks are not widely accepted for purchases, and thus must typically be exchanged into Colones (most likely no one will change them into Dollars cash). This can be done at most banks in Costa Rica , but with fees that vary substantially. You will almost certainly need your passport to change traveler's checks.
3. Wiring Money. Money can be wired from other countries to Costa Rica. The funds can be received at a local Western Union office. There is a Western Union office in San Ramón. Processing/bank fees apply.
4. Automatic Teller Machines (ATM's). ATM's are common throughout Costa Rica . Cards that use the 'Cirrus' system appear to be more widely accepted, but cards with the 'Plus' network are also available. If you will be accessing money through an ATM in San Ramón, Mutual Alajuela and Banco de Costa Rica both have machines that will accept 'Cirrus' cards and lines are relatively short. Keep in mind, however, that most machines will only give Colones, at more or less current exchange rates. Thus, you will need to calculate how much money you want in Colones ahead of time to be able to key in the amount.
5. Credit Cards. Credit cards are widely accepted in Costa Rica, especially in larger cities and tourist areas. Visa is the most accepted, followed by American Express and Mastercard. Credit cards are invaluable for certain circumstances such as large purchases, as well as emergency situations (the typical way foreigners pay hospital bills, which are then later reimbursed by their insurance company). Credit cards can also be used for cash advances at certain banks, although fees for this service tend to be high. Note that Costa Rican purchases are required by law to be in local currency, which is then converted into your home currency. NOTE: Many credit card companies and banks will block your credit, debit, or ATM card if it is used in another country without them being notified IN ADVANCE. Please note that even if you do not plan to use a credit/debit card, that this is how emergency medical payment is typically made, and thus this should be arranged ahead of time to avoid complications.
6. Personal Checks. It may be possible to write a personal check from your account in another country in Dollars or Euros, but since it would need to be deposited into a local account before being cashed, and can take up to a month and a half to clear, this is not a viable option.
C. Banking Recommendations
Follow these recommendations to make the most of your banking experience:
1. Plan ahead when it comes to withdrawing/exchanging money in the case of unexpected holidays (where banks are closed) or exceptionally long lines.
2. Keep a small reserve of Colones available (though not on your person) at all times for emergencies.
3. Avoid banking on Mondays and Fridays, as banks are much busier on those days. They also tend to be busier in the afternoons and at the end of each month. Avoid those days/times.
4. Plan ahead. Banks are open limited hours, and many close early in the afternoon. Almost all banks are closed Saturdays and Sundays. Plan accordingly.
5. Do not change money on the street. There is a high risk of losing your money.
D. What Things Cost
Here are some typical charges for what items cost in Costa Rica:
Taxi from the airport (Alajuela) to San Ramón-$50
Taxi from the airport (Alajuela) to San José-$30
Local telephone call-$.20
Hotel room-$20 - $100
Lunch-$2 - 10
Dinner-$6 - $20
Bottle of beer-$2
Cup of coffee-$1
Concert ticket-$25 - 40
Theatre ticket-$10 - 30
E. Banking Vocabulary
Here is some common vocabulary used in banking:
Yo quisiera cambiar dinero-I would like to change money.
Yo quisiera cambiar un cheque (de viajero)-I would like to cash a (traveler's) check.
¿Cuánto quieres cambiar?-How much would you like to change?
¿A cómo está el cambio hoy?-What is the rate of exchange today?
¿Quiere pasar a la caja?-Please go to the cashier.
¿Cómo quiere su dinero?-How do you want your money?
¿Puede darme cambio?-Can you give me change?
Quiero abrir una cuenta-I want to open an account.
Billetes grandes-large bills
Billetes pequeños-small bills
Firme aquí-sign here
Retirar-to withdraw money
Depositar-to Deposit money
Identificación-Cédula (equivalent to passport)
Cheques de viajero-traveler's checks
Tarjeta de crédito-credit card
A. Available Foods
As someone in a past program once said, "if you don't like rice and beans, maybe you should start." Gallo Pinto (mixed rice and beans), Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken), and black beans with rice are typical dishes in Costa Rica . There's nothing else like it, the food is delicious and healthy. Take advantage of the wide variety of fruits and fruit drinks ('naturales') as well. They are often cheaper and much healthier than soda (pop). Other foods are also available. In San Ramón there is rotisserie chicken, Italian, and Chinese foods, among others. Other specialty foods such as Asian and vegetarian, as well all common fast-food restaurants, can be found in the larger cities. Bringing your own (store-purchased) food on trips is much cheaper than eating out. Be cautious about eating food purchased from carts along the streets.
B. Drinking Water
Tap water is safe to drink in most places in Costa Rica, including San Ramón. However, take care when traveling outside of the central valley, and especially in small towns. If in doubt, drink bottled water.
C. Eating Out
Here are some points and suggestions when eating at restaurants:
1. The bill includes tax and almost always a 10% service charge. A tip is not required, and generally not expected (except perhaps in tourist areas or very expensive restaurants).
2. You must ask for the bill ('la cuenta, por favor'). As a sign of courtesy, it will not be brought until you request it.
3. Men-You are expected to pick up the tab. Ticas (Costa Rican women) don't understand "Dutch Treat."
4. Women and men: If you invite someone to eat with you, you are expected to pay the check. Note that this may apply differently if a group is going out together, and you ask someone if he or she would like to be part of the group. It is still better for you to pay for the person you invited.
A. Shopping Advice
Depending on what type of shopping you are interested in, and how important it is to find exactly what you are looking for, there are numerous shopping options. Here is some advice:
1. Souvenirs ('artesanias') can be found in at least one store in San Ramón, nearby in Sarchi (home of the famous ox carts), or along the inter-American highway. For the greatest selection, however, visit San José. Try the following locations: Plaza de la Democracia in front of the National Theatre; La Casona downtown (three floors of crafts); inside the Mercado Central (somewhat dangerous area-be careful); or tourist hotels (e.g., Hotel Don Carlos at Ave. 9, Calle 9). Tourist towns around the country also offer many options for purchasing souvenirs.
2. For books, and school/office supplies find a local "libreria' (bookstore). There are numerous in San Ramón, and larger ones in San Jose that have a greater selection (e.g., Lehmann, Universal).
3. Always try to bargain with vendors. It is expected. You might also use paying in dollars, buying in quantity, or telling them you can get it cheaper elsewhere to get a better price.
4. Business hours of stores vary. Some stores are closed from approximately 12:00 noon until 1:00 or 2:00 p.m.
5. Visit local places. San Ramón has a well-known 'féria' (farmers market) every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Various tropical fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, and miscellaneous other items can be purchased there. It is also a cultural experience not to be missed.
6. Store hours. The majority of stores close for the evening at approximately 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.
B. Shopping Vocabulary
Here is some common vocabulary used in shopping:
¿Cuanto cuesta/cuanto vale?-How much does this cost?
Al contado/en efectivo-in cash.
Vuelto-the money given back to you in change. Tome su vuelto.
Cambio-change to break a big bill. ¿tiene cambio?
¿Qué se le ofrece?-May I help you?
Gracias, sólo estoy viendo-I'm just looking, thank you.
Pase adelante-Come on in!
¿Qué calza usted? or ¿Qué número?-What shoe size do you wear? (talle-size)
Es demasiado grande-It's too big.
Es demasiado pequeño/apretado-It's too small/tight.
Estoy buscando... or Busco...-I'm looking for...
Almacén-Large department store that sells hardware, kitchen goods, veterinary supplies, some clothes, fabric and sometimes groceries.
Tienda-Usually considered a clothing store.
Boutique-small, specialty (and usually pricey) clothing or accessory store.
Farmácia or botica-pharmacy.
Librería-book, stationery and school supply store.
Depósito-home improvement center (hardware and building materials).
Pasamanería-Sewing notions store (thread, interfacing, buttons, lace, zippers, etc.)
Pulpería-neighborhood grocery store where all merchandise is often behind a central counter.
Féria-weekend farmers' produce market or exposition and sale.
Mercado-a large space, covered or uncovered, where many small vendors sell their wares, both edible and non.
In addition to group travel in a private bus during most field study, participants will also have an opportunity, and are encouraged, to explore on their own. This will consist of walking and/or take public transportation (e.g., taxis or buses).
NOTE: Because it is not customary to provide toilet paper in public restrooms, it is recommended to carry some with you, in addition to soap or hand sanitizer, when traveling.
In San Ramón, everything is close enough that you will likely walk most places during the day, perhaps taking an occasional taxi after dark (especially if traveling alone). Please note the following recommendations:
1. Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way. As a pedestrian, you are expected to give way to vehicles! Always be cautious and look both ways before crossing streets. Drivers are quite courteous in San Ramón, but in the larger cities (e.g., San José) it is another story completely. Be EXTRA careful in those locations.
2. Watch for obstacles. The danger to pedestrians from holes, open drainage ditches, sharp objects (e.g., broken off sign-posts), uneven surfaces, metal garbage receptacles, protruding objects from buildings, and telephone pole support cables on the streets and sidewalks is very real. Pay very close attention to your surroundings at all times.
Taxis are a very popular mode of transportation in Costa Rica. Legal taxis are red, have yellow triangles on the doors, and a trip meter ('maria'). To catch a taxi, either whistle or simply raise your arm to flag it down. When taking a taxi, ask if the driver if he/she will go to your destination (and knows where it is) BEFORE getting in the taxi. It may also be necessary to give specific directions to your location during the trip. Be sure that the driver activates the 'maria' to calculate the fare. Otherwise (e.g., longer trips), ask (or negotiate) the fare before getting into cab, and repeat it back to the driver for assurance. After you have reached your destination, pay the driver the price on the meter (or that was set before hand). No tipping is necessary. While taxis are a lot more expensive than buses, the fares are still very reasonable by most standards. There is a 20% increase in taxi fares after 10 pm. A good safety precaution in case you forget something in the cab, or if you have a problem and need to report it, is to note the taxi ID number on the door of the cab (in the yellow triangle).
Public transport in Costa Rica is reasonably priced (e.g., direct bus from San Ramón to San Jose for about USD$3) and is easy to use once you are familiarized. The bus system in San José is very extensive and efficient, but be sure you know where the bus stop that you need to get off is. In many cases there is no set schedule, but buses generally pass by every 10 to 20 minute and run from 5:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Most buses use some sort of vertical electronic bars to count the number of people getting on and off the bus. Move through the bars quickly, DO NOT stop in between them. If you do, you will cause the bus driver to get very angry with you (he could be responsible for paying any extra registered fare out of his own pocket)! Give your money to the bus driver when you get on the bus, and he'll make change for you if it's necessary. To get off the bus you can ring the bell, whistle, or yell "parada." If returning to San Ramón from San José, the last bus leaves the San José terminal at approximately 10p.m.
D. Travel Safety
Always be attune to your surroundings when you travel, for both safety and theft reasons. When traveling, you will be more vulnerable because you will likely be identified as an 'extranjero' (foreigner), and the perception is that ALL extranjeros are wealthy. Do not carry more money (or other valuables) with you than necessary, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Adhere to the follow guidelines when you travel on your own, whether for the day or on overnight trips (also see Travel Safety/Theft on the 'Preparation' page and Health & Safety on the 'Links' page):
1. Keep your bags with you at all times and never let your bags out of your sight.
2. DO NOT put valuables (e.g., money, passport) in your bags. Always keep them securely on your person (preferably in a neck or waist pouch, not in a loose pocket or purse).
3. Be especially aware of your surroundings in busy locations (e.g., bus stations) and when there are many distractions (e.g., border crossings).
4. Be careful with purses, backpacks & fanny packs. They are used mostly by foreigners and are not secure. Using a small lock on zippers may deter theft. Women should keep their hand on your purse/bag, and hold it in FRONT of you. Men should carry their wallet in their FRONT pocket.
5. Always carry a copy of your passport with you.
You must carry some form of identification with you at all times, and a copy of your passport is sufficient. Please be aware that you may be stopped and asked to present some form of identification. Avoid carrying unnecessary cards or documents with you. Keep an additional copy of your passport in a safe place. NOTE: You will need to have your original passport with you if you plan to change cash in a bank, or deal with any government agency.
6. Write down emergency phone numbers and keep them with you when you travel.
7. Look for identification signs when you get off buses in new areas.
8. Carry a small notebook with you all the time to record things of interest: observations, shops, street scenes, directions, phone numbers, names, and ideas, as well as new vocabulary/expressions.
9. Do not get involved with drugs or consume excessive amounts of alcohol.
There are a variety of ways to make calls in Costa Rica:
1. Cell phones. Foreigners can use their own home cellular phone service with roaming IF their home service is compatible with that of Costa Rica (GSM, 1800Mhz). Check with your provider for details and costs. Another option is to purchase a local phone, or SIM card to put into yours. For more information on this option, see here.
2. Land lines. Land line service is much cheaper than cellular calls, but still expensive. There is a charge for each call made, even local calls. If staying with a homestay, always ask to use the phone, and keep conversations short. Alternatively, use a public phone, which typically accept three types of payment: a) 'Colibri' calling cards, b) 'chip' calling cards, or c) Local currency coins. If making limited calls, coins are an acceptable solution, otherwise the 'COLIBRI' CALLING CARDS ARE BY FAR THE BEST OPTION. To use them, you will need to purchase a 'Colibri' phone card (available at various stores). These cards are paper with a scratch-off section on the back. You will need to scratch off the covering to reveal a number. This is the number you will key into the phone when prompted. Some of these cards require you to dial a 197-access number (usually for in-country calling), whereas others (higher value cards) use a 199-access number. Instructions for using the 199 access cards can be found in English on the cards, and when you dial the access number to make a call. The 'Colibri' cards can be used in ANY PHONE WHATSOEVER, whereas the 'Chip' cards (a plastic card with a metal circuit on it) can only be used in phones designed for their use.
3. International Calling. In addition to cellular phone service, international calls can easily be made using the 'Colibri' calling cards mentioned above. Additionally, all of the large long-distance companies (e.g., MCI, Sprint, and AT&T) can also be used, and they have directory assistance in English. Each of these companies offers a variety of calling cards and plans. Check with them to get the best rates for your type of calling (and to be sure that they can be used in Costa Rica). The rates for calling Costa Rica FROM the United States vary widely depending on the phone company. With ever increasing wireless internet available at many homes, hotels, and restaurants, viable alternatives to using a regular phone are Skype or other equivalent VOIP (internet calling) options. When making or receiving calls, please note that Costa Rica is on Central Standard Time (and does not change for daylight savings).
Access to the internet cannot be guaranteed at any given site, but it is ever-increasing. Many homes and businesses now have wireless access, as does our host university. In fact, the Municipality of San Ramón even has free WiFi available in the central park, when it works. Participants on short courses, and others when traveling, will usually at least have access to WiFi in the evenings at hotels. Access to computers to get online is somewhat more limited, so plan accordingly when deciding if you will connect via your smart phone, tablet, or laptop. Alternatively, internet cafés can be found in town, and you can pay by the hour (<$1) to connect to the internet using their computers.
C. Letters & Faxes
The mail system in Costa Rica is very unreliable. Letters to/from the U.S. can take anywhere from 4 days to 1 month, and sometimes they never make it. Your letters may be opened if it is suspected that the letters contain money or drugs. To mail letters from Costa Rica, the letters must be sent directly from a post office ('Correo'). If you need to send/receive faxes, the Correo (and other locations in town) will send and receive faxes for you, for a minimal charge.
Be advised that receiving packages in Costa Rica is a somewhat risky proposition. It is advised that you simply do not have packages sent to you, or only very small ones that do not contain valuables in case they are lost. Additionally, any item that enters the country may be subject to import duty, and thus a VERY complicated procedure. It thus may not be worth the time and energy spent to get the package if you should have to go through the process. The process for sending packages from Costa Rica is much easier, as import duties do not apply. Packages can be sent regular mail, courier service from the post offices (more secure than regular mail and few-day delivery), or through private companies (e.g., FedEx, United Postal Service).
A. Academic Assignments
It is very likely that one aspect of academics during your participation will require posting in the EEI MediaBlog. This may consist of either case-study assignments associated with field study trips, and/or volunteer service-learning work postings. To view previous academic postings, visit the Blog.
B. Personal Blog Postings
Participants may also create personal blog entries to share their experiences online with friends and family.
If you are a current participant or alumni and would like to do so, please review posting information for the blog. If you still have questions once you have done so, please contact us.
Comments about this site may be submitted via the 'Contact Us' page.
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