In America nowadays, with Black Friday, Prime Day and the like, most of us find it easy to get a great deal on whatever it is we’re shopping for.
This is not so in Costa Rica.
“Black Friday” has of course been copied/mimicked, but it’s nothing close to what is offered in North America. And Amazon? The other day I found a $40 item that shipped for free in the United States, but to get it to Costa Rica, shipping and taxes would add an extra $176.
Costa Ricans have one option to get some price relief. But whether it ends up saving you any money is up for debate.
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, but Golfito 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. There is a catch, though – actually, many of them – which I found out as I went through this process to buy some appliances for my house.
In addition to being about six hours on Costa Rican roads, you can’t just come, buy and leave.
Each Costa Rican has a yearly allowance of four minimum salaries (about $3,000) to spend tax free in Golfito. The government tracks this by requiring you to pick up a document before entering the free-trade zone to shop.
You can’t buy the same day you pick up this document, which forces you to spend the night in Golfito. They do this to provide for the local economy, and it props up quite a few hotels and restaurants.
We decided to get our document, prepay for a few things and come back the next day to check it out with customs. We also took advantage of the one-hour drive to Panama – where things are much cheaper – to shop at the border.
We departed San Ramon at 4 a.m. and when we arrived at the hotel, it was almost 10 p.m.
The next day, we had to be back in Golfito by 8 a.m. to beat the tour buses from San Jose, which 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 and shoppers couldn’t just check out their items.
First, you have to go to an invoicing station, where the store applies the amount you spent to you allowance. You pay at another counter and go to a third area to pick up your purchases.
And for someone like me, who got a refrigerator, washer and dryer, you wouldn’t believe the process to get it back to San Ramon.
The first day was simple – we walked the store with salesperson, negotiated for a better price, registered items and paid for them. Day 2 was much more complicated.
After we returned to the store and went back to the cashier for some other seemingly pointless authorization, we opened the packages to ensure everything worked correctly, which took a while.
Then, we had to hunt down “appliance taxis” – who just run around the free trade zone to help people move their appliances from the sidewalk, where the stores leave them – to the customs checkpoint.
It cost us $9 for them to move our large appliances about 300 feet. Then, 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 took only a quick glance at our paperwork and waved us through.
Because our vehicle was not big enough to take our appliances, we found a transport service that would bring our items back to San Ramon for $60. 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 handwritten receipt.
It was a long process, and there’s no guide. Luckily, I was with my in-laws, and they knew a thing or two about improvising. And even more luckily, my mother in-law had been friends with the transport driver from childhood, and he has brought items back to San Ramon for years.
All in all, things went well, but whether it was worth the trip was questionable considering the gas, lodging, food “appliance taxis,” and most importantly, the time and sleep that was given up. Other Costa Ricans I pestered about this told me you have to treat the experience as a vacation and enjoy the journey.
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. We also stopped at the beach to enjoy breakfast and could have stayed extra days had we wanted to.
I’m OK with the hoops if it’s only every five or 10 years. Besides, I shouldn’t have to furnish a house that often.