Three Strikes and You’re Out: How the Taxi Always Wins in Costa Rica
Strike One: The Nocturnal Arrival
The first time I traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica, I thought I was prepared. I was arriving by bus and was scheduled to pull into the city some time after dark. Of course I knew that such “post sundown” arrivals should typically be avoided in destinations considered to be part of the “developing world”, but I had planned appropriately. After all, I had previously consulted my guide book with respect to area tourist destinations and even had a reservation at a local hotel. Sure, I may not have had any idea whatsoever as to the actual location of the hotel or its proximity to the bus terminal, but San Jose wasn’t THAT large and Costa Rica has always had a reputation for being extremely tourist-friendly. What could possibly go wrong?
“Taxi! Taxi! Ned taxi? Otel? Vamos! Vamos!”
The fact was that I did need a taxi. And as much as I hated finding myself in such screaming masses of individuals offering their services in a less than passive manner, I had no other choice.
“Uh, yea. I’m going to the Hotel X. How much?”
At that point, I heard what seemed to be an overtly exorbitant amount of money for a short ride across town. Did I hear that correctly? Was my less than perfect Spanish letting me down?
The price was repeated, and what followed was what I would describe as a short bargaining session characterized primarily by me trying to follow the conversation and by the driver repeatedly using such phrases as “very dangerous at night” and “very long distance to the hotel”. Although the price was lowered minimally, an agreement was quickly reached.
After working our way through the screaming masses and loading my small backpack into the car, we were off. I rolled down the window, took in a breath of tropical, Costa Rican air, and sat back to enjoy the ride.
“OK. Ya llegamos!”, stated the driver, while slowing down and pulling toward the curb.
“What? We’re already there? We’ve only gone, like, two and a half blocks. I think I can still see the bus terminal from here.”
The driver said nothing. He simply looked at me smiling, while reaching across the front seat to receive the agreed upon fare.
Taxi: 1 / Me: 0
Strike 2: Anyone Seen the Meter Maid?
Several days later, while visiting a friend who happened to live in San Jose at the time, I recounted my initial welcome to the city.
“You mean the taxi driver didn’t use the meter?” my friend asked.
“Meter? What meter? There was a meter somewhere in that car?”
“Of course”, said my friend. “You’ve just got to tell them to use the meter.”
Well that sounded pretty great to me. Meters. Standardization. It all sounded so utterly controlled and civilized. How come no one had mentioned this before? How did I miss such an elementary detail of Costa Rican travel? At that point, of course, it was neither here nor there. All I knew was that I was ready for an opportunity to redeem my foreign ignorance. Bring on taxi number two!
After a day or so of traveling by bus, the opportunity for redemption eventually presented itself. I was once again alone and boarding a taxi from another crowded location. As is common in such situations, a second individual had gotten into the cab just prior my boarding. Although we weren’t traveling to the same destination, we were apparently heading in the same general direction.
“Meter, meter, meter. Don’t forget to mention the meter”, I repeated in my head.
But just as I was about to utter those two syllables, I noticed that the driver was reaching down and pushing the button on a small electronic device.
“Great!” I thought. “It looks like it’s all taken care of. Seat belt fastened; meter running. Let’s go!”
When we arrived at my personal destination, coincidentally the same hotel that I mentioned previously, I handed the driver the amount shown on the small, digital display.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“I’m just paying you what I owe for the ride, the amount shown there on the meter.”
“Meter? What meter?” said the driver. “We didn’t agree on the meter. The meter was only for the other lady.”
“What? But as soon as we started driving, you turned on the meter. Doesn’t that simply go without saying?”
The driver, unfortunately, did not agree with my logic. In this city, there was apparently some sort of magical “meter contract”, a verbal agreement that had only been reached by the driver and additional passenger, not technically between he and I. As a result, he was requesting approximately double the amount shown by the flashing, red numbers.
After discussing this point of contention for quite some time and eventually involving the hotel desk clerk (he, thankfully, took my side in the matter), we agreed on what was considered to be a “fair” compromise. Sure it was significantly higher than the official meter fare, but at least it wasn’t double.
Taxi: 2 / Me: 0
Strike 3: The Talk and Turn Technique
After my second strike with the local taxis, I had definitely learned my lesson(s). They had been costly lessons, perhaps, but lessons nonetheless. Following another day or so of getting to know the city, the time had come to say good bye. At that point, I was leaving from my friend’s house and catching another bus that was scheduled to wind through the hills of San Jose while making its way out of the city in the northerly direction. The only thing standing between me and this early morning departure was a short taxi ride to the bus station. Traffic was light, and the weather was perfect. Seeing another opportunity for transportational redemption, I was ready for taxi number three.
After flagging the taxi, boarding and making the official meter agreement, we were on our way. Initially, there was very little conversation. We simply drove in the proper direction and enjoyed the beautiful Costa Rican morning. After several minutes, however, the driver began to get slightly more social. Nothing unusual, of course; just the standard questions regarding me, my travels and reasons for being in his native land. Before long, though, I noticed that his chatty nature had certainly increased. In fact, this guy was now talking without taking a breath. He was talking about the country. He was talking about the weather, his family, his friends, the economy, sports. He was talking about everything! He just kept talking, on and on and on and on and on.
The other thing I began to notice was how many turns we were making.
“I don’t remember making all of these turns before”, I thought. “Are we taking a different route?” “Does he think we’re going to a different bus terminal?”
The talking continued. So did the turning. All the while I just kept watching the little, red numbers climb higher and higher on the rapidly running meter. I was starting to get concerned. With the help of my local friend, I had carefully calculated the cost of this ride. I only had so much cash in my pocket and with the current display on the meter, we were already cutting this a bit closer than I would have liked.
“Uh, aren’t we getting close?” I asked.
“Yep, we’re almost there. Just a few more turns!”
We did eventually arrive, of course. I was able to pay, but it took nearly all of the “colones” I had remaining in the vacation reserves.
“I guess I'll be skipping breakfast today”, I thought, while entering the terminal and presenting my ticket to the counter officials.
Later, I confirmed with my friend that the route from the house to the terminal involved a total of three short turns. How many did my driver and I make on that typically lovely morning? I’m not exactly sure. I wasn’t counting. What I can say with confidence, though, is that it was a minimum of twelve to fifteen. With an equal amount of confidence, and I can also say this: