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  • Writer's pictureJill Reed

Inside a 24HR Visa Dash for the Border

We moved to Costa Rica in the summer of 2019 and made a couple of 90-day visa runs back to the states to see family and ski, until the pandemic. Costa Rica closed its borders to international travel in March 2020, and kindly granted visa extensions to all tourists who had arrived after December 19, 2019. This included us. Our last trip was January 2020 to Big Sky, MT.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Costa Rican department of immigration and the department of transportation. They have extended this visa for almost one full year. As March 2 approached, we knew we would need to plan for another run.

(Scroll all the way through for the TikTok speed version of the trip)

Deciding where to run

With variants of the virus running wild and the US instituting a quarantine, we looked for a location that would take us easily. At first, I planned for a vacation in Tulum, because Mexico isn’t (at the time I am writing this) requiring a covid test, nor any quarantine. We needed to get back quickly for school and the dogs.

Then, I realized something. If Mexico is making it so easy for Americans to travel there and vacation right now, imagine the type of person who is making this trip. (Insert your Ted Cruz joke here) I began to consider the safest alternative to brushing elbows, literally, with people who have been overtly careless about the pandemic.

In the end, we chose Mexico City for an inexpensive and quick turnaround. We found flights that left Costa Rica at dawn and returned in the wee hours of the following morning.

I’m not going to pretend that this trip was easy, fun or comfortable. It was long, exhausting, and riddled with uncomfortably close experiences, particularly in Mexico Immigration processing.

Today is February 24 so I realize a bunch of people are planning their exits, same as us. We thought maybe our experience might help others prepare for their border run, also.

Our timeline

4:15AM iPhone alarm.

5:00AM Michael the taxi driver arrives with the van, we pile in and depart for San Jose.

9:15AM Arrive at the San Jose International Airport. (SJO) Check in, grab the url for the Mexico Health Pass and start figuring that out. Try to get seats together-ish.

12:00PM Flight delay.

12:40PM Depart for Ciudad de México. (MEX)

3:45PM Arrive MEX - wait for 4 different buses to pick up Covid-safe numbers of passengers to transport us to Immigration.

4:15PM Allowed to depart bus for Immigration Hall; temps taken upon entry.

4:25PM Christie and Courtland finally arrive at the hall and we rejoin. Wait 15 minutes in one line to make it to the desk only to be told we’re in the Mexico nationals line.

4:26PM Get in the very long other line where only 3 immigration officers are processing.

4:50PM Herded back to the “Mexico nationals” side by an immigration officer to help offset the load.

5:00PM Processed. At NO point does anyone ask for the Mexico Health Pass or for our prior location. We are cleared and stamped for 180 days.

5:30PM Everything is under construction so the shopping is minimal. Sad. I manage to find lotions (Body Shop) and face stuff (Khiels and duty free).

6:00PM Sit down for supper in a crowded restaurant. We ask nicely for them to make a table for us by the open entryway. They oblige happily. Hamburgers, tacos, poke bowl. Some disappointing lemonade.

7:00PM We head back to where we think our gate is, but find a large screen with a departures list that takes us to a different area.

7:15PM Donuts for the boys.

For the next several hours, we alternately go to the bathroom, buy water, shop and read.

8:30PM We attempt to check in at the gate with the agent because we all have individual seats and we need to get to at least 2 and 2, because we have young kids. We are told our Costa Rica Health Pass QR codes are the wrong color and we will be asked in CR to buy an INS approved health plan. (we have already done this)

8:45PM I spend a fair amount of time on the chat with my amazing insurance agent (who is in Panama). He sorts everything, which he’d already done for us prior to departure. We never hear back from the Health Ministry, but we presume it is an Aeromexico problem.

9:25PM Board return flight to SJO.

10:10PM Depart MEX. Get 0 sleep. Super crowded plane, very uncomfortable, large child sleeping across me. I listen to Trevor Noah read his book on audible.

1:15AM Arrive SJO. Get processed through immigration. Customs waves us through. Purchase 2 handles of Tito's, because duty free on the way out is just what you do in Costa Rica.

1:40AM Picked up by Michael the taxi driver. God love him. He only stopped once on the way back to Guanacaste, for coffee.

5:10AM Arrive back home to Conchal. Michael made amazing time.

Re-entering Costa Rica immigration

Upon arrival in Costa Rica, the protocols had us walk through a digital system that assessed our temperature and then we sanitized. The process for getting through immigration was spaced out efficiently and felt very comfortable. Even at 1:30 in the morning, our immigration officer had a smile on his face and was super friendly.

Our Health Pass QR codes worked perfectly, twice. One officer checked them while we waited in line and another checked them at the desk. We were NOT asked for evidence of a departure flight schedule, though we have purchased one for May 2020. Sometimes, Costa Rica immigration officials ask for your departure tickets and sometimes they don't. Don't leave this to chance.

My advice: always book a ticket to depart. You can easily cancel it within 24 hours of the booking. It’s much easier to have it in hand than have to book something while standing in line.

Suggestions for change policy - how to make some cash

Costa Rica has been unbelievably gracious to its tourists during this pandemic, but I might suggest a slight adjustment to the policy they’ve held thus far. Instead of asking thousands of extended stay tourists to exit the country via air, and then return with fresh visa stamps during a pandemic complicated by rising virus variants, I suggest asking directly for cash.

Costa Rica has suffered for the last year with little to no tourism. Certainly, they have our dollars while we are here, but tourism is their bread and butter, and it has waned. Businesses have closed, people are hungry. The government has fallen into deep debt.

If the government had knocked on all its long time tourists’ doors and said, “If you would like to extend your stay by another 3-6 months, simply pay X dollars per person,” I know many of us would have been happy to do that. Think of the money they could have raised.

Instead, we spent money on airlines that are not Costa Rican, shopping and food outside the country, and we bought an insurance policy through our agent in Panama with a London-based company. The only cash distributed in the country was to Michael, our taxi driver.

We spent over $1500 dollars on this visa run. We’d have gladly paid that amount to stay, and not put ourselves in a dangerous situation involving international air travel during a world-wide pandemic.

I digress. As I said on IG, this was a golden opportunity for the Costa Rican government to recoup some cash. Alas, pura visa...I mean, pura vida!

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