Writing this in November 2020, I can only hope that this blog becomes an out-of-date relic – a unique moment in history I’m putting into an online time capsule – sooner rather than later. Here we are, in Month 9 of the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected nearly everyone in the world directly or indirectly at this point. Between non-essential travel bans, border closings, airlines reducing flights – not to mention the general fear of flying in a crowded airplane during a pandemic – few industries have been hit harder than those of us dedicated to tourism. There is light at the end of the tunnel however as borders are open again and the fear of flying is slowly subsiding. Just like with our hotels and fishing operations, we collect first-hand experience so we can relay that onto you to make your travel planning and vacation as stress free as possible. I’m here to tell you about our own experience last month and what it’s like traveling to Costa Rica during the Covid-19 pandemic
Traveling to the USA from Costa Rica
Since we live in Costa Rica, our trip started in reverse order than what the vast majority of you will do. Being a fan of chronological order, and since I frequently get asked if there are any restrictions to get back into the US after traveling abroad, I’ll start here. Our original flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Milwaukee, WI with American Airlines was on October 5th had two legs and one layover in Dallas. Unfortunately, that got cancelled so we rebooked the next flight we could on October 7th – thanks Hurricane Delta! That new flight had three legs and two layovers (foreshadowing warning!), but we didn’t care, we hadn’t been able to visit our families in the US in a year so we were anxious to get back no matter how long it took.
Arriving at the SJO Airport the morning of Oct 7th was eerily quiet, by far the emptiest I have ever seen the place in 15 years of flying in and out of there. Walking down the main hallway to the main lobby, there is a guard who takes your temperature with a digital infrared thermometer gun. Once at the check-in area, it was a ghost town as there were no lines and not more than 1-2 groups at each counter. The SJO Airport had large stickers all over the floor reminding people to stay 6 ft apart and of course all the workers inside were wearing masks which gave the impression that Costa Rica was well organized and taking this seriously.
After checking in we headed over to security, which again had the shortest lines I’ve ever seen. The agents were very clear and strict that they only wanted one group/family per security aisle, which was no problem with so few people. After passing through security we were free to roam around the inside of the Juan Santamaria Airport, and while a few business had their lights off and doors closed, most seemed to be open and operating. At our gate they had every other seat taped off to encourage social distancing, which again wasn’t much of a problem with way more seats than travelers. Of course, the lack of travelers rushing from gate to gate meant lots of running room for our 15 month old wild-man, Sidney, so we gladly let him burn as much energy as possible before we boarded the flight.
To our surprise, the flight from SJO to MIA was completely full. Admittedly, we weren’t sure what to expect but all the flight attendants were courteous and all the passengers wore masks, so it certainly felt like everyone was on the same page. Instead of the regular beverage and snack service they passed out a pre-made box that contained crackers, cookies, and a small bottle of water.
Upon arriving in Miami we went through the automated Immigration stations and were on our way to security in less than ten minutes. We only had about 90 minutes between flights, but lines were so short we still had time to do our Global Entry interview. Unfortunately from the moment we exited Immigration and got into the security lines it was business as usual. The TSA agents were their normal cheery selves, there were no signs nor workers enforcing social distancing, and plenty of impatient travelers jumping ahead of each other to grab gray plastic bins (as if they were in limited supply). So, for better or worse, travel from Costa Rica to the US was exactly as it has always been – apart from everyone wearing masks. There were no temperature checks or biometric screening upon arrival, no tough questions from CBP officers at the Immigration desk asking where you were, and no negative PCR tests required. Get on the plane, wear a mask, and you can fly home pretty much as you always have (apart from not getting those deliciously stale airplane pretzels and a plastic cup of Coke that is they fill 80% full with ice cubes!).
Traveling to Costa Rica from the USA
We flew back to Costa Rica on November 5th, 2020, just one week ago. Much has been made of entry requirements for US citizens when traveling abroad, so we were anxious to experience this first hand. In an effort to restart the limping tourism industry, as of November 1st Costa Rica no longer requires negative PCR tests to enter. Upon checking in to our American Airlines flight in Detroit the agent asked if we had negative PCR tests, so we had to confidently inform her that is was no longer necessary. The only three requirements, as of today, are:
- Wear a mask at all times
- Fill out the online health pass
- Tourists much purchase travel insurance in case of needing COVID treatment while in country
The online health pass is easy to follow and can be filled out ahead of time by clicking on https://salud.go.cr/. In case you were not aware of the requirements or forgot, the desk at the boarding gate had a QR code posted so you could quickly scan it with your phone and fill it out. The gate agents would not let you on the flight without seeing it first.
** Special Note: Our gate agent incorrectly assured me that we just needed one QR code per family, but upon arrival the Costa Rican Immigration officer said that all three of needed one QR code per person, even our baby. We took an extra 5-10 mins to fill it out right then and there, but it could have been avoided with more accurate info. Below is how my completed health pass looked.**
As for the travel insurance, we actually didn’t need to purchase it because we are permanent residents here. I have been asked many times about the strict requirements to enter Costa Rica, $50,000 medical coverage and $2,000 lodging expenses for extended stays, and it turns out that is very hard to find from international and US based travel insurance companies. We partner with a great company, Travel Guard, and when I called to speak to them about this I was told that pretty much all US insurance companies are scrambling to come up with new plans and premiums to meet those requirements. Travel Guard’s best plan does cover $50,000 medical expenses, but only up to $800 in lodging so that wouldn’t meet Costa Rica’s standards.
I will however give you one guess as to who sells travel insurance that DOES meet these standards – Costa Rica’s own government-issued insurance! I suppose if you are hosting the party you get to make the rules, so Costa Rica has seemingly stacked the deck in their favor where-by the only acceptable insurance most US travelers can find are the Costa Rican options. At this time Costa Rica gives you two options, which can be purchased before travel or once you actually land at the airport.
All said and done, as long as you have your paperwork in order flying to Costa Rica was very similar to how it has always been. And yes, the Ticos of course were as friendly as ever and are happy to see everyone who is ready to visit their beautiful country again and help restart the economy.
Central America is Open for Business
After a long 6-7 month shutdown, the borders are open to tourists again. Since mid-March, borders across the world were closed and international tourism was shut down almost overnight. For those of us in the industry, it was if a dump truck unloaded a 3,000 lb pile of sand on us and then an elephant sat on top of it, crushing and suffocating us simultaneously for good measure.
Due to a better understanding of the virus, healthcare systems and hospitals more prepared to deal with the increased need for ICU beds and PPE, and certainly in part the dire economic corner the pandemic painted them into, Central America countries began to open their borders in September and October. Costa Rica started first with a very controlled, gradual opening on September 1st allowing Canadians and a few select European countries to visit. They then allowed a few US states that had low virus numbers, and finally opened to all 50 US states on November 1st. Guatemala opened it’s borders to all US visitors on September 17th. Belize followed on October 1st and finally Panama on October 17th. So, if you are ready to plan that long awaited Costa Rica fishing vacation, go fly fishing in Belize, or enjoy the punishment of tuna fishing in Panama we are ready when you are – peak fishing season is just starting this month!
Is Traveling Right Now Safe?
OK great, just because you CAN travel doesn’t mean you should, right? Is it safe? According to a joint study by the Department of Defense and United Airlines, the risk of catching COVID even on a packed flight is almost nilch if everyone is wearing a mask. According to United Airlines Chief Communication Officer Josh Earnes, 99.99% of particles left the airplane cabin within six minutes during the 300 tests they ran. Today all commercial aircraft are equipped with HEPA air filters (High Efficiency Particulate Air), which are the same systems used in operating rooms. Referencing a great article by Nat Geo, this means that in combination with the fresh air piped in from the outside the air inside the airplane is completely changed every three minutes. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports just 44 confirmed cases of COVID transmission in over 1.2 billion passengers. The calculator on my computer doesn’t have room for that many zeros to calculate such a minuscule percentage, but safe to say you stand a much better chance of catching that bucket list marlin than COVID when traveling to Costa Rica during the Covid-19 pandemic!
Once you are here in Costa Rica, masks are mandatory in all public spaces. We provide 100% private transportation for our guests, so your transfer van will be exclusive to your bubble and one private driver. Of course all of our fishing charters are private, so apart from the captain and mate, there won’t be anyone else on the boat. Last but not least, the vast majority of Costa Rican hotels have gone above and beyond to intensify their sanitation standards and make sure everything is deep cleaned for each guest. Rooms are deep cleaned after every guest, high touch points are sanitized throughout the day, meals are served a la carte an in open air settings when possible, and of course all hotel staff wear masks.
From our own personal experience, we felt very safe traveling knowing the above. We flew back to visit my family in Southeast Wisconsin, which at the time of October 2020 was one of the hardest hit regions of the country. A week after we arrived, my sister’s family of four from El Paso, TX flew in to join us and said both of their American Airlines flights were 100% full. El Paso is now on complete lockdown, has ordered ten morgue trucks to assist the cities rising death count, and is now considered the epicenter of the COVID outbreak in the USA. I mention the above to show that seven people from my own family took a total of nine flights during the USA fall spike in coronavirus cases, and coincidentally were going to or coming from some of the hardest hit areas of the country, and we were all safe and COVID-free.
It should also be noted that airlines do not require children under two years of age to wear a mask. That is nice, because there was NO WAY our 15-month old would have done that and let us keep our fingers. On our third and final flight from Dallas to Milwaukee, the one we were not supposed to have in our original booking, it seemed as if he did everything possible to pick up germs. Stand up on seat, jump down to floor. Run up the aisle, run back down the aisle. Scream on the floor because he didn’t want to be held, 48 seconds later scream to be picked up because he didn’t want to be on the floor (and repeat 14-15 times). I suppose we enjoyed an unintended benefit of traveling to Costa Rica during the Covid-19 pandemic – with everyone in masks it was harder to see all the dirty looks we were surely getting on that third flight back to Wisconsin with an over-tired, screaming baby!
My Final Take On Traveling to Costa Rica During the Covid-19 Pandemic
To be certain, I am not a doctor nor an epidemiologist, and I’m sure our circumstances last month were different than yours are now. You must evaluate the risks & rewards of international travel based on your own unique situation and health concerns. All I can say is: my family did it, we felt safe, and most importantly were in fact safe despite our toddler not wearing a mask on five different flights.
Entering the US from Costa Rica was exactly as it had always been, and then traveling to Costa Rica during the COVID-19 pandemic was easy and painless as long as you have everything you need and have it ready to show. With the number of air travelers at an all time low, there are short lines and great deals available on both airfare and some hotels. When you are ready to travel again, we’ll be here. The fish are dying of old age out there.