We are both planners by nature and we might be accused of over-planning and not leaving enough to chance. However on our most recent trip from Ecuador to Costa Rica we were caught by surprise and forced into a week long stay in Panama to meet the Yellow Fever entry requirements for Costa Rica.
The bottom line is that anyone entering Costa Rica from Ecuador (or many other South American countries) requires a valid Yellow Fever vaccination which we did not have. We weren’t aware of this and normally the airlines advise passengers of the requirements when they sell you a ticket. The reason that the airlines are so strict is that they have a responsibility to fly you out if you are refused entry into a country.
In our case we weren’t advised and as near as we can tell it was due to the manner in which we booked our tickets. We had complicated flights originating in Canada in January, then from Ecuador to Costa Rica and finally returning to Canada in June. We were able to secure a good price and both Ecuador and Costa Rica require proof of departure. We bought our tickets through United but the flights from Ecuador to Costa Rica were on Avianca through Colombia and Panama. It was the Avianca agents who refused our boarding. Imagine our surprise and dismay when we arrived at the Guayaquil Airport and were told that we could not board as our final destination was Costa Rica and we did not have Yellow Fever vaccinations. We had to quickly decide what our options were and choose one!
After some time with a very helpful information agent we confirmed that our options were to get the vaccination in Ecuador at a health clinic (for free) and stay in Ecuador for 10 days; get the vaccination and try to persuade the clinic to back date the shot over 10 days ago (this happens!); or there was an “exception” that you could leave Ecuador and stay in a Yellow Fever free country for 6 days. We did not want to stay in Ecuador and with 2 hours before our flight, getting to the clinic and relying on a back dated card was too risky. We decided to head to Panama! Keep going forward! The Costa Rican Embassy in the USA’s site states clearly that if you remained for 6 days in a Yellow Fever free country you could enter without a vaccination.
Off to the ticket counter for Avianca and we were told they couldn’t change or cancel our original leg from Panama to Costa Rica because the ticket had been purchased through United. It was getting closer to our flight! A lengthy call to United and we cancelled the last leg of the day’s flights then rushed back to the Avianca counter and were allowed to fly as far as Panama.
We arrived at Panama City’s Tocumen Airport four hours later (via Bogota) and were happy to be let into the country. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel that night while we searched for accommodations for the next 6 nights.
The costs were already starting to add up. United had a cancellation fee of $168 CAD each, and we were too late to cancel our reservation at the Hampton Inn in San Jose that night. We had a taxi arranged to pick us up the next morning to take us to our Airbnb home in Atenas. And of course we were too late to change that reservation so we have to pay for a week that we didn’t use.
After looking through where to stay in Panama we decided on the Radisson Summit Hotel just outside of the city. They offered good rates, full breakfast, good birding and a local shuttle. It cost $50 US to be driven there however.
In fact we were very comfortable there and enjoyed our stay. We received many suggestions from friends as to where we should visit while we were in Panama and all of the wonderful things to do and see. There are attractions for sure, but given that we were a little put off and we would be spending a lot of extra money, we chose to stay close to the hotel.
Meanwhile we scoured the web for more information on the entry requirements for Costa Rica as we wanted to verify that we would be allowed in after 6 days. The only “official” confirmation of the 6 day exception we could find anywhere was on the aforementioned Costa Rican Embassy to the USA and also on their Belgian Embassy site. We couldn’t find it on the WHO site, the Canadian Embassy or the Costa Rican Immigration site. We did find many people who had experienced similar situations!
It seemed like an ideal opportunity to get Yellow Fever vaccinations so after reading a great article on the Tofu Traveller blog we went to a local government clinic and for $5 US each and a short wait we both now have 10 year vaccinations and the official “yellow” cards. It was easy to find and although no one spoke English, we had no problems.
We also took the time to visit the Miraflores Locks and do some shopping (mostly window shopping) at the Allbrook Mall. The Panama Canal and the Miraflores Locks deserve a post so perhaps we’ll talk more about them in the future. Unfortunately on the day we were there, no ships passed during our three hour visit. We thoroughly enjoyed the Visitor’s Centre however.
Another step we took was to call the Canadian Embassy in San Jose who called Costa Rican Immigration on our behalf. We were relieved when they confirmed that we would be able to enter after 6 days in Panama. So we booked a flight out on the seventh day (another $400 CAD) and settled in.
So on the seventh day we were totally prepared to leave and out of the blue we received an email from Avianca that our flight had been cancelled and they had booked us out the next day, but through Bogata (backtracking to Colombia!). Another day in quarantine! The last thing we wanted to do was go back to Colombia and risk raising additional questions, so a call to Avianca secured us a direct flight early the next morning.
Despite much anxiety and trepidation we had no problems at all with boarding and we were so happy to be on a plane to Costa Rica. Now we just had to deal with an unknown Immigration Officer. The immigration lines at San Jose’s airport can be very long (especially when you’re anxious) but it wasn’t too bad when we arrived on a Saturday morning.
After all of the hype, anxiety and consternation the Immigration Officer barely looked at our passports and the only question she asked was how long were we staying. We showed her our ticket to Canada in June and we were in!!!
So the bottom line is, be diligent about the entry requirements for any country you are planning to visit. We had been to Costa Rica many times before so we neglected to check on entering from South America. This was compounded by the fact that United neglected to inform us when we purchased our tickets. We are in the process of submitting claims through United, our credit card, and World Nomads (our travel and health insurer). We would like to say a big thanks to the San Jose Hampton Inn who graciously refunded our full night’s charge.