Our First Travel Fail: Yellow Fever Requirements for Costa Rica

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 Puente Centenario spans the Panama Canal just north of the Pedro Miguel Locks

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.


Welcome to Guayaquil

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.


Guayaquil Airport

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.


Panama City skyline from the north

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.


The Radisson Summit in Paraiso, just outside of Panama City

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.


Great view from our balcony

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.


Saffron Finch


A nearby trail led to these tracks – after that – who knows?

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!


Waiting room at the government clinic

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.


The nurse was very efficient, especially since it was 11:55 (almost lunch!)

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.


Visitor’s Centre at Miraflores Locks


Looking towards Pedro Miguel Locks


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.


This coati didn’t care if the fruit was for the birds

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.


On the tarmac in San Jose

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!!!


Can you tell someone is happy!

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.

About Tim & Anne Hall

We sold almost all of our belongings and left our home in Nova Scotia in April 2016 to experience as much of the world as we could. We spent over a year slow traveling in Latin America and Europe, and are now living happily in the Portuguese Algarve, Portimao to be specific. We are gradually chnging the focus of our site to feature images of Portugal. Stay tuned - its a work in progress.
This entry was posted in Central America, South America, Travel Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Our First Travel Fail: Yellow Fever Requirements for Costa Rica

  1. kemkem says:

    What an ordeal! It can be nerve wrecking to have travel fails, but they are certainly a part of travel. The most important thing is to minimize the damage money wise. Sometimes it’s not possible as l have painfully experienced. I hope you’re able to get some money back. I have been guilty of buying a card at the airport and taking my flight :-).

    Liked by 1 person

    • timannehall says:

      We have pretty much written off United refunding anything but our Credit Card company is more optimistic. It will likely be the summer before we know anything. How is the search for a new place going?


  2. Aw, those travel fails! In all our travels through Central and South America we were never asked to present our yellow cards with proof that we had received the outrageously expensive shots in the US for $300 each! 🙁 Maybe what you spent in the cancellation fees of all your travel arrangements will somewhat balance out with what your shots would have cost in Canada … And hey, like any seasoned traveler, you turned your yellow fever/yellow card lemons into lemonade! Perfect with your motto, “Keep going forward!” 😊 Anita

    Liked by 1 person

    • timannehall says:

      After the initial shock and then of course the pain of paying the extra charges on our credit cards there were some positives. We definitely weren’t staying on for 10 more days in Ecuador. We did get a short introduction to Panama and loved learning more about the Panama Canal. Plus $5 Yellow Fever vaccines were a bonus. Probably the worst part was not knowing for sure if Costa would accept the 6 day “quarantine” but that turned out to be not a problem at all in the end. So now we have a great view and are quite content. Cheers to you both.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. timannehall says:

    Thank you for pointing that out. It was an oversight in the editing, not out of any disrespect. It has been corrected in the post.


  4. What a saga, but in the end it’s only money eh. And you got to see a bit of Panama. We wouldn’t have this problem since the first third-world country we visited was India and we got shots for *everything*! It must feel good to finally be in CR.

    Liked by 1 person

    • timannehall says:

      We were initially quite taken aback by the whole situation and it took a little time to get past it. Once we calmed down a bit and took stock of it all, we were OK. Part of the problem was that we were ready to leave Ecuador and didn’t want to wait another 10 days, plus we had a short time to make our decision. We are fortunate that we had both the time and the money to do the stopover in Panama. So at the end of the day we got our vaccines, we saw a little bit of Panama and learned from it all. Things could be far worse.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We had a similar situation when we flew to Argentina. Our flight was routed through the US which we usually try to avoid. Anyway the airline was not going to let us board without proof of onward travel from Argentina. It’s the only time we’ve ever been asked for it. We went to the business centre at the airport to use the internet and picked a random date to fly from Ushuaia to Chile. We’d made absolutely no travel plans for South America at this point so we just had to hope it would turn out. It did, kind of. We ended up changing the second leg of that flight and it cost a few hundred dollars. Grrrrr. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Jasmine C says:

    Hi Tim & Anne,

    Thank you for sharing your story! I found your blog during a similar series of unfortunate events, and now that I am back at home, I wanted to reach out and see how things turned out with your claims, since I am considering taking action on my case as well. I’m glad that you were able to enjoy Panama and keep such a positive outlook. I was inspired by your story to continue enjoying each day despite the challenges you faced!

    I had booked all of my tickets through Avianca in March for 1,300 USD, with plans to fly from New York to Ecuador in May, then Ecuador to Costa Rica in June, and finally back to New York from Costa Rica in July. After a wonderful time in Ecuador, when I arrived in Guayaquil I was refused check-in by the Avianca counter on account of not having physical documentation of my yellow fever immunization. I imagine your dismay was the same as mine, and was told by Avianca that I would need to change my flight and get proof of my immunization.

    Unfortunately, that is all they told me, so I changed my flight for a week later (for 137 USD) and headed back to Santo Domingo on a 5-hour bus ride. When I arrived to the clinic in Santo Domingo, they asked me if I had ever gotten the immunization before. Since I did (in the US), they refused to administer a new immunization. Luckily, a very nice nurse stepped outside to help me write a card anyway. It wasn’t until I got wifi service that I realized the 10-day rule and decided to take matters into my own hands by changing the date on the card (thankfully, the date was the 20th, so the 2 was easily changed to a 1!).

    A week later, I arrived back in Guayaquil for my new flight, ready to check in at 2am for a 5am departure, excited to finally go to Costa Rica. I had the same problems you did with the missed accommodations, and had to pay in full for the week I missed. Well, the story doesn’t end there.. because once again, Avianca refused to check me in. This time, they informed me that the national document I had administered by the clinic needed to be approved by the Ministry of Health in exchange for an international document, and since it was Sunday, the Ministry was closed for the day. I needed to change my flight again for Monday evening at the earliest. The problem was, the Avianca ticket counter did not open until 6am. I was concerned that if I didn’t change my flight before it departed, I would be marked absent and the rest of my itinerary (including my flight back home to New York) would be cancelled too. Concerned, I asked the Avianca agent at the counter, who assured me that the tickets were separate and my flight home would remain safely intact.

    After taking a nap in the airport, waiting for the Avianca ticket counter to open, by 7am, I realized they wouldn’t open on time and headed to a hotel. That afternoon, I returned back to the airport with hopes of changing my ticket for the following evening. It was then that the agent informed me that my entire itinerary had been cancelled and I needed to book new tickets altogether (exactly what I feared and was assured would not happen!) for a whopping 900 USD! The agent told me that returning the next morning might give me a chance for a lower fare difference, so back to the hotel I went. The next morning, I arrived to the Ministry of Health before the doors even opened, and was able to get my yellow fever card exchanged for an international immunization card. I then headed to the airport, and finally changed my flight to depart at 5am the next morning, and re-booked my flight from Costa Rica to New York – the second ticket change and new ticket cost 496 USD. Along with the first change, missed accommodations in Costa Rica, and necessary hotel and transportation costs in Guayaquil, I’ve been set back almost 1,000 USD from all of this. My hope is to get back at least something, but nothing will replace the time and aggravation spent on everything, which could have been avoided with better knowledge on my part, or more accountability on the airline’s part (their neglect to provide proper information was baffling to me!).

    Sorry for the long read! I hope you know that your story really did help me during that whole journey! Please feel to reach out any time and share any tips you have as I attempt to claim back some of the cost from this debacle! I’m grateful for your advice 🙂 Cheers and happy traveling!

    Liked by 1 person

    • timannehall says:

      Hi Jasmine. Thanks for sharing your story with us and we’re glad that you found our blog helpful. At least you know that there are others who went through similar circumstances, although in the frustration and anxiety of the moment it doesn’t offer a lot of comfort. We were lucky to find a very helpful agent at the airport information booth who found the exception rule for us. At that time we were ready to leave Ecuador so our preference was to go to Panama. Looking back it seems our biggest problem was booking so many flights through United. It saved us money up front but in the end caused a lot of problems. Our problems with the Yellow Fever vaccine cost us $2,600 CAD in flight cancellations, new flights, accommodation and meal costs in Panama. And we lost a week of our Airbnb costs in Costa Rica. The only compensation we have so far is from the Hampton Inn in San Jose who refunded in full our missed night there. They were excellent about it. We have just submitted two separate claims to our credit card company (Capital One). In talking to them we may qualify under trip interruption as there is a quarantine clause. We aren’t optimistic but it is worth trying. Also under the trip delay clause we should qualify for a day’s accommodation and meals for the Avianca flight that was cancelled on our last day. Like you this was a very expensive lesson learned. We can let you know how it all works out – good luck with yours and all the best. Tim & Anne


      • Jasmine C says:

        Hi Tim & Anne,

        Thanks so much for your response! After doing a bit of reading on the laws associated with this issue in particular, I’ve learned that the airlines are, unfortunately, not legally responsible for providing any information to passengers regarding required travel documentations. Since Avianca does not seem to be flexible at all with their customers, I’ve decided against spending the time filing any claims through the airline itself. I will, however, follow your advice and explore what options I may have through my credit card company as well. I don’t have high hopes on receiving any compensation for this expensive lesson learned, but I am definitely on a mission to share this with friends & other travelers in hopes that it lessens the number of folks who would potentially suffer the same fate! Thank you again for sharing your story with me, and best of luck with your claims and all future travels!! Looking forward to seeing and sharing new posts by you! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Gerard Martin says:

    Discrimination, that’s what it is. Six hours ago, here in Salvador Bahia, Avianca didn’t let me board an Avianca flight to Bogota, for not having proof of the YF vaccination. (Avianca could and should of course have told me much earlier today, at their counter in Brasilia, where I boarded the first lap of my flight: it would have given me 8 hours to obtain a scan of my vaccination booklet at home, as I’ve now, within hours after being left off the plane to Bogota, and looking at the ceiling in this Salvador hotel). But guess what?! Avianca is NOT requesting Colombians to show proof of the vaccination. As an Avianca official kindly explained to me, “they’re Colombians, and we can’t stop them from returning to their own country”. Great. So, even Colombians who were for a couple of weeks in the backlands or the Amazonia, while I was only in Rio, don’t have to show proof of the vaccination, but I do, because I’m not a Colombian. Makes perfect sense, of course. (Brazilians who travel to Colombia are also held to another standard because they can download their info within seconds from some Brazilian government website, while Europeans have to show the original vaccination booklet or paper.) Further more, Avianca (and the Colombian government) have yet to follow up on the WHO guidelines that Yellow Fever vaccination (even when received 3 decades ago) is now officially considered to be good for life, and has NOT to be repeated: Avianca still wants proof that the vaccination was done within the last 10 years.


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