Buyer beware seems to be the correct slogan for expats and tourists here

Recent complaints about prices in Costa Rica has drawn responses suggesting that there are ways to avoid being clobbered.

Even Costa Ricans are getting into the discussion because they said they believe high prices hurt tourism.

Facebook contains one bill from the Player’s Club Ltda. at Daniel Oduber airport in Liberia. Four persons, perhaps a family, sat down at the cafe Thursday and two ordered coffee. One latte cost 4,500 colons or about $8.25. and a small regular coffee cost 2,500 colons (about $4.60), according to the bill. Four chocolate cookies cost 9,000 colons, said the bill. That’s about $16.50.

On top of the 16,000 colon total, the firm added the legally required sales tax (1,080 colons) and the 10 percent service charge or obligatory tip to the waiter for 1,600 colons. The final bill was 19,680 colons, which the cafe translated to be $39.36. Many tourism locations present the bill in both colons and U.S. dollars.

In this case, the cafe used a 500-colon-to-the-dollar exchange rate when the current rate Thursday was 533. Many tourism locations establish their own exchange rate more profitable than the bank rate.

A number of Costa Ricans jumped on the cafe and were critical of such a welcome to tourists. But they only have limited information. The same is true with most restaurants and stores. The various rental contracts might required large kickbacks to landlords or other high charges for doing business.

For example, currency exchange locations at airports always maintain unfavorable rates, but their rents are astronomical.

A former resident who complained initially about the cost of food said he paid about 70,000 colons for a dinner for two. But simple math shows that two main dishes for 8,000 colons each and a few drinks can easily bring a bill to that level. Part of the reason is the 13 per cent sales tax and the 10 percent mandatory service charge.

Some restaurants even apply the service charge if a takeout customer sits at a table while the food is prepared.

A long-time resident wrote and was critical of the critics.  He said there were plenty of restaurants with reasonable prices.

He listed Restaurante Beso in Sabana Sur with its $5.50 buffet,  Yorgos Peruvian International Restaurant in Rohrmoser with an average price of $15 per person, Restaurant Maxi in Santa Ana with “great Caribbean food average price per person $15 included beer,” and Taco Bar Buffet in Escazú, Santa Ana, Tres Rios and Jacó with “$3 breakfast and lunch, dinner with all you can eat . . .  salad bar starting with fish or chicken tacos about $6.”

Even at an upscale restaurant like the Restaurante Magnolia at the Club Casino Colonial downtown has prices printed on the menu. A diner can leave well-fed after consuming a mountain of arroz con pollo for 3,500 colons (about $6.50). A dinner for four can be had for less than four cookies and coffee at the Daniel Oduber airport.

The long-time resident also cited a report that consumer prices in San José are 26.96 percent lower than in Toronto. He also noted that residents here do not have to pay for heat in the winter.

The late A.M. Costa Rica columnist Jo Stuart was an expert of frugality. She did not have a vehicle and took buses all over. She also patronized the weekend farmer markets where prices are far less than at the local supermarkets.

Of course, supermarket prices are enough to curl the hair. A box of imported cereal can be $4 or $5, about double the cost up north. President Laura Chinchilla did not do shoppers any favors when she ordered the sales tax applied to all but the most basic foods.

Frugality implies prudence in spending. Saturday there were cans of German and Polish beer on sale at Walmart for 450 colons, less than half the price of other brands. Expats here quickly learn the joys of guaro over those of Johnny Walker (18,000 colons a liter). They also learn the savings of going to a supermarket where working people shop instead of at a mall or in a high-rent neighborhood.

Then there are the personal preferences. Air conditioning is pricey at the beach. And a condo shopper will pay close attention to insulation as well as air flow.

Nearly everyone agrees that Costa Rica is not the place for the expat living on a $600-a-month Social Security check. That used to be possible, and immigration requirements were once set that low. Now immigration officials expect a pensionado family to spend $1,000 a month minimum.

Yet, there are some advantages. Legal residents get the same price breaks as Costa Ricans in admission prices. Older expats and Costa Ricans also get deals on retail purchases. bus fares and medicine, not to mention the benefits of the health care at the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social facilities.

The high price must have been the caramelo.

The high price must have been the caramelo.

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