It's not super large airport--it's kind of like an open air Burbank airport. Customs is super easy and quick. The plane landed at 8:40PM and by 8:50 PM, I was talking to the guy at the information desk, asking about the ATM machine I had read was at the airport.
"Oh!" he said, as he pointed around the building, "It closes in ten minutes."
Uh-oh. I hadn't done any old fashioned money exchanging or travelers checks before arriving. I raced outside and around the building to get colones. There was a brightly lit room contained the glassed in closet with the ATM...I didn't see much there, but guessed it was a bank? One guy in a uniform--bank security?--saw me and asked for my passport and boarding pass. He looked at my boarding pass, confused, then called over one of the other guys--I realized they thought I was running for a flight. I explained I just needed to use the ATM. They laughed. "What time does it close?"
"A las Diez (ten)"
(To me) "Nine or ten."
One of them opened the glass door for me, furthering the impression that he was bank security, but now I think he was just a polite guy who does something else at the airport. (There are a lot of uniforms comprised of white shirts and dark pants here.)
I inserted my bank card and looked at the withdrawal options:
20,000 colones, and
At home I usually pick about the third highest amount, so I picked 10,000 colones. That seems like plenty to start, right?
It came out in one bill.
I worried, would the cab driver be willing to change that? Was it like a hundred dollar bill in the U.S.? Better play it safe, I thought--I'd get some smaller bills, just in case. I re-inserted my card and requested 4000 colones. It came out in two 2000 bills. That's better.
One of the guys in uniform wandered by, and I decided to ask him how much a taxi would be to my Liberia. A website had estimate fifteen bucks, so from the price, I could figure out the exchange rate.
"Diez mil colones," he said.
Wait a minute--was this guy putting me on? Then it started to come back to me--I had seen something about 500 colones being equal to a dollar. So that would be twenty bucks. Thus far I had accumulated $28 worth of colones. My hotel would be $40, and the bus the next day would be $10, and I might want to eat at some point... Twenty-eight bucks wasn't going to cut it. I returned to the machine.
At this point another woman with a back-pack came running up.
"Is it still open?"
"It's actually open 'til ten. Maybe"
"Oh good. Do you have it figured out?" She withdrew 50,000. "It looks like so much."
The guys were hovering around the glass...were they about to lock up? Men in uniforms make me nervous--I always think I'm going to get a ticket. I quickly inserted my card again and withdrew 50,000 as well, as the woman looked at her bills.
"Oh my god, all that is only only three bills!"
I looked at her money. "No, it's five--see those two?"
She flipped over two bills she hadn't noticed on the bottom of the stack, "Oh they're all the same. How much is this worth?"
"Ten thousand is worth twenty bucks, so that's a hundred."
"You're so fast with the math--oh no--your card!"
I hadn't noticed machine had ejecting my bank card. Now it beeped. I turned to take it, just as the machine swallowed it back up.
I turned to the uniformed guy near the door and had a conversation in pidgin Spanish that basically went like this.
"Your card is gone? You have to be rapido, or it will take it!"
"Yes, well. What now?"
You have to come back when the guy is here." He pointed to a service window. "Tomorrow."
The other man interjected, "No, Monday."
Then they looked at each other. "No, maybe Tuesday."
When I return to the airport in ten days, they assure me, the guy at the window will still have my bank card.
A very typical situation for me...where I start trying to help out other people before I even know what's happening myself.
Fortunately, the hotel tonight takes credit cards, and tomorrow I'll be with friends, and I think I can probably borrow some money if I need. But I thought that was a pretty amusing tale of my first twenty minutes in Costa Rica.