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The San Jose Scam - Traveler tips

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

This post is about a massive scam, conning people anywhere between $55-$480, which was attempted on myself, and has happened to my friends, traveler's and people I have worked with. At the moment I can't find anyone talking about it online. It all starts when you first arrive to San Jose at one of the many bus stations...

Maria's Story...one that will break your heart when you read it...

Maria was going to Manuel Antonio, stopping off in San Jose on her way from Puerto Viejo. She was approached by a taxi driver who told her that the last bus leaves in 30 minutes.

He then tried to call someone to 'see if there is space' and went on to tell her that the bus is fully booked.

After this he pretended to call 4 companies, and finally got through to someone who said there was one ticket left leaving from Puntarenas going to Manuel Antonio. The only option to get there would be to get in the cab because the "protesters" have crossed the border and the roads were being closed everywhere and there were no buses left. We seem to hear a lot about these fake protestors on our travels, also in Panama at the border.

This unfortunate lady, didn't even know where Puntarenas was, she agreed as he had already put her bags in his boot, and off they go. She didn't even have time to ask how much it was going to cost. Unfortunately she got stuck in a cab with this guy for 3 hours and he charged her $480 dollars. He had asked for the money in colones; only recently being in Costa Rica, it was only until after he was gone that she correctly converted the money that she gave him. A well overpriced $480 for a journey she was conned into taking and in the opposite direction of where she wanted to go. She didn't realise the damage until he was gone. A cab journey to Jaco, which is actually half way to Manuel Antonio only costs $60 dollars to put this into perspective, and local buses run all day to Manuel Antonio.

Admittedly she should have asked before she got in, but she felt pressured, didn't know what to do it, was alone and it was also getting dark. As a traveler for some of us that is 3 weeks budget gone!

This is not to dissimilar to many stories we have heard; if you want to avoid this kind of scam here are some things to look out for:

Scam 1

A taxi driver then comes over in a very friendly and helpful manner and asks where are you going.

You explain to them it could be another place in Costa rica (as above)

When you explain to them where you are going they tell you that the last bus is leaving within a few minutes.

Then he says that you need to hurry because their is a big protest in San Jose (or a national day where all roads are also closed)

He will then drive to another bus stop (an incorrect one) and say you have already missed the bus, and he can try and drive you to catch the bus at the next bus stop which isn't far away.

Then he will drive you to a bus stop outside of town, when by time you realise this is taking a long time, and ask how long, he will say it's not far. Next you know it you are sitting in a car in the middle of nowhere on an hour journey.

He will then drop you to the bus, where the bus will be waiting and demand money from you and get aggressive until you pay it. This option people have paid $110 - $200 dollars by being forced to pay so quickly and not given the chance to convert the exchange rate. The only person I have met that paid less than this $55 dollars, was someone who threatened to call the police, and they later found out (after speaking with us) that they were at the correct bus stop in the first place, and he told them it was the wrong one!

Scam 3 - the smaller scam and one we didn't fall for.

Same as the above myself and my partner Eddie we're approached by a 'helpful' taxi driver. He told us there was a national day and we had to get to on the last bus to the airport leaving in 3 minutes and he would take us for $3 dollars, otherwise we have no way to get there.

We said no, as we want to go shopping and had already passed the airport to come into town, and he told us everything was closed, not even a McDonald's was open or anywhere to access wifi. When I explained we passed places open on the high street whilst on the bus, and he told us that it was 20 minutes walk, going through the most dangerous part of the city. Everywhere did look quite dead with lights off, nothing was opened on this street, and then he continued to say if we've now missed that bus, but he could try and take us to a place we could get food, out of the city centre, and then there was a bus there away from the protests that would cost a dollar to the airport.

I analysed the conversation, and he gave us some facts that were correct as I had researched some things before, and he could have been telling the truth, but I wanted to make my own decision and have time to think about what we were going to do. We already passed the airport purposely to come into town to shop, I wasn't going to pay 9000 colones ($16) to go all the way back in a cab.

We walked off, and he shouted to put our bags on our front because we would most likely be robbed on our walk. This wasn't entirely incorrect, i've heard that San Jose is pretty safe compared to other cities, but at night it goes back to being as dangerous as any other city, and we were walking through at 7.30pm. People were selling drugs, having a 'number 2' in the middle of the road, and just looking generally dodgy as!

We sped walk through, and little did you know, two roads down their was an entire high street full of shops and McDonald's. We popped in the Maccie Ds to get some wifi, and the bus terminal for the airport was one road away (walking distance from the other) with buses running till 10.30pm at night, and guess what, the bus only costs $1 dollar from there! THE LIAR, and of course, there were no roads being closed...

How to avoid the scam

Traveler's please note there are multiple bus stops in San Jose, and you could be at the correct bus stop and a taxi driver approach you to say you are at the wrong one and drive you miles out of the city to get money from you.

I have written a little blog post which you can also read with pictures of some bus stations.

Most importantly please download maps me, every traveler should have this and will show you all bus stations/roads even without wifi. For great travel information in Central America, I used Central Coasting

Make sure before you travel, that you know exactly the bus stop you need, and the last bus times. It's easy to jump on a bus from the border, and thinking you will get wifi connection in the city centre to search the rest of your journey. The less information you know the more of a target you are. Even when you have researched, be confident, time is on your hands, ignore people trying to rush you with 'protests, national days' they will even ask people at the bus stop to confirm...those people are working with them!

If you are just going into San Jose you can get off on the high street before the end terminal, and you can also get off earlier if its late and you are staying in San Jose.

This scam is probably at a lower level in other places, as mentioned they tried the same protest conversation for the shuttles at the border in Panama and we just laughed!

If you have had a similar experience in San Jose or anywhere else in the world, please do comment with details below to help travelers

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