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These stories were published Wednesday, July 6, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 132
Jo Stuart
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Hotel cabs seem to set their own ride rates
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Taxi cabs that work with hotels have flouted the rates established by governmental authorities.

The financial impact of the tacit approval by officials falls heavily on tourists and other visitors to Costa Rica.

Although Costa Rica has clearly defined rates for public services like taxis, drivers charge up to four times the legal amount, basically what they think the traffic can bear. Because their passengers typically are visitors, riders pay jacked-up rates unaware of what is happening.

Taxi drivers at hotels justify their higher rates because they frequently have to wait for customers. But so do taxi drivers at traditional cab lineups elsewhere in the city.
In addition to hotels, the ad hoc rate structure can be found at some malls and even some restaurants, mostly those frequented by visitors and tourists.

A taxi driver at the Radisson Hotel Tuesday claimed to be working under the supervision of the hotel and that the hotel sets the rates.

An employee of the Radisson Hotel defended the practice Tuesday when a reporter complained that a taxi driver at the door demanded 1,000 colons for a 400-colon trip. He did not plan to use the required taxi meter, the so-called maría. The Radisson employee, María del Pilar Alvarez, identified herself as the head of reception at the hotel.

Ms. Alvarez claimed that the taxis belonged to the hotel and even chastised a taxi driver because he did not have a Radisson sign in his window. She said that the Radisson management establishes the rates. The taxi

A.M. Costa Rica/Jesse Froehling
This meter was not in use during a ride

carried a license plate, TSJ-1197, showing that it is a licensed taxi authorized by the government.

Costa Rican law is clear on this point. Only the Authoridad Reguladora de Servicios Públicos can establish rates. The higher prices charged by hotel cabs seem to be a long-standing informal practice that even some cab drivers admit is illegal.  Some hotels downtown have signs posted saying that they do not control the taxis and that the rider is on his or her own.

Another reporter verified the hotel practices later Tuesday by taking a three-legged trip from Hospital Calderón Guardia to the Radisson to the Gran Hotel Costa Rica and back to the hospital. During the three short trips none of the drivers used the taxi meter. And the total cost of the trips was 3,500 colons, more than twice what it should have been. That's about $7.30 at the current exchange rate.

Taxis are regulated by arms of the Minsterio de Obras Públicas y Transporte although the rates are set by the regulatory authority. It was a meeting with ministry officials that brought the reporter to the Radisson Tuesday.

They are happy to charge about $4 a mile
Jesse Froehling
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The use of taxi meters seems to be optional in San José.

Drivers in the cabs parked in front of the west side of Calderón Guardia Hospital in San José generally wait in line as people trickle out of the hospital and hail their services.  A North American in his 20s, dressed rather touristy in torn jeans, a soccer jacket and a camera around his neck, approached the first cab in line.  The young driver looked up as the young man approached.

“Hotel Radisson,” said the would-be passenger.

“500 colons” (a little over a dollar), said the driver.

“Does that meter work?” asked the young man.

“Uh, yeah, but uh, when we go to hotels, we don't use them.”  Fair enough, thought the passenger as he hopped in.  The Radisson was only a long walk away, and the cab driver was kind enough to bring the young man through the gate, along the windy path, and through the loop to the hotel entrance, where he deposited his fare safely at his destination. 

“How much?” asked the man.

“Uh, 500 colons,” answered the driver.

“You got a receipt?”

“Yeah, receipt.”  The driver dug around in his glove box until he found a business card. 

“How's this?” the driver asked.  Fair enough, thought the young man as he took the card. 

The Radisson was uneventful.  The young man was on a mission. He waited a bit and then returned to the entrance.  Luckily for him, there was a cab waiting.

“Hey, Amigo,”  The young man turned around and saw his new driver dressed professionally in slacks and a shirt and tie.    
“Where are you going?”  he asked. 

“Gran Hotel Costa Rica,” said the young man.

“1000 colons,”

“Does that meter work?”

“Uh, yeah, but we don't use them here.”  The young man thought that he was starting to see a pattern.  But, fair enough, he thought, and hopped in.

When the cab arrived at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, the passenger asked the cab driver for a receipt.  The cab driver squinted one eye and clenched his jaw before he whipped out a receipt pad.  On the blank receipt, the driver wrote “¢ 1,000” in the value box and then drew a line straight down to the total box where he reaffirmed that the cab ride cost 1,000 colons.  He left everything else blank.    The fare was a little more than $2. It should have been at least half that.

The young passenger thanked the cab driver and entered the Gran Hotel Costa Rica. 

A few minutes later at the hotel entrance, a concierge was kind enough to hail a cab for the same young man.  The hotel worker promised the young man that the cabs were completely safe but added that these hotel cabs ran on strict rates, not on meters. The concierge assured the passenger that the ride would cost 500 colons “more or less.”

The cab driver drove the young man back up to the hospital.  During this ride, the passenger noticed that this driver also had a meter but, like the those in other taxis, it was off.

“How much?” asked the young man as he neared the hospital.  The driver thought a bit before he answered.

“The man told you 2,500 colons right?” said the driver.  The young man tried to stop the smile from creeping across his face but failed.
“Oh, all right,” said the cab driver.  “Just give me 2,000 colons.”

That amount is about four times the normal fare and totals about $4.20 or about $4 a mile.

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Pacheco signs orders
to restrict travel

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The government is urging its units to decentralize and even to consider some kind of long-distance work as part of the plan to reduce dependency on petroleum.

The government institutions also have been urged to offer electronic access in order to eliminate visits in person by citizens to the Central Valley.

Meanwhile various government agencies will be studying the possible use of ethanol and biodiesel fuels.

These were some of the specifics of twin directives signed Tuesday by President Abel Pacheco in an effort to reduce the use of foreign fuel here.

One directive sets the hours of some government employees as being from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a period of six months.  However, Pacheco ordered that public services will not suffer.

The second directive gives ministries 22 days to put into effect various plans to reduce metropolitan area congestion. One aspect is to forbid drivers to bring their vehicle one day a week into the commercial zone of San José. That is the area between avenidas 9 and 16 and calles 11 and 22.

Vehicles with the last license plate digit of 1 or 2 are forbidden on Monday. Those with 3 or 4 may not travel in the zone on Tuesday. Wednesday vehicles with the last digit of 5 or 6 are forbidden. Thursday the numbers are 7 and 8. Friday the forbidden digits are 9 and 0.

The directive says that similar procedures might be extended to other congested areas in the country.

The directives take effect when they are published in the official newspaper, the La Gaceta.

New contralora still
controversial person

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The president of the Asamblea Legislativa successfully swore in Rocío Aguilar Montoya as the new contralora de la República Tuesday — but not without controversy.

Mrs. Aguilar is controversial because she got the job without being in the pool of candidates who applied.

Tuesday officially there were 41 legislators in the assembly chambers for the ceremony. They had to be a quorum (38) for the swearing-in to take place.

Juan José Vargas Fallas, a deputy and a presidential candidate, protested that there was no quorum. Then he left the room. However, Gerardo González Esqivel,  the assembly president, said that the closed circuit television would prove sufficient deputies were on hand.

After Vargas left, he gave a press conference in which he alleged bad management by Mrs. Aguilar in her previous capacity as head of the Consejo Nacional de Concesiones. Deputies have not had a chance to study her record.

However, some deputies, mainly women, including Joyce Zürcher, Laura Chinchilla, Liliana Salas, Ligia Zúñiga and Rocío Ulloa, presented a document expressing their support of the decision that resulted in the first female boss of the Controlaria in history.

Did someone lose
a plane in Golfito?

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Someone ditched an airplane at the Golfito airport last Wednesday, and police now think that the craft was used in drug smuggling.

With U.S. Naval and Coast Guard ships pretty well shutting down sea transport of drugs, smugglers are turning to overland and air routes.

Investigators think that the aircraft has a false registration, although it is not unusual for persons to leave aircraft at the Golfito location for extended periods.

The aircraft has been moved to the Central Valley. If it is not claimed, it will be confiscated. Agents said that dogs trained to sniff out drugs alerted them that at one time drugs were carried in the craft.

Fighting in Colombia
displacing civilians

Special to A.M. Costa Rica

The United Nations has expressed concern about thousands of civilians who have been displaced from their homes by armed conflict near Colombia's southwestern border with Ecuador.

In a statement, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said heavy fighting in Colombia's long internal conflict has displaced more than 1,200 Awá indigenous people in Colombia's Nariño province during the last few days.  Some 116 Awá Indians have crossed from the province into Ecuador's territory to escape the fighting.

U.N. spokesman Ron Redmond said the world body fears that hundreds more people may be displaced in the area or find themselves trapped in their villages by the fighting, "unable to find enough food and living under extremely dangerous security conditions."

Redmond added that a blockade against the movement of people and goods, the presence of anti-personnel mines, unexploded munitions, heavy material damage and loss of livestock could "hamper the reintegration of the displaced in the event they return to their homes following the end of hostilities."

The United Nations said an estimated 4,000 people in Colombia's Putumayo province have been unable to move to safer areas in Colombia due to the destruction of several bridges during the fighting.

The United Nations and the government of Colombia announced May 27 that it was launching a joint emergency campaign to help 20,000 Colombians who have been forced to flee from their homes because of the country's internal conflict.

The United Nations said these refugees are living in severely overcrowded conditions.

Drug lord or architect?
Only the DNA will know

By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MÉXICO CITY, México — Television reports have challenged claims by the Mexican government that it has captured Vicente Carrillo, leader of the powerful Juarez drug cartel.

A spokesman for President Vicente Fox had said Monday that a man believed to be the head of the illegal drug operation was arrested in a Mexico City shopping mall Saturday.

But, while prosecutors await the results of DNA tests to check the man's identity, television reports are saying the man arrested is actually Joaquin Romero Aparicio, an architect who simply resembles the drug kingpin.

Vicente Carrillo reportedly has had extensive plastic surgery to change his appearance. He is the brother of former cartel leader Amado Carrillo, who died during a botched plastic surgery operation in 1997. His death led to the murders of a handful of plastic surgeons who participated in the operation.
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A.M. Costa Rica/José Pablo Ramírez Vindas

New planetarium ready to open at university
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Central Valley is getting a new planetarium, and the director sees it not only as an educational tool but as a tourist attraction. The planetarium is in the Ciudad de la Investigación of the Universidad de Costa Rica in San Pedro.

Jorge Páez, the director, said that in addition to other possibilities the center offers the chance to attract foreign tourists who want to learn about the astronomy of Mesoamérica and the secrets of pre-Columbian astronomy.

The facility is a 500-square meter building put up with a grant of $500,000 from the government of Japan. The university invested 200 million colons, some $420,000. The facility will be inaugurated Friday at 10 a.m.

The domed planetarium projection salon contains 40 seats that can recline at 45 degrees so visitors can see the sky show played out above. In addition there are some 146 square meters of corridor for exhibits.

Naturally, the operators of the facilities have big plans for younger students. Páez sees the facility as a way to stimulate young boys and girls and encourage an interest in science, technology and recreation. Advances in astronomy, astrophysics and space science have awakened in the last 30 years a growing interest among students, he noted. 

The Centro de Investigaciones Espaciales of the university promoted the planetarium as did the Escuela de Fisica.

Projector is ready and waiting

Páez and his staff also see the facility as a center of cultural enrichment for everyone.

The projector can duplicate the night sky of both hemispheres and the movements of the sun the moon, the planets and even comets. The projection is with panoramic effects with sound and special effects.

A.M. Costa Rica readership growth continues to be impressive
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A.M. Costa Rica readership grew 52 percent from June 2004 to June 2005, according to statistics from the newspaper's Internet site.

Monthly readership statistics showed a slight decline in June, a month with just 30 days.

Total readers were down slightly from 97,576 in May to 95,124 in June, some 2.5 percent. May was the month with the highest readership in the publication's history. Total hits also declined from 2.35 million in May to 2.23 million during June, some 5.2 percent.

However, the newspaper still registered impressive
gains over June 2004 when there were 1.25 million hits and 62,585 readers. The newspaper continues a tradition of making its readership statistics public by posting the numbers each month.

The gains are even more impressive when compared to the drastic decline in readership of many print newspapers which have continued to seek higher and higher advertising rates and cover prices to compensate for increased production and distribution costs.

Typically the most growth for the four-year-old daily newspaper has been from November to March. Managers expect another strong growth surge this year, too.

Cuban regime on last legs, U.S. interests chief says
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
HAVANA, Cuba — Change is inevitable in Cuba, and the United States and others will work with the Cuban people as they build a democratic and prosperous country, says James Cason, chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

In his July 4 final remarks to the U.S. Interests Section before leaving his post, Cason outlined U.S. efforts to encourage a democratic, free and prosperous Cuba, focusing in particular on efforts to assist Cuban pro-democracy activists.

As part of these efforts, Cason noted, the United States has increased the amount of uncensored information available to Cubans, including books, radios, newspapers, and extensive free and uncensored Internet access.  The U.S. official pointed out that the United States also engages Cubans via video-conferences on issues such as democratic transitions, rule of law, and market economies.

Within this context, however, Cason stressed that the U.S. Interests Section has not given — and does not give —  money to members of Cuba's civil society.

Cason also defended U.S. efforts against complaints that they are overly "provocative."

He said: "Is it provocative to point out that Cubans live under one of the most repressive regimes in the
world?  Is it provocative to remind Western journalists of Cuba's 300 political prisoners?  Is it outside the scope of normal diplomatic activity to provide uncensored information to Cubans?  [Is] holding events for pro-democratic Cuban dissidents or their family members provocative?  Should we instead abandon Cubans to isolation from the real world?"

Cason added that nothing has come from being polite to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  Moreover, he indicated that if the United States thought keeping quiet or lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba would encourage political reforms, the United States would be quiet and resume commercial ties with Cuba.

Reflecting on Cuba's future, Cason said that the Castro regime is on its last legs, and significant change is inevitable.

"I'm confident that the Cuban people will not be satisfied with a partial economic opening, but will demand that Cuba undergo a thorough democratic transition," he said.

In the meantime, Cason encouraged the Cuban people to be ready to work for democratic change, adding that they can count on continued U.S. support.

"When that time comes, the United States and others will be at your side to help you build a democratic, prosperous Cuba — a Cuba where all Cubans can realize their dreams," he said.

An analysis on the news
The problem in Bolivia is the growing expectations
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

LA PAZ, Bolivia — This was Bolivia in May and June: Roadblocks and sometimes violent street protests that have choked off fuel supplies to the country's main cities. Much of the country's economy was brought to a standstill. Labor and indigenous Indian groups demanded nationalization of the oil and gas industry. Business interests reacted to the protests by demanding autonomy for energy-rich eastern provinces. All these are the elements of a political crisis that forced a Bolivian president to resign for the second time in two years.

President Carlos Mesa relinquished the presidency June 6, saying he could no longer lead Bolivia in the face of the unrest. Mesa rose to power in 2003 after bloody popular protests forced the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada. But Mesa proved no more able than his predecessor to hold on to Bolivia's highest office in the face of popular discontent.

Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American dialogue says South America's poorest country faces major challenges even though it has had a string of democratically elected governments in the past two decades.

Bolivia has confronted serious crisis recently because of the lack of ability of the government to respond to the growing demands and expectations of groups that have been excluded from the political system previously, primarily indigenous groups, said Shifter. Bolivia is 60 percent Indian.

The World Bank says more than 60 percent of Bolivia's population lives in poverty. 2003 statistics showed the country's annual per capita income at $900 dollars a year, a decline since the late 1990s.

Indigenous and labor groups have spearheaded the protest movement. This movement gained new strength in May when a law increasing taxes on foreign oil companies went into effect. The law calls for a 32 percent tax on foreign oil companies in addition to an existing 18 percent royalty tax already on the books. However, protest leaders thought the law did not go far enough. They demanded nationalization of the entire oil and gas industry and the redistribution of its profits to the country's poor.

One of the best-known protest leaders is legislator Evo Morales, coca grower, a member of congress, and former presidential candidate. "He is somebody who
first really represented the coca growers and then, he has become more a symbol of the broader movement, that not only includes coca growers, but also those who are protesting economic policies, the export of natural gas and really anti-globalization," said Shifter

Evo Morales demonstrated the extent of his influence over the protesters when on June 9, Congress chose Supreme Court Chief Eduardo Rodríguez as interim president, Shifter said. Noted that protesters suspended their movement at Morales' request in a show of goodwill towards the new president.

Upon taking office, Rodríguez said Bolivians must work to, in his words, restore the republic. However, he may be facing another challenge. The protest movement has generated a backlash in Santa Cruz and some of Bolivia's other energy-rich eastern provinces. Pro-business groups there are demanding more autonomy from the central government.

The current unrest has not gone unnoticed around the Western Hemisphere, and some argue that Bolivia has now become part of a regional political chess game. Stephen Donehoo is an analyst at Kissinger, McLarty and Associates, a Washington-based consulting firm. He notes that Venezuela's leftist government has made a name for itself as a leading critic of the United States and of classical liberal policies. Donehoo argues that Venezuela is financing leftist movements in several Latin American countries, including Bolivia.

Donehoo says, "I am convinced that Venezuela is helping fuel feelings of unhappiness with democracy's ability to deliver resources, health, education in all these countries."

In fact, Roger Noriega, U.S. assistant secretary of State, expressed his concern last month over what he called the role of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the Bolivian crisis. But Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez dismissed the claim, demanding that Noriega back up his allegations and saying that Venezuela scrupulously respects Bolivia's sovereignty.

In fact, Venezuelan President Chavez says that if anything, it is U.S., supported free market and free trade policies that have brought Bolivian tensions close to the boiling point.

Meanwhile, interim President Rodríguez says he has no intention of completing Carlos Mesa's term, which runs until 2007. Last week, the Bolivian Congress began a debate on whether to hold early general elections late this year in a bid to end the  crisis.

Jo Stuart
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