I have traveled to Costa Rica a handful of times before with no issues. I usually travel with my passport on me for the most part. This time around I left my passport in the safe at the hotel for the whole trip. I have heard about random police checkpoints in the country, but I never ran into one until my last trip in November.
After a fun day of beach hopping around Tamarindo, we were driving back to our hotel in Papagayo in the evening. We ran into a police checkpoint about halfway back to the hotel. The police were nice and friendly, but they asked us for our passports, which were back in the hotel safe. It seemed to me that their English was limited, but I was fortunate to have a local wifi hotspot connection and used google translate to the best of my abilities. The one officer then decided to search the car for any drugs or alcohol, while the other one was calling “someone” at the station. Once our car was cleared, the other officer wanted to talk to someone on his phone that was more fluent in English.
The person on the other end of the line told me that since I did not have my passport with me, they could do one of two things. One, they could call a traffic police official to come out and write me a ticket, which could take an hour or more. Or two, I could pay the officers 60,000 Costa Rican Colons and go about my way. My friend and I did not have that amount of money on us, but the officers offered to take us to an ATM to withdraw money. My friend and myself were hesitant to give the officers money directly, but we did not want to wait and possibly suffer more consequences. We drove about an extra 5 miles into town to the closest ATM to pay the officers. Once I gave them the cash, I asked if there was a receipt, ticket, or anything in writing to prove I paid a “fine”. Both officers assured me that they made a radio call with our plate number and we should have no issues for the remainder of the night.
When we drove closer to the hotel, my friend said that maybe we should go to the Hard Rock Cafe, since it was just a bit out of the way and he collects Hard Rock Cafe items during his travels. Just before we got into Coco, there was another police checkpoint……. this time there was an official traffic police officer with them. I explained them what happened about 45 minutes earlier. At first, he did not believe me. Once I showed him my ATM receipt and that I had no cash on me, all three officers looked at each other, smirked, and then wished me a good night.
Once I got back to the United States, I did some research into this. It appears that the need for passports is to verify that you are still legally in the country within your visa period. Other than that, I have not seen or heard of anyone else paying a fine. If you have, comment and let me know! Did I get scammed? I may never know. If you do rent a car and drive in Costa Rica, please do yourself a favor and have your passport with you. It will save you time, and even possibly your money.