Golfito Coast

To get the most bang for your buck, join the scores of locals and expats for bargain shopping extravaganzas on name brands in southern Golfito’s highlight destination: the Duty Free Zone. Purchasing proliferates in cheap abundance in this old banana port town that hosts this famous mall.

The government had attempted to stimulate Golfito as a Duty Free Zone after 1985, when its years thriving as the United Fruit Company’s banana port had ended due to disputes and labor taxes, prompting the company to relocate their business to Ecuador. This effort has made the picturesque Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) a namesake popular destination. What may seem reminiscent of an old Tom Waits’ port town, soon develops into 7 km of charming jellybean housing, converted plantations into ritzy expat mansions, postcard panoramic views of the gulf’s waters, and the Golfito National Wildlife Refuge’s forest climbing high on the right.

I was afforded a tour to experience a typical annual trek through the lower Eastern Golfo Dulce coast’s geographically dense tapestry, architecturally historical towns, and most importantly, to stock my tall order at half prices from the major country chains.

Set as a circular mini-mall style carousel within a gated parameter, we looped around the concrete wall past the teeming markets of local barters. On the left was a convenient open parking garage, which although tight, was surprisingly coherent and controlled.  We scribbled our license plate to pass into the guard as a record before entering.

costa rica duty free zone
Golfito duty free zone

Our initial skeptical reactions to the ruddy, graying interior were quickly replaced with a focused insatiable gawking at all of the great US brands significantly reduced! Our first and only stop was direct to the famous “Gollo” chain for quality half off appliances such as Oster brand blenders, coffee makers, cooking props and cell phones. Entire families were there with lists forged and fulfilled through cohesive teamwork. Hordes of big-ticket items like sinks, washers, ovens, mattresses, and furniture were all loaded on rented moving vans for the weekend. Residents and business owners were stocking like wildfire.

Most notably was how the typical laid-back attitude was replaced with efficient, timely and effective service from floor managers. A simple, inquisitive look elicited prompt assistance in all languages. With paper they provided, they wrote the numbers of items we desired. When our appetite was officially satiated, we then moved our way to the payment line located in the back of each chain store with these lists.

The pesky situation foreigners digress over, regarding the 24 hour waiting period on your purchases, or complications tourists had to obtain buying documents (paperwork that allows you to purchase and check out like a resident), were all but myths and resolved by the time we arrived at the payment line. All in thanks to the crafty go-between men, who quickly provide their services and allow you to use their paperwork and buying document for a cheap fee of 2000 colones, roughly 4 dollars.

After the manager instructed our go-between man to await us on our exit, we waited in the payment line, received stamped receipts, brought them to an assembly line of men dumping the boxes like cargo down to the patiently waiting shoppers, showed our receipts, and waddled our items to the “checking” exit. They opened up the boxes to allow us to see it was operating and new. Once outside, we simply spotted our go-between man who waved us to the checkout aisles as he showed his buyers documents to the guard. We paid him his 4 dollars, and in a snap were back to our rented mini-van!

The parking garage attendant had our license plate noted and upon exiting, we paid a mere fee of 1 dollar for our time well spent.

The hours for the Duty Free Zone’s mall are Tuesday-Saturday from 8am-8pm and Mondays from 1pm-8pm. It is recommended to get an early start! With the Costanera Sur highway, it makes for an easily accessible and short 4-hour trip from Manuel Antonio. Suffice to say, with the fidelity to natural conservation in the South, and the advantages to one-stop shop-til-you-drop for half off, Golfito, and in particular, the Duty Free Zone, it is well worth the trip.

  • starrsy

    What would have been helpful would be clear concise writing with specifics about the zone. Why annual? What are the rules? Comparison prices would have been helpful.

  • tommyd

    This is super-great and really helpful! Thanks.

  • Kimberly Byrne

    Thank you for prompting me to clarify-
    Large scale shopping visits require procedural organization, and to capitalize on time and expenses, are preferably done in a one-stop visit by most families, yearly. For residents and foreigners: arrive the day before to collect your free “TAC” card (Tarjeta de Autorizacion de Compra) using your Costa Rican ID (cedula), or passport, at the entrance’s booth, which is an authorization to purchase card. You must be over 18 years. The booth opens Mondays 1pm-8pm, and Tuesday-Saturday 8am-8pm. I stated I had the help of “gavilones” or “tipos” as go-between men. They have been known to help supply “TAC” cards through “family” allowing most foreigners to shop without staying overnight, while passing through (for tips of course), bypassing the overnight stay enacted to help the resident’s restaurant and tourism endeavors.

    Legally, to make the zone tax-free, restrictions are as follows: exemption from sales taxes is only valid twice a year. Each person has limited purchases of $2,000 per year, which is divided into 2 buying semesters (January through June and July through December, therefore every 6 months, $1,000 worth of purchasing each semester). You cannot attempt to carry over the first semester’s $1,000 to the second semester to create a $2,000 purchasing power unless you combine 2 cards (which is only allowed for first-degree relatives) to double your purchase power per semester. To combine, you must furnish proof you are related (parents, children, siblings or spouses). Cargo shipping back to San Jose can be arranged through the chains, 2-3% of the price of the products. Outside trucking firms deliver to warehouses or houses the next day for $20. Police stops and check points along the way ask for documentation of the purchases- paperwork, receipts.

    Count on the 13% Costa Rica sales tax savings, the frequent sales, as well as requests for discounts of up to 5% on larger items for payment in cash. Banco Popular, Banco de Costa Rica, and Banco National provide cash withdrawal cajas. Major chains such as El Gallo, Importadora Monge, or Casa Blanca offer 50% off. A plastic based Oster 10-function blender cost $38.00 with cash payment, compared to the El Gollo’s model in Uvita for $80.00. A local reported buying a washer and dryer for the same price as one washer in San Jose. Furthermore, to ship furniture and large items from the US ranges in cost from 40-90% of the price of the product, plus shipping.
    Thank you for reading and I appreciate all responses!