Colombia to Costa Rica – The Yellow Fever Adventure We Didn’t Plan For

Posted By Jeremy in North America

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Vaccinations for travelFor those who know us well, you’ve come to expect that we plan every little detail far more than most other travelers.  We research a lot, and only very rarely have unexpected surprises pop up on us.

I say this as the intro to this article so you can imagine our shock when we tried checking in to our flight from Cartagena, Colombia, to San Jose, Costa Rica, and were told we had to show our Yellow Fever vaccination records in order to fly.

You know, the ones that were lost when we were robbed in Peru.

Hello panic mode, my name is Jeremy.  I never thought I’d be seeing you this day.

The Morning in Question

Just like any other flight day, Angie and I went to the airport about 2 1/2 hours early (along with the normal mocking on her part about why I made us go so early when Cartagena’s airport is incredibly small).

We reached the check-in desk and found a very rude attendant who barely said anything to us for the first few minutes before pulling out two gems no traveler ever wants to hear:

  1. Can I see your Yellow Fever vaccination card?
  2. Do you have proof of onward travel?

As we’ve written a lot about proof of onward travel here, you can imagine that I almost always have my copy when we fly.  But since I’m mentioning it here today, you probably guessed by now that this was the one instance where I forgot to take a screenshot of the ticket and there was no wifi to be found.   Great.

As if this request isn’t enough to give a traveler a bad day, even though we did indeed have a flight booked, the request for our Yellow Fever vaccination card was even worse.

We had been vaccinated and both had several years remaining before needing another; however, when our passports were lost with our stolen bag so went our copies of our vaccination histories.  To make matters worse, our digital backups seemingly disappeared as well.

Our only options at this point seemed to be get a new vaccine (and miss our whole Costa Rica trip due to the 10-day waiting period before entry) or hope we could contact our respective travel clinics to get an emergency copy of our vaccine card sent to us ASAP.  No matter what, our chances of making the flight seemed impossible.

Our 2-hour countdown began.

A Whole Lot of Lies By a Whole Lot of People

Based on the first interaction with the worker at the check-in desk, I never thought she’d be one to provide any help.  At this point we thought we were just being discriminated against because the other passengers (most of whom were going to the USA after the flight to Panama) were not being asked for their certificates.

She kept insisting that it was a combination of Costa Rica’s policy and the “fact” that Yellow Fever is endemic to Colombia (which is arguable at best considering no other country seemingly requires the vaccination as we saw first hand by other guests checking in).  Before we ran off sulking and going on a wild goose chase to get the copies of our vaccination records, this very same employee came up with a possible solution:

We had to get a new certificate, and needed to ask the clinic to backdate the record by more than 10 days.

Not only did she tell us this idea herself, she knew the exact address of where to go. We could tell this was not the first time people have been turned away when trying to fly to Costa Rica.  We grabbed the first taxi we found and told him to drive into town as fast as possible- which was thankfully less than 10 minutes away.

During our discussion with the employee at the airport, we thought we were just going to get a fake certificate for a few dollars and be on our way.  But within moments of arriving to the clinic we found ourselves sitting up on a doctor’s bench and getting a needle injected hard into our arms that left us sore for several days later.

After throwing $80 and a few smiles at the workers at the clinic, we had our Yellow Fever certificate that was backdated to more than 10 days earlier.  Hopping into another taxi, we made it back to the airport just over an hour after we left and caught our flight with time to spare.

Something tells me Angie won’t be making fun of me for getting to an airport early ever again.

Costa Rica’s Crusade Against Yellow Fever

Upon arrival to Costa Rica, we were certain we were not going to get asked for our Yellow Fever card.  We thought the whole situation was one overly zealous airline employee doing everything by the book (as is the case of the onward travel requirement, which the second check-in attendant didn’t even ask for).

But unlike proof of onward travel, which no custom’s officer has ever asked us for, even in this case, the Costa Rican immigration officer asked to see our vaccination certificate!   Not only that, he pulled out his phone to ensure that we had received it more than 10 days earlier.

Talk about having your blood pumping hard for a moment there.

We got in to Costa Rica without issue, and other than being out $90 and having a sore shoulder for a few days, we had no issue whatsoever.  But we couldn’t let the issue lie there, we had to look into it more.

As it turns out, if you search for information on traveling to Costa Rica from South America, there are many reports of travelers needing to show Yellow Fever certificates and more stories about people being turned away at the airport than I’d like to see.   How we missed this upon during our research, I’ll never know.  What we have seen though is that Costa Rica is one of the strictest countries on the planet when it comes to this particular vaccine and there is little leeway for those who did not even visit the Yellow Fever zones in affected countries (such as those sticking only to big cities in Colombia).*

Ironically, just as there are tons of articles about this very topic in regards to travelers being asked in airports, there is almost an equal number of those saying they were never checked when crossing overland from Panama or other countries even if they had visited a destination with Yellow Fever prior to that (ignore the fact here that some parts of Panama also has Yellow Fever, too).

Unfortunately this is one issue we cannot recommend taking chances on, as the 10 day vaccination period before proper entry could be a vacation ruining event for those wanting to experience the stunning country that is Costa Rica as a part of a larger trip.

Until they change the rules for this, you better be prepared for anything.

*Note: It is important to highlight that Costa Rica does not have Yellow Fever.   You do not need the vaccine to enter Costa Rica on its own, and only require the vaccine if you have visited an affected country before your travels to the country.  This is an important distinction that many travelers overlook.

Have you ever had any problem with entering a country due to the vaccination requirements?  If so, comment below!

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  1. This is exactly the article I am looking for! I have lost my yellow fever cert and am in colombia at the moment, due to fly to Costa Rica on the 9th of October. Do you know if they would accept an email if I asked my Dr back in the UK for one?

    Post a Reply
    • In most cases they want the original copy. I can’t speak for what they’d accept as alternatives, but generally it is always supposed to be the original.

      Post a Reply
  2. Do you need a vaccination if you have a 1 stop flight from the US with a 2 hour layover at the Bogata airport? The US Costa Rican embassy has contradictory info. Yes and then no in exceptions.

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  3. That is rather unlucky that everybody was throwing the book at your.

    I had taken a cheap $50 plane from Wigo to Panama and then $30 worth of buses to Costa Rica and I was never asked for vaccination certificates. i have been to the Panama/Costa Rica border multiple times and they seeme pretty lax with me.

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  4. Is there a time limit on when you visit an affected country before CR? I am flying from the US to San Jose. I traveled to Colombia exactly one year ago. Do I need my immunization records in this case>

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    • Typically it is six months, but I’m neither a medical professional nor a representative from CR so I do not know their exact policy. I’d probably take the record if you have it just in case.

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  5. I just returned to my place in Bogotá after being turned town at the airport for Costa Rica. So disappointed. It will also cost me 81GBP to change my outbound flight. I’m sure airlines are making a lot of money off this. I would’ve thought they would at least inform their passengers rather than shrugging their shoulders.

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  6. Had the same thing happen on my trip back from galapagos. The agent woulddt issue the boarding pass without YF certificate. With the 10 day rule, I ended up extending my stay in quito for 3 more days, only to fly though san jose instead of getting a taste.
    Oh well. Almost related I plan to go to peru and columbia, both separate trips, but similar format:

    Is YF mandated on the flight back to the US? Your article says otherwise. Just want to confirm. TIA and happy travels!

    Post a Reply
    • I can’t say for sure on that route. When we got home from our trip about a month after visiting Colombia (and then later Costa Rica where they asked and Mexico), no one asked when we arrived back at customs. I can’t say if you’re taking the flight from Colombia to the USA directly though as it is possible the airline staff might, but the US agent may not- or the other way around.

      If you got your vaccination on the last trip, I believe those are good for quite some time (10 years) so your old certificate may still cover you.

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  7. I’m hanging out in Santa Marta Colombia right now for the next 10 days because of the same problem. Tried to board a plane to La Paz, Bolivia yesterday. No Bueno. Can’t go to Peru or Equador as well they said.

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    • Woah, I’ve never heard of that before. Couldn’t you get someone to backdate the shot record for you?

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      • Didn’t know I could do that! Chilling at the beach for 10 days isn’t bad, but now I might need to skip Peru…

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  8. Yikes – what a rigamarole! I am terrified of being caught without documents, so usually email scanned copies to me and my parents so that we have coverage if anything gets stolen. Fingers crossed that we never have to rely on that!

    Post a Reply
    • Went back to the airport after my 10 days of purgatory. No one asked for yellow fever documents at any point… It was just that one lady!

      Post a Reply

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