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

Last Updated on by Jeremy

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For 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

Vaccinations for travel

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 was to 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 arguably 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 (sadly, we don't remember this information). 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 at the clinic, we found ourselves sitting 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 into 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. Likewise, we sadly do not have the information for the clinic we visited. In our rush at the time, we lost the information in the commotion. All we remember is that the attendant at the check-in desk told us where to go.

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

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29 thoughts on “Colombia to Costa Rica – The Yellow Fever Adventure We Didn’t Plan For”

  1. Hi Jeremy, you have no idea how helpful this post is for me right now! My family and I are spending some time in Colombia before heading to Aruba for a week, and I just found out today about the yellow fever vaccine requirement that Aruba just established for travelers from Colombia. We are flying to Cartagena tomorrow and will be there for the next few days, so I am hoping we can get the vaccine there and ask them to backdate it. Did they think it was a normal request, or did you have to convince them? Also, could you please tell me the name and location of the clinic you went to? Thank you SO MUCH, you made my day and gave me some hope!!

    • Hi Laura,

      My partner ran into the same problem! I was meeting him in Aruba but I flew from Canada so there was no problem but he was coming from Columbia as well. Can you please let me know how you went about this and which clinic? If it seemed normal? I am having a panic attack here as we only have a week in Aruba!

  2. Great post, not so great story…

    I’m a Brazilian living in the US and leave for a family trip to Colombia in 2 weeks. As it happens, I have never taken the yellow fever vaccine and can’t find a clinic in the Bay area that isn’t charging less than $300. Meanwhile, my mom just walked in at a public clinic in Brazil, got her shot for free and was out within 10 minutes.

    As you can guess, I’m pretty frustrated with the situation. I’m considering getting the vaccine in Bogota upon arrival –it seems like none of you had issues getting into Colombia without the immunization certificate? I’ll be there for exactly 10 days, so would be good to fly back to the US (through Panama) by the end of the trip.

    • Hi Juliane, that is a good question. We did not have any issues entering Colombia without a yellow fever certificate. That being said, we crossed by land and left by air. Generally I think all airports and customs at airports are going to be much more strict than at borders. I can’t say I know what Colombia’s policy is officially when entering (land or air) to say whether we just got lucky or not.

  3. oh nevermind I just realized you were flying from another city. I will have to just keep trying clinics until I find the right one. No need to make either of these public. Thanks again

    • I was asked about yellow fever at the airport by the airline so I showed them my immunization/vaccination records and they said great your good to go. It was my ignorance for not realizing I didn’t have what they were asking for (yellow fever). After travelling extensively for years sometimes I forget what I have and don’t have for vaccinations so rely on the book for reference. I should have checked myself. I was allowed to board the plane in Medellin Feb 18, 2018 and landed in Nicaragua. I was then refused entry by doctors and immigration. The airline asked if I wanted to fly to El Salvador (San Salvador) or back to Medellin. I had done my research for vaccinations requirements to countries in Canada and like many others never considered the effects of visiting Colombia prior to travelling to these central countries. I asked for a ticket back to Medellin. I am extremely fortunate to have chose the flight back to Medellin as El Salvador would have refuse entry as well for not having yellow fever vaccination. It was a very costly learning experience but as any seasoned traveler understands, it’s the bumps in the road that create lasting memeories and I will hopefully not make the same mistake again.

      Kelly
      Canada

    • Hey. Have a similar problem to yours. I was in Costa Rica 2 months ago and my Passeport got stolen long with my yellow fever certificate. I was able to make a new Passeport but compeltely forgot about the vaccination. I am now in Colombia and have to travel to Costa Rica in a week. My mom is gonna get a copy and send it to me as a picture, would that be enough to show them or do I need the real certificate?

      Thanks so much

      • A copy may work, but it is entirely possible they’ll want an original with a real signature. The only way you can be really sure is to check with the airport security and Costa Rica’s immigration office and see what they say.

  4. Hey! This article is definitely helpful. I am currently at the Bogota Airport and had the exact same problem. They are telling me I can get a vaccination here at the airport for free but I am assuming it’d be harder to get them to backdate it here. They open in 2.5 hours so that will be my first attempt. Any chance you could reveal the name of the clinic that you went to? If you don’t want to post it publicly my email is caleb@backtotheroots.org Thanks!!

  5. This just happened to me trying to fly to Nicaragua! Nicaragua updated their policy only a month ago, long after I had planned my trip. Of course, today is also a Saturday and a holiday, so everything is closed. How long did it take at the clinic? I’m trying to arrange a new flight on Monday but afraid of cutting it too close since it opens at 8am and the next flight is at 9:30am.

    • Hi Paige, that is awful to hear about the issues! We definitely were only at the clinic for about a half hour; however, I think we got very lucky that there was no line. I think a 9:30am flight would be pushing it, but I do not know the logistics of where you may be flying from (the distance from Cartagena’s clinic to the airport was not far at all). I can’t say if other cities would be the same though. Please keep us updated on how things go!

  6. I’m stuck at the airport in Panama at the moment trying to figure out what to do. I have the vaccinations, but alas – the certificate is gone. My friends are waiting for me in Costa Rica and I regret not researching this earlier. Hah.

    I’m considering taking the bus, hoping they won’t check my entry date to Panama on entering Costa Rica. Fuck. I’m tired, haven’t eaten all day and all my money went into cancelling the onward flight. Hah.

    • Hi Mia, I am so sorry to hear about the hassles you are going through! From my understanding Panama is less strict on checking these things, but at the same time I would be paranoid about going to the border and getting turned away. Probably have a lot easier time getting a new vaccine, if needed, in the city vs at a border town. Please keep us updated on how things are going!

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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>

    • 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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:
    USA-CUN-CUZ/BOG

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

    • 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

    • 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!

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