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A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 2)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up with part 1, and follow up with part 3, part 4 and part 5.

Awoke at 6:30 to catch my bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Managua, Nicaragua. Too early. No time to grab food at the station, luckily I still had some Lebanese burritos left. Although I thought I understood that you can’t buy bus tickets the morning of the bus, that wasn’t strictly true.

Hopped on the bus. Asked for a window seat and went to the back. An Australian guy came with me and we chatted. He’s been traveling for ten months through South America. Lived in Buenos Aires for a bit and Medellin, Columbia too. One more person who swears that’s one of the best cities in Latin America.

Bus ride was uneventful. Slept some. Looked at the gorgeous Central American scenery. Border was easy. Lots of people changing money (cambio men), selling stuff and begging. Routine-feeling 30 minutes later we were on our way. Around 5:15 or so, only 45 minutes late, we arrived at the Managua bus station. I fought off a few of the taxi drivers, letting them know I was going to take the bus to the airport, that I didn’t need their services.

I was going to walk around and see some more of the city but a guy started talking to me in very clear and only lightly accented English. “you said you’re going to take the bus? It’s in the other direction.” “Yes, but later.” “OK. If you’re planning on taking it after 7pm it doesn’t run because of the rush hour. And then after that it’s dark and a bit dangerous. Too far down that way is dangerous and the other way too. If you just want to like check Internet, have a soda or something then have a seat at this cafe. She makes great food too.” “Sounds good. Want to have a Coke with me?” So we talked a while. His family fled to the US in the early 80s during the civil war. He lived there until he was deported due to being arrested 3 times (3 strikes law). Lived in California, Miami, North Carolina. Name is Harold Bernard. His dad was half French and gave everybody French names. Interesting character.

We talked about an hour and it was starting to get dark so I asked him to grab me a taxi. He rode with me to do some translating and because in Central America you almost always want to have 2-3 people in the car with you just in case. The car was falling apart. We had to push it to get it started, the doors had no interior and it smelled slightly of burning oil. “This is the real Nicaraguan taxi experience,” Harold told me. At the airport I met a friend and we met the car that was going to take us to our hostel for the night.

Got to the airport and caught a taxi. 150 cords because I had a local who could get the good price. At bus station they took care of me and spoke slowly. Made me first in line and printed out my flight itinerary for the Costa Rican border folks. This bus is full.

There was a British lady complaining about getting a 60 day rather than a 90 day visa stamp. They gave me a 90 day visa. Much easier and more friendly than the UK Border Authority.

Maybe she wasn’t out of the country 3 days, that’s a question on the immigration form. I guess it’s to prevent living here on a tourist visa, as I suspect she is doing.

She also had fruit in her bag and complained that they took it. This isn’t the EU, lady. They ask you on the customs form if you have any fruits and veggies and I’m guessing you said you didn’t.

Napped sometimes. Watched scenery others. Got to enjoy about 6 hours of this and arrived at the Liberia dropoff point around noon. Grabbed some cash from the ATM in the local currency, US Dollars. Taxi to the airport and ready for the 2pm shuttle.

But the Internet lied to me. There was no 2pm shuttle. I was stranded.

Time to check options. It’d be about 5 hours by 3 local busses, assuming time tables were correct, and I was pretty sure they weren’t given the rainy season tends to play hell on them. Taxi would be $150 minimum. Rental car would be $70 plus insurance and gas and is have to bring it back to an airport 100 miles away from where I was flying back home from.

Different strategy: lose a half day for better options, more certainty and lower cost. Going to San Jose would be about 2h or so and it would give 3 direct, fast bus options to La Fortuna the next day. And if I took the 6am bus I’d get there in the morning around 9:30. Also more flexibility. Perhaps a flight change to come home sooner. Yep. Good options.

So back into Liberia to the local bus station. Busses every hour from the country’s second city to its first. And the bus passes through Cañas on the way so I can check it out an see what’s up. If it looks like I won’t get stranded then I can bail on that plan. Sweet. I set off.

An hour later, Cañas looked very promising with several hotels and some shops. Not a city by any means, but not the jungle either. Quick bus change and I’m on my way to Tilaran. Problem. No buses through to La Fortuna until the next morning. Oops. The info desk at the airport must have had bad info.

A quick stop at a cafe lets me talk to the folks at the hostel. It ought to be $50 for a taxi. Alright that’s better than $25 for a hotel and a delayed start in the morning. Also cuts travel time in half. Found a drive with good English but he wouldn’t go below $70 even upon threat of losing the fare to somebody else. Boo. But I’m low on time, it’s raining and I want to knock out my travel. $20 extra to the travel logistics teacher and I’m on my way along the gorgeous circum volcanic lake road.

Dark fell an the rain fell harder. A torrent at one point. We pressed on and the rain feigned resignation. About halfway in, we were greeted with a set of parked cars. We stopped. The road was flooded near the lake and trees had been washed onto it. Bad news. We were advised to turn back. The rain had struck again. But a cabbie with a fare on the line is undauntable.

When we reached the spot we found it to be true. But men clad in galoshes were fording the stream. I thought maybe I could do the same and hitch a ride with someone on the other side. Unnecessary. The heroes were rolling and floating the tree pieces out of the way.

So we watched the cars cross the rushing river. They were all large trucks or SUVs. We were in a small Kia.

“Que piensas?” I asked. What did he think? “Pasamos.” We pass. But not before both of us made the sign of a cross. And pass we did with an expression of joy and relief.

Arenal Hostel Resort is exactly as it sounds. Quite nice. Went to my room and dropped of my bags. Grabbed a bite to eat at the bar and my free “welcome drink” and went back to the room. Pulled the curtains closed to change and heard one of the voices on the balcony say to the rest of the group “don’t shut us out come and join us.” I don’t think they knew I heard but I did. So I did go and join them. It was a group of Germans and one guy from Mexico City.

Signed up for the hot springs river – a free trip. Piled into the bus and headed over. I was expecting a kind of a resort but it wasn’t. It was a drainage channel under the road where the river was warm from the hot springs upstream. Since it was raining, though, there was a large stream of cold water that made staying warm a bit tricky. When we arrived there were a couple of small groups there. The driver was coming back in a couple of hours and we figured it’d be a boring wait.

But more and more groups started showing up. Some of them had coolers of booze. And the rain stopped so the water got much warmer. The booze flowed cold and the river flowed hot, as lightning flashed in the sky. Someone had brought mud from the volcano and was giving out mud masks. Someone else found a condom in its wrapper (likely from someone else’s pocket) and made a balloon out of it. We batted it around like a beach ball among the 50 or so people there. When the appointed time came to leave we were disappointed to be going.

A Recent Trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua (Part 1)

Recently I spent a couple of weeks traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was my first land border crossing in a while, and I think my second ever on a bus. I got to see tons of great things, learned a lot about Central America and myself, and got to relax and enjoy the world. All in all I’ll give it a 9/10. This is a series so continue reading with part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

When I first got to the San Jose airport I found myself dumped out into a sea of taxi drivers, without so much as a welcoming terminal to walk through. There were no ATMs I could find so I pushed through the waves and went to the calm harbor of the departure terminal where there were a few ATMs.

Unfortunately my ATM cards didn’t work. On the cafe wifi I called my bank and they couldn’t figure out why but asked me to try tomorrow. Not a good answer, I’ll be changing banks soon. I managed to take out some expensive money on my credit card and off I went to find the bus.

To take the local bus into town you have to walk around the parking structure out front. The cost was at the time 530 colones – about a dollar. And they take dollars, so if you can’t use your ATM card you’re not totally out of luck. A taxi dispatcher was helping folks find the bus to San Jose and helped me. Kind of him.

2-3 stops in a guy got on the bus. A man got up and offered the window seat but the new arrival begged off, saying his leg was bad and he needed to stretch it. Then he pulled out the cup and balls game. He took some money and gave some money in the first few games. But swiveling your head to engage people in the back leaves you open to someone lifting the cups and exposing where the ball is. One of the guys who’d lost a few dollars did just that. Lesson here is keep your friends close and your enemies in eyesight. Or don’t make enemies of the guy behind you.

I got dropped off in the center of town. Walked around the main pedestrian street. Not a lot to see and to do in San Jose. Great views of the mountains around though. Very few places have wifi.

Got a bus ticket for the 7:30 SJO-MGA. Will arrive at 4:30pm if it’s on time. Tickets aren’t sold on the bus apparently so if you want to get on one of the early AM busses you have to buy the day before. Otherwise no ticket, no ride. (This isn’t strictly true as I found out later in part 2.)

Ended up at a cool hostel in an old looking building. Not sure if its actually old or made to look like it. Decent bar and cafe with lots of places to juice up your tech gear.

Dinner at a Lebanese place. Got the schwarama and Lebanese cheese. The schwarama was described as two tacos but it was actually a more traditional wrap. Interesting that the dish wasn’t described as burritos. Maybe they don’t have those down here. Incredibly flavorful. Way too much food, but it fit nicely into a to go box. Hope the folks on my bus tomorrow don’t get too jealous. 😉