Until Marilyn and I obtain our residency in Costa Rica, we need to leave the country every three months. So, at the end of March, we decided to travel north to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua for a 4-day stay at El Jardin, a beautiful hotel looking out on the Pacific Ocean.
I must have watched too many “bandito” movies in my youth. Since moving to Costa Rica in October of 2013, I have replaced my old Hollywood engendered, stereotyped images of Central America with real-life experience. No mustachioed campesinos in white pajamas swinging machetes, no chickens on the dirt runway at the airport, no desperados with belts of ammo over their chests and wide missing-tooth smiles. At least, not here in Costa Rica.
However, now I was facing Nicaragua. In the back of my mind roosted images of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, Ollie North and the Contras, and crooked officials in uniform demanding bribes at the border. In reality, neither Ollie nor Daniel was at the border and nobody demanded a bribe. We now know what to expect when taking the bus to Nicaragua, plus we observed some interesting cultural, economic and climate differences between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Marilyn had ordered the bus tickets several months ago as proof that we would be leaving Costa Rica 90 days after we returned to it in January. Tickets were $27.00 for each of us. To get to the Nicaragua-bound bus, we took a 10 a.m. local bus from Grecia down to San Jose and arrived an hour later. Cabs were waiting at the bus stop, and for one mil ($2.00), our driver took us to the Ticabus station, five minutes away. We hung out for an hour and a half and then boarded our luxury Ticabus for the trip north.
The interior was clean, spacious and air conditioned. Comfortable seats offered plenty of leg room and reclined far enough to make it possible to actually fall asleep. And there was a bathroom on board, though there was no toilet paper.
I am always worried about being hungry on a long trip, so we brought sandwiches from home and bought extra bottles of water at the bus station. I’m glad we did. We did not stop for food during the four hour ride to the border. At one point the bus stopped to pick up a man on the side of the road who had a cooler of empanadas and drinks. He moved down the center aisle to sell his wares, however, most people had thought to bring food with them.
Sitting across from us was a young Nicaraguan family – two parents and their three kids. The oldest child was probably five, the youngest, two. During the entire trip, the children were serene and peaceful, playing quietly or napping. We’ve noticed that for the most part children here overall seem more well-behaved than kids we’ve experienced in public places in the states. No tantrums in grocery aisles, no hyperactivity. Marilyn thinks it has something to do with the fact that they’re not fed junk food and high-fructose corn syrup; I think it has something to do with not being overstimulated by TV, video games and an over-abundance of toys. Maybe we’re both close to the truth.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the border crossing. Workers, their faces covered with flimsy cloth masks against toxic fumes, sprayed the underside of the bus with pesticides. Despite the air conditioning, faint fumes still wafted through the bus’s interior. I don’t think any thin face covering could protect those guys from eight hours a day of spraying.
While still on the bus, we filled out customs forms which were collected by an official along with our $14/each entry fee (important note: bring your entry fee in dollars — not colones). Then we left our luggage behind and entered a building where a woman behind a Plexiglas window took our passports and asked a few perfunctory questions. After hanging around outside for about a half an hour, we reboarded.
With the Costa Rican check point behind us, we drove a hundred yards through no-man’s land to a large cinder block warehouse with a loading dock at one end. Twilight was upon us. Another official boarded the bus and collected all our passports. Turning over one’s passport in Nicaragua is slightly stomach-churning. I wondered if we would ever see our passports again. (I pictured waiting in a filthy cell while my siblings argued over whether they should pay the ransom.)
We got off and waited by the side of the bus. In the now nearly-dark parking lot, peddlers worked the crowd – offering sandwiches, soft drinks, ice cream, Cordobas (Nicaraguan money) to exchange for Colones (Costa Rican money), and phone cards. Meanwhile, the driver, flashlight in hand, pulled out luggage from the bus storage compartment, matching bags with their owners. I imagined how much more challenging this would be in another month after the rainy season starts.
We dragged our bags up some crumbling concrete steps to the loading dock and waited again. A dozen rough wooden tables were lined up. A single light bulb dangled over the last table where the inspection of luggage was apparently taking place.
After some 20 minutes, the line had not moved. The fumes from idling bus engines wafted toward us as Nicaraguan officials combed through the engine compartment and luggage areas of the bus — presumably looking for drugs. Then, as everyone in line shuffled from one foot to the other in the non-moving line, an official walked down the row of passengers, collected our customs forms and told us to return to the bus. No luggage inspection, no questions, nada.
We hauled our bags back down to wait by the side of the bus. I chatted with a backpacker from Detroit while Marilyn hung out on the steps with an amiable old hippy, scrawny and bearded, bandana on his head and a beer can in hand.
An official appeared with a bundle of passports and by the light of his flashlight read off the names of passengers in his thick Spanish accent. Luckily, Marilyn and I recognized our names and we took back our passports and reboarded the bus (Sibs can stop worrying about ransom issues).
Though we had paid the fare all the way to Managua (three hours north of the border), we got off on the side of the road in a little town called Rivas, closer to San Juan Del Sur. A cab was at the ready. The driver threw our stuff in the trunk and for thirty US dollars agreed to drive us to our hotel (apparently we could have negotiated the price, but it was almost 8 p.m. and we were tired and hungry).
Our driver apparently a frustrated tour guide,wanted to take us on detours to see Lake Nicaragua and the beach at San Juan Del Sur before driving us to the hotel. “Solamente queremos comer y dormir,” I protested.
He veered north up the coast a bit and then turned onto a rutted, dirt road up a steep hill. At the top was our hotel, El Jardin, a beautiful multi-colored stucco compound of patios and porches surrounding a clear pool that rippled in the warm breeze. On the patio by candle light under the jet black velvet sky, thick with constellations, we ordered dinner and two Nicaraguan beers (Toña). It was 8:15 p.m., 11 hours after we’d left our house back in Grecia. Next: Impressions of San Juan Del Sur.
Article from GRINGOS IN PARADISE: Paul & Marilyn’s Retirement Adventure.
Reprinted with permission.