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Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Author: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: May 2011

I stopped in at the Tierra Tours office on the Calzada pedestrian promenade and ordered up a boat tour of Lake Nicaragua for late that afternoon, the time that had been recommended to me. It was slightly over two hours and cost $18. I was told that two other people were signed up, and if more showed up, I'd be issued a partial refund. Only in Nicaragua, I thought!

Their van picked me up at the hotel about 4. The two other passengers were two young Australian men on an extended Central and North American tour. I had learned from previous travel that Aussies are prone to take off on very long trips because of their geographic isolation, or so they say. I'd once met an Aussie couple in India who were on a 7 year outing! These two were only traveling for 4 months.

The dock was close by, and we boarded a boat which could have held another 10 or so. The driver was well up front. Our young guide stayed close by, spoke English fluently and was very informative. He spoke about the lake, the size of it, its 365 islands, and how many of the islands housed houses belonging to wealthier Nicaraguans. All of those that we saw were attractively designed, and all were different. We made close approaches to most of the islands that we saw. Many of them were privately owned. He explained that the lake was connected with a number of rivers. One of the largest went to the Caribbean coast and had served, ages ago, as a highway for pirates who had invaded and gone on to seize various towns. The largest of the islands, Ometepe, was beyond reach of this tour - it was dumbbell shaped, each half a dormant volcano. We saw a number of men in small boats, fishing, as well as one woman. The trees and vegetation on all the islands was lush and varied. The scenery as a whole was spectacular, and I took dozens of photos. At one point, we passed a large dock and boatyard with an old derelict boat and also a working ferry that went to and from Ometepe.

"Monkey Island" is a small overgrown island, uninhabited by other than plant life - except for four spider monkeys. Two males, one female and one baby. A vet, who lives on a nearby island, had nursed the 3 adult monkeys back to health and then placed them on the island. Two of them had produced the baby. We approached closely, and our guide took out a basket of rolls, broke them up and began feeding the monkeys, who swung and jumped and grasped and ate and put on a truly worthy show. He then took more bits of roll and threw them into the water. Brilliant, almost luminescent orange fish jumped almost out of the water to seize and eat the bits. We stayed a bit and he explained about the various types of fish in the lake. There had, he said, been thousands of sharks, but the Somoza regime had given special breaks to a company that had harvested them and almost wiped them out. They were now protected.

Shortly thereafter, we disembarked, not back at our dock but at the dock of one of the islands where there were some structures, a bar, a patio, even a swimming pool. The 20 minute stop included a cold beer for each of us.

The sun was close to setting when we finally returned to the original dock and van and I was dropped off at the hotel. I walked a few doors over to the little restaurant run by the Canadian couple. It closes at 6:30 and I was hungry. As usual, there were 3 specials. I had an ample and delicious Israeli couscous salad with chicken, and two beers. The tab amounted to $6.60. Here in south Miami Beach, that might have gotten me one of the beers - period.

That evening, I changed into shorts and sat out on the elevated sidewalk, with the neighbors sitting out in chairs around me, watching the kids play soccer in the street. It had cooled off and was breezy. My hostess, Lucy, came back on her bicycle, saw me and remarked "You're doing the Nica thing." I replied that yes, I was. And I was thinking, well, I could get used to this!

The prospect of leaving the next morning was almost physically painful. I had a 1:00 PM bus to catch to San Jose, Costa Rica. I woke early as usual, had breakfast, went back to my room and packed, watched TV a bit, then left the room and hung out a bit in the lobby. Finally, sadly, I hailed a taxi, went to the park, had a beer on a hotel terrace, then down to a kiosk for my final vigoron.


There are two major international bus lines in Central America - TicaBus and TransNica. As the names indicate, the first is headquartered in Costa Rica, the inhabitants of which are known as Ticos or Ticas, and the second in Nicaragua. Their buses run all the way north to the Mexican town of Campeche on the Guatemalan border, and south to Panama City. The prices are reasonable, and the buses are airconditioned, with bathrooms and video screens. The TicaBus station in Granada was a small affair, not fancy with plastic chairs - but, unlike a major American bus company which I won't name, the one bathroom was pristinely clean. My one way ticket to San Jose had cost me $23 plus an extra $5 to reserve a window seat. As is my habit with any kind of international travel, I arrived early, shortly after 12. I fell into conversation with a stocky 50ish American fellow who had a house some miles outside of San Jose. He'd been living there for something like a decade but had never gotten a resident visa. He was, he admitted, one of their "perpetual tourists." I had read about them. Americans who set up residence in Costa Rica, stay the permitted 90 days as a tourist visa-free, cross into Nicaragua or Panama, then re-enter Costa Rica for another 90 days. He didn't like TicaBus, claiming TransNica was nicer and supplied meals, and just a bit more expensive.

The bus arrived perhaps 15 minutes late, and I settled in. There was a video screen right over the seat in front of me, and a science-fiction flick 95% dubbed in Spanish. It didn't take long before I realized I was watching "Independence Day," a sci-fi in which a chess-playing computer nerd saves the world from evil destructive invading aliens with the help of Will Smith - who literally beats up one of them - and ends with the young president climbing into a fighter plane and helping to finish them off. I'd seen it years before, so was able to follow it. We passed some volcanoes and, not long before the border, a group of the largest wind turbines I'd ever seen. The bus ‘manager," as opposed to the driver, collected a $7 exit fee from everyone. Then, a while later, he collected everyone's passports.

We passed a truck idling by the side of the road, then another, and then dozens and dozens more. The signal that we were nearing the border. Truckers waiting and waiting to clear customs. I'd seen the same thing in 2008 on a bus from St. Petersburg, Russia to Tallinn, Estonia. Finally, the bus pulled into a very large open lot and up to an enormous elevated concrete slab with a sort of open roof over it and a building at one end. With perfect timing, the movie ended at just that moment. We were all ordered outside and into what can only be described as chaos. The concrete platform was jammed with people. Money changers were thrusting enormous wads of unrecognizable currency in my face. A man with the widest straw hat I'd ever seen - it looked like a prop for a stereotypical Mexican "hat dance" - kept approaching, pedaling a sort of combined bike and wagon and offering ceviche - a kind of pickled fish - for sale. There were vendors of all kinds. Other buses and a few cans pulled in and one TransNica bus pulled out. Because of the fact that the bus manager had my passport, I was not about to go further than 10 feet or so from the bus entrance. I had the feeling that I was supposed to do something, but had no idea what. I sat on the edge of the slab for over half an hour. A small white dog, its ribs visible, approached and looked pitifully up at a young couple. The young woman, a striking blonde, was being fed some sort of snack by her male companion. Nothing was offered to the dog. I took it all in with my camera - in my humble opinion, by far the best photo I took during the trip. Days later, at home, I sent the photo to Peta Kaplan-Sandzer. I hope she honors me and, more importantly, that poor sweet dog by making a painting from it.

There was only one sign of officialdom, a small uniformed woman with a badge who scooted hither and thither. Finally, she stationed herself at the entry to my bus, holding an enormous sheaf of passports and began calling out their owners' names. When she called mine, I gratefully retrieved it and reboarded. There was a short, comvoluted ride, in the course of which we passed, oddly, a sign welcoming people to Nicaragua. Then the bus pulled up to a low structure and we were again ordered out. This time, everyone carried their baggage, including the suitcases stored under the bus. I had very little to carry, and entered the building, which included a cafe with almost no one inside. When I stopped at a proper exchange booth to buy Costa Rican money, I was told to remove my hat and look up for the camera. The only other time I'd ever experienced that had been when I entered Cuba. Then I had to wait in line while a young, attractive and very snippy woman made everyone fill out a form and submit passports for stamping. One young American argued with her. Apparently he was one of the "perpetual tourist" types and was quarreling over a fee. I bought a beer. No more dollar beers - this was close to $2.50. Outside the building were two long tables, covered with luggage. All the passengers were standing on one side of them. Eventually, several non-descript non-uniformed young men appeared on the other side and began poking at the bags. I approached my new "perpetual tourist" friend from earlier and asked what to do. I said that no one seemed interested in me or what I was carrying, and should I just reboard the bus? He said, yes, go ahead and reboard. I did. The whole process of crossing this border had taken nearly two hours. Crossing the border from Russia to Estonia by bus, with stops on both sides, had taken perhaos 30 minutes; crossing back into Russia by bus, from Finland, with just one stop, on the Russian side, had taken perhaps 10 minutes.

The new video featured Mexican comic actor Cantinflas, and was in Spanish with no titles - I read, appropriately enough, a book of short stories about dogs until the sun set. No lights were turned on except for occasional stops when someone would disembark in a village or at a gas station. The road was narrow and progress slow, but eventually we were on a real highway and picked up speed. It was around 8:30 when we began entering a large, well lit urban area. There were high rise office and apartment buildings and modern looking shops and plazas. I saw an Office Depot. This was definitely not Nicaragua! The bus wended its way through narrow hilly streets, finally coming to the terminal.

The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colon; its plural is colones. Appetizing, huh? As I discovered later in the numismatic museum, there had been a time when the colon was worth something. Now it was worth one fifth of a cent. The most commonly referred to form of currency was the "mil," pronounced "meal." This referred to the 1,000 colon note, worth about $2. The next most common consisted of clunky copper-ish 100 colon coins, worth 20 cents. Cab drivers were offering to take me to the downtown Hotel Europa for 5 mils. I knew the appropriate fare was 2 mils, but I was tired and settled for 3.

There are two Europa hotels in San Jose, the Radisson Europa and the less extravagant just plain Europa, which nonetheless claims 3 stars. It had a typical mid-range American-type hotel lobby - nothing special - with 2 free computers, and a small adjoining casino. Down a hallway was a bar. My room was on the "first" floor which, in European style, was actually the second level. I'd paid via Expedia, and everything was in order. The young female clerk quickly advised me that if I had a guest in my room for 3 hours or less, it was free - after that, there would be a $25 charge. Older guys are known to flock to Costa Rica for "sex tourism," or so I had read. She must have taken a look at me and figured she'd better give me a heads-up on this sort of thing. Curious, I glanced into the casino and into the bar. No hookers in sight. In fact, I never saw one in San Jose all the time I was there. I'd never seen any in Havana, either, in ‘06, despite the stories. I had a nice room, with water glasses actually made of glass, a hair drier and cable TV. The window a/c ran, but not very well. But San Jose is well above sea level, unlike my 3 Nicaraguan cities, and averages 10 degrees cooler. Instead of dining in the hotel, I walked across the street to a small local cafeteria and had a variety of meats and veggies that I picked out by sight. No 85 cent meal here - it was a whopping $3.30.

I went down to the bar; Costa Rica has one major national brand of beer, Imperial. I had two. It was double the Nicaraguan price - exactly one "mil" per bottle. Then I went for a swim. The hotel had a nice pool, accessible from my floor by a stairway leading down into an open-to-the-sky area surrounded by the hotel walls, and bordered with pots containing large plants and mini-trees. In one of them lived a large black and dark-blue bird which occasionally unfolded its wings but never moved from its tree. I swam, then turned in.

The Europa has a large restaurant, and breakfast is, of course, included. It's served by women from behind a bunch of steam tables, and a sign advises that "breakfast is only served once." In other words, this ain't no buffet, and don't do an Oliver Twist by asking for more. But it's hardly necessary, as the food - rice and beans, potatoes, eggs, meat - is good, the portions are ample, and the women will add a little more first time around if you wish. Afterwards, I wanted to visit the Gold Museum. It's underneath the central bank plaza. I walked down my street, Calle Central, and left onto Avenida 1. I passed innumerable little fast food type places, news and candy stands, shops and drugstores. After passing a pedestrian mall type street - it reminded me of Calle Florida in Buenos Aires - I got confused and eventually found someone in a bank who spoke English and assured me that I was on the right track. The bank's plaza takes up a block and was filled with people and pigeons - one obviously touristy young woman was posing for photos, literally covered with live pigeons,

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