Thursday, April 24, 2014

MARCH 2014 EXPENSES – NICARAGUA BORDER RUN by Marilyn

CATEGORY
AMOUNT


Groceries/Household
416.12
Rent/Utilities
946.14
Transportation
143.46
Doctors/Dentist/Meds
250.41
Dogs
59.88
Entertainment
86.65
Trips*
782.05
Workshop/Garden
143.03
Furniture/Fixtures
0.00
Exercise/Fitness
43.00
Misc.
95.78
March 2014 TOTAL                        
$2,966.52
*March Visa Run to Nicaragua
Bus tickets to/from Nicaragua
$72.92
Transportation in Nicaragua (taxis/shuttle to border)
95.00
CR buses
8.08
Meals/Snacks
149.70
House Sitter
80.00
Hotel
298.35
Customs/Border Fees
40.00
Misc.
30.00
March 2014 Visa Run TOTAL
782.05

 Without going to Nicaragua this month, we would have just missed our $2,000/month goal, spending $2,184.47. Last month was $2,248.21. Should I change the goal to $2,200? I really don’t want to – I do think that once we get our pensionado, our medical expenses (mostly mine) should decrease enough to keep us below $2,000. So I’m going to hang onto the $2,000 goal for now and see what happens in the coming months.

But … until we get our pensionado (which we still haven’t begun working on), we will have to leave Costa Rica every 90 days for 72 hours. (UPDATE:  Several folks have shared information with me since I posted this, explaining that the 72-hour requirement has to do with customs, not immigration. I appreciate their taking the time to explain this, and we'll happily use that information to take a much shorter trip next time.)And even after we get a cedula number, which means that we’re “in process” we will continue to have to cross the border to recertify our U.S. drivers’ licenses (not the 72-hour requirement), but we’ll most likely follow the lead of our neighbors, Jim and Irina Just -- A Different Kind of Trip to Nicaragua ..., who have ferried to Nicaragua for lunch and come right back.

We learned lots of lessons on this, our first trip to Nicaragua. In total, our trip cost us nearly $800, pretty pricey (for us) for a 4-day trip. To get the complete picture of this trip, check out the three-part “Busing It from Costa Rica to Nicaragua” articles on our blog. After reviewing what we spent our money on, there are definitely a few things we could have done to cut down on these trip expenses:  picked a cheaper hotel (downtown San Juan Del Sur has several modestly priced hotels that are rated okay on Trip Advisor); taken the un-air-conditioned, but much cheaper Deldu bus both ways; spent less on food -- we ate at the hotel restaurant which was delicious, but pricey for Nicaragua. I'm not sure how many of these Visa runs are in our future -- friends who've applied for their residency more than 15 months ago are still waiting. It will be interesting to see how much we're spending every three months or so on these trips. So far January and March haven't been too promising in the "living cheaply" category. 

NEW CATEGORY

I’ve added the category “Exercise/Fitness” to the March budget. We are trying to be regulars at the twice-a-week yoga, and Paul has started playing tennis again after a 10-year hiatus. Maybe in future budgets our Exercise/Fitness expenses will help reduce the Doctors/Dentists/Meds category! 


Friday, April 18, 2014

BUSING IT FROM COSTA RICA TO NICARAGUA: PART 3, GETTING HOME by Paul and Marilyn






At the Costa Rican border.

The trip back to Costa Rica was cheaper but also hotter and more complicated. The cab picked us up at 8:00 a.m. and drove like hell down to the border. As in Costa Rica, passing on curves is no problem in Nicaragua. The roads are better – the road from San Juan Del Sur to the border actually had shoulders, white lines on the edge and yellow lines down the center. Still, that would be little consolation if your cab, while passing on the curve, smashed into an 18-wheeler. “I’m so happy I died on the nice road,” you’d say at the first afterlife cocktail party.

The taxi stopped at the border. There was no town here; simply a series of chain link fences and low buildings blocking the highway. Under huge tropical trees, people flowed in all different directions selling sandwiches, trinkets, cold drinks; hucksters offered to change cordobas back to colones; young men were constantly trying to grab your luggage and carry it for you. You have to be firm. Our driver pointed to a break in a chain link fence about a hundred yards ahead and told us to go through to customs. We wheeled our luggage across the steamy asphalt, until we saw an official-looking person at a hole in the fence.

We showed our passports to the official and finally allowed two pleasant, insistent young men to take our bags to the correct window. They wore some kind of badges that apparently allowed them to guide hapless tourists through the Nicaraguan customs building. They showed us how to fill out the forms (here we paid the clerk behind the desk $1 each – for the privilege of getting into the building). The guys with the badges then led us to the next window. One of them told us the inspector at that particular window was a good friend of his would only charge us $2 each instead of $12. By that time we were pretty much captives of the badge guys who were hanging onto our luggage, so we followed them to the “special” window. The clerk behind the window charged us $2 each, and handed us a receipt that said 3.20 (maybe in cordobas?).

We walked along more asphalt with our two valets toward Costa Rican customs. One of them asked me,” You like Costa Rica?” I said I did. He smiled. “La pura vida,” he said. I replied “mas o meno,” and we had a good laugh. They stopped abruptly and told us we would have to go on without them. We tipped them and some more for their friend, the Nicaraguan agent behind the window.

Entering Costa Rica was mostly a breeze. The line at the customs window was short. We were a little worried that our passports would be questioned. They expire in the middle of September, which meant at the end of March we were within six months of expiration. We’d heard horror stories of entire families being turned away at the airport in Costa Rica because their passports were too close to being expired. The day before we left for Nicaragua, one of our friends had advised us to make the appointment to renew our passports and print out the proof that we were “in process.” The earliest appointment we could get was mid-April, but we had the appointment paperwork with us just in case. But the customs clerk only asked for proof that we had tickets out of Costa Rica, which we did – for June 26 – 90 days away. 

As we’ve written previously, until we finish our residency, we’ll have to leave the country every 90 days. The clerk stamped Paul’s passport first, writing in “60.” We’d heard this happens – apparently the customs clerks have total discretion as to how much time they will give you in country. On a blog we’d recently read that one family of five had times from 15 to 90 days given them (apparently the clerk was having an “impura vida” day). Marilyn grabbed Paul’s passport from the clerk, gave her back our 90-day departure ticket and pointed to the date. Without a word, the clerk crossed out her original stamp, re-stamped the passport and wrote in “90,” then stamped and wrote “90” on Marilyn’s passport as well.

Our next stop was the luggage scanner and within moments we walked out into the humid air and faced a happy jumble of human activity. Strolling policemen, families sitting on the curbs with their luggage (there is no seating anywhere) pedi-cab operators picking up and dropping off lost-looking travelers, waiting buses with engines idling, exhaust fumes billowing, people munching on snacks, paper wrappers and plastic bottles skittering over the road in search of a trash can.
Ticket kiosks - no bus for us!

Lined up at the curb were tiny ticket kiosks for different bus lines. They looked like hot dog stands. We went to the Ticabus booth, since we had left San Jose on Ticabus. The girl indicated that we could not get a bus to San Jose from her. She pointed two hot dog stands down, repeating “roja, “roja” – a red-roofed building with another tiny ticket booth attached to it. The girl in the tiny ticket booth shook her head, and directed us inside.

The Deldu bus ticket building.

Behind a window, a clerk was selling bus tickets and bathroom passes (200 colones). Confused, we thought this was the place to purchase all tickets, but it was only for the Deldu bus. The tickets only cost about $9/each, compared to the $27 Ticabus tickets. We still haven’t figured out why couldn’t get a Ticabus or a Nicabus ticket at the border; we saw people buying tickets, but had no idea where they were going and why they could get tickets and we couldn’t.

For 200 colones, you receive a handful of toilet paper and
are buzzed into the very secure restroom; a good idea
since there's no restroom on the Deldu bus.
We killed an hour and a half sitting on the curb waiting for our bus. Marilyn went to find some food while I guarded our luggage. She and another Gringo (a young guy heading back to the beach) hiked past an endless line of trucks waiting to cross into Nicaragua. A row of buildings down a deep grade off the side of the road looked promising, but when they got closer, none of them were food shops.

The guy scrambled down the embankment to a car rental, scrambling back up with the news, “There’s a place down there,” he said, pointing farther down the row of trucks, “but they only sell sodas.” Marilyn explained that sodas are the tiny restaurants that dot every Costa Rican town and road. Food!!
Deldu Bus

The soda was part of a massive truck stop nestled in the trees off the road. Marilyn and her new pal eventually found the tiny shop and ordered jamon y queso sandwiches (ham and cheese) and bought some chips and water. The young man sat down to eat his sandwich immediately, so Marilyn headed back, locating me and our luggage on the curb.
Guanacaste seems to have more horses than people.

Soon we saw what must have been our bus (it was the only one with the windows opened). The interior was exactly the same as the Ticabus, except no restroom. We figured that Deldu purchases the old Ticabuses and Nicabuses after the A/C and bathrooms give out, but while the engine still has life left.

Dry Guanacaste
At breakneck speed with all the windows open the ride back was not as hot as we had feared. It reminded us both of driving to the beach when we were kids and the only air conditioning in the family car was wide-open windows. We stopped in little towns and sometimes roadside bus stops in the country side as we made our way south through the dusty brown landscape and bare trees of Guanacaste. 
One of many small-town bus stops on the way home. 
We arrived in Liberia, a moderately sized city of Costa Rica, large enough to have its own airport and nicely paved streets. Clearly there were American expats here; many signs were in English. By mid- afternoon we began to turn inland on the Pan American Highway toward mountains and cooler temperatures. The name of this thoroughfare is a bit of hyperbole; it is in fact a two lane paved road with no allowance made for the semi-tractor trailers which often creep up the steep inclines backing up traffic as far as the eye could see. The bus pulled into a large cafeteria for “viente minutos” so that the passengers could use the restrooms and purchase food. We bought cooling frosty shakes that were a welcomed treat.

The cool breezes at higher elevations were refreshing, and we were soon passing by San Ramon, a Central Valley town about 45 minutes west of Grecia. Our tickets were through to San Jose, but the bus would be passing right by Grecia on the way there. I asked the bus driver if he could stop and let us off in Grecia. At about 4 pm, he pulled over by the side of the highway and called “Grecia.” We were still in the countryside at the edge of the Pan American Highway, but got off. He unloaded our luggage. He then pointed to a bus stand across the highway. We waited for a break in the traffic and made it across. In about twenty minutes another bus picked us up and took us to downtown Grecia, where we got one more bus to take us up the ridge to El Cajon, our little mountainside barrio.

It was 6 pm. We were totally exhausted but oh- so-happy to be home.




Saturday, April 12, 2014

BUSING IT FROM COSTA RICA TO NICARAGUA: PART 2, BEING THERE by Paul and Marilyn


Sunset over the Pacific.



Hotel El Jardin

Like the blind men and the elephant, our reflections on our brief stay in San Juan Del Sur are limited to a very small slice of what is available. We didn't experience any of the apparently expansive night life or the adventure sports. We didn't hang out with the giant Jesus on the hill either. So this post is less a travelogue and more a reflection.

 This photo of El Jardin is courtesy of TripAdvisor
At Hotel El Jardin, breakfast (included in the room rate) and dinner were served on the patio, a lovely place to start and end each day with a balmy breeze, Nacascolo Bay and the blue Pacific in the distance. However, we found to our disappointment that El Jardin doesn’t have a shuttle van to take guests into town. Marilyn had checked out so many places on Trip Advisor before deciding on El Jardin, that she’d confused it with a different hotel that DID offer shuttles. So if we wanted to get to town, we’d have to call a taxi.
Looking out on the Nacascolo Bay with the Pacific in the distance.

But after breakfast, on our first day, we decided to walk down to the bay for a swim  We had heard that during the dry season, Guanacaste, the Costa Rica canton just south of the Pacific Nicaraguan border, is hot and dry, like West Texas. We had seen this for ourselves on our bus the day before. The trees were bare, the ground covered with brown leaves. Save for the occasional palm trees, it could have been October in Delaware. The same was true for this part of Nicaragua. Our walk down to the beach was hot, 90’s for sure.  And unlike our mountain home in Grecia, where the foliage remains green year round, the mountains around the hotel were brown and dusty.

We also walked to the bay on our second day, but started out a lot later and had to walk back up the hill at high noon (For some photos of our swim and hike, check out Marilyn’s photo essay). So on our first day, after cooling off in the lovely El Jardin pool, we decided to take a taxi ($10 – should have negotiated a better price) to go into town for lunch. The main street of San Juan Del Sur parallels the beach with shoulder to shoulder thatched-roof restaurants, beer joints, sodas, surf shops and little hotels, a few of which one might want to consider for an overnight. 
Beachfront restaurants and hotels at San Juan Del Sur
Really good pizza!
Watching sand and surf from
our table at Pizzaria San Juan del Playa
We wandered in to an open-air restaurant (Pizzaria San Juan del Playa) that provided welcome relief from the blazing sun. We had a brochure-perfect view of the bay – a few swimmers and many boats. On the advice of a guest back at El Jardin, we ordered beers and a pepperoni pizza (our first pizza in more than six months!!). The pizza was so good we immediately ordered another. Since it was about three in the afternoon, we counted the first pizza as lunch and the second one as supper. 
Fishing boats, San Juan Del Sur
Bocce ball on the beach.


After happily stuffing ourselves, we strolled on the beach at low tide. A group of expats were playing bocce ball, and a few people were wading in the shallows. As we made our way down the seemingly pristine beach, it was unsettling to see a drainage ditch or sewer leading from under one of the restaurants out to the water. This does not appear in the brochures.

Umm ... what is draining into the sea from this ditch?
Street paralleling the beach.
A block or so off he main drag.
Wandering in a block or two from the beach, we were reminded that this is a third world country and poverty is everywhere. The difference between the touristy beach row and a few blocks in was striking. 
One of several charming clapboard houses in the tourist area.

Looking for a market to pick up some fresh fruit, we found our way to a mercado that can only be described as squalid. A single light bulb cast shadows over piles of half-rotten bananas and shriveled vegetables. Unlike Costa Rica, there were no Holas! Or Buenas Tardes! for the Gringos. No smiles. Groups of people and naked children chatted with each other in the dark as if we were invisible. We left fruitless, buying a few bags of chips from a snack vendor. When Marilyn picked up the bags of chips from the shelf, several cockroaches scurried for cover. It says a lot about how much I knew I would need Doritos later that I bought them anyway.   
Funeral procession.
Outside it was easily 95 degrees, and people were sitting and lying on the sidewalks in the shade to get away from the heat. With no room on the narrow sidewalks, we walked in the street. 

Soon we were crowded off the street as well, as a funeral procession passed by. The lead vehicle was a white pickup truck carrying the flower-covered coffin. Contemporary music blared from the truck, so the deceased was probably relatively young. A second pickup, overflowing with flowers, followed, then at least a hundred solemn people on foot passed by. Some bystanders watched quietly, respectfully; others continued to drink their beers and tend to the minutiae of the day.
Iglesia San Juan Bautista

We continued through the town, heading for the town square and the church. Like Costa Rican churches, this one faced west and was the center of San Juan Del Sur. 
Wooden interior Iglesia San Juan Bautista
Welcome breezes from the church's open windows
The church was a wonder to behold. Massive wooden trusses tied together with intricate joinery held the walls and the roof in place. All the doors and windows were open. A few votive candles burned by the altar. We sat quietly as faint sea breezes played over our heated bodies. A parish priest chatted genially with two women. Another woman, gnarled and bent, keened loudly as she rocked to and fro in a pew several rows in front of us. She was obviously a regular, because neither the priest nor the women gave her any notice.




Because our budget wasn’t going to allow us to do any tours (including what looked like an incredible sunset horseback ride on the beach), we decided there was nothing much more for us to do in the town. Before returning to El Jardin, we arranged our return to the border at a hotel. Rather than going back to Rivas to pick up a bus, the shuttle from the downtown hotel would be dropping us right at the border so that we could go through customs on our own without waiting for a busload of people to be checked through. The $45 fee included picking us up after breakfast at El Jardin. We’d read that there were bus kiosks right at the Costa Rican border, so it seemed like it would be easy to arrange for a bus back home. More on that in the next chapter. 


When Marilyn posts our March expenses, she’ll have a breakdown of all of our costs for this trip. But for our one day in San Juan Del Sur, we spent $25 on our two (delicious) pizzas and beers and $20 for the round-trip back and forth from El Jardin (after we returned to the hotel, we talked to another couple who’d negotiated $6 one-way for the taxi – obviously, we could have done better). Oh, and about $4.00 for two bags of Doritos and two Snickers bars. These would come in handy the next day. After our swim in the bay and our hot hike up the hill, we were too tired to go into town to eat. And dinner service didn't start until 6:30. After carefully inspecting our snacks to make sure they were free of "visitors" we ate our hearty lunch of chips and chocolate. Next:  The return home

Sunday, April 6, 2014

BUSING IT FROM COSTA RICA TO NICARAGUA: PART 1, GETTING THERE by Paul

Me on TicaBus.
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. 


In my mind, these guys would be "greeting" us at the Nicaraguan border.
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.
/This lovely and peaceful family were our bus-mates to the border.
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.)
At the Nicaraguan border. Waiting to for our passports
 so we can reboard the bus.
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.
 
This photo of El Jardin is courtesy of TripAdvisor


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.


 
This photo of El Jardin is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A DAY IN NICARAGUA: HIKE TO THE BEACH by Marilyn

We went to Nicaragua for our 2nd 90 day border run. Paul is writing another entry about the rest of our adventures. This is just a photo essay about going to a beautiful, isolated beach. Our hotel, El Jardin, sat above the Playa Nacascolo, the cove just north of San Juan Del Sur.
video