Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reflections on a Visa Run - Los Chiles to San Carlos by Boat by Paul

NOTE:  The shuttle boat part of this article is now out of date. The new bridge at Las Tablillas that opened on May 2, 2015 has meant lots of changes. Our June 22, 2015 post (above) documents some of these changes. Also check out this Tico Times article

Several gringos have written about driving up to Los Chiles near the Nicaraguan border to renew their visas (For very precise details – with photos – check out Irina Just's excellent article,). We have little to add about the mechanics of the trip, except for a few DOs and DON’Ts. But we were touched by a number of observations about the terrain and cultures of these two countries which we would like to share. 

So, let’s get our DO/ DON’T list out of the way first:
  1. DO bring dollars (for Nicaragua) and colones (for Costa Rica – although they also take dollars).
  2. DON’T walk away from the ATM with only 20 dollar bills. Few establishments (government or otherwise) have change, and it can be a problem. Have some ones, fives and tens. 
  3. DON’T get too many (or any) cordobas if you are planning to come right back. Nicaraguan money is the cordoba. You can get them and use them in Nicaragua, however everyone we encountered seemed to like dollars just fine. Bringing back unspent cordobas is a nuisance, since nobody else wants them (that is, until your next visa run to Nicaragua). We brought $100 US, and that covered all our expenses: hotel overnight, all tickets and fees, and food. Oh yes, gas was extra -- we used ¾ of a tank round trip from Grecia.
  4. DO bring some munchies with you for the boat ride, since they do not stick to schedules.
  5. DO bring some toilet paper and and some kind of moist towelettes, just to be safe.
A Peaceful Drive North

We passed through the beautiful mountain town of Zacero. We took it slowly and watched the mountain terrain gradually flatten out into farm fields and marshlands. We reached our destination near the Nicaraguan border in about three and a half hours.

Los Chiles at the Costa Rican border is small river town with brightly painted Tico bungalows, shops and a soccer field in the center of town. After turning left off the main road, you end up at the river, in probably less than a kilometer. Here, excursion boats are tied up in the shallows where green pastures gradually disappear in the muddy water. Cows graze and relax in the shade at water’s edge. This is their home. Our arrival interests them not in the least.

Marsh cows of Los Chiles
We parked in front of the Hotel Wilson Tulipan about two blocks from the cement dock and half a block from immigration. The spacious dining room is open to the street. White tablecloths and a long bar make this an inviting possibility for dinner.

Visitors to the Los Chiles area who insist on first class accommodations can find them –  and pay for them. (Marriot is $180 per night.) However, we came to Costa Rica to avoid spending that kind of money and to avoid the contradiction of traveling to a new country only to search for the most "American" accommodations. (Why not simply stay in the US and save the airfare? There you can have breakfast at Denny’s and dinner at TGIF! Yum!)

A real bargain, clean, cozy and welcomed A/C!!!
It was a rainy on-again/off again day, and the moment I got out of the car, my glasses fogged up. The high humidity is a factor here. In fact, the only negative review we found for the conveniently located Hotel Wilson was that the rooms were not air-conditioned. We could not imagine being able to sleep in the humidity we’re unaccustomed to, so we checked into a smaller, cheaper and more rudimentary hotel – but one with A/C – a couple of blocks away, Hotel Carolina. (NOTE: we just learned from a reader that Hotel Wilson does have A/C now. So we'll give them a try next time.)
We walked right past this building on the way to the dock.
We were supposed to stop and pay 600 colones (about $1.25 each)
as some kind of boat tax. We had to run back as the boat
was boarding to pay the tax.

Lack of Convenience

In many small ways it was evident to me that the consumer has little in the way of voice or choice. In our case, we were the consumers. After dropping our stuff off at the hotel, we headed over to the immigration office. Inside the little white building it was dark. A single overhead light bulb provided what light there was for the entire lobby area. A woman pushed two forms under the glass for us to fill out. There was a small bench but no table and too dark to see anyway.  She handed us a nice turquoise felt-tip that Marilyn considered keeping (but she returned it). We walked over to a closed-off staircase and leaned on the railing to fill out the form by the light of the sole window. I noticed a bathroom down the hall, and went in. No lock on the door, no toilet seat, no toilet paper, no light bulb. Luckily, this was sufficient for a pee, but nothing else.

We bought our boat tickets from a man at the door, who added our names to a list. They were $14 (one way) each. He told us the boat would leave in 30 minutes – 12:30 p.m. We walked down to the dock where about 20 people were already waiting on benches under an ancient ramada. The concrete was badly eroded. Crumbly cement steps descended steeply down to the water line with treads that couldn’t have been more than six inches wide. There was no railing.


We  checked our watches. It was one p.m. By my reckoning, the 12:30 boat was late. I’m not a stickler for being on time, but I began to feel physically uncomfortable in a way that was all too familiar to me: shaky and weak with a taste of iron filings in my mouth. I am hypoglycemic, and my blood sugar level was dropping. My McDonald's breakfast was no longer sustaining me. We had planned to have lunch when we arrived in Nicaragua; however, now that the boat was late with no sign of getting going, I was beginning to worry.

It's 1:15 p.m. and we're waiting to board
the 12:30 boat to San Carlos.
I told Marilyn to wait, and I walked back to the car to grab some snacks. Even before I unlocked the door, I realized that we had left our snack food into the hotel room -- too far to go back to. I checked my wallet. I had three mil in colones. I stepped into the restaurant at the Hotel Wilson and asked the woman at the bar if they had any snack food I could get to go. The concept of “to go” was tough to explain, so I told her Quiero comer algun en el barco (I want some food to eat on the boat.) I’m sure it was the crudest Spanish she had ever heard but she got it. She handed me a menu. I told her “Tengo solo cinco minutes.” (I only have five minutes.)  She pointed to the top item on the appetizer menu:  Mexican rice and beans for 2,500 colones. It was in my hands in two minutes: a flimsy plastic container over-filled with steaming hot shredded beef salsa and a foil covered paper plate with the rice, beans and tortillas.

It was raining lightly but steadily by now as I hurried down to dock. People were beginning to board the fiberglass excursion boat like refugees escaping for their lives. As I guessed, making it down those steep steps with no hand railing was perilous. Everybody worked together. Some strong steady guys remained on the dock to help less steady passengers make it down the wet cement steps; while the guys on the deck reached out and grabbed their hands. Marilyn and I gladly accepted their help. I was the second oldest person on the boat; a tiny, frail woman who might have been 80 made it down safely thanks to the help of other passengers.  Gracias, gracias she said over and over. What if you are in a wheel chair? I wondered. Wheelchair? Why the hell would a person in a wheel chair want to go to Nicaragua? These were American thoughts, and I kept them to myself.

I was badly encumbered by the food I had bought. Still shaky from starvation, I fit myself into the narrow fiber glass seat next to Marilyn. We passed my “to go” food back and forth as we put on our required life jackets.

I started to open my food. My salsa and beef container was made of plastic so thin that when I popped off the cover, it bent in the middle, and I poured the hot shredded beef and salsa onto my shirt and pants. My orange life jacket was dripping with orange sauce (at least it matched). The string of epithets which normally would have passed my lips did not. Maybe I didn't want the other passengers (mostly Nicaraguans) to think all Americans had my colorful command of the English language.

With Marilyn’s help, I was able to start eating the food. It was not very good, but my goal was to bring the level of sauce down to the point where I would stop slopping it onto my lap every time the boat hit a ripple. It also quieted my shaky hands, and I began to relax.
Post-food Paul -- happy again.
The Boat Trip

The Johnson outboard whined steadily as we cut through the glassy surface of the river. The first 15 minutes or so of the ride was vaguely claustrophobic, as heavy plastic curtains kept out the pelting rain and limited our view to the inside of the boat. But as we continued upstream, the rain subsided, and the driver and his helper raised the curtains.

 Water fowl watched from the steep clay river banks, some of them taking off and flying alongside the boat. Here and there little shanties with rickety docks and skiffs appeared round the bend. But it was the tropical forest that predominated; huge plantain and banana trees, palms and towering deciduous trees whose branches must have reached a hundred feet above the canopy.
Life on the Rio Frio

Laundry on the Rio Frio
The hum of the outboard lulled me into dream land. I had watched Apocalypse Now earlier in the week and was beginning to feel like Martin Sheen. Suddenly, the hum of the outboard dropped an octave and my eyes popped open. We were now gliding through the water as the engine idled. The captain’s assistant, a pretty young Tico woman, stepped up onto bow and removed the Costa Rican flag, unfurled the Nicaraguan flag and mounted it on the bow.  
Putting up the Nicaraguan flag

We approached a steep clay bank where three Nicaraguan soldiers in camo uniforms watched us. The assistant told me to put my video camera away. No photographs of the soldiers. Got it. Behind the soldiers was their small outpost, also painted in camo colors. I saw no weapons. We bumped into the bank, and one of the soldiers jumped down onto the deck. “Hola, hola,” he said as he made his way to the back of the boat scanning the passengers and their luggage, apparently  looking for anyone with an eye patch and a parrot on his shoulder. I tried to cover the salsa stains on my shirt with my camera case, but I think I saw his nostrils twitch as he passed me.
One of the many tour boats on the Rio Frio.

It was a cursory inspection at best, and in a couple of minutes, he was back on shore and we were off again. 

The glassy surface of the water was deceptive. Only where the dead branches of fallen trees jutted up through the surface could you see how fast the water was moving. At other points, little whirlpools revealed obstacles just beneath the surface. I trusted that our pilot knew where these were because he forged ahead full throttle.

The river soon opened up into Lake Nicaragua, an enormous body of water whose opposite shore was out of sight, a hundred miles distant to the north.  We hugged the shore on the right, and in a few minutes the colorful buildings of San Carlos came into view.

San Carlos
Welcome to San Carlos

The immigration reception building had been freshly painted bright blue. At the top of the second story, large letters welcomed us: Bienvenidos. Another banner below that read:  Nicaragua- La alegria de viver in paz. Cristiana, Solidarita,  Socialista (Nicaragua: The Joy of Living in Peace. Christianity, Solidarity, Socialist). Our boat pulled up against a dock cushioned by tires roped to the pylons. A husky man reached down with a beefy arm to help pull passengers up onto the dock. This was necessary because the deck of the boat was a good three feet below the dock, and there were no stairs. Again, as in Los Chiles, passengers helped each other disembark without complaint. This was obviously normal procedure in the Land of Few Expectations. My disbelief was my own personal problem.

We filled out another form and chatted with a handsome young immigration officer. We had to wait as he let most of the other passengers go ahead of us. He explained in Spanish that only one window had a scanner for our new U.S. passports. I felt that we were comprehending maybe 15 percent of what he was saying. We asked cuanto cuesta? (How much does it cost?) We thought he said dos. Two dollars. Pretty cheap we thought. Minutes later the official at the window told us it was doce, or twelve.  As former ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers we had a good laugh. Language comprehension begins with listening, after all. Newborn babies have no idea that they are Chinese or French or Egyptian or Costa Rican. They just listen and watch until it finally they say their first word. We are still Spanish-language babies.

We exited the building onto a narrow, cobbled street bustling with activity. We only had about 45 minutes until our boat would set sail for the return trip, so we couldn’t do much exploring. Despite the beef and salsa I had spilled on my shirt and shorts, enough had gotten into my stomach that I wasn't hungry. But Marilyn was. We found a nice little outdoor café by a little park at water’s edge. We were the only people there. We told the owner no tenemos mucho tiempo (we don’t have much time) so he suggested the chicken. I had a beer.

Marilyn asked if they had a baño. He replied of course and indicated a doorway. When Marilyn came out minutes later, she sat quietly, pouring water from her thermos onto her fingers and drying them with napkins. “It's baño-ish," she said. "No toilet seat, no sink. There is a bowl of grayish water to rinse off your hands." She continued with a soft chuckle, "I got excited because I thought there was a basket of moist towelettes on the back of the toilet, but they turned out to be condom lubricant.” 

"The chicken, however, is delicious." 

We reboarded our boat at the dock, again with passengers helping other passengers. You had to sit on the dock and then drop down onto the deck. I thought of how a little step unit built of 2 x 6 lumber could enhance “the joy of a life in peace.”

I contemplated the great revolutions of history. They use grand words. Take the French Revolution. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! Or here in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua: La alegria de viver in paz. Cristiana, Solidarita,  Socialismus. Okay, but how about a little edit: Nicaragua: The joy of life in peace. Toilet seats, a sink in the bathroom and steps at the dock.

Restaurant at the dock -- great chicken -- not great baño.

We arrived back in Los Chiles in less than an hour, this time docking at a different concrete staircase. This was the happening place in town for all teenaged boys. They slouched around on their bikes, joking and laughing. One guy even dove into the muddy water. They watched as we climbed the stairs to a large tin-roofed structure where a card table was being set up. We lined up and produced our passports for one official. Another official glanced at Marilyn’s backpack. All was in order. No guns, no drugs, no endangered species.

We hiked back up the street to immigration to have our passports stamped, and we were officially welcomed to Costa Rica for another 90 days.

We ate dinner on the patio of our hotel. The rustic tables and stools are cross sections cut from the trunks of giant trees. It was picturesque, but my tired body would have preferred a chair with a back.  We both ordered fish, which was excellent, but the rough ambiance of the place made me wish we had spent a little more and eaten at the Hotel Wilson. At least they had chairs with backs and white tablecloths. If we ever take friends to Los Chiles, we will take them to Hotel Wilson.  

The next morning we paid our hotel bill. Twenty dollars (US) for a clean room with two beds, freshly remodeled bathroom, AC, a TV and breakfast. Half as much as Hotel Wilson. To my eye, this was good. Competition in Ticoland.

Heading Home

We were looking forward to stopping in Zarcero on the way back to have lunch and take some pictures. Unfortunately, it was drizzly and rainy all the way. We slowed to a crawl as we passed through heavy fog at high altitude. One of Costa Rica's famous cloud forests, it is eerily wonderful to behold.

In Zarcero, it was 60 degrees, drizzly and windy to boot. We ate chicken at a soda and watched the World Cup (try to find a TV in any establishment that was NOT tuned to the World Cup – you would’t). Across the street were the delightful topiary gardens in front of the Iglesia de San Rafael. We wandered through the leafy sculptures to the doors of the sanctuary, which were open. We stepped inside. Quietly we took it all in. The intricately painted ceiling of the nave, the altar rising impressively up several steps to a crucifix, and a single woman kneeling in prayer.

Here, as in Grecia, the doors to the sanctuary are always open. Even though I, a minister’s son, am not a religious person, I am moved by the church’s commitment to provide a safe place, a sanctuary, for prayer and reflection.

By 2 p.m. we were back home where our happy dogs greeted us with jumps and licks. Things settled down in a few minutes and we all cuddled together on the sofa.      I thought how lucky we are to be able to live in this country.

I thought of those lost souls on Expat Exchange who do nothing but complain about prices, roads, theft and the inability to get a good steak in Costa Rica.

Lost indeed. We are not lost here. We are found.