Monday, June 22, 2015

A Different Visa Run Experience ... Los Chiles to San Carlos ... by car, boat, mini-bus, feet, bus, car

Because we’re still waiting for our residency to go through (it’s closer … ever so slightly closer), we continue to need to leave Costa Rica every 90 days to renew our visas. I had visions of doing a mini vacation this time, maybe taking Nature Air and spending a few days in Grenada.

But time flies when you’re retired, and on Monday the 15th I thought, “better check our last visa stamp; I can’t remember when our 90 days are up. I think we have a week.”

Well, we didn’t have a week. The next day, Tuesday the 16th was the last day. OMG! We didn’t want to end up in a Central American jail trying to scrape together bail money, so bye, bye mini vacation. Time to scramble.

When you have two dogs, two cats and a horse, and your house is not convenient to a bus line, finding a house-sitter -- even with pre-planning – is a challenge. Finding a house-sitter the evening before you have to leave turns out to be impossible. 

Plan B:  drive up and back on the same day. People do it. People who don’t mind windy roads through a cloud forest. In the dark. In the rain. Behind a caravan of 18-wheelers being passed on hilly curves by young guys on motos. We were not relishing the idea, but we couldn’t come up with other options.

We dropped a set of house keys with our friends. In the event something unforeseen happened and we couldn’t get back, they could do emergency animal feeding. 

At 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday the 16th, we were on the road, headed north to Los Chiles, Costa Rica. The plan was familiar: take the boat over the border to San Carlos, Nicaragua and return a few hours later. This would be our fifth trip since we moved here.

We’d been reading articles about a new bridge being opened in Las Tablillas (six km east of Los Chiles) that was supposed to make the whole trip easier. One person said they simply drove up, went through Costa Rica immigration, walked across the bridge, went through Nicaraguan immigration, walked back across the bridge and got their visa stamp for another 90 days in Costa Rica. That sounded very appealing, and we would have done it.

Until we read another account that turned out a bit differently. Those folks hired a driver to take them to the bridge and they went through Costa Rica immigration. But when they got to the Nicaraguan side, they were told they had to stay in Nicaragua for a minimum of three hours. Since there’s nothing on the Nicaraguan side but a vending machine and endless jungle, they were advised to take a (conveniently waiting) mini-bus to San Carlos and return three hours later. Apparently Nicaragua wants you to spend a few cordobas while you’re “visiting.”

So Paul and I agreed that we’d better not chance the new bridge. Because of our concern of getting back to the animals, we’d do the regular boat trip. By now we were old hands at the process. Go to immigration at Los Chiles, walk across the street, buy a boat ticket, walk to the dock (stopping to pay 600 colones for a “pass” out of Los Chiles), and wait at the rickety dock for the boat to take us up the Rio Frio to San Carlos.

Noticeable Changes in Los Chiles


When we arrived at the dingy white building that houses the Costa Rican immigration offices, we were struck at its emptiness. Not only were there no people waiting in line to go to a window, there were no clerks at any of the windows. As we stood scratching our heads in wonderment, a young clerk popped out of a doorway in the hall. “Everyone is at the bridge now, yes?” asked Paul.

The clerk smiled and said, “Si.”

“Well, good for us, then,” Paul said, “no lines.”

She went to one of the windows and processed our paperwork. “Do we still sign up for the boat across the street?”

“Si.”

Across the street on the cement porch of a closed-up-looking building stood a young man with a clipboard. In the past there had been a table and chair and a line of people waiting to sign up for the boat. “Doce mil por dos,” he said. $24. That was $2 a person less than we’d previously paid for a one-way boat ticket. He wrote our names and passport numbers on the otherwise blank page on his clipboard.
No people. Just empty tourist boats and
grazing horses. A different Los Chiles experience. 
“No other passengers today?” It was 12:15 and the boat had always left at 1 (or close to 1 – Tico time). Usually by 12:15 there was at least a page of names. Maybe things were working out more smoothly at the bridge than we’d imagined.

He handed us two tickets and we headed down the street to pick up our “leaving Los Chiles” ticket. The woman at the table selling the tickets looked really bored – almost asleep. At least she also sold tickets to use the restroom, so she had a little more to do.

Paul alone on the empty dock. 
At the dock, there was no hustle, no bustle, no crowd. A young guy napping on one of the cement benches got up and started loading huge bags of lifejackets onto a truck when we arrived. That left us. Alone. I looked at our boat tickets. They were different than the ones we had gotten in the past. These were for a boat operated by Ramon Augenta y Familia, San Carlos, Nicaragua. Ramon y familia must have gotten the Rio Frio shuttle contract. Well, good for them. But they probably needed more than Paul and Marilyn as customers if their business was to succeed.
This is what the Los Chiles
dock used to be like.
One o’clock came and went. We weren’t too concerned. We’d never actually boarded the 1 p.m. boat anywhere close to 1 p.m. But usually there was at least a boat at the dock. The only boats nearby were a few obvious tourista barcas and a sad little blue boat sitting low in the water, its sides covered in heavy clear plastic tarps used to protect against rain.

Since we were the only people on the dock and had plenty of time, Paul began to check out the welded steel roof that was held in place by badly rusted steel posts. Paul discovered that several of the posts had rusted away. They were suspended in the air a foot above the concrete base to which they were once bolted.  Curious as to what was 
These are some of the "less rusted" posts
that are no longer holding up the dock roof.
preventing the entire welded steel roof from collapsing, Paul found a single (quite small) weld where one of the posts was attached to the hand rail. This is what held up the structure. He pushed it gently side to side, and it swayed ominously over our heads. On that cheery note we tried to focus on birds nesting in the eaves instead.

As 1 p.m. ticked closer to 2 p.m. we were still trying to hold onto our Pura Vida. I’d brought enough snacks to keep Paul occupied, but he kept asking me to check my watch. At about 1:45, a clutch of young Nica guys swaggered down the street and plopped onto the cement bench. An older couple showed up briefly, but when I looked back from my bird watching they were gone.
On the left side of this picture is the one and only
weld that was holding up the dock roof.
The small blue boat in the river would turn out to be
our shuttle to San Carlos.
A few minutes later, I saw the woman of the older couple. She was gesturing and calling us from the little blue boat. Its rain flaps had been rolled up and I saw that her husband was sitting in the back of the boat, next to an outboard motor. So this was Ramon y familia’s excursion boat. We made our way over to where they were docked, one impossibly thin nylon cord keeping them from drifting out into the river.

We carefully crab-walked down the steep, narrow and crumbling dock steps to the bow of the boat. In place of a railing, which would have been nice, there was a long, skinny green cord to hold on to.

Close up, the boat didn’t look so tiny, just small compared to the tourist boats nearby, and definitely a lot smaller than the boats we’d take previously. It was extremely long, about 30 feet, and so narrow that seating consisted of two board benches that ran from front to back. Passengers would sit facing each other with a narrow aisle in between. Along the roof, cords held a handful of lifejackets. The fiberglass roof was so low that Paul’s head nearly grazed it – not good – because it was screwed down with drywall screws whose tips poked out about every two inches ready to gouge his tall Gringo skull.
New shuttle boat to San Carlos.
The five Nica guys from the docks leapt down the crumbling steps like acrobats and settled themselves on the benches. Then the boat ticket guy came onboard with his nearly-empty clipboard and untied the green cord from the dock and pushed us off.  No one made an effort to put on lifejackets, so we didn’t either.

The outboard revved up and we were quickly in the center of the river cutting through the mocha colored water as easily as an eel. We had settled ourselves about midway in the boat, but Ramon’s wife, a warm and friendly woman, motioned for us to sit in the back near her and her husband. Over the roar of the engine, we asked her in Spanish if the boat would be returning from San Carlos to Los Chiles at 4, like it always had in the past.

She shook her head. “Oh, no, manaña,” she said.
Paul has just learned that there
will be no return boat today.
Uh … manaña? Is there another boat coming back here today? We asked, again in our best patented gestural Spanglish.

She began explaining a lot to us very quickly. We nodded but didn’t understand. Still, between her rapid Spanish and the eardrum shattering motor, we were able to catch one word that would prove critical: bus.

I started putting two and two together. No boat. There must be a bus that goes back over the new bridge. Okay. That sounded reasonable. I was not going to think about having to spend the night in Nicaragua. At least not yet.

One good thing about Ramon’s skinny blue boat with the giant outboard motor – it was really zippy. Before we knew it, clipboard guy was removing the Costa Rican flag as we passed the Bienvenidos a Nicaragua sign on the shore.
River horse.
I’d been trying to take a few photos as we sped along the river, but I knew from past experience to tuck away my camera before we got to the Nicaraguan military outpost – a sad little place with a camo-painted building, a few dogs and chickens and some young Nica soldiers with automatic weapons and practiced scowls. Right before we came into sight of the outpost, everyone began pulling down the lifejackets and slinging them over their heads. We followed suit.
Life on the Rio Frio.
Ramon deftly parallel-parked our craft along the shoreline and clipboard guy held out the skinny green cord to the soldiers. On previous trips, one of the scowling soldiers would make his way down a staircase carved in the mud wall of the shore and board the boat, ignoring any Gringos, while doing cursory checks of bags and backpacks of the Nicaraguan passengers. But today, the soldiers just waved us on and Ramon backed up and gunned the outboard. Out of sight of the soldiers, the lifejackets came off and got re-tucked into their homes in the boat’s roof.
Dancing branches on the Rio Frio.
We continued on past homesteads with rickety porches shaded by tin roofs, dugout canoes tied to docks and women waist deep in water at river’s edge beating laundry as clean as the Rio Frio would allow.

It only took us about a half an hour to reach San Carlos in this lightweight craft with few passengers. We disembarked behind the young Nica guys and headed up the steps to Nicaraguan immigration.

I had remembered to get US dollars for this part of the trip, since Nicaragua doesn’t accept Costa Rican colones. But because the bank was closed the night before we left, I only had twenties from the ATM. Not having change had been an issue before, and we’ve cautioned in a previous blog to make sure that you bring ones and fives. I did have a ten from getting change at McDonald’s on the way up – the fee at Nicaraguan immigration is $7/person US … so I was close. Not surprisingly, the clerk could not change my $20. Surprisingly, he asked if I had 2 mil in colones (1 mil = approximately $2US) and accepted that along with the $10.

We asked the clerk – just to be sure – if there was a boat leaving for Los Chiles and got the same answer “Manaña.” Okay. And the bus station? He pointed east.

“I think I saw the bus station from the boat when we were pulling in,” I said to Paul. “So it should be close by.”

We passed customs and handed the customs clerk our declaration (we had nothing to declare) and she waved us through. Out on the San Carlos street, we were reminded about how different this part of Nicaragua is than the comparative sophistication of our little town of Grecia, Costa Rica. A winding cobbled street boasted every storefront imaginable – from clothing to clinics, fruits and vegetables to cigars, bodegas and little hotels with ancient rickety balconies whose rooms we hoped never to visit. A tangle of clerks, children, customers and dogs mingled among the wares. As the only Gringos in sight, we must have stood out like two tall sore thumbs.

Los Chiles Is Not a Unique Name


With the help of two amused soldiers who pointed out that the bus station was directly behind where we were looking for it, we made it. Various multi-colored buses were lined up facing signboards painted with names of Nicaraguan towns. Rows of chairs faced the buses; all filled with Nicaraguans needing to go somewhere that wasn’t San Carlos. I saw a sign that read “Los Chiles” and walked up to a relatively modern-looking bus facing the sign. “Los Chiles?” I asked, peering in to the bus’s dark interior, already packed with riders.

Heads shook no in unison and fingers pointed to a bus farther down the line. A chicken bus. A chicken bus is an old brightly painted school bus – seen in many Central American countries, most likely imported from the US. Two schools of thought exist as to where it got its name –  either the fact that people are crammed on it like chickens in transit, or more likely, that the bus transports both people and their livestock – often chickens.
“Los Chiles?” I asked. This bus, too, was already packed with passengers.

“Si.”

We started up the bus steps, but then I had a thought, “Los Chiles … Costa Rica?”
“No, no, no!” More heads shaking. More pointing. This time to a white mini-bus. No logo, no sign.

We headed to the mini-bus. “Los Chiles. Costa Rica?” Paul and I both articulated the “Costa Rica” part strongly.

“Si. Si.”

Phew. There was no one on the mini-bus. We boarded and settled in. The driver, one other guy, and somebody who was probably the driver’s son, got on. “Los Chiles, Costa Rica?” I said again. Just to be sure.

The driver confirmed. “Si. Los Chiles, Costa Rica.”

Inside the mini-bus.
With his handful of passengers, the driver headed out of town. The mini-bus was relatively new with comfortable seats. “Look,” I said to Paul. All of the signs in the bus were Russian. It was certainly a much nicer vehicle than any I’d ever ridden in when I was in Russia in the 90s. I guess Russian bus manufacturers have finally figured out how to keep diesel fumes from the passenger compartment.  

The driver’s probable son turned to us. “Two dollars each,” he said.

“Nice English,” Paul complimented the young man and handed over a $5 bill. The young man gave him a dollar.

The mini-bus headed out into the Nicaraguan countryside. A tiny part of me – the part that has the vivid imagination – considered that we might be being kidnapped and held for ransom in a dark and dank Nicaraguan prison somewhere in the depths of the country. I quickly dismissed that thought and decided to focus on the rural landscape instead.
Passing through the Nicaraguan countryside on the way
to what we hoped would be the bridge to Costa Rica.
We passed many sad-looking horses completely tacked-up and “parked.” I wondered if they had to stand all day while their riders went to work before commuting back home on them. Pigs and chickens scurried out of the roadway as we approached. The mini-bus seemed to be the only engine-powered vehicle on the road. At least, with the sun behind us, it felt like we were headed in the right direction toward the new bridge.

After about 45 minutes the road veered south. There was a brand new sign advertising some jungle resort. A hopeful indication. The one other passenger got out at a crossroads. Buenas tardes all around.
The empty roadway heading to
Nicaraguan immigration.
The driver turned his head toward us, pointing out the front window. “Los Chiles,” he said cheerfully. Ahead we could see several uniformed people – white shirts, navy pants – Nicaraguan immigration. The driver stopped the mini-bus. “Los Chiles,” he said again. The young probable son helped us out of the mini-bus next to a large, gravel-covered clearing. Rebar stood at one meter intervals in the gravel, construction soldiers awaiting orders. Most likely the eventual home of Nicaraguan immigration.

We turned and waved to the mini-bus driver and began walking toward a distant Costa Rican flag. Closer, a Nicaraguan flag flapped in the breeze. Another resort sign hastily tacked to a new, seemingly empty hexagonal building. Possibly a future restaurant. 

Behind the hexagonal building, many Nicaraguan immigration officers with not a lot to do. They ushered us toward a table. Customs. Filled out the form, then another for immigration and were directed to a window. An obvious trainee, another officer at her side, took our passports. I handed her one of my US $20s. She handed it back. She pointed to a miniscule tear at the top of the bill, shaking her head. Her supervisor looked on approvingly. I peeled off another $20, this one crisp and perfect. She accepted it and gave me change. This, too, reminded me of Russia, where U.S. dollars were happily accepted – as long as they were brand new and perfect.

I wondered, what if the $20 with the tiny tear had been the only cash I had?

Walking Across No-Man’s Land


Large orange plastic road barriers rimmed the Nicaraguan side of the bridge. We walked toward the Costa Rican side. I forgot to look down to see if we were really crossing a river. We made it over to another set of large orange plastic road barriers and the Costa Rican flag. Home! 

Customs was set up at a few long tables under a temporary-looking roof. They took our forms and glanced briefly at my backpack and our snack bag before pointing us across the road to a series of cream-colored metal buildings, that looked like they’d been shipping containers in a former life. We could see a large parking lot behind the triple row of buildings. I wondered if that might be public parking for people crossing, but I forgot to ask.

At the end of the rows of buildings was a ramada with wooden benches. Clerks sat behind three windows.  We went to Window 1 and discovered that it was for people leaving Costa Rica. So was Window 2. At Window 3 the clerk took our forms and passports. Paul pointed to a sign next to the window. Immigration closed at 4. It was 3:57. What would we have done if immigration had been closed? We’d already “checked out” of Nicaragua. There was no air-conditioned waiting room in the no-mans-land between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Our timing was a little too close for comfort – but we’d made it.

I’d been resting my head on Window 3 while the clerk ran our passports, watching him stamp and then very carefully write -90- into the visa stamp. We were good for another 90 days! When I straightened up to take back the passport, I saw that I’d sweated onto Window 3 and my sweat was now slowly dripping down toward the ledge. Good thing they were closing in a few minutes.

Back to the Correct Los Chiles


A large, modern bus was parked on the road next to a “Los Chiles 6 km” sign. The bus driver stood outside and greeted us. He pointed to his watch “Quince.” Fifteen minutes. He made it clear that it was too “caliente” to wait in the bus, so we went back to the ramada and sat down to wait there.
Workers laying sod at the new Costa Rican immigration facility.
A welcomed sight - the bus to Los Chiles (Costa Rica!!)
At 4:15 we headed back to the bus. No sign of the driver. We sat on the brand new curb and watched workers lay sod on the brand new front lawn of the brand new immigration facility. This is going to be a pretty nice set-up when they complete it. At 4:25 the bus driver came and we boarded with a handful of other folks. In about five minutes, he pulled into the tiny Los Chiles terminal about four blocks away from where we’d parked the car.

I Get to Drive First


This would be our first time not staying over in Los Chiles for the night. We grabbed a few cold ginger ales from the local grocery store and headed out. I chose to drive from Los Chiles to Ciudad Quesada, about 60 miles (99 km) south. Our car was due for repairs in a few days and one of the things that needed repairing was the windshield washer pump. On the drive up to Los Chiles the day before, the dirt had built up so much on the windshield that we had to stop and pour some of our precious thermos water on it so we could see out again. But now there was a sometimes-light/sometimes-heavy rain that kept the windshield relatively clean.

Driving in the rain as dusk falls is not my favorite thing to do, but I thought that the 20 more miles that I had volunteered to do would more than make up for Paul’s leg of the trip on the treacherous road through the cloud forest.

By the time we were within about five miles of Ciudad Quesada, night had fallen and the rain was coming down heavily. The shoulderless road climbing up the mountain into town was black and slick, with no center line, no side line and no reflectors. 

I was white-knuckling it, flicking my high beams off and on as massive 18-wheelers seemed to be coming directly at me from the other direction. As we got a little closer to town, we finally fell behind a line of cars and I could follow their brake lights. Paul said, “If the car in front of you goes over the cliff to the right, bear left.”

We reminisced that in our past travels in the U.S., whenever Marilyn took the wheel, the weather would turn bad – sleet, rain or ice – or the paved road would suddenly turn into a cow path; and then when it was Paul’s turn to drive, everything would clear up. It was a family joke, but it was true. He apologized to me that I once again was at the wheel for a very difficult and dangerous leg of the trip.

“But you still have the cloud forest to look forward to,” I said – cheerfully … but through tightly clenched jaws.


The Cloudless Cloud Forest


After a pit stop at McDonald’s (we had initially planned to stop at a terrific Italian restaurant we’d discovered on our last trip –- Italianissimo -- but we were too tired), Paul took over the driving. This was the part of the trip we’d really dreaded – the part that kept most people in Los Chiles overnight. 

The road heading south from Ciudad Quesada through Zarcero and onto Naranjo was narrow, windy, hilly and usually full of truck traffic that kept all but the most intemperate of drivers crawling behind them. And of course it was a cloud forest – thick mist floated over the hills, making visibility even during the day problematic.

But on this night … the road was clear. Clear of traffic, clear of rain, clear of mist. Not even a random lunatic motorcycle driver trying to pass on a curve. Newly painted yellow center lines were dotted with bright reflectors. Sharp white side lines also had reflectors. Paul kept commenting on this: “Wow, isn’t this amazing! What a pleasant drive! This is a piece of cake!”

Every now and then, my stony silence got to him. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he’d say. “Once again, I got the easy part of the drive." Of course, his sympathy for me was of the Schadenfreude sort – he was sorry for me but glad that he hadn’t been at the wheel during the hair-raising part of our trip.

Before we knew it, we were in Naranjo. After that, Sarchi and 5 kilometers to home. It was 8:30 p.m. We’d made it. I made a quick call to our friends with the house keys to let them know they wouldn’t have to do any emergency animal feeding.

By 8:45 p.m. we were at our gate. Joyful dog barks and a happy horse whinny greeted us. In the house, the kitties were looking at their little kitty watches and complaining that we were five hours late in giving them supper. We fed the animals, knocked down some Tylenol against our aching joints, and fell into bed, ready for a 90-day rest.




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