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