Costa Rica grants 90 day visas to visitors and since we are here for a longer period than 90 days, we had to renew our visas. The renewal process is simple. Leave the country for 72 hours and earn another 90 days when you come back. It’s as easy as that. We opted to take a journey up north to Nicaragua to renew our visas this week. We were told by a number of people that Nicaragua was a very interesting adventure of beauty, poverty and culture. They were exactly right.
Our day started at 4:30 am when a van came to pick us up to drive us to Liberia, Costa Rica. Needless to say it was an extremely early morning. Our trip was arranged by a very nice man named Sergio, but in retrospect, we really had absolutely no clue as to what to expect or how this was going to work. We were at the mercy of our drivers for sure.
About 25 minutes into the drive, we picked up a few more people and then stopped for breakfast in Liberia. The restaurant was filled with other folks who were also venturing up to Nicaragua, and we later found out that the majority of them were tourists from Costa Rica going up to Nicaragua for the day. As far as I know we were the only ones that were headed up and staying.
Post breakfast, we were ushered into a different van with a new driver (Jose). Another man came up to and and said “you are the one’s we are driving to Nicaragua, yes?” “Yes”, I replied. He then said that if we wanted to, we could do the one day tour and then instead of coming back, they would drop us at our hotel. It was only $100 for the 5 of us to do a full day tour, so we agreed. We were pretty sure he said that we’d see a volcano and ride in a boat around some islands, but we weren’t sure… We’re along for the ride, go for it.
Two more people joined us in the van (for the one day tour) and we were on the way. Jose spoke only spanish, so Erin and I had fun speaking spanish with him and learning more and more about Costa Rica. He told us about how CR uses 80% renewable energy and only 20% non-renewable. He told us about the land, the trees, the animals and more. It was very interesting. We also got to talking with our fellow passengers (Tony & Jodi from Wisconsin) and they asked us all kinds of questions about learning spanish, living in Costa Rica, school for the kids, etc, etc, etc. We really enjoyed telling our story to both Jose in espanol and Tony and Jodi in english.
North-West Costa Rica is very beautiful, it’s very green, very fresh. Jose opened up the windows for a while and we basked in the “Fresca Aire”. It was gorgeous. About 15 minutes from the border, Jose gave us a “heads up” that we were almost there. None of us really knew what that meant, but at least we new “it” was coming.
Arriving at the border was interesting to say the least. It was nothing like crossing a border in the United States. Very little direction, virtually no military or police presence, and no signs to explain ANYTHING. Jose parked the van and brought us into a small building that turned out to be the “exiting Costa Rica” building and we had our passports stamped with the exit stamps. We ushered back into the van and weaved in and out of semi trucks, people and cars parked everywhere. At one point we crossed through a car-wash looking thing that said it was decontamination. I’m not even sure it sprayed anything, and I’m sure that it had little to no effect, but it was part of the process..
Then we stopped and picked up another man who was named Berman. He was from Nicaragua and let us know (in perfect english) that he was going to be our tour guide for the day. He asked us if we had our forms filled out and all of us shook our heads saying “no” and he quickly handed us all forms to fill out with a sense of urgency. We filled out forms (one for each person) and gave them back to Berman. He then asked if we had the fee’s ready for the border crossing into Nicaragua. Again, we all shook our heads “no”. I had read that Nicaragua accepts US dollars so before we left I grabbed the $35 or so that I had sitting in my drawer so that we could tip people, etc before hitting the ATM to get more cash. We pay for everything in Colones in Costa Rica, so it’s been 3 months since we used Dollars. The fee for the family came to $55, so I was a full $20 short. Stress started settling in as we pulled up to the border crossing and I needed more cash. Thankfully, Tony not only had more cash, but was also more than willing to spot us a $20. Thank you Tony!
Wish cash, passports and forms in hand, Berman hopped out of the car and weaved into the line of chaos to get us processed. He told us that we could run to go use the bathroom, but to return asap as the border patrol might want to “see” all of us before we were granted access to the country. “15 minutes people. Don’t be late.” On the way to the bathroom, we saw an ATM so I stopped to get some cash to pay Tony back his $20. I requested $200 and the machine spit out 4 $50 bills. Crap. What ATM (besides Vegas) spits out bills larger than $20’s?!? The ATM was attached to a bank, and both Tony and I had received $50’s, so we proceeded into the bank to see if we could get change. After waiting in line, we asked for change and the teller asked for our passports.. um… we don’t have them.. they’re at the border crossing.. thankfully a Drivers License was fine too. I have NO IDEA what this woman was typing into the computer in order to change 2 $50’s into 10 $10’s, but it took FOREVER. Finally she handed over the $10’s and we were on our way to the bathrooms. Time was ticking.
Around the corner we found the bathrooms and discovered that a visit to the restroom was controlled by the woman who works there and it was $1 per person to enter the bathroom. No change was available. There we were armed with fresh $10’s and nothing else. My turn to save the day. I asked if she accepted Colones and YES she did! So, I was able to pay with colones for the entire group of us to visit the bathroom. It was probably the dirtiest bathroom that ever existed. Not sure where they funds go for the bathroom visits, but it’s certainly not for cleaning crews. Ben came out of the bathroom shaking his head and said “Dad, I didn’t wash my hands, I think it’s cleaner to skip it than use that sink.” I agreed.
On the way back to the van, we had to cross a central holding area that is FILLED with Nicaraguans peddling their wares. We have seen this every single day in Tamarindo on the beaches (and the vendors are from Nicaragua) but this was a whole new level. Hundreds of them. Senor! Pottery? Belts? Necklaces? Bracelets? Cigarets? Cigars? Toys?! They had it all. After weaving through the chaos, we made it back to the van. All 7 of us were sweating, hot and already exhausted. The door to the van closed and the masses surrounded the van, knocking on the windows trying desperately to get us to by something, anything. A few moments later, Berman returned, told us we were good to go and we pulled out of the nonsense and finally hit the road.
I looked at Erin, sweat pouring down my head and face, and said “Well.. that was an experience.” She laughed and agreed. As did the rest of the van. And we were off. Into Nicaragua. Onward HO.