Coasting Across Costa Rica
perpetual adj. Never ending or changing; so frequent as to seem endless and uninterrupted
Due to the delay the hostel thief had caused us, we showed up at the Tica bus station in Granada a little later than we were instructed the day before. We were told to arrive at 6:30am for a 7am bus and we showed up around 6:50am. Pshh… we thought, Why do we need to be there so early? It’s probably just a liability thing so people can’t get mad if they miss the bus. Wrong. “Amber and Chris,” they said when we arrived. “We were waiting for you.” Apparently, we were supposed to be there early so we could fill out the several customs forms required of us to cross into Costa Rica. That left us trying to scramble for a spare pen and get all the forms filled out as they were simultaneously trying to load our stuff on the bus. Eventually, we finished and boarded the bus that we would be calling home for the next eight hours.
A few hours passed and we found ourselves at the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We were all ushered off the bus into a dirt lot filled with various food stands and other people waiving things into our faces. We surrendered our passports and a $4 exit fee to an agent and watched him walk away with them, which is always a scary thing to do. The question in the back of every traveler’s mind is: Am I going to get that back or am I going to be stranded at the Nicaraguan border for weeks? This shared suddenly brought us together with other travelers on the bus as we waited impatiently for our passports. Traveling with us was a German girl, an Italian guy, a Czech girl, and her girlfriend from England. As we stood there in hot southern sun we all shared stories of getting ripped off and paying far too much simply because we were gringos. As much as I don’t exactly wish ill on other travelers, it was nice to know we weren’t alone. Misery loves company.
Finally, a woman returned with our passports and began butchering each and every name as she called them aloud, signaling the owner to come and retrieve their passport and reboard the bus. Name after name was called, included Chris’, and still mine was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t help but think how perfectly my luck it would be to have mine to get lost. Just as I was about to piss myself from anxiety, she reached the last passport in the stack and called out my name. I grabbed it hurriedly and ran on board.
The bus drove forward a small distance and we were once again ushered off. This time, we took all our packs with us and got in line at the Costa Rican border. Of all borders we had crossed, this was by far the most nerve wracking. That was because Costa Rica is the only Central American country that required proof of onward travel to enter it, and we didn’t have this proof per se. I say per se because we did have our flights booked from Panama to Ecuador proving we were leaving Central America in ten days, but we didn’t have proof we were leaving Costa Rica itself. Once again, however, we were comforted by the fact that our fellow four travelers were all betting on the same thing. The Italian, like us, had a ticket from Panama, but the other three girls had tickets home from Brazil booked. I doubted that would work for them, but then again, I wasn’t so confident my own ticket was going to work either.
With only two agents working, the queue was massive and slow moving, giving us all more time to fret over whether or not we would be allowed through with our less than adequate proof of travel. Our group split between the two lines and we anxiously counted the bodies to see who would have to be the first to go. Turns out, we got to be the guinea pigs, but I guess it was better to be that there than in Peru where they are a delicacy. The girl asked us for our proof and I showed her the PDF of the tickets, trying not to drip sweat on her desk. She explained that this wasn’t proof that we were leaving Costa Rica and I, in turn, told her we just needed to travel through Costa Rica to get to Panama. She asked how long we planned on staying. “Two days,” I answered, and that seemed to satisfy her, because she wrote us seven day visas on our passports and gave us the stamp of approval. We were in!
We boarded the bus once again and anxiously waited to see if our cohorts had the same luck. Almost everyone had. The only unlucky soul had been the poor German girl who, despite being in our line, was not granted entrance and was instead forced to pay $40 for a bus ticket through Central America just so she could enter it. We all offered our sympathies while secretly celebrating that it hadn’t been us. Pro-tip: If you don’t have proof of onward travel in such a situation, you can create your own with an old airline ticket PDF and Photoshop. Just look up some upcoming flights from your destination and fill in the details on the PDF.
Hours later and we were finally in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. I had no interest in San Jose, whatsoever, but it was essentially just serving as a stopover for us to get some food and rest before moving on through the rest of Costa Rica, which is what everyone else we had met on the bus was doing as well. We all agreed that Costa Rica was far outside the reaches of our budget and thus wanted to get through as quickly as possible. Costa Rica is the Central American travel destination for those who probably aren’t seeing the rest of Central America. Costa Rica is for the rich in more was than one. In our experience, hardcore backpackers tend to bypass this beachy tourist trap in favor for more wallet friendly places and ones that feel a little bit more genuine.
Just 500 meters from the Tica bus station in San Jose was the Hotel Quinta Avenida that we had booked at $30 for a night. It was the cheapest we could find in San Jose and it was quite nice for that price, and the proximity to the bus terminals we needed was perfect. We dropped off our stuff at the hotel and went on a quest for food, pharmacies, and cash. That sounds like an odd combination, I’m sure. Beginning with the latter, we needed to find a currency exchange since our Nicaraguan cordobas were the only cash we had, given that I couldn’t withdraw any without my debit card. We had already used Chris’ back in Leon despite its stupid transaction fee. We weren’t doing that again. But finding a bank that would accept our cordobas turned out to be more difficult than we had imagined. None of them exchanged them. What kind of bank doesn’t exchange the currency of their own neighbor? Finally, we were directed toward a bank called BNC that would exchange it. Trouble was that it was several miles away. We didn’t have much choice and so off we went. When we arrived at the BNC, the man asked for my passport and I fretfully realized I didn’t bring it. I hadn’t known I would need it for currency exchange. I immediately started crying and he asked for any identification I had. I handed over my drivers license (because for some reason I had that useless piece of junk with me but not my international identity paperwork) and he began filling in all the fields with that information instead. I was pretty sure that was against the bank’s policy, but I appreciated what he was doing for me and I hoped it wouldn’t come back to haunt him.
With our money exchanged, we could finally focus on food, something we had had very little of that day. Just down the street, I saw my valhala, my nirvana, and heaven: a Taco Bell in all its greasy, dog-food quality meaty brilliance. I am aware of the irony in the fact that I was in Latin America craving America’s shitty version of Mexican food, but I couldn’t give two shits about irony at that point. I wanted Taco Bell and Chris was in agreement with me. While the menu was more limited than those to which I was accustomed and the hot caused my herpes-blistered throat immense pain, I didn’t care. I had Taco Bell and, for the first time in a few days, I was happy.
We stopped at a nearby pharmacy after dinner to pick up some more acetaminophen to ease my pain and some Listerine to help keep my mouth clean. We then splurged with ice cream and pastries, figuring we had earned it after hardly eating all day (that’s how food works, right?).
The next day, we hit the road again, in for another partially long day up to Puerto Viejo, our second and last stop in Costa Rica. We walked a short distance up to San Jose’s Terminal Atlantico Norte, from which the bus would leave. When we arrived, a taxi driver approached us and told us all the seats were sold on both the 2pm bus, which we wanted, as well as the 4pm, meaning we wouldn’t even be able to get on a bus until 6pm. We later discovered he was just trying to get us to hire him to drive us there for a ridiculous fee because the bus still had room. While he hadn’t technically been lying that there were no more seats available, we were still allowed to ride the bus provided we were willing to stand for the whole five hours. Not seeing another option, we bought the tickets for CRC$5,270, or about $9.50.
Luckily, we weren’t stuck to actually standing on the bus because this full size charter bus had a handy little stairwell in the back that provided the perfect seats for us, even if they were a little tough on the tooshie. In retrospect, we still would have gotten to the terminal early to buy the tickets prior to departure just to have a little more comfort, but we had still experienced worse. The ride that was supposed to take 4 hours took closer to five, even though it only covered a distance of 95 miles. Coming from Montana, where the interstate speed limit is 80mph, I will never understand how everything takes so long in Central America.
Puerto Viejo is really not much more than a small beach town that attracts hippies and beach-lovers who want to spend a few days surfing or snorkeling in the Caribbean. And did I mention that everything is super expensive? The cheapest hostel we could find, the Blue Butterfly hostel, still charged us $22.50 for a private room that was really nothing more than a hut with a mattress and a mosquito net draped over it to keep the bugs off. We quickly learned that people go to Puerto Viejo to party, not rest, which became clear to us as we tried to sleep through the noise of other guests shouting and laughing in an alcohol induced stupor. The party died down just in time for a hellacious rainstorm to begin thundering large droplets down on the metal roof directly above us. Just one night, we told ourselves.
The next morning, despite being tired and still feeling crappy we were out bright and early in an effort to catch the 8:30am bus to the border. It didn’t break our hearts, though we were saddened to have to walk to the bus station in the rain. We grabbed breakfast at the one café open at that time in the morning, The Chocolate Café. Seriously, don’t did’t people like breakfast? I guess early breakfast is sort of pointless if you’re up drinking all the night before. I choked down my overly prices whole wheat panqueques (not because they were bad but because swallowing anything literally caused me to choke a bit) and went to the bus station along the main road, where we waited to begin yet another long day of transportation before we could finally rest in Panama.