Visa Run to Costa Rica
Every 90 days, foreigners must leave Nicaragua and go to Costa Rica to renew their visa. I believe a day or two is required, but I decided to spend a solid week in Costa Rica to explore a bit more and to visit a few friends. I also needed a break from the chaos that is Nicaragua, and Costa Rica’s relative “normalness” was a perfect getaway.
Rather than taking a private bus directly from Granada to San Jose (Costa Rica), I decided to take the cheaper, more time consuming local buses. I had planned on leaving early in the morning, but between packing and preparing for the trip, I didn’t leave until about 10am. I took local buses from Granada to Rivas, Rivas to the border, crossed the border on foot, and, finally, a bus from the border to San Jose. I finally arrived at my friend’s house around 10pm, located in the San Jose suburb called San Antonio de Escazu.
Many people hate border crossings. They can be stressful, confusing, expensive, and full of shady people. I typically look forward to them. Not for the actual crossing, but for the principal of it. Crossing into a new country is exciting. It feels like a completely new start. It usually comes with a lot of changes: the food, the accent or language, the currency, the lifestyle, etc. It usually comes with the unknown of what’s on the other side.
Having already been to Costa Rica, I had an idea of what to expect. But it was truly shocking after spending 3 months in Nicaragua. The feel of being in Costa Rica is so different than Nicaragua. Buses are normal public transportation buses you’d see in the US or Europe, they’re not rigged up old school buses carrying double the recommended capacity like you find in Nicaragua. The number of people selling food and trinkets on the buses is 10 times less than in Nicaragua. The lack of people begging or asking for money. People are dressed up to go to office jobs. There are plazas and green parks to relax in. People own cars and iPhones. And as a non-Latino, you don’t get stared at like some kind of an alien like what happens in Nicaragua. Going back to this was refreshing, almost like having a “normal” life for a week.
San Jose’s Comforts
I arrived in San Jose and stayed with a friend of a friend, James and his wife Seciah. James is from Pennsylvania while his wife is Tica (Costa Rican). When I went through Costa Rica the first time, I also stayed with them for a night. I stayed with them for two nights this time, and it was great to see a familiar face and catch up (even if we had met just one time). I had one full day in San Jose and used it to just relax and take in the vibe of a familiar-ish city. I walked from plaza to plaza enjoying the greenery, people watching, reading, and taking the time to collect my thoughts. Leaving your city of residency on a trip is a perfect way to think a bit more about things on the higher level, while you’re not sucked into the day-to-day activities. Since arriving in Central America on June 1st, I had not had American fast food. San Jose is full of fast food places like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s Taco Bell, etc. I couldn’t pass up the chance to dive in so I went to McDonald’s for lunch. Like in many countries, McDonald’s is actually more expensive than in the US. The 600 colones menu ($1.20) includes a McPollo (McChicken), an hamburguesa (single hamburger), McPapitas (small french fries), and an ice cream sundae. Everything else on the menu is a bit more expensive as well. I went ahead with the McPollo, Hamburguesa, and two McPapitas. Although it tasted absolutely delicious, I remembered within 30 minutes why I typically don’t eat fast food. I was thrown into a daze of sleepiness. I could barely function just walking around and eventually had to get a coffee to try to not fall asleep. I hadn’t felt that way after eating for several months. Obviously, there is some kind of connection to the quality of the food. I think I can go another 4 months without eating it again.
That night, James’ wife, Seciah, invited us to her office since they were having a work viewing party to watch the Costa Rica-Jamaica World Cup qualifying soccer match. It was about 8 Costa Ricans (7 of them women), James, and me. All of the Ticos were chanting and singing songs in front of a TV screen as the game was played. This is something I had never seen before. You could sense the desire for Costa Rica to win the match to clinch a spot in the 2014 World Cup. Costa Rica was up 1-0 until the final minute, where Jamaica was able to squeak in a goal to tie it up. The game ended a few minutes later in a tie, and the Ticos were heartbroken. After the result of the Panama-Honduras match, however, Costa Rica had sealed their entry in the World Cup. Needless to say, the city went crazy. Honestly, it was a bit funny to see the disappointment in the end of the Costa Rica match, only to see the joy and excitement just an hour later as their spot was sealed because of another match. People took over the streets in some parts of the city, celebrating what they hadn’t accomplished in 2010, entering the World Cup.
Early the next day, I headed into the city to catch a bus to Tortuguero, a small town located in the northeast part of Costa Rica. Tortuguero, literally meaning “Place of Turtles”, is named after the Green Turtles who migrate here between the months of July and September to lay their eggs on the beach. Tourism to see this take place has increased a great amount over the past 10-15 years, which has seen its positive effects as they provide the support and security to make sure eggs are not stolen by poachers.
Tortuguero itself is a long but thin island off the coast only reachable by boat. To arrive there, I had to take a bus from San Jose to Cariari (2 hours), a bus from Cariari to La Pavona on gravel roads (1.5 hours), and finally a 50 passenger motorboat from Cariari to Tortuguero. The town of Tortuguero itself reminds me a bit of the town on Isla Bastimentos, the island in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The island has no cars and has a main concrete sidewalk that runs through the city. All the other little roads that go off the main sidewalk are dirt. Most of the houses on Tortuguero are on stilts at least 3 feet high to protect from floods. The population is a mix of, I’d guess, 80% mestizos (typical Latin) and 20% Afro-Caribbeans. The town essentially runs on tourism, offering turtle tours (which are mandatory if you want to go see the turtles at night), canoe tours, kayak rentals, and animal watching tours by motorboat. Tours are relatively expensive, so I opted to just go with the turtle tour, costing $20 for a guide and the permission to be on the beach after dark.
On a drizzly evening, we met at 9:20pm at the tourist office to start our tour. Our guide, named Elvis, arrived 10 minutes late, an initial first impression that showed his mood for the night. He was very apathetic and was not very excited to be there. We walked over to the beach and immediately found a turtle laying its eggs. What makes this even more impressive is the size of the turtles. A fully-grown Green Turtle weighs about 250 pounds and is about 3 feet long and 2 feet wide.
We arrived just in time to see the eggs laid, as the mother began covering the eggs with sand. To avoid any distractions, the guide used a red light and did not shine it on the face of the turtle. While laying the eggs, the turtle is in a kind of trance, not aware of its surroundings (I guess that’s probably true for a woman giving birth, as well!). A turtle typically lays about 80-100 eggs. The crazy part is that only 1 out of every 1,000 eggs actually survives to grow into an adult. Between the weather and predators, only 0.1% survives! After laying the eggs, the mother turtle pulls its massive body and shell back to the water to migrate back north to Nicaragua. This alone is impressive. The turtle uses its arms to pull itself forward, time after time, until it finally reaches the water. After 10 or so pulls forward, they usually take a break for 10-20 seconds to regroup. It’s not an easy task to pull a 250 pound body on sand!
I was mildly satisfied with the tour. It was incredible to see the turtles lay their eggs and to watch a turtle make its way back to the water, but the tour guide was unimpressive and the tour only lasted about an hour before he took us back.
The Spanish Couchsurfers I had hosted showed me pictures of them in the morning with the turtles, so I knew there was some way to go back for the sunrise to try to catch a glimpse of a turtle or two. After asking around, I learned that it was perfectly legal without paying. I woke up at 4:30am and made the 5 minute walk to the beach with a German and a Dutch. After about 15 minutes of walking down the beach, we spotted a turtle still in the nesting process! Seeing the massive animal in broad daylight was a magnificent sight, as she pushed dirt with her front arms down to cover the eggs. We waited for about 20 minutes for her to finish the process, and then she finally made her way out of the nest, slowly making her way to shore. With the sun rising above the Caribbean Sea, the monstrous turtle slowly made its way into the water after laying its eggs. While watching the exit, several other tourists were watching something about 100 yards up the beach. After the turtle was finally gone, we hurried over to see what the fuss was all about. It turned out to be even more exciting than watching the mother turtle. Baby turtles!
About 15 people were standing above the nest, watching 25 baby turtles hatch from the eggs, slowly climb out of the nest (which is dug into the ground), and do their best to make their way to the sea. This proved difficult for the tiny turtles, who were smaller than the size of my hand. They made their way up and out of the nest and worked their way along the path with tiny hills of sand, which were created by the mother and she made her way back to the sea. One-by-one, the 25 turtles made their way through this obstacle course until arriving to the water, where they were greeted by a slap in the face from the waves that often pushed them back 10 feet back onto land. This is not the easiest start to a life! Some were flipped over by the water and others while trying to climb over the sand. Who knows what happened to them as they all finally entered the water and swam away. I’d like to think that they all made it back to their mother and will live a long, happy life with their 25 brothers and sisters. But the reality is that they were probably eaten by sharks or other predators. You have to love nature!
San Jose: Round 2
After witnessing this great spectacle, I made my way back to San Jose. When I was in Ometepe, the volcano island in Lake Nicaragua, I met a girl, named Maritza, and her great aunt who are from Nicaragua but live in San Jose. They were extremely kind and they invited to stay with them when I came to Costa Rica. I took Maritza up on her offer. That evening, I arrived and met Maritza and her mother (also named Maritza) in front of the Central Bank of Costa Rica. I spent the next three days with her and her family, who invited me into their home and truly treated me great. They live in a modest home about an hour bus ride from the center of San Jose. Maritza lives with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s two year old daughter, while her other sister lives right next door with her husband and two year old boy.
Maritza’s mother moved to Costa Rica 16 years ago to find a better life for her family. She sews for a living, making clothing for a shop on the other side of San Jose. She has a two hour commute each way by bus, all while being the mother of the house. For each of her kids, they lived in Chontales, Nicaragua, with their grandmother until they started high school. Then they each moved to Costa Rica to start high school and have lived in San Jose since.
This is a classic story not just for Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, but for Mexicans in the US, Ukrainians in the Czech Republic, Moroccans in Spain, etc., etc. Maritza’s mother has worked hard to be able to achieve this, but there is no doubt that she has created a better life for her family. In Costa Rica, they earn more money, have better health care, and better education. Maritza earned a scholarship at the University of Costa Rica, Costa Rica’s top university, where she is studying accounting. Her oldest sister works as an accountant, while her other sister works at an outdoor clothing store.
I wanted to share their story because in Costa Rica, like in many countries, the main group of immigrants is often discriminated against. I was told that 25% of Costa Rica is Nicaraguans, just like well over 25% of the US population is now Latinos. You hear a story like the one about Maritza’s mother, and you see a hard-working single mother leaving her beloved family and home in hopes of making a better life for her family. I don’t know if we can truly understand the sacrifices that many immigrants make in search of opportunities. I, personally, cannot imagine the difficulties of a mother living and working in a different country, away from her family, sending remittances back home every month to support them. This is the ultimate sacrifice of a brave mother who wants to do what’s best for her family. And you know what? It paid off.
Over the course of three days, I got to experience some of the daily life of the family and really get to know them. I went to the Saturday morning market with Maritza’s mother and sister, where they bought fresh fruits and vegetables for the week. We passed through the entire market before making any purchases to make sure to get the lowest price. Carrots, pineapples, bananas, plantains, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, watermelon, yucca, oranges, mandarins. You name it, it was in our reusable shopping bags. Taking public transportation proved difficult, as we each carried two large, heavy bags full of produce to the bus stop. This is by far the cheapest place to buy produce, so it’s the best time to stock up for the week.
Later in the afternoon, we headed out to see the parade of the faroles, hand-made luminaries, in celebration of the Independence Day. Parents and children together met up at local schools with their luminaries, ranging in designs anywhere from houses to birds to Minions. They then marched around the local neighborhood showing off their work. Each school had their own parade, so they were spread across the entire city. We ended up in the main plaza of Desamparados, a barrio of San Jose, where an orchestra was playing music while folkloric dancers showed off their moves. Afterwards, fireworks were shot off just beside the Catholic church to celebrate the 192 years of independence from Spain.
White Water Rafting
The following day (Sunday), Maritza and I went on a white water rafting trip to Pacuare River. I never really had a huge interest in white water rafting, but that’s probably because the chance never came up. Costa Rica is known for adventures like this, so I thought, “When in Costa Rica”. Plus, Pacuare River is rated in the top 10 places for white water rafting in the world.
Pacuare has Class III and Class IV rapids. Being my first time, I was nervous, especially after looking up the different levels on Wikipedia. Class IV is listed as “very difficult” and “potentially dangerous”. However, we still went for it.
After a two hour bus ride towards the Caribbean, I was placed in a group with Maritza and two American girls. Along with the guide, we were 5 in the raft. We were on our way soon after going through some quick instructions from the guide. “Forward!” “Backpedal!” “Left-side forward, Right-side backpedal!” “Get down!” were some of the different commands we heard throughout the day. Every 100-200 yards or so, we had a different set of rapids. Some were Class III (relatively easy) while others were Class IV (a bit rougher). I loved the tougher rapids. It’s a refreshing feeling, that of being thrown around by the waves while being splashed in the face with cold river water. Although I was thrown around in the raft a few times, I never felt in danger. It was actually much less dangerous than I had thought going into the day. But because of that, it honestly wasn’t as exciting. It was definitely a cool experience, but I never really had adrenaline rushing at any given point. I was surprised at how easy it seemed, actually. After about 2 hours of rapids, we stopped at a spot along the river for lunch. We then continued on for another hour before arriving at the end of the journey. I’m happy I had the chance to do white water rapids, but I wasn’t left with a strong desire to try it again.
Returning to Granada
On Monday morning, my week-long trip to Costa Rica came to an end. As always, I left later than I had originally planned. I didn’t catch a bus from San Jose until 11am and, because of a strong thunderstorm, didn’t get to the border until 5:30pm. By this time, local buses were not running all the way to Granada. I found a private bus company and asked if they pass through Granada. Fortunately, they told me yes, but it would cost $15, about $13 more than it would’ve cost on public buses. Being my only option, I had to take it. As the bus was about to take off, I jumped on to find no seats available. I asked the worker what this was all about. He goes to the back of the bus, pulls out a small plastic stool, and sets it directly outside the bathroom in the back of the bus (which did not have the most pleasant smell). “Welcome back to Nicaragua” is how I take this interaction.
Now I’m back in Granada after an incredible trip to Costa Rica. It was exactly what I needed after three months in the chaos that is Nicaragua. With just a few months left, I need to make the most out of my time here in Nicaragua!