Current Location: High end resort, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua


Price of beer in a bar: In the resort?  I don’t want to know.  The mini-bar cans of Tona are US$2 which is a steal if you’re on vacation but 367% over the store prices in town.
Song currently stuck in my head: Out There on the Ice (Cut Copy)

Last Monday I re-upped my tourist visa by stepping into Costa Rica, having a cup of coffee, listening to Carolla and then re-entering Nicaragua. Boom, fresh 90 day stamp. Officially you’re supposed to stay out of the CA-4 block of countries for 72 hours, but everyone I talked to in advance said they either don’t check or they don’t care; probably both. The border area is lined with dozens of tiny wooden shacks that present the appearance and apparent technological advancement of a recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood cabin. They’re cafes. I don’t recommend them.

I’d been dreading this trip, especially knowing that I was going to try to skirt the rules. I’m terrible at this kind of thing and I had no intention of lying or otherwise deceiving in my attempt to shorten my Costa Rican exile; if they turned my away when I tried to re-enter Nicaragua I’d just go hang out in Costa Rica for my 3 days. I had everything arranged in preparation for this eventuality, including a hotel recommendation.

So here’s how it goes down. I caught the first bus out of town in San Juan del Sur. This cost me US$0.69, but it should have cost US$0.46. The markup might have been gringo pricing or it might have been because it was a nicer bus than usual; dunno and at 5am I didn’t care (full disclosure: I still don’t care). My plan was to ride to the bus station in Rivas and then catch a bus to the border there. This involves a little backtracking, but only about 10km and it’s better than the alternative, which is standing on the shoulder of the Inter American Highway in the dark trying to hail a bus.

So 20 minutes later I’m standing on the shoulder of the Inter American Highway in the dark trying to hail a bus. My Spanish, atrophied from months English friendly San Juan del Sur, was clearly not up the morning’s challenges. When I mentioned to one of the bus employees that the border was my ultimate destination, he insisted that I get out at the proper roadside stop. I didn’t quite understand what was going on, so lots of other people sensed this and insisted as well. This is an altogether familiar situation to me and it can be confusing, irritating and terrifying but so far the pushy busloads of people have never steered me wrong. One guy might try to steer you into a bad situation. He might also have friends. But when a crowd of people on a bus who don’t know each other all seem to be telling you the same thing, you can probably trust them. This was all a little nerve wracking, but it also reminded me of the good old days. I once traveled from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City, Panama with no more spanish than would fit on the tiny note in my wallet. It said “1 rum and coke with just a little ice, please” (in Spanish) and I would pull it out and hand it to bartenders when appropriate. The bus rides on that trip were terrifying; no idea where the bus was going, when it might arrive or how to pronounce the destination that I had in mind. I relied on the kindness of strangers and was seldom let down.

Soon after I arrived along the roadside another bus stopped and carried us on to the border. My passport was inspected casually by a checkpoint guard and I was pointed to the immigration office (perhaps a temporary setup; the office I remember from earlier trips was being rebuilt) where I was asked for US$2 (I’m unclear what this was for, but I have a receipt that assures me I got US$2 worth of something) and stamped out. I walked over to Costa Rica, went to the immigration office and walked right up to the window. Costa Rica has a policy that you have to show proof of onward travel when you enter. This makes sense, conceptually; if you loose everything in Costa Rica they want to know you can at least leave. In practice it’s always more of a shakedown and sucks because a lot of people don’t take a bus out of the country, they take a bus to the border, walk across, then catch another bus on the other side (in Nicaragua or Panama). This is your only option unless you use a large, expensive international carrier. But by doing this there is no possibility of meeting this requirement. These buses don’t even issue tickets, they collect money at the door, and the Costa Rican border towns where they terminate aren’t considered “onward”. So you’re often forced to buy a ticket that you can’t even use and then immediately discard it once you’re through immigration.

I’ve been caught up in this before and didn’t even think about it today; in all their detail, none of the local expats mentioned it. I have Ticabus tickets for a later date that I could have taken with me. Either way I told the immigration official that I only wanted to stay in Costa Rica for a few hours. He kept asking me where I was going and I said “across the hall, to the cafe”. He said “No, I mean in Costa Rica” and I said “Seriously, I’m going across the hall for two hours, that’s it. I hear they have good coffee”. I was daring him to demand that I show I was going to leave Costa Rica under threat of being asked to… leave Costa Rica. He stamped me in for one day.

As I said, I bought a cup of coffee, turned on my ipod shuffle (2nd gen, recommended for trips like this, cheap, light, hearty) and listened to Carolla for about an hour an a half. At that point I hit the bathroom, changed my shirt and put on a hat. This was almost certainly unnecessary, but someone mentioned having done it once and I thought “Why not?” I had a change of clothes with me anyway, in case I had to hang out in Costa Rica for the full 3. So I crossed the hall, cruised through Costa Rica emigration, walked the 100 meters to Nicaragua, waited for 30 minutes or so in line, got stamped fresh and new, no questions asked (after paying my US$12 entry fee, recently raised from US$7 I believe). On my way out the checkpoint guard checked my ID and started to ask some questions about “How long…” or “When…”. I changed the subject quickly, though he was probably just making small talk. I reversed the bus process, getting directions to the bus from the checkpoint guard, and was back in SJDS by 11am.

They say there are two ways things work down here; the official way and the unofficial way. But to me, the “unofficial way” is actually an infinite subset of things that could happen. It’s a “way” only in the Taoist sense; it’s hardly a single approach. What if the same immigration official that stamped me out was still working and stamped me back in? Would it matter? What if he had a shitty morning? What if my Spanish were better? Would that work against me?

In the end, it’s all fucking voodoo. This time I threw the chicken bones and they came up Milhouse.


5 Responses to “Current Location: High end resort, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua”

  1. Hi there! I’m trying to do some research on San Juan del Sur, specifically some ins and outs about the day to day local existence (i.e. not just expat stuff)…if you get a chance, I’d love to pick your brain on a couple of things? I can be reached at goldhearted.sociopath@gmail.com. Thanks!

  2. Awesome! Thanks!!

  3. Joseph Anthony Says:

    I am leaving San Diego and going south for three months starting may 20th. Im absorbing every bit of imformation you post so thank you and keep writing.


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