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04.30.14

 

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The first shot is the view from my room at Hostal Mirador Punta Descartes in La Cruz, Costa Rica; the last town before the Nicaragua border along the Inter-American Highway.  I believe that’s the Pacific Ocean in the distance. US$15/night for private room with TV (I didn’t try it) and shared bath.

The remaining pictures are Hostel Sonati, a non profit in Leon, Nicaragua.  We got tired of looking for Via Via (another hostel) and wandered in here instead.  US$10/night for a private room with shared bath.

Price of beer in a bar: US$4.50/pint to sample a wide variety of the what the American micro-brew revolution has to offer

Song currently stuck in my head: My Own Face Inside the Trees (The Clientele)

I’m gearing up for a little bit of wandering.  I bought a second hand netbook, verified the available space in my passport, made a mental list of what to pack, cut it in half, then cut it in half again.

I’ve booked travel into Costa Rica in the near future, leaving myself a few months to kill before the return flight.  I’m thinking about heading to Leon (Nicaragua) but I’m open to suggestion.  I probably won’t travel outside of the Nicaragua/Costa Rica/Panama area, so if there’s an affordable town that you’re curious about give me a bit of where and why as a reply to this post.  I might just be your man on the ground.

Edit: It looks like WordPress.com may run ads on my blog now.  I don’t blame them, who wouldn’t want access to the 10’s of people in the Monday (or something) community?  Either way, just so you know, these aren’t my ads.

“Must know”

10.03.11

A friend of mine emailed asking if there’s any information about Central America that I consider must know.  For the purposes of this post we’ll call her “Steph” and this is mostly directed to her, though other people might find it useful (or anger inducing).  She’s already lived in Belize, so I’m leaving out comments about how idyllic Placencia is.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are too violent to be of much use right now.

The situation in Honduras has been deteriorating for years, which is a shame because it’s otherwise an incredible place.  The islands are still livable, but even Utila was seeing a serious rise in violent crime (I include muggings as violent crimes, many stats don’t).  When we were there we regularly read stories like “15 factory workers executed in midday”, mostly gang turf disputes in San Pedro Sula.  Are there more peaceful areas?  These days I don’t know.  I do know that routine law enforcement is basically non-existent.  I spent a few months in mainland Honduras in 2007 and even then private security was the only security (and was very, very common).  Things have only gone downhill since (a coup, a devastating series of floods, riots, increased gang activity).

For some reason everyone seems to have agreed to pretend Guatemala is a reasonable place to hang out.  The murder rate was already atrocious (and likely lowballed) before the Mexican gangs got involved.  I swear to god every 3rd backpacker I talked to mentioned either being personally mugged at knife point or knowing someone who had.  Yet they’d still always go “It’s not that bad.”  I spent a few weeks renting a room in a nice house in a gated community a short walk from upscale downtown Antigua.  The owners warned us repeatedly that guys with machetes liked to hide in the bushes and mug people outside the gate.  This was NOT a desolate area and this was a known MO, but nothing was done about it.

I haven’t been to El Salvador.  I’ve heard great things about it, including San Salvador and the beaches, but it’s still a little to dicey for me to take The Girlfriend.  If I were traveling with a few guys I’d risk it.  And while Guatemala and Honduras are on the decline (Guatemala perpetually), El Salvador has shown some signs of significant improvement lately.  Best of luck to them, I can’t wait to see it.

Nicaragua is incredibly cheap and it’s beautiful, though a lot of people are waiting to see how this election goes (how the people react to Ortega’s unconstitutional 3rd term re-election) before putting down roots.

Costa Rica is overpriced and increasingly unwelcoming to gringos.  We didn’t spend much time (just the bus stop layover), many expats we talked to were moving out of there.

Panama is head and shoulders above the rest of the region with regard to standard of living.  Great deals can be found outside of Panama City and Bocas del Toro (too far out for cheap goods to be available), though both of those places are worth seeing too.

Much of the Central American Caribbean is uninviting; it’s often the more impoverished and less secure area.  In Nicaragua you can’t even get there by road, except for one isolated town.  Development sprawls along the Inter-American Highway which runs the Pacific Coast.  That said, there are some real jewels out there, though prices tend to climb since supplies need to be transported so far.  This is doubly true on small islands.

Don’t miss:

Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur and surrounding beach sprawl is right up your alley, though the diving is lame, Leon if you can stand the heat, both Corn Islands (quick flight from Manangua, arduous journey otherwise, either might be your thing, you’ll be glad you went), Isla Ometempe (the two-volcano island in Lake Nicaragua) and Esteli if you can handle the slow life (and it gets slower from there).

Panama: Party in Panama City (if you have the funds), hideout in Boquete to restore your budget and take respite from the heat, see San Blas at least once and check out Bocas del Toro.

If I were going to buy property right now, it would probably be around Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua (if possible) or on Bastimentos Island, Panama.

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.