Since we’ve already had enough exposure to surfer dudes and dudettes to last a life time, we decided to give Costa Rica a complete miss given that the majority of this sub-culture tend to head along the coast from Bocas via Costa Rica to ultimately get to Cancun.
We literally drove straight through the country in a day, only really touching its lands for the border crossings. We have done some mammoth bus journeys, covering vast distances in South America and thought that this relatively short distance would be done in no time.
The one thing we didn’t quite count on was the antiquated system used at the border crossings! We crossed the border at a small town in the middle of the jungle which required us to leave the bus to stand in line with what seemed to be just about every other gringo in the country.
If the mid-day heat wasn’t enough to kill me, listening to the amount of shit being discussed both in front and behind by exactly the surfer types I had been attempting to avoid, nearly sent me over the edge. After 2 hours in the second of three separate queues, we had made it to the front of a kiosk type window with one official actually ‘working’ and everyone else chatting. Taking nearly 15 minutes to type in a few letters in his computer, the long-awaited stamp was in and we were free to walk across the border, over a bridge that has seen better days.
Of course once on the other side there was yet another queue to go through Costa Rican immigration. It was the first time I had been thankful that the Americans have left such a stamp on a country, since this was an organised and efficient immigration office with people actually working. The only problem was them being too good at their job and giving us trouble since we had no documents showing our flight out of the country. After explaining that we didn’t even want to stay in their expensive, KFC ridden country, but simply wanted to drive through, we were allowed in with a mere 3 day visa.
With a number of other minor set backs, we arrived in Los Chiles (the next border crossing) at 10pm, forcing us to spend the night in a sleazy cheap hostel that in addition to being a one hour motel, had a drainage pipe running past the window that my bed just happened to be beneath. The next morning we had to wait until 1pm for our “colectivo” boat which would to take us across the border through dense jungle along the Rio San Juan to our first stop in Nicaragua, San Carlos.
Having dealt with all the shit of yesterday’s border crossing, this whole experience couldn’t have been more pleasant. For starters, we managed to score free WIFI in a cafe for the morning which allowed for some long overdue admin; resulting in the confirmation that we would be able to start our renovation project in Berlin a lot sooner than expected; although this was good news, it does mean that we would now only have about a week in London to catch up with friends before heading out to Berlin 😦
Once on board the local collective boat, we knew we had made the right choice to wait around, since we were the only gringos on the thing; always a sign that you have managed to do as the locals do, which is very often the cheapest option. The boat ride lasted a good 2 hours, passing through some dense jungle on either side of the river, providing some great wildlife watching (monkeys, kingfishers, cormorants, eagles as well as a whole bunch of other birds I wouldn’t possibly be able to name). We too were subjects, since many of the locals seemed to stare at us in amazement, particularly two girls that clearly took a liking to us…if only they knew!
We arrived just as our connecting ferry (one of only two that leave every week) to the Archipelago de Solentiname was leaving! Given our refusal to take tourist specific transport, we were quite literally stranded in San Carlos for 3 nights.
The Lonely Planet describes San Carlos “as less of a tourist destination and more a place to wait for your ship to come in.” Whilst you couldn’t disagree with the comment given that there is pretty much nothing to do here, we actually had a really enjoyable stay.
San Carlos is an archetypal port town, with hard drinking sailors, commercial fishers and herds of people in transit. Since most gringos are only there for a couple of hours, they very rarely leave the lakefront. Given that we were there for a considerable amount of time (by usual standards) we obviously walked around the entire town (multiple times) and began integrating into the community a lot more than usual. Our integration really had a lot to do with the amount of food we consumed over the three days! Andres particular love affair with the local desayuno, which is their typical breakfast, earned him a small following since he seemed to eat it three times a day!
Whilst we didn’t make any life long friends, we did become very fond of the owners of the three establishments we spent most of our time in; the Internet cafe, the restaurant, run by father and son duo ( Carlos Senior and Carlos junior) as well as the mother and daughter duo who ran a nightly Fritanga, which is basically a make shift BBQ on the street just outside their house. These two were a hilarious team that reminded me of the ‘Two Fat ladies’, Nicaraguan style.
Nicaragua is dirt cheap; we have been living very comfortably for less than £30 a day for the both of us, eating three substantial meals a day, accommodation with cable TV and hours upon hours of Internet time. Ironically, although our hostel had cable TV and free WIFI, we were forced to learn how to live with only bucket showers…trust me after a while this just became too much to handle…you never quite feel clean.
Although cheap by Western standards, the majority of people here are very poor, with entire families often living in self-made wooden shacks with little more than a room, bed and multiple rocking chairs where people tend to just sit all day long. There is however, a strong sense of community here with church playing an important role in society. What I did find quite strange was the number of different types of churches around, there is everything from Christian to Evangelical as well as a strong Jehovah community which to my mind is more of a cult than a religion.
After watching the town go by for hours at a time, it finally dawned on me that all the old Americans I had seen walking around in groups of three, dressed in chinos and shirts were not tourists but missionaries; helping to explain all the churches.
Whilst I am sure that they do some good in such poor countries, I can’t help but think there is somewhat of a sinister hidden agenda. Particularly when you come across one of the locals, who at first simply appears to be interested in speaking with a foreigner; one would think to open ones mind to what lies outside their borders. Only to realise that they are not in the slightest bit interested in what the world has to offer but instead are only concerned with how they can convert you to their ignorant and narrow-minded beliefs.
The one good thing I can say about these missionaries is that they have clearly donated a lot of clothing over the years. Luckily for us it is then sold on in second-hand stores that can rival the best vintage shops found in London – for a fraction of the price! If our backpacks weren’t already massively overweight they most definitely are now.