Date of Trip: May 2011
NICARAGUA AND COSTA RICA
On Saturday, May 7th, 2011, I began my second-ever trip to Central America – Nicaragua and Costa Rica – with a late night Spirit Airlines flight to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital. I’d only been to that part of the world once before, on a two-day trip to Antigua and Guatemala City in the late summer of ’07 – it was also written up on this site. I’ve been reminded several times since that, having been there just before their violent election campaign, I was lucky to have made that trip unscathed, particularly after having ridden the “chicken bus” between Antigua and Guatemala City.
This was to be an eight-day trip. Two nights in Managua, one in Leon, two in Granada and the final three nights in San Jose, Costa Rica, from where I would fly home on Sunday, May 15. New countries, new cities, new experiences, new people. I traveled with two small under-the-seat bags to avoid Spirit’s charges for placing bags in the bins, a subject on which I will avoid further comment..
The flight to Managua left on time and was uneventful. Departure was close to midnight, but because of a two hour time difference – Central American countries don’t do daylight savings time – I arrived at Managua not long after midnight. Passengers had been handed two forms to fill out, and just before touchdown, we were told sorry, there’s yet another form. It was a health form, and the final question asked if the person filling it out had “decay.” Period. I checked the no box. The passengers included a fair number of young American backpacker types. The airport was clean and modern. I went through the passport and customs line, nothing inspected, but, just as in Cuba, my incoming bags had to go through an x-ray. I paid an entry fee of $10 and exchanged some money for Nicaraguan cordobas, each of which is worth a fraction less than a nickel. The young woman behind the exchange counter kept up a non-stop rapid-fire mantra, over and over. “If you exchange $130, you will get a better rate. If you exchange $300, you will get the best rate.”
Because of the late hour and for safety reasons, there was no alternative but to take an officially-authorized airport taxi which, for the expected rate of $20, took me to the Villa Angelo, a small, neat and clean hotel not far from the center of Managua. It was a long ride, with numerous traffic lights – largely ignored – and the usual conglomerate of restaurants, gas stations, shops and even a casino en route. My room was clean and modern, with an effective remote-control A/C and cable TV with almost 100 channels, including CNN, BBC and Fox. A maid brought a moderate-sized but tasty breakfast featuring eggs, rice and beans – known in the region as “gallo pinto” – and, of course, coffee. The biggest problem was the shower – the water, such as it was, came through a thick white plastic electric heating thing, and the resulting thin irregular spray required the use of a washcloth and a good 15 minutes to wash and rinse. And I did my first stint of washing out a set of socks underwear and a shirt and hanging them in the closet to air dry. That’s what you have to do if you want to travel light, and to do it soon enough before you check out to make sure that there will be enough drying time.
A new country and a new city! Sunday morning I set out to explore Managua. I’d been warned about crime, and had my money belt safely looped around and inside my collar and under my shirt. It was three blocks uphill to a main thoroughfare leading to Lake Managua – the Avenida Bolivar. It was very hot, but I had known it would be. A word about Nicaragua’s two big lakes. Lake Managua borders the capital. It’s big, but nowhere near the size of Lake Nicaragua, which lies to the south and appears on the map to almost pop Central America in two. More about that one later. I passed a small car dealership, government and private offices, and a Chinese restaurant. I turned right into a side street, having been told I’d find a small lake and a park that way, but it was the wrong street. I passed the pyramidal Crowne Plaza hotel, where Howard Hughes had infamously stayed until the December 1972 earthquake, which had flattened much of the city, sent him scurrying away the next day. The walk towards the lake was downhill, but after six or seven blocks, the street was blocked off, and a block after that, security people made me cross to the left side. The blocked off area of Bolivar, many many blocks long, was occupied by perhaps 100 motorcyclists, who raced in a group up and down the blocked-off stretch, making u turns at either end. That was it – Managua’s version of a fantastical, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. One block later, I crossed to a median area on a side street, noticing that, along the left side of Bolivar, great vacant scrubby trash and garbage-strewn areas were fenced off and filled with thousands of people – eating, drinking, but mainly just standing around, crowded together, watching the interminable loud gang of cyclists go up one side, make a u and down the other side.
I sat on a round concrete outcropping, hot and dehydrated, and alone until I was approached by a man with both arms missing below the elbow. He began speaking to me in Spanish, which, to my regret, I am not at all fluent in, He didn’t appear to be begging, and finally walked away. I felt badly for not having understood him. I tried to cross the rest of the side street and was turned back by security people, who made it clear that I could advance towards the lake only by climbing over concrete blocks and low fences to enter the fenced off areas and then exit at the next side street and then do likewise with the next fenced off area. I did this for two blocks, climbing over mounds of trash and garbage, and at one point buying a cold coke, something I normally never drink. The sun was merciless. Finally, I said, out loud “I’ve got to get out of here!” I retreated through the two fenced off areas I’d traversed, and headed left, down a side street, and then right, along a narrower through street which, however, also led towards Lake Managua.
The poverty along the street was striking. There were tiny homes squeezed together, made of concrete or something similar, always right up against the sidewalk, many with the doors open and people inside, some watching TV, others just sitting, many with a pet dog inside. There was trash and garbage scattered here and there, though not as horrendously as in those fenced-off areas – in fact, I never did see a trash container in Managua. I was desperate for another cold drink. Finally, I came to a small outdoor cafe on a corner. It was a poor sort of place, covered with a sort of roof. I ordered another coke, debated whether it was safe or not to pour it over the supplied glass of ice, finally did so, and sipped as I watched the few customers and the cafe’s dog. A young man came over, speaking a little English, and introduced himself. When I told him I was from Miami Beach, he proudly showed me his Florida drivers license, with an address in Homestead, about 30 miles south of Miami.
I finally forced myself to get up, exit the shade, and resume my walk. A block away, the cyclists were still buzzing. I finally came to a sign saying I was entering a tourist area. I had to turn right, and soon found myself by the lake, lined with cafes, few of which had any customers. One of the many cycling ice cream vendors pedaled by – they all had signs on their little cooler-vehicles offering a “special” on “Eskimo” for the equivalent of 35 cents. I bought one – a small cup of vanilla ice cream with threads of chocolate. It wasn’t the last one I’d buy, and was quite good.
I passed the monuments and buildings alongside the lake, several of which were very tall and futuristic in appearance, and came upon billboardes featuring Nicaragua’s Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega – yes, the same one targeted years ago by the US-supported “contras” – and the national motto: “Socialista! Christianity! Nicaragua!” I reflected on the fact that Nicaragua is theoretically, if not truly socialist, while at the same time imposing prison terms of up to 10 years on women who get abortions, even if it’s to save the woman’s life. The city’s largest cathedral loomed blocks away.
I knew I would never survive the uphill walk back to the hotel in the broiling sun, so I hailed a cab. Cabs are dirt cheap in Nicaragua, along with so much else, and I had the name of the hotel and also a map with its location marked. The driver hadn’t a clue. He drove me around and around for over an hour. As he drove aimlessly about, I could hear the motorcycles still roaring back and forth. He’d stop to ask people where the hotel was, and I’d show them the map. No one had a clue, including one English-speaking lady who warned me that it would be dangerous to walk in Managua even in daylight. Finally, he stopped and queried someone who went inside another small hotel and made a phone call, then came out and spoke with the driver, who gave him the equivalent of a dollar. The driver then found my hotel and managed to talk me out of an extra dollar or so atop the already ridiculously low fare. Thankful to be back, I paid and retreated to my air conditioning and cable TV. The Villa Angelo had no food service other than breakfast, and I was very hungry. I asked where I could find a restaurant and was told to go back to Bolivar and back down to a mall adjoining the Crowne Plaza. I didn’t feel like going that way again, so I left the hotel and walked to the left several blocks, where the houses seemed pleasantly middle class and well designed. Coming to a major intersection, I turned right, and decided that if I didn’t find a place to eat after two blocks, I’d go back and drink bottled water and go to bed. The sun was low in the sky and I had no intention of being out after dark. And it got dark early – Central America doesn’t use daylight savings time.
At the end of the second block, mercifully, was a restaurant. Not just any restaurant, but Pollo Estrella, a modern, semi-fast-food chicken, beef and pizza place complete with beer and credit card acceptance, reminding me of Miami’s Pollo Tropical chain. I had a chicken patty platter with beer, then happily walked back. For the record, Nicaragua has two local beers, Tona- with a squiggle over the n, pronounced Tonia – and Victoria. Both are good, and either costs a dollar a bottle in any restaurant or bar.
The next morning, I finally found the little lake and park. It involved a very steep uphill walk and a dollar fee paid at a security booth. I was at the top of a steep hill, next to a playground with a sign advising that only those 12 and under would be admitted. No one was there. In fact, no one was around the hilltop street and the small lake, with steep banks, and very pretty, was far below.
There are numerous bus stations in Managua, but if you want to travel either north to the college and back-packer favorite town of Leon, or south to the very special town of Granada, alongside Lake Nicaragua, your best bet is to take a taxi to UCA, pronounced OO-ka, which is actually an acronym for a university which is allegedly adjacent to the terminal. The terminal itself is a block-long crazy-quilt of vendors, vans, cabs, buses, and booths. After boarding a minibus to Leon, I discovered to my horror that I’d left my moneybelt in my room. I jumped out of the van, hailed a cab and returned to the hotel. The money belt had been placed in the safe, and nothing was missing. Another cab returned me to UCA, and I got into the same van, which by now was crowded. These minibuses don’t leave until they’re full. Vendors kept approaching the window – I bought a small bag of tiny cookies and crackers for something like 10 cents.
The crowded minibus – thankfully, I had a window seat – eased out into a wide, busy thoroughfare, passing through intersections jammed with street vendors, most notably young men toting enormous boards to which dozens of pairs of sunglasses were attached. The $1.50 fare was collected. The political billboards and Ortega loomed large over the street. The passage out of Managua seemed endless, but we were finally on a country road, passing endless farm land inhabited mainly by the scrawniest-looking cows I had ever seen, and one dead cow by the side of the road. There was a classically-shaped volcano in the distance.
I’d been advised to exit the vehicle at a “UNO” blue and white gas station just outside Leon and take a taxi to my lodging, Tortuga Booluda, a hostel where I had a private room reserved. I liked the ambiance of the place, which fronted on one of the many primary streets of this city of over 150,000. There was an honor bar, really a large cooler, filled with beer, bottled water and soda, and an airy lobby complete with a pool table and a huge map of the world, and an outdoorsy corridor area leading back past some dormitory rooms to my private room I unloaded and walked 4 or 5 blocks through the main square and past an outdoor market to the fine old cathedral. I had a snack and a soda. Numerous booths offered “hot dog” and “hamburguesas.” Later, back at the hostel, I asked about places to eat, saying I wanted Nicaraguan food, and a small cafeteria type place near the square was recommended. It was nice if not fancy, with a garden patio area in the back. I took a tray and selected a sort of beef, potato and shrimp stew and a heap of rice and beans. At the cashier, I paid the equivalent of 85 cents. It was a good meal. Walking back the 5 or 6 blocks in the dark, I felt perfectly safe.
My plan was to board a mid-afternoon mini bus back to “UCA” and then change to one for Granada. An early start would give me time for a few of the more worthwhile attractions. The first of them was “The Museum of Legends and Traditions,” several blocks downhill from the square, then off to the side. A large courtyard was filled with monuments and inscriptions dealing with the country’s history, and there were hundreds of neatly uniformed school children inside. A guard asked me for a small sum to enter. After circling the courtyard, another guard opened the gate to an inner courtyard containing a low rise building which had once been a jail and which was the actual museum – a mix of the country’s difficult history and of rooms decked out as if for Halloween, with witches, skeletons and dimly-lit horror-type exhibits. On the outer walls were painted scenes of shootings, shackled prisoners and beatings from various periods. It was sad to see. Some of the rooms – originally cells – were kept in their original condition, with appropriate exhibits and explanations. The children, all in the age 8 to 12 range, many giggly and excited, were shepherded from room to room by teachers or guides. At one point, a large group of them burst out of one of the Halloween-type rooms, screaming and shrieking. Apparently their guide had put on some kind of sudden scary spectacle for them. A group of girls approached me as I took photos, eager to pose and then to see themselves on the little screen.
Leon was hot but pleasant to walk in. I noticed that there were hostels everywhere – backpacker heaven! The streets and sidewalks were kept clean, and there were occasional trash containers. I didn’t see any of the ugly political billboards I’d seen in the capital and on the road, but after I passed through the square, I came upon a noisy demonstration at one intersection. Someone at the hostel later told me that the demonstrators were men who had been promised taxi licenses if they rabble-roused for the governing party. He added “but they won’t get the licenses.” Elections would be coming up in a number of months, I passed through a busy street market, entered a sweetly air conditioned bank lobby to use the ATM, and stopped for water at a cafe. I had begun to notice the scrupulous honesty of the Nicaraguans – or “Nicas” as they call themselves – with whom I dealt, on every level. No one tried to take advantage of my presumed unfamiliarity with the currency or with price levels. Proper change was always given. I could have easily been cheated out of a few extra cordobas – had I been, I wouldn’t even have bothered to protest, as the amounts were so small. But it never happened.
I was anxious to visit the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian, billed in one guide as the best contemporary art museum in Central America. It originated with a private collection. This museum is in two buildings, located across the street from each other – one ticket is good for both. Each is built around courtyards, with inner rooms and then larger works of art on the outside walls of these spaces. It’s not all contemporary – there was a surprising number of paintings dating back to the Renaissance period. The rule was that photography was allowed in the courtyards and gardens, but that no photos were to be taken of the art. A few times, I had artwork on the outer walls in my focus and had a finger wagged at me, but that was all.
The contemporary art collection was mostly Central American, and was excellent and varied. It included paintings, sculptures and ceramics. There were even a few prints and etchings by Picasso and others of his genres. In one of the two buildings, the art was wholly contemporary and much of it was unconventional and odd – perfectly fitted, I thought, for New York’s MOMA or many of that city’s lesser museums and galleries. The difference was that I saw very little that made me think “I would never want anything like that in my house.” Whereas, in many of the NY museums, I often think that.
My final stop was the Ruben Dario museum, which was close by both the art museum and the hostel. It had once been his house. Dario was from Leon and is often considered to have been Nicaragua’s poet laureate. Featured are numerous artifacts of his life, original editions of books, photos and family items. Unfortunately, the explanations provided – and there were many of them – were in Spanish only.
I taxied to Leon’s small outdoor bus terminal rather than the UNO station to take the minibus back to Managua/UCA; as with any public transportation, you’ll get a better seat if you board at the start of the route. I spent most of the run back to Managua reading Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” but when I took a quick break to look out the window, I saw the same dead cow I’d seen on the way up.
Granada, a city of slightly over 100,000, is perhaps 40 km. south of Managua, on the shore of huge Lake Nicaragua. At UCA, I got off my minibus and walked a few minutes to the left where I’d seen the buses for Granada, then boarded one of those, sitting as it filled up. At least, I thought it had filled up. I paid the $1 fare, and the bus slowly made its way through the traffic and vendors in the southern part of the city. The bus “manager,” unlike those previously, was leaning out the door at every stop, calling out the name of the destination and soliciting more passengers, much as was done on the “chicken buses” I’d taken between Antigua and Guatemala City four years earlier. There were previously hidden foldout seats that were pulled out for additional passengers, and several simply stood. We were finally in open country.
I’d initially considered stopping and taking a ferry to Ometepe Island, the largest fresh water lake island in the world, with a population of 42,000 and two volcanoes. One gets there by ferry. But that would have taken up an additional night and two days and drastically shortened the rest of my trip. The beauty of Granada was praised in the guidebooks, and I decided to allow two days and nights there. The bus made good time on the highway, and I soon saw a large banner-like sign welcoming people to the town. We rode slowly through narrow but clean and well-kept streets, and the main cathedral came into view. The route ended at the town square. I’d been advised by the proprietor of the Bohemian Paradise hotel to take a taxi there, that the fare was 10 cordobas – 50 cents – anywhere in town. As I had done elsewhere, I handed the driver a piece of paper with the name and address.
It’s difficult to provide accurate descriptions of both a hotel and a town when you’ve fallen in love with both of them, but I will try. Granada is centered on its Central Park, or town square. It’s a large and beautiful one-block rectangular park, well-shaded by trees, with plenty of benches and several monuments. The cathedral faces it on one side; facing it on the other side are several hotels that appeared both old and elegant. There is always a long line of horses and carriages, awaiting customers and reminding me, oddly, of the southeast corner of Manhattan’s Central Park. Leading away from the park, in the direction of the lake, is Calle Calzada, a pedestrians-only street with restaurants, bars and shops on either side, and benches for relaxing.
Three blocks to the left, and parallel to Calzada, is Calle Corrales, and Bohemian Paradise is 4 or 5 blocks down it from where the park is. The hotel doesn’t stand out from the homes on either side – as is so often the case in Nicaragua, the houses are up against one another and are right on the sidewalks, which are generally elevated above street level. There are two gate-type entry front doors, both see-through with bars but kept locked – a staffer is always on hand to let guests in and out. The large and airy lobby contains comfortable furniture, a shelf of books – mostly guide books – and tables featuring local handicrafts, available for sale with the profits going to local artisans. There’s a small semi-open kitchen area which also contains a desk, and in the lobby there is one computer with free internet, as was the case everywhere I stayed. The lobby walls feature several paintings, including a very large one of a large grey-black rescued male dog named Lobo, who is now 12 and lives at the hotel, along with a variety of well-cared-for rescued cats, including a beautiful calico, who also live there and mostly hang out in the lobby. Extending towards the back is a sort of open corridor area. My room was large and well furnished, with a very large bed and remote control excellent a/c and cable TV, much like that in Managua’s Villa Angelo. The hotel is very “green”-minded, and explanatory sheets are provided explaining the importance of turning off the a/c when you leave the hotel, and not putting toilet paper in the toilet (I always travel to less-developed countries with a lot of newspaper-delivery plastic bags, saved up for that sort of thing)
I had had some e mail correspondence with Lucy Bartlett, the friendly and accommodating American woman who has owned and lived at the hotel for some years. She had allowed a very large discount for cash payment, which I was happy to accept. She sells cold bottled water cheaply, as well as delicious chocolate chip cookies and eclairs; the proceeds of those goodies go towards local social service causes. She works with such agencies as well as helping to rescue stray dogs and cats. The painting of Lobo had been done by Peta Kaplan-Sandzer, an artist who works and lives in Chicago but comes to Nicaragua to paint stray dogs. Her catalog and postcards were on a lobby table.
One of the hotel staff, Pancho, had told me about a local dish, the vigoron, which is sold at kiosks at each of the 4 corners of the central park for $2. I wanted to try it, and also asked Lucy for recommendations about restaurants. As always when I travel, I wanted the food of the region. She mentioned several that were behind the cathedral, and also the Alhambra Hotel, which faced the park and had a huge platter of all sorts of Nicaraguan meats and veggies. It was, she said, enough for two people.
I tried the vigoron first. The kiosks are covered and surrounded by small tables. The dish is a sort of pyramid, consisting primarily of yuca chunks, slaw, bits of other veggies, and 4 or 5 pork cracklings, all on a banana leaf and soaked in a tasty vinegary light dressing. It was delicious. The one distressing aspect of the park were the many small boys, seemingly in the 8 to 12 year old range, begging for money. If you walk slowly or sit anywhere in the park other than at the kiosks, you are likely to be approached. I sadly waved them off. Some, I was told, were homeless; others were sent there by their parents. I did not encounter them elsewhere in the town, or in Managua or Leon.
I approached the spacious and elegant front porch of the Alhambra, debating whether to order the platter and simply sample the various dishes and then stop and ask if I could take the rest with me. That was when I heard someone call my name. I looked up and there were three young American men whom I’d first met in Leon. They were up on the porch, and I decided to share the platter with them. We all sat together, they bought beers all around, and eventually the platter arrived, and it was indeed overwhelming, featuring steak, salad, veggies, seafood, fish and three large shishkabobs each of beef and chicken.
During the dinner and drinks, five young woman – two of them apparent transsexuals – approached. They spoke no English, and neither I nor two of the young men spoke Spanish. The one who did bantered with them, and one of them asked for some beef from a shishkabob, which I was happy to share. They left and, eventually, well fed and watered, we left as well. It was dark, and we lost track of the relatively simple and short route back to the hotel. I finally took a cab, my $1/10 cordoba note in hand.
Because of the lack of daylight savings time, I retired and woke early. I only saw one other guest in the hotel. I had breakfast alone in the lobby. One of the cats was on the table I used, and I gave it a few bits of one of my granola chunks. Eventually, I left my cool air conditioned room after checking up on the news. I headed back to the park. Lunch was another vigoron, and I wandered about happily and aimlessly. At one point, I returned to a little restaurant only a few doors from the hotel for a cold beer. The place is owned and run by a Canadian couple. The husband is the wait staff and the wife does the cooking. That’s it. I’d been told it was a good place for a beer in a chilled mug. There were four 50-ish women at an adjoining table speaking English, and I struck up a conversation. Two were from the US, one from Canada and one from Germany. All were now happily resident in Granada. I asked them how they liked it. One said “if we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t still be here!” I took a taxi to the beautiful old Merced Cathedral, far more impressive than the 1920s version in the center of town. I walked most of the way back to the park. At one point all passed a group of men idling on the sidewalk. One made as if to grab for my pocket and I scooted away from him. They just laughed – they’d been teasing me. Scaring a gringo, I guess. I took another cab to the TicaBus station and bought my ticket for the next day’s 1:00 PM departure for San Jose, Costa Rica.
Their van picked me up at the hotel about 4. The two other passengers were two young Australian men on an extended Central and North American tour. I had learned from previous travel that Aussies are prone to take off on very long trips because of their geographic isolation, or so they say. I’d once met an Aussie couple in India who were on a 7 year outing! These two were only traveling for 4 months.
The dock was close by, and we boarded a boat which could have held another 10 or so. The driver was well up front. Our young guide stayed close by, spoke English fluently and was very informative. He spoke about the lake, the size of it, its 365 islands, and how many of the islands housed houses belonging to wealthier Nicaraguans. All of those that we saw were attractively designed, and all were different. We made close approaches to most of the islands that we saw. Many of them were privately owned. He explained that the lake was connected with a number of rivers. One of the largest went to the Caribbean coast and had served, ages ago, as a highway for pirates who had invaded and gone on to seize various towns. The largest of the islands, Ometepe, was beyond reach of this tour – it was dumbbell shaped, each half a dormant volcano. We saw a number of men in small boats, fishing, as well as one woman. The trees and vegetation on all the islands was lush and varied. The scenery as a whole was spectacular, and I took dozens of photos. At one point, we passed a large dock and boatyard with an old derelict boat and also a working ferry that went to and from Ometepe.
“Monkey Island” is a small overgrown island, uninhabited by other than plant life – except for four spider monkeys. Two males, one female and one baby. A vet, who lives on a nearby island, had nursed the 3 adult monkeys back to health and then placed them on the island. Two of them had produced the baby. We approached closely, and our guide took out a basket of rolls, broke them up and began feeding the monkeys, who swung and jumped and grasped and ate and put on a truly worthy show. He then took more bits of roll and threw them into the water. Brilliant, almost luminescent orange fish jumped almost out of the water to seize and eat the bits. We stayed a bit and he explained about the various types of fish in the lake. There had, he said, been thousands of sharks, but the Somoza regime had given special breaks to a company that had harvested them and almost wiped them out. They were now protected.
Shortly thereafter, we disembarked, not back at our dock but at the dock of one of the islands where there were some structures, a bar, a patio, even a swimming pool. The 20 minute stop included a cold beer for each of us.
The sun was close to setting when we finally returned to the original dock and van and I was dropped off at the hotel. I walked a few doors over to the little restaurant run by the Canadian couple. It closes at 6:30 and I was hungry. As usual, there were 3 specials. I had an ample and delicious Israeli couscous salad with chicken, and two beers. The tab amounted to $6.60. Here in south Miami Beach, that might have gotten me one of the beers – period.
That evening, I changed into shorts and sat out on the elevated sidewalk, with the neighbors sitting out in chairs around me, watching the kids play soccer in the street. It had cooled off and was breezy. My hostess, Lucy, came back on her bicycle, saw me and remarked “You’re doing the Nica thing.” I replied that yes, I was. And I was thinking, well, I could get used to this!
The prospect of leaving the next morning was almost physically painful. I had a 1:00 PM bus to catch to San Jose, Costa Rica. I woke early as usual, had breakfast, went back to my room and packed, watched TV a bit, then left the room and hung out a bit in the lobby. Finally, sadly, I hailed a taxi, went to the park, had a beer on a hotel terrace, then down to a kiosk for my final vigoron.
SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA
There are two major international bus lines in Central America – TicaBus and TransNica. As the names indicate, the first is headquartered in Costa Rica, the inhabitants of which are known as Ticos or Ticas, and the second in Nicaragua. Their buses run all the way north to the Mexican town of Campeche on the Guatemalan border, and south to Panama City. The prices are reasonable, and the buses are airconditioned, with bathrooms and video screens. The TicaBus station in Granada was a small affair, not fancy with plastic chairs – but, unlike a major American bus company which I won’t name, the one bathroom was pristinely clean. My one way ticket to San Jose had cost me $23 plus an extra $5 to reserve a window seat. As is my habit with any kind of international travel, I arrived early, shortly after 12. I fell into conversation with a stocky 50ish American fellow who had a house some miles outside of San Jose. He’d been living there for something like a decade but had never gotten a resident visa. He was, he admitted, one of their “perpetual tourists.” I had read about them. Americans who set up residence in Costa Rica, stay the permitted 90 days as a tourist visa-free, cross into Nicaragua or Panama, then re-enter Costa Rica for another 90 days. He didn’t like TicaBus, claiming TransNica was nicer and supplied meals, and just a bit more expensive.
The bus arrived perhaps 15 minutes late, and I settled in. There was a video screen right over the seat in front of me, and a science-fiction flick 95% dubbed in Spanish. It didn’t take long before I realized I was watching “Independence Day,” a sci-fi in which a chess-playing computer nerd saves the world from evil destructive invading aliens with the help of Will Smith – who literally beats up one of them – and ends with the young president climbing into a fighter plane and helping to finish them off. I’d seen it years before, so was able to follow it. We passed some volcanoes and, not long before the border, a group of the largest wind turbines I’d ever seen. The bus ‘manager,” as opposed to the driver, collected a $7 exit fee from everyone. Then, a while later, he collected everyone’s passports.
We passed a truck idling by the side of the road, then another, and then dozens and dozens more. The signal that we were nearing the border. Truckers waiting and waiting to clear customs. I’d seen the same thing in 2008 on a bus from St. Petersburg, Russia to Tallinn, Estonia. Finally, the bus pulled into a very large open lot and up to an enormous elevated concrete slab with a sort of open roof over it and a building at one end. With perfect timing, the movie ended at just that moment. We were all ordered outside and into what can only be described as chaos. The concrete platform was jammed with people. Money changers were thrusting enormous wads of unrecognizable currency in my face. A man with the widest straw hat I’d ever seen – it looked like a prop for a stereotypical Mexican “hat dance” – kept approaching, pedaling a sort of combined bike and wagon and offering ceviche – a kind of pickled fish – for sale. There were vendors of all kinds. Other buses and a few cans pulled in and one TransNica bus pulled out. Because of the fact that the bus manager had my passport, I was not about to go further than 10 feet or so from the bus entrance. I had the feeling that I was supposed to do something, but had no idea what. I sat on the edge of the slab for over half an hour. A small white dog, its ribs visible, approached and looked pitifully up at a young couple. The young woman, a striking blonde, was being fed some sort of snack by her male companion. Nothing was offered to the dog. I took it all in with my camera – in my humble opinion, by far the best photo I took during the trip. Days later, at home, I sent the photo to Peta Kaplan-Sandzer. I hope she honors me and, more importantly, that poor sweet dog by making a painting from it.
There was only one sign of officialdom, a small uniformed woman with a badge who scooted hither and thither. Finally, she stationed herself at the entry to my bus, holding an enormous sheaf of passports and began calling out their owners’ names. When she called mine, I gratefully retrieved it and reboarded. There was a short, comvoluted ride, in the course of which we passed, oddly, a sign welcoming people to Nicaragua. Then the bus pulled up to a low structure and we were again ordered out. This time, everyone carried their baggage, including the suitcases stored under the bus. I had very little to carry, and entered the building, which included a cafe with almost no one inside. When I stopped at a proper exchange booth to buy Costa Rican money, I was told to remove my hat and look up for the camera. The only other time I’d ever experienced that had been when I entered Cuba. Then I had to wait in line while a young, attractive and very snippy woman made everyone fill out a form and submit passports for stamping. One young American argued with her. Apparently he was one of the “perpetual tourist” types and was quarreling over a fee. I bought a beer. No more dollar beers – this was close to $2.50. Outside the building were two long tables, covered with luggage. All the passengers were standing on one side of them. Eventually, several non-descript non-uniformed young men appeared on the other side and began poking at the bags. I approached my new “perpetual tourist” friend from earlier and asked what to do. I said that no one seemed interested in me or what I was carrying, and should I just reboard the bus? He said, yes, go ahead and reboard. I did. The whole process of crossing this border had taken nearly two hours. Crossing the border from Russia to Estonia by bus, with stops on both sides, had taken perhaos 30 minutes; crossing back into Russia by bus, from Finland, with just one stop, on the Russian side, had taken perhaps 10 minutes.
The new video featured Mexican comic actor Cantinflas, and was in Spanish with no titles – I read, appropriately enough, a book of short stories about dogs until the sun set. No lights were turned on except for occasional stops when someone would disembark in a village or at a gas station. The road was narrow and progress slow, but eventually we were on a real highway and picked up speed. It was around 8:30 when we began entering a large, well lit urban area. There were high rise office and apartment buildings and modern looking shops and plazas. I saw an Office Depot. This was definitely not Nicaragua! The bus wended its way through narrow hilly streets, finally coming to the terminal.
The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colon; its plural is colones. Appetizing, huh? As I discovered later in the numismatic museum, there had been a time when the colon was worth something. Now it was worth one fifth of a cent. The most commonly referred to form of currency was the “mil,” pronounced “meal.” This referred to the 1,000 colon note, worth about $2. The next most common consisted of clunky copper-ish 100 colon coins, worth 20 cents. Cab drivers were offering to take me to the downtown Hotel Europa for 5 mils. I knew the appropriate fare was 2 mils, but I was tired and settled for 3.
There are two Europa hotels in San Jose, the Radisson Europa and the less extravagant just plain Europa, which nonetheless claims 3 stars. It had a typical mid-range American-type hotel lobby – nothing special – with 2 free computers, and a small adjoining casino. Down a hallway was a bar. My room was on the “first” floor which, in European style, was actually the second level. I’d paid via Expedia, and everything was in order. The young female clerk quickly advised me that if I had a guest in my room for 3 hours or less, it was free – after that, there would be a $25 charge. Older guys are known to flock to Costa Rica for “sex tourism,” or so I had read. She must have taken a look at me and figured she’d better give me a heads-up on this sort of thing. Curious, I glanced into the casino and into the bar. No hookers in sight. In fact, I never saw one in San Jose all the time I was there. I’d never seen any in Havana, either, in ‘06, despite the stories. I had a nice room, with water glasses actually made of glass, a hair drier and cable TV. The window a/c ran, but not very well. But San Jose is well above sea level, unlike my 3 Nicaraguan cities, and averages 10 degrees cooler. Instead of dining in the hotel, I walked across the street to a small local cafeteria and had a variety of meats and veggies that I picked out by sight. No 85 cent meal here – it was a whopping $3.30.
I went down to the bar; Costa Rica has one major national brand of beer, Imperial. I had two. It was double the Nicaraguan price – exactly one “mil” per bottle. Then I went for a swim. The hotel had a nice pool, accessible from my floor by a stairway leading down into an open-to-the-sky area surrounded by the hotel walls, and bordered with pots containing large plants and mini-trees. In one of them lived a large black and dark-blue bird which occasionally unfolded its wings but never moved from its tree. I swam, then turned in.
The Europa has a large restaurant, and breakfast is, of course, included. It’s served by women from behind a bunch of steam tables, and a sign advises that “breakfast is only served once.” In other words, this ain’t no buffet, and don’t do an Oliver Twist by asking for more. But it’s hardly necessary, as the food – rice and beans, potatoes, eggs, meat – is good, the portions are ample, and the women will add a little more first time around if you wish. Afterwards, I wanted to visit the Gold Museum. It’s underneath the central bank plaza. I walked down my street, Calle Central, and left onto Avenida 1. I passed innumerable little fast food type places, news and candy stands, shops and drugstores. After passing a pedestrian mall type street – it reminded me of Calle Florida in Buenos Aires – I got confused and eventually found someone in a bank who spoke English and assured me that I was on the right track. The bank’s plaza takes up a block and was filled with people and pigeons – one obviously touristy young woman was posing for photos, literally covered with live pigeons,
Adjoining this was a museum featuring a lot of dioramas and pre-Columbian art, including much of the pre-Colombian gold I’d hoped to see. There was also a fascinating sculptural exhibit. Jose Sancho uses found objects, machine parts and every sculptural medium imaginable, and there were countless examples of his work, wildly varied, as well as videos and a reproduction of his studio. It was a 5 or 6 block walk from there to the National Museum, which cost $8. I entered into a walkway that led up, zig-zagging through a huge sort of arboretum, filled with native plants and live butterflies. At the top was a door leading to the rest of the museum, and if someone is interested in many different varieties and eras of pre-Columbian art, this is their Mecca. There were endless sculptures , furnishings, burial objects and tools. There were hundreds of examples of pre-Columbian jewelry and gold. There were also many dioramas in the style of NY’s Museum of Natural History, and an outdoor area with benches and trees and a superb elevated view of the city.
That was it for the day’s sightseeing. I got lost on the way back and returned to the hotel just in time to avoid a rainstorm. Dinner was in the little cafeteria again, and I had a long swim, wondering why no one but me ever used the pool.
I had signed up for a morning half day tour of the Irazu volcano the next morning through the hotel desk and Marbella Tours – cost $44. A van picked me up after breakfast at 7:30, stopped at various other hotels, then proceeded through villages and endless farms, rising higher and higher and finally entering the National Park that included the volcano.
Irazu is one of the endless series of volcanoes found in Central America, and is special to San Jose. It has an enormous, awe-inspiring crater. It last erupted in 1963, providing a special welcome to President John F. Kennedy on the day he came to town. Needless to say, Ticos still joke about the special “fireworks” with which they welcomed him. The van pulled into a parking area adjoining a cafe and gift shop, from which it was an easy 200 yards or so walk to the fenced-off rim of the crater. The area around the crater was covered largely with black volcanic sand, which I’d last seen on Hawaii’s Big Island.
It’s impossible to exaggerate the size, width, depth and visual impact of the crater and the variety of rock formations and colors on its walls. Along with others, I lingered, taking photo after photo. Being a long time rock and mineral collector, I picked up two rocks and carried them back to the parking lot, where an odd furry beast called a coati was scurrying about the tables, begging food from people. Our informative guide approached me and noticed the rocks. “If they see those at the airport,” he said, “it could be a few nights in jail.” He didn’t have to convince me twice – I dropped the rocks and photographed them.
The van descended and entered the town of Cartago. Most of my fellow passengers had signed up for a full day tour, going on to lunch and some natural sights. I preferred to return to the hotel and spend the rest of the day just vegging out, taking short walks and swimming. Little did I suspect what else awaited me!
My fellow half-day passengers, two young American men, and myself had about 15 minutes to visit the adjoining Virgin of the Angels Basilica, a spectacularly designed cathedral which I was unable to photograph because my last set of batteries had just given out – thankfully after and not before the volcano! I walked in. It was a beautiful huge space, and was almost filled with worshippers. I took a seat by the aisle near the rear exit. A priest was reciting prayers. I looked down the aisle, An attractive young woman was several rows ahead of me, crawling up the aisle towards the front on her knees. Not on her hands and knees – that would have been hard enough. Just on her knees. An older man passed by, doing the same. Then two ordinary looking young guys entered the structure and immediately dropped to their knees and also began crawling, right alongside me. I left quickly.
It was a good hour back to my hotel. I chatted with the young men. One had a bandage completely around his head. He informed me that he was a medical tourist, and had come to Costa Rica for plastic surgery, to have his ears pinned back. I said “well, I guess that means you can’t run for president!” He laughed. “Bush and Obama!” he said.
I took a short walk. It was cloudy and began to rain when I had almost returned to the hotel. I had a beer and ceviche appetizer in the restaurant, then headed straight for the pool, swam for a long time and then returned to my room and sat on the bed, watching ABC national news on cable. It was 4:47 PM local time – 6:47 PM Eastern Daylight Time. Suddenly, the room and the bed began shaking. Back and forth for perhaps 20 seconds. I had never experienced an earthquake, despite many visits to family members in California. I wasn’t scared, but I hoped that the ceiling wouldn’t crumble and rain plaster on my not-yet-dressed self. It did not. Dressed and downstairs soon thereafter, I found that no one seemed in the least excited by what had happened. I asked the desk clerk about it. He said that it didn’t happen very often, that the last one had been 8 months ago. I later found out that it had been a 6.1, but had not caused damage or injuries because it took place 70 kilometers – 44 miles – beneath the surface of the earth. It was the headline in the next day’s paper. I had my 3d dinner in the cafeteria across the street, a beer in the bar and then to bed. No, there were no aftershocks!
The following morning, there was time for breakfast, a quick walk and time to pick up the newspaper headlining the quake and some fresh batteries before heading for the airport and my noon flight back to Ft. Lauderdale. I always go to airports early. Instead of an $18 cab ride, I took a $1 ride to the Merced Park bus station and a 70 cent bus to the airport. Once past a huge beautiful mural and the usual security procedures, I came into a huge modern departure area. Most airports are well supplied with bars, but to get a final beer, I had to go downstairs and sit at a dingy counter. The flight left on time, and my passage through US passport control and customs was quick. As usual, the fact that I had two rather than the one bottle of duty free liqueur allowed without payment of tax or duty was overlooked. Spirit Airlines has exactly one good deal on their flights – large Otis Spunkmeyer muffins for $2 – chocolate, banana-nut and blueberry.
Sooner or later, some travelers are lucky enough to discover one place that is special, or even beyond special. I’d thought I’d found it in Ubud, Bali many years ago, but I’ve heard that sweet village had become highly commercialized. Then, this time around, I found Granada, Nicaragua. Someone please take me back!