This week I took a little trip to Nicaragua. It was my turn to do a “border run” for a freshly inked tourist visa. Andy detailed his trip to Nicaragua a few weeks ago. I decided to make it a little more fun and actually stay overnight and explore just a little bit.
A little background:
As Andy mentioned previously, we applied for a “Rentista” visa. At this point in time, we have completed all of the application requirements, have submitted the application, and the application has been put into the system/queue for review. We achieved this “in process” status in mid January and have the receipt to prove it.
According to the law, we are free to stay or leave the country as we please until our application is either approved or rejected. However, we are only legal to drive using our American driver’s license if we have a valid tourist visa stamp. They can take our plates if we drive with an expired tourist visa. You might ask – why don’t you just get a Costa Rica driver’s license? Great idea and we would love to do that. But as with many oddities here, you are not allowed to get a Costa Rican driver’s license until you are granted the residency visa. This is actually a recent change. There are people here that have a Costa Rica driver’s license but do not have residency. They will not be able to renew when it expires without residency.
Crossing the border:
I had heard all about Andy’s trip as well as read the jewel of a post by Gord and Elisha at In Nica Now detailing the border crossing from the Nicaraguan side. Still I wasn’t quite prepared for the disarray and expanse of the “no man’s land” on each side of the actual border. Having traveled internationally a fair amount, I went into it not really thinking it would be anything unusual. In the midst of it all, I realized that with the exception of the US/Canada border and between the US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands (which I don’t think really counts) all of my immigration experiences have been at an airport. This certainly lacked the efficiency of the airport.
Fortunately my Canadian traveling companion had made this pilgrimage before. She knew just the right place to park the car, a reasonable distance inside of the fray. What we didn’t know was that the long discussed $7 Costa Rican exit tax was now required. We waited in line outside the Costa Rican departure building for about 30 minutes and made it all of the way into the building before we realized this. The line wrangling official directed us to a machine inside the building where we should have been able to pay the tax. Unsurprisingly it was not working. Some folks on their way out of the building told us that we could pay the tax at an A-shaped building about 300 meters back from where we came. I stayed and held our place in line while Colleen took both of our passports and ran off to pay our exit tax. I spent the next 20 minutes doing that weird stand-in-line-but-let-people-go-ahead thing. I continued to mentally practice the Spanish that would attempt to explain to the line officer (should he ask) why I’ve been in line for so long and why I no longer have a passport. A lovely German backpacking couple entered the building. They have also been directed to the non-functional machine to pay the exit tax. I confidently send one of them off to the mythical A-shaped building with both of their passports to pay the tax. There, I’ve helped someone with information that I have no idea is actually correct. Good deed for the day complete.
For the record the building really does exist. Here is a picture. And they charged us each a $10 (US) for the $7 exit tax. Whee.
We got back in the car and drove a bit further to a gated parking area to leave the car overnight. Cost for this was $10 (US). We gathered up our backpacks, locked the car and proceeded to make our way through the multiple passport showings and various people trying to sell us things and help us. As soon as we crossed the actual border into Nicaragua, Colleen was spotted by a Nicaraguan man named Charlie that she knows from previous trips. Charlie has apparently made a living at the border for many years assisting confused travelers navigate the milieu. He guided us through the rest of the process and helped us find a cab driver that knew how to get to our lodging. I have one useful note that I can add to the previous reports. This little receipt (pictured below) that costs $1 US is required on both entry and exit. You can save yourself a dollar if you keep your entry one and show it on exit. No need to pay for it again.
The no man’s land is so large that is has a sort of town square, duty free shopping, and a restroom. Ladies if you don’t carry your own toilet paper or enjoy drip dry, be prepared to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cents for a handful of the stuff.
Once we were through all of the stamping, passport viewing, and tax paying we were free to travel about Nicaragua. We had decided to try out a place called Surf Ranch. It’s a few minutes north of San Juan del Sur. Colleen’s surfer son and his buddy stayed there last year and liked it. It’s much like it sounds – a low budget haven for surfers to meet other surfers, find easy travel to the good waves, and party with other surfers. The grounds come complete with a climbing wall, skateboard park, pool, outdoor bar, and some kind of inflatable thing that you climb up to a platform and jump onto. It was quite an entertaining place. The rooms were small and quite clean with surprisingly decent mattresses. I will note that they were very short. I’m only 5’6” and my feet were at the end of the bed.
We dropped our bags in the room, locked up and headed for a day in the nearby town of San Juan del Sur.
San Juan del Sur
This is a lovely little beach town that seems to have a nice mix of expats, young tourists, and Nicaraguan residents. It’s quite a bit larger than the town where we live in Guanacaste. Probably equivalent in size and amount of restaurants and retail to Tamarindo, but it has a very different feel. We immediately stumbled into an awesome little organic store with lots of local honey, chia seeds, coconut oil, essential oils, chocolate, lotions, potions, locally made clothes, swimming suits, hammocks, beach chairs, etc. Score. We then heeded the Canadian clarion call of the Caesar at The Loose Moose. It’s really just an elaborate bloody mary made with Calmato juice instead of tomato juice. But don’t try to tell that to the Canadians. They insist it is unique.
As we were drinking our Canadian bloody marys, we noticed a parade of twenty-somethings going by all wearing matching shirts that said “Sunday Funday.” Not ones to pass up a funday, we discovered it was a pubcrawl between not just bars, but bars that had swimming pools. Yeah! We immediately went to the hostel to purchase our $10 pubcrawl shirt/ticket and joined the fray. Turns out there were a lot of people. If you look in the background of the photo, that is a pool below. It is packed with people.
We hung out for a while and then headed down to one of the lower level pools at Pelican Eyes hotel so we could actually get in the water.
Eventually it was dinnertime. Sadly, Colleen’s favorite restaurant had recently closed down. So we had to look for a good place to have dinner. There were lots of options of course. We avoided the touristy and tourist-priced restaurants along the beach. We went to the perfectly named One Love surf shop and asked for a recommendation. We ended up at a tiny local fish place. We each had the special – lobster tails in garlic sauce, rice and salad. It was incredible. The price was even more incredible. These 2 meals, 2 sodas, 2 glasses of wine, 2 bottles of water = total with taxes $16 (US).
Meanwhile back at the (Surf) Ranch
We returned after a long day of walking, talking, drinking, and swimming to the Surf Ranch to shower, cool off, and sleep. Here is where the Surf Ranch review gets bad. The rooms were, as is typical in Central America, made of concrete. Our room was on the second floor in the middle of the row of about 7 rooms. The only door to the room was the sliding glass door along the narrow outside walkway. We noticed that there were 2 standing fans and of course a ceiling fan. There was a tiny window in the bathroom (which is at the back of the room). There were no other windows, ventilation, or air conditioning.
Folks, it’s hot here. Roughly 98 F during the day and some pretty hefty humidity this time of year. We were 2 women traveling with a passport, some cash, and a credit card each. Our natural inclination was to close the door and lock it for sleeping. Within 30 minutes, it was so stiflingly hot in the room we could hardly breathe. We opened the door and spent some time standing out on the walkway where it is about 20 degrees cooler. I contemplated wrapping myself in a sheet to protect myself from bugs and sleep in the hammock by the bar. Colleen contemplated moving her mattress out on the walkway that is probably just wide enough for the mattress. Eventually I noticed that all of the other people (meaning the 2 rooms to left and 2 rooms to the right of ours) were sleeping with the sliding door to the room open and the fan in the doorway blowing in cooler, fresh air. Eventually too exhausted to care, we put our wallets under our pillows and sleep with the door and one eye open.
We awoke with the sun – since we didn’t really sleep anyway. Showered, packed up, lazed around the grounds and headed back to town as soon as the driver arrived on site.
Back in San Juan del Sur we headed to the famous El Gato Negro café and bookstore for a long, lazy breakfast. The food, smoothies, and coffee were delish. As was the people watching. It was a lovely mix of American, Canadian, German expats and Nicaraguans that frequent the café.
Back to Costa Rica
We eventually headed back to Costa Rica. We made this leg of the trip in record time – 1.5 hours from San Juan del Sur to picking up our car in Costa Rica. Entering Costa Rica and getting my tourist visa stamp went smoothly. This was the first test of using the residency receipt rather than travel documents. I was a little worried that the receipt wouldn’t be accepted or that because I had the residency receipt perhaps they would give some other type of visa stamp. It all went smoothly. When the immigration officer asked for my onward travel papers and I showed the residency receipt he actually seemed excited/pleased. I’m not sure whether it was just that he doesn’t seem many of those or some other mysterious reason. Anyway, I got my 90 day stamp and I’m legal to drive in Costa Rica.
I really enjoyed my little trip to Nicaragua. From what little I’ve seen, it’s a charming country with friendly people. I loved seeing the fields of wind turbines generating electricity (Sorry no photo. But trust me, they were beautiful.) and the ease of the mixing of Nicaraguans and expats. I didn’t feel like I was being charged the higher “gringo” price everywhere. I’m told that Isla Ometepe and Little Corn Island are must. Maybe we’ll take the whole family on the next trip and hit both of these.