A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Border

Things are always moving on our new adventure. And sadly, they will be coming to an end soon – but not before we have a chance to experience more interesting, inspiring, and well, odd and embarrassing things here. First the fun stuff.

Deb and I just completed our SCUBA PADI certification. This is something Deb has always wanted to do. What better place than Costa Rica. While we have friends who love diving in Seattle, sorry, it’s juts to cold and dark for us. We’ll take the 86° F water and 40 feet of visibility any day.

Our good friend Risky was our instructor out of Aquacenter in Playa Flamingo. He suggested we wait until June/July because the water is clearer then. We wanted to do wait anyway for all of the tourists to be gone (its low season now). We ended up doing it in 4 days, culminating in the most amazing final open water dives.

The Caribbean has its wrecks and coral, the Mediterranean also has wrecks caves. Costa Rica has no coral or wrecks, but what you get here are incredible numbers of sea life in great diversity. As an example, on our final dive we saw a pod of dolphins on the way to the site and two humpback whales on the way back. While diving, the dolphins were serenading us – we could hear their “chirpy” vocalizations underwater. During the dive we saw several adult and baby white-tipped sharks, an eagle ray, many flavors of moray eels, an octopus, and tons of fish of all kinds. The puffer fish are pretty friendly. They hovered and watch me and when I stuck my finger out they would go for a nibble.

That was one dive. While it was the first time we saw whales, dolphins and sharks, the rest and more were pretty common on our other dives. We hear from Risky that this particular area off the coast of Play Flamingo is one of the best diving spots in Central America. We sure had a blast. We took our GoPro and have some great video (although note that the original GoPro and GoPro 2 have domed lenses and that makes for a bit of blurriness in underwater conditions.

Deb and Aidan (and me when I can) will start running a computer class at Abriendo Mentes next week. It is one of the organizations for which Deb recently helped put on a fundraiser. Abriendo Mentes provides a safe, constructive, and vibrant place for children to go after school where they learn invaluable computer and English language skills. I’ll let Deb say more about the class once she starts it.

Speaking of classes, I start teaching my Information Visualization class at Universidad Veritas next Thursday. I’ve completed all of the course content. I think I have around 1200 visualization examples for 13 classes. It’s not all lecture. I’ll talk for a bit, we’ll have some discussions and critiques, and the class will have some in-class exercises and projects. I’ve been inspired a bit by the challenges in Hell’s Kitchen so I’m going to try to set up a few challenges that way. J

 

The young adults are motoring along with unschoolingstill. They are doing some math now online on IXL while Deb helps in the tougher spots. We are supplementing that with some science content, including a few science fiction movies that have a lot of good science, including Gattaca and the Andromeda Strain so far. Aidan and Nev both though the Andromeda Strain, which was done in the 70’s, was “pretty good” despite not having CG, cool special effects and computers. It was a little eerie to see that again and all of the really “old school” science technology.

It’s pretty clear that Aidan and Nev are digital natives – people born after computers, digital technology, and the internet. For that matter, most of my students are as well. There isn’t a term though that I have found for kids who technically fit the criteria for digital natives but who have never used a computer or the Internet. There are many kids like that here and that’s why the work that we’ll be doing with Abriendo Mentes is so important. Abriendo Mentes is the one place most of these kids can work with technology. What we’ve heard is that, like most kids, they take to it like breathing, so I expect Deb and Aidan will have their hands full quickly. Deb is looking to bring in some new content and Aidan is the designated Minecraft expert!

For those who read my Border Run post and Deb’s border run, I had to do another one Friday. I have some updates and an interesting story. There are some new official, and unofficial, procedures that have come into being compared to January. First off, Costa Rica still requires the $7 exit tax. You’ll find that you need more dollars in Nicaragua given a few changes. One is that you now pay $12 to enter Nicaragua. It used to be $2.

What was interesting about the $12 was that immigration has to fill out a new form evidently, as a receipt of cash. I paid $12 USD. I just happened to actually look at the receipt later and saw two things. First, the immigration official marked it as a receipt of cash in Nicaraguan cordobas, not dollars as I paid. I initially thought they had a very creative process for working the exchange rate (dollars are much stronger). Heck, it works for banks, why not immigration? However, I also noticed that the receipt was for what I believe I remember to be 44 cordobas. Sadly, I didn’t keep the receipt, but that is about $2. I’m not sure how official the $12 was, so keep an eye out.

There are a few new rules as well. One is that you now need to photocopy your passport for immigration when you leave Nicaragua. Fortunately, there is a handy “fotocopias” hut near the immigration entry/exit station (add $1 here for a photocopy).

Another new rule is that you now need to spend a minimum of 5 hours in Nicaragua (or 8, depending on who you talk to). We heard this from both the Nicaraguan tourist “helpers” and the immigration folks. There does seem to be an unofficial but fairly structured way around it. It was important in my case because I was on a bus with 8 people and if anyone didn’t follow this process, we’d all be waiting 5 hours. Of course, that’s how most people do border runs.

In terms of this process around the 5 hour rule, first, the local “helpers” are good at spotting folks who are doing border runs and they’ll find you. They basically tell you that you need to stay 5 hours unless you pay a special fee. It is supposedly not a tip, but rather for the immigration official. I paid $10 but others on our bus paid $20. First they go off and “talk” to immigration. When ready, they go with you through the Nicaraguan exit immigration where the immigration official just charges another $2. Interestingly and unsolicited, mine told me (in Spanish of course) that I should not need to pay anyone else anything. It was curious at the time.

After getting our exit papers and stamp, we paid our $10 fee and walked toward the exit to “no man’s land.” Here it gets interesting. If you don’t go through the process, or evidently if you don’t pay your “helper” enough, when you approach the exit immigration official, the helper run up and shout that you have not been here 5 hours. I saw it twice.

The big surprise was that the exit official was telling all of the gringos in line that they had not been there long enough. Helpers told me that I should give him $2. Now I understood the strange comment from the other official.

This seemed clearly like a shakedown. It was confirmed by a few others who had been through this before. I and one of the women from the bus were waiting for him to give us back our passports, but he wasn’t. Meanwhile, more and more gringos were coming into line and he was taking their passports too, to check. Well, one of them started making a big and loud huff. The “helpers” were saying that the person hadn’t been in Nicaragua for 5 hours. The tourist was arguing vociferously that it didn’t matter. It is one of those situations that I could see going south quickly and everyone gets in trouble, so I asked for my passport for a “momentito”, returned it to the official with $2 inside, and got my passport back and left. The argument continued as a few more officials started toward the tourist.

My experience may have been rare, so don’t take it as the expected process, but at least be prepared. While I dislike the idea of bribes, this all seemed part of the experience and big waves were caused when the process wasn’t followed. At the end of the day, it was only a few dollars. The economy in Nicaragua is so bad that a dollar goes a long way and if it helps the folks at the border, I don’t mind. Hopefully, it is not a cultural experience I’ll have to get used to. I would have been fine waiting 5 hours but my bus wasn’t. But then, we had one more bit of excitement to come.

I exited Costa Rica through immigration in an incredible 6 minutes this time, including filling out the form. I got 90 days, even though I really only need 30. My immigration officer was very nice and on a roll. From there, it was back to the bus and home. Well, not quite yet.

As I said, there were 8 of us on the bus. Two of the passengers were very boisterous older men from the US who had been staying in Tamarindo. They had only been in Costa Rica 5 weeks, but were staying for 4 months and so needed to do a border run at some point and chose Friday. One of the two guys got very angry in Nicaragua when he found out that he had to get a photocopy of his passport and started yelling at everyone, including his friend. I thought it was odd at the time, but I have seen worse, sadly, from other American tourists.

Well, 6 of us were waiting in the bus for these last two. The one that was not angry came back and when he did not see his partner, he told the driver that his buddy was escorted to the front side of the building. This is where you first arrive and where they have their interrogation rooms. We waited about 15 minutes and he was a no show. The driver was clearly worried and so went to immigration to check. When he returned he did indeed say that this guy was taken by immigration officials.

Meanwhile, his friend had tried several times to call him without luck. After about another 10 minutes, his friend gets a call. His buddy was being detained. Here was an arrest warrant out for him in Texas that was triggered when he tried to re-enter Costa Rica. The Costa Rican’s were putting him on a bus to Managua so he could go to the US Embassy there.

The guy who was detained had on shorts and a tank top and nothing else with him. His buddy thought he could meet him in Managua with his stuff and they could return together. Unfortunately, his buddy wasn’t likely to be going anywhere other than back to the US – or perhaps a permanent, unofficial stay in Nicaragua. So, since there was nothing we could do about the detainee, we left. The whole bus, including his friend, was speculating on what this guy, who was the “nicest guy in the world” according to his friend, did and why they caught him here instead of when they first landed. The warrant must have triggered in the 5 weeks since they’ve been here.

Once again, border runs seem to be good experiences to see karma in action. Pura Vida.

Border Run

As part of our new adventure, I got to do what the local ex-pats here call a “border run” this last Sunday. This post will probably be more interesting to ex-pats in Costa Rica but if you want to see what it takes to live here, read on.

Generally in Costa Rica you can stay 90 days as a tourist and then you have to exit the country and return. Most of the ex-pats do this. Deb and I applied for a “rentista visa” (which I described a few posts back) and that means that we don’t have to exit and return every 90 days.

However, we now have a car and that adds some complications. For us to be able to drive here with a foreign driver’s license, we need to exit and return every 90 days, just like the other ex-pats.

I had planned to detail the whole process, but as I was looking for photos of the various forms, I found Gord and Elisha’s wonderful blog post (In Nica Now). They documented the entire process from the Nicaraguan ex-pat view and had lots of good photographs. Instead of recreating their detail here, I’ll focus on some perspectives on the people and process from a first-timer.

In Playa Potrero, we are pretty close to the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, so most folks choose to do a border run to Nicaragua at Penas Blancas (“white plains”) 153K (95 miles) away. It takes about 3 hours to get there. I had originally planned to drive up to the border crossing alone since Deb was already flying back to Seattle for work and would get her new entry stamp that way. I wasn’t looking forward to driving poor Moose all the way there and back and really didn’t want to burn all that gas. As I pinged a few friends to see if they also wanted to go, I learned from my friend Dusty that Tamarindo Transfers and Tours has a crazy good deal on border runs: $35 round trip in an air conditioned bus.

Moose gets a whopping 12 miles per gallon so that would take about 16 gallons of gas. At ~$5.50/gallon that’s $88. Moose also doesn’t have air conditioning or a busload full of adventure.

10 folks started in the bus in Tamarindo at 7am and they picked me up in Huacas, which was mid-way between Tamarindo and where I live. The bus was full to the brim. We dropped 3 folks off at Liberia Airport on the way to Nicaragua. That’s where we had expected to pay this mysterious exit tax for Costa Rica. They put it in place a month or so ago, but they had no way to collect money for it at the border. The blogosphere, locals, expats, and travel agencies all had different opinions about whether it was being collected at all and where to actually pay it (not at the border). Our driver dropped the rest of us at Liberia Airport and gave each of us (back) our prepaid $10 for the tax. He suggested we go inside the airport to pay.

Inside, you can indeed pay an exit tax, but only the one when you leave Costa Rica by air. We drove around a bit to find what look to be the immigration police station, but it was closed on Sunday. We then took our chances and just drove to the border. Luck was with us and no one asked us to pay the tax. Afterward, I heard from several folks that they stopped trying to collect it after all the confusion at the border.

On the way up, folks were trading stories about how many days they were given to stay. The usual is 90 days. A few ex-pats that had been here awhile got 60 days. Evidently, it seems to depend on the border agent and maybe the moon, stars, time of the week, etc. One particular woman was very grumpy about the last time she went up and only got 60 days. She seemed to have a lot in general to complain about and it extended to Costa Rica, the US, Canada, her employer and several other things.

Normally on these runs, they simply go up, you cross into Nicaragua and then come right back. This particular woman was certain that the reason she only got 60 days was because last time she turned right around and so she refused to come back in anything less than two hours. Therefore, the entire bus had to spend two hours in Nicaragua.

Getting through the exit point in Costa Rica was pretty easy. It only took 20 minutes or so. Likewise, getting entry into Nicaragua was easy. It only took about 30 minutes. This is where I learned several tips for the next time.

Tip 1: Bring about $20 in $1 (USD) bills.
Things at the crossing and in Nicaragua are very cheap in general, including the fees. There are a lot of fees that cost $1-2 and change is a bit hard to come by. As an aside, Debbie read on the internet that you need to enter Nicaragua with at least $500 cash in USD. They only work with US dollars at the border and generally in Nicaragua. Well, at least she had the US dollar part right J I didn’t need $500 in $20’s. I did need $1 bills desperately.

I paid $1 when I first entered Nicaragua for an Alcadia Municipal “Contribucion Especial” (special contribution) ticket. Then $12 to get the entry stamp. On the way out, you have to pay the “Contribucion Especial” again.

With two hours before we left, we didn’t have time to catch a cab to Rivas (30 minutes away) or San Juan del Sur (45 minutes away), so Dusty and I just found a local restaurant – a shack really – and had a $1 beer. It was Toña, the Nicaraguan national beer. I had a good chance to watch a lot of the activity around the border and saw some fascinating things (more later).

Tip 2: Bring several custom forms with you or get them all at once.
Evidently Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and perhaps all of Central America uses the same customs form. At least, it is labeled as a Central American customs form. Also, evidently, when you first get into Nicaragua, you have to go to a special place to get these forms (a different line to stand in). Fortunately, there are tens of people there handing these forms out for a small fee – $1 USD. I would recommend buying 4 because you need them to leave Costa Rica, enter Nicaragua, leave Nicaragua, and enter Costa Rica. There are no tables in the customs area with stacks of these so you need to find a source. We forgot when we were entering Costa Rica again. Fortunately, we were able to get one from the agent (who didn’t look particularly pleased – and you definitely do not want to displease them).

Tip 3: Pick a good “dealer.”
This is Dusty’s term and he hit it spot on. It is a bit like going to Las Vegas and looking for a good dealer for blackjack. Yu want someone who is not grumpy, not a hard-ass, and ideally has a good sense of humor. The same seems to hold true of border agents. You’ll have several lines to choose from, so pick well. Afterward, I heard a story about one border agent in particular that the ex-pats seem to recognize and who consistently does not give 90 days. I don’t have his picture, sorry.

Our first two agents leaving CR and entering Nicaragua were great. They were both women and very friendly. Leaving Nicaragua, we had a guy who was friendly, but then started to ask questions. We were really only out of Costa Rica for two hours after all. They like folks staying and spending some money. Dusty talked to him about his home town and we sailed through. Our final one was a young guy who seemed serious but was very efficient and friendly. We got 90 days. Of course, we were also friendly.

Tip 4: Bring patience and a sense of humor – or at least a good book.
Some of the lines are long. Your passport gets look at 7-8 times. It’s hot and dusty. Our final line back into Costa Rica was 2+ hours. The two hours we stayed before returning evidently put us in the window of when all the tour buses from Nicaragua were coming through (about 1pm). Ideally, you’d want to get through before all of that. If you are stuck in a long line though, being grumpy probably won’t help you out much in the end. Remember pura vida? This is a good place to channel it.

Between my wait in Nicaragua having a beer and this two hour line, I actually noticed something quite remarkable. There is an entire ecosystem and economy built up around this need for ex-pats in both countries to head to the border and renew their entry stamp. As with many rich human ecosystems, you can see signs of inefficiency, but then also enterprising ways to work within the system. You can see innovation and creativity, as well as boredom and “just do what everyone else does” mentality.

As I mentioned, there are many folks handing out customs form for a tip (eliminating the need for you to stand in a line to get them). There are folks whom you can tip and get to the front of the line. It looks like the people at the front, only locals from what I saw, are willing to sell their place in line and then start over. There are folks selling cold drinks and mobile phone cards.

And of course, there is a whole bank of booths selling bus tickets. When you enter Costa Rica, you need to have proof that you will be exiting the country within 90 days. This can be an airline ticket (and that seems to have some advantages). Most ex-pats, though, buy a bus ticket (every 90 days) that they never use but that shows that they have a ticket out of Costa Rica. So, conveniently, if you forget your proof of departure, or are just someone who likes to do things last minute, you can easily buy one at the border.

One could look at all of this and suggest that it could be more efficient, better, and easier. I hear lots of complaints about the exit taxes, etc. From my perspective, I’m rather impressed. It’s got to be a hard life living in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in general given the average daily salary and unemployment. Enterprising people seem to be making some extra $ in this ecosystem. I don’t mind paying someone a tip for a form. It’s only a dollar and that seems to go a very long way in Nicaragua. I love seeing creative thinking emerge in ecosystems like this.

At the end of our long lines, we hopped back on the bus for the ride home. Most folks got 90 days. Our friend who was a bit grumpy only got 60 days again. Perhaps she didn’t pick a “good dealer.” Perhaps, it was her passport full of entry/exit stamps from Costa Rica (and Nicaragua). Maybe it was the fact that she had a bus ticket vs. a plane ticket to show proof of exit. Maybe she got that “one” border agent. It could have indeed been the moon, the time of the week, or any one of a number of reasons. She certainly seemed to be the exception.

For my part, I think it may go back to how you come across to people. Grumpiness, entitlement, continuous complaining can’t make a good case for getting anything. Costa Rica is the land of “pura vida.” Perhaps, the border agents look for that and welcome it back into Costa Rica and reward those who show it. We are guests here after all. Maybe a 60 day stamp is a good “teaching moment” – a reminder both of pura vida and how we should try to embrace it. At least, it seems as plausible as any other theory I’ve heard 🙂

Pura vida!