Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Visa Run Day 3: Border Crossing

DISCLAIMER: Alison here . . .  I’m writing a series of guest blogs covering 9/30-10/7 – the dates where Nick, Minh and I joined Vic on his visa run to Nicaragua and the journey through Costa Rica back to Costa de Oro. 
Date: Tuesday 10/2/12

Location: Nicaraguan/Costa Rican Border; Liberia, Costa Rica and San Jose, Costa Rica
Word of the day: Izquierda – "left". In a well-intentioned attempt to teach Vic and I Spanish, Nick randomly decided to drill this word into our heads. It came up a lot in driving. Each and every time we needed to make a left turn, we had another opportunity to add this ridiculously complicated word to our Spanish lexicon

Border Fact (Nicaragua to Costa Rica): Countries in Central America don't require much upon entering; it's when you want to leave that you must pay the tariff (exit tax)

Today is the big day: border crossing day. Minh’s flight lands in San Jose at 12:30PM and we have a five hour drive which includea an international border crossing, a Nicaraguan car rental return and a Costa Rican car rental pick up (sin reservations – we are really winging it). 

The plan is to leave at 7AM to make it to the border by 8AM, when the Budget Rental opens so we can return the car. Then we will walk across the border and into the town of Penas Blancas, Costa Rica where they will hopefully have an available (automatic) car (SUV) that we can rent for the second portion of our trip. We have a lot of "hopefully-s." Here goes nothing. 

With Vic - the human alarm – getting us all up and out the door early is no problem. We hit the road on time and the hour to the border passes quickly and unceremoniously. When we pull up to the border area, the whole place looks desolate. Straight up like a scene from a post-apocalyptic move. Huge buildings that look as if they were constructed to be important are abandoned and falling apart. The ground is all dusty dirt and covered with vendors selling pastries or random knick knacks, people willing to exchange cordobas-colones (Nicaraguan-Costa Rican) or vice versa (with the rate tipped in their favor) and a few straggling men. 

One of these men walks right up to our car and starts talking quickly and loudly at Nick through the drive window in Spanish. Of course I cannot understand what he is saying and I get immediately nervous about what is going on. But it quickly becomes apparent that he is offering to help us navigate the process and structure of crossing the border in exchange for a small tip. We happily oblige since there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what is going on and we could use the help. 

Nick tells him we need to return the car but he advises us to complete our paperwork in the customs “office” before hand. We walk over to an area that can best be described as a screen porch with metal bars instead of screens – that was the customs of office of Nicaragua. The scope out our passports and paperwork, we pay the $3 per person exit fee to cross the border and we are good to go. 

When back at the car, our new friend directs us to the duty free shop, which has a sign above it for Budget Rental Car. When we walk in – it’s a humongous duty-free shop filled with liquor, perfume and other things people randomly decide to buy at the border. There is a teeny-tiny office in the back corner that is the Budget office. They process our paperwork to return the car. We grab our items out the trunk and the deal is done. We are officially carless in Central America, bags in hand, ready to cross the border.

Before we begin the walk across the border – Vic walks over to spend the last of his Nicaraguan Cordobas with a local baker. He buys a plate of delicious stuff that none of us understand – but like just the same. Then we pick up our bags and hit the (literally) dusty trail across the border. 

Crossing the border was a surreal feeling mostly in that it just felt like you were walking down a drive way lined with pretty plants. We knew we had made it when we saw the welcome sign to Costa Rica!

At this point – the Costa Rican officials inspect our bags and we head into their customs office (an actual building with – GASP – air conditioning!) Here a woman processes our paperwork into the country. She has us all verify that we have exiting flights from the country (a feat that is hard to prove since we are all paperless and some of us don’t yet have an officially confirmed flight home) but she passes us! We are home free. 

Next up: the half kilometer walk into the border town of Penas Blancas, Costa Rica: home of Alama Car Rental. 

After the semi-sweaty walk, we spy the tiny office, walk in and MAGICALLY they have cars available. After some serious Spanglish and more guilt that I know almost zero actual Spanish – we get an SUV with an automatic transition! Once the car is in our possession – we each separately admit we were worried a successful Costa Rican car rental wasn’t going to happen for us. Phew. 

We hit the road with me in the driver’s seat for the first time (WOOHOO!) on our way to Liberia which we will pass through on the four hour drive to the San Jose airport. 
We are all starving by the time we roll into civilization. We come across a few places and have all intentions of going into town for some authentic Costa Rican food. But this plan goes out the window when we spy a Pollo Loco on the side of the road. We all throw our American shame out the window and indulge in something familiar with a Costa Rican twist. It was actually really delicious – especially when we tried all the dipping sauces Nick suggested. The fountain Diet Pepsi was the icing on the cake. Full of caffeine and food – we continue the drive to San Jose international airport. 

Upon arrival at the airport – Nick hops out of the car to search for Minh. Minh is another of Vic’s brothers and has flown in to join us mid-way through the vacay. It is surprisingly easy to find him among the typical airport chaos. He hops in the car and we are on the way!

Since the morning took more time than planned with border crossing and driving – we decide to spend the night in San Jose instead of heading straight back out toward the rain forest. We are tired of driving and figure a night on the town is a great mediator from all the nature we have seen and will see. 

We drive in San Jose and come upon the most massive traffic hodge podge of pedestrian and vehicle that I have ever seen. Traffic lights strung by wires dangle over intersections where barely anyone attempts to follow them. People are walking and standing in the streets, busses are weaving in and out of lines of traffic and there are cars everywhere. 

We have a plan to navigate to a hotel we have found online, but the myriad of one-way streets and spontaneous construction sites makes the GPS unusable and we decide to go with our old stand by: just drive by something near and see if it looks legit enough to sleep there.

Using the GPS we see the San Jose Backpacker’s Hostel is nearby so we head toward it. When we pull up – the place looks straight scary. 

Our first inclination is to drive away, but so glad we didn’t! Once we were buzzed up – it was an international paradise of people hanging out in the hippy-ish brightly colored hostel. 

The host showed us a room with two bunk beds for $10 a night per person and we are in! We load in our bags, park our car and settle in. 

We immediately discover it’s “happy hour” and head outside to drink a few cervezas and catch up with Minh on hour his trip was. We chat and drink for about an hour before deciding the head out for dinner downtown. 

Vic has heard of a fun part of town called “Bittersweet Street” where the nightlife is edgy and the trendy people flock. We decide to go there and stop by the front desk for directions. As the host is telling us where to go, a young Israeli woman overhears us making dinner plans and asks if she could join. She has just gotten in from her trip in Cuba and doesn’t know anyone in the city. We full-heartedly agree and all head out to catch cabs to the restaurant.

We have to take two cabs and briefly get separated – eek. But using our awesome internal-GPS skills, we are able to find each other along the “Bittersweet Street” – phew. No cell phones really make things complicated. 

We find a restaurant and settle in for mas cervezas and some comida. Our new friend tells us about her trip to Cuba and all the sights she has seen. She’s in Costa Rica only because the ticket was cheap so she has no plans. We talk about Costa Rica, America, Cuba and Israel. We feel very international and worldly.
The food arrives and is delicious. 

But immediately after eating – we all fall into a food coma from which we cannot recover. We pay and head back to the street to catch a cab to the hostel. 
Once there, we hang out and chat a bit longer then say our good nights and hit the hay. Another early morning to head toward the Tenorio rain forest to see Vic’s friend Ever and do some hiking.

  • Car travel takes a lot out of you
  • Not every meal has to be 100% authentic – the other stuff plays a very important role too
  • Café con leche is the best trick for a long drive
  • No matter where you are from, where you have been or where you are going – it’s always nice to have dinner conversation with a few friends, new or old
  • Nick hates audio books
  • Vic loves them
  • Pollo Tropical!
  • Diet Pepsi
  • Casado de Pescado (filet of fish, plantains, rice and beans)
Animals: vacas! The cows here have these WEIRD wiggly necks – that makes them a sight on their own

Something I am thankful for: my iPod. It was an afterthought to add all the music and podcasts and it really carried the long drives. Which also makes me thankful for the compatible musical interests of my travel companions (how GREAT are two guys who will sing Justin Bieber with me?) and an auxiliary hookup in our SUV

Something I don't want to admit: I officially love Justin Bieber. But I think it’s OK since I cultivated that love in a foreign country. That makes it cool

Total Nest I have saved: still zero . . . just wait until tomorrow!
Total Nests Poached on my Patrol:  NA
Total Turtle Eggs I saved: NA
Total Baby Turtles I Released: NA
Days of Rain: Still none!
Miles traveled: 60km in Nicaragua (36 miles); 284km in Costa Rica (176 miles)


  1. Vacas? Ask Nick about dot dot dot dot dot dot...or what's the Spanish translation?

  2. Dot dot dot!! We didn't play the game in CR but I am familiar from a different trip to West Virginia after you guys created it :)

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