Into Costa Rica

Thirteen hours after crashing hard at the Hotel Continental I come to fully refreshed. It’s 9:30 so I give Murphy a precision “alarm clock” karate chop so we can take advantage of the until-10 complimentary breakfast of fruit, eggs, beans and coffee. Over breakfast we discuss our plans for the day.

For nearly a week we’d been looking forward to catching a boat out to Ometepe, a volcano/island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Not only is it supposedly beautiful, more importantly we’d read a person can rent a dirt bike there and tear around the island. Some further breakfast-time research made us question how badly we wanted to do it, though – insurance is a requirement (lame), and descriptions from other tourists we’d read said that making sure we have all our paperwork with us is important, because there are police checkpoints around the island. What?? Our intentions were to get completely gooned and rip around. If the police gave us shit for shuffling over the yellow line yesterday, they’ll crucify us for being hammered drunk, doubling the speed limit in the wrong lane with cocktails sloshing over our clutches. Sucks to Omitepe, let’s go to Costa Rica.

In what seems like a surprisingly short time we approach the queue of trucks indicative of a Central American border crossing, a mishmash of unmarked lanes and buildings and then, like clockwork, border “helpers” running at our car yelling “Amigo! Amigo!” and “Cambio! Cambio!”, waving stacks of Costabucks around. Goddammit! I’m seriously sick of this shit! At one threshold not only are the helpers running at us, they’re running after us. It feels like this. We stop and I jump out of the car with an arm-full of documents, trying to figure out whether this is the right place. I get swarmed by the “helpers” and all of them are yelling different things, but I don’t give a shit – “No necesito ayuda! No necesito ayuda! JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! I DON’T NEED ANY FUCKING HELP!” Most of the guys slink away but one guy looks really offended, “Hey man I’m trying to TALK to you!” He points to a chain that we drove over. “You’re going the wrong way, turn around back there, that’s immigration.” Shit, I’m an asshole. I apologize and try to explain that the previous border was total bullshit and I think he understands where I’m coming from. We jump back in the car and swing around in the direction he pointed us.

Immigration out of Nicaragua is exactly as disorganized as we’d come to expect but fortunately one of the lower-key helpers (who speaks English) tagged along behind us, occasionally quipping in with a helpful comment or two, leading us in the right direction. The first step is to talk to a customs official sitting in the shade in the parking lot, the only indicator of his being in any official capacity a shirt with a logo. (He had a badge but everyone at the border has a badge, scammers use them to look official.) He looks at my passport and the car then yells into an office for a woman to come out and do the same thing. She stamps our papers and waves us away. So far so good.

We pull up to a small plaza of buildings and 7 million helper people show us where to park, waving us in and yelling. Original Helper Guy (OHG) shoes them away and directs us to a girl sitting on a chair. She gets up and checks over the car. How we were suppose to know to go to that person on that chair I have no idea. I think she was the person who is suppose to search it but she didn’t seem interested.

Next up is immigration. We step into a small square building, first up we have to pay $1 to the tourism board. We also fill out some exit immigration papers our handy helper had given us. I filled mine out and went to the immigration officer behind the first available counter. This was probably the best border guy we’ve had yet. He was so impressed I already had an immigration form filled out he gave me some props with a firm fist bump, complete with sound effects, Boof!. He then quickly flipped through my passport to the picture page, phiffft, phiffft, phiffft (this guy did everything with sound effects, it was awesome, swiped it through the computer, zeeep! He needed some cash and I told him there were two of us. I waved MacKay over. Dude went through the same sound effect routine. He was zippy, happy, and had a fun attitude. Pretty much the opposite of every border guard thus far.

Our helper pointed us around the corner of the building to an unmarked back room. Ummm… Ok? We go in and there’s a dude who looks like a cop sitting in a chair. We hand him our docs, he reviews them and gives us some kind of ticket indicating that there’s two of us. Without our helper there’s absolutely no way we would’ve known about this step in the process.

We jump in the car after giving our helper a few bucks for his help and blast off towards the Costa Rican side of things. After passing a final Nicaraguan checkpoint we sigh in relief; surely this has to be easier, after all of the previous borders, I mean Costa Rica is a fairly developed country, right? That may be the case (and in all honesty, it is), but we were about to find that progress hadn’t made its way to the frontera quite yet.

Ahead of us the road is blocked and some guards are waving us toward a sidelot where numerous transport trucks are parked. Another round of fumigation for El Burro. We roll forward through some kind of thing that looks like a miniature car wash, waiting for a dude with a mask and spray can to come hit our undercarriage like in every other country. Nope! Our car is blasted with some kind of decontamination foam while we’ve got our windows down and our arms out the window. Who cares what chemicals we just got blasted with, we probably needed it. We exit the sidelot and at least we don’t have to pay anything this time.

Now we’re looking at several buildings that apparently make up the Costa Rican immigration process. Immigration is fairly obvious, as is customs, but which you have to do first isn’t, so we go to customs first. Nope – go to immigration. Immigration feels space age, not only are we in an air conditioned room for the first time, there are lines with multiple people actually working simultaneously. We blast through it in no time, in fact the woman working the counter moves too quickly for me and bangs at the window trying to get me to fill out my form faster. Back out to customs.

The lady at customs needs photocopies of our entrance stamps and she doesn’t have a photocopier. She points us back towards Nicaragua to get photocopies. We walk for a minute or two and ask a crew of tuk-tuk drivers where we can get “copias”. They point to an office in the direction of Nicaragua as well. Keep walking. The office has two security officials in front and no one working, and when we ask for copias they respond with a firm no. Murphy points in their window and says “There’s a photocopier. And there’s another.” No, they say. And they point toward Nicaragua. We keep walking until we hit some border guards, who tell us that photocopiers exist in Costa Rica, although our evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

We walk all the way back past customs and immigration, basically into Costa Rica and find a shop that has a photocopier, but they won’t accept dollars, the only thing we’re carrying. After we tell them we don’t have anything else they reconsider and take 40 cents or so. Back to customs where we fill out some forms and the lady comes out to look at our car. She first mistakes it for a Honda Civic with New York plates (What is that doing here? What kind of moron would drive a small car that far?) A quick cursory inspection and she gives us our customs paperwork.

Final two steps, we have to buy insurance and get a temporary vehicle import permit, both of which require our customs paperwork. We know there’s a building somewhere in front of us, but it’s hidden somewhere behind hundreds of parked 18-wheelers. Creeping the car around and shouting questions in broken Spanglish to bystanders, we manage to find it in another sidelot, basically invisible. First we buy insurance then walk around the corner of the building to get a vehicle import permit. The first kiosk was an outdoor window, whereas the second is indoors and air-conditioned – but they’re connected on the inside. There’s really no reason this couldn’t be the same thing. Not only that, but despite having at least two visible photocopiers inside the office, after the first step we have to walk over to another photocopy store to get copies made before beginning the second step. It was sort of like this.

Before we get away from the Costa Rican border we have to give a shout out to a blog for reasons they may not even know about. “Hey I’ve got an Idea…” was a blog written by some two-wheeled overlanders in 2012-13 when they also drove from Nova Scotia to Argentina, and although we hadn’t heard of them until we reached the border, the inside of the customs window on the Costa Rican side of the border had pictures from their blog posted. They trumped the locals on ingenuity and actually took pictures of all of the buildings you have to walk between, captioning the photos to show which buildings have customs, immigration, photocopies, insurance, and all the other things you need to successfully cross a Latin American border. The customs office thought this was clever enough that they printed off the bloggers’ photos and taped them into the windows. Without the written context of the blog they were only semi-helpful, but funny nonetheless, and the blog will no doubt be a valuable resource for us the remainder of the way.

We hopped back in EL-BP and drove to the final checkpoint. Gave the guy our passports and the ticket we had and we were in. Costa Rica, our 6th country of the trip (not including Canada and the US).

The highways were great and we cruised into Liberia in no time. Animals looked healthier. We felt healthier. Hardly any road dogs. We had no idea how long we were going to go today and Liberia had been discussed as a possible stopping place. It was very Western. Every major American fast food chain was available right from the highway. They had strip malls that looked just like California. The area had no semblance of whatever culture was previously there. At least not at first glance.

We strayed down a back road looking for something more authentic than a Burger King and found a place called El Chipotle. Mexico was soooooo 5 countries ago, so we dipped in for a mexibite. MacKay went for enchiladas and I hit up something called a Burronacho, mainly because I liked the name. It was a chicken burrito with nachos in it, kind of like chilaquiles in a burrito. Num nummy.

Still pretty early so we ventured on down the road. Next major town was Canas. Hmmmmmmm not floating our boat, kept trucking. We were blazing through Costa Rica so we decided to try to make it to Arenal, apparently the crown jewel of cool shit in the CR. Swerved inland off the PanAm and took a left at Tileran to get to the small town of Nuevo Arenal and then La Fortuna. Tight little twisty windy thing, we opened her up to try to get in before nightfall but no dice despite a lot of blind crest / blind corner passing. About 20 minutes after darkness and 15 km from La Fortuna we hit a roadblock. A bunch of bright orange signs blocking the entire road, like a construction zone but no way around, right next to a restaurant. Some dude comes out and tells us the road is gone, we can’t pass. The road is washed away or collapsed or something. Is there another way around? Spanishing way too fast to fully comprehend but something about taking a right at a botanical garden so we flip it around. We search for half an hour in vain, cross-referencing our current position with half-cached Google Maps but the only thing it shows that even resembles a road is fucking brutal, massive sump-killing rocks jagging out in every which way. Try it anyway, crawling along at 5 km/h but after 5 minutes it’s too much, vehicular suicide to do this in the dark with 14″ wheels and no skid plates. We resign to our fate and head back to the town of Nuevo Arenal to find a place to crash.

In the middle of town is a pizza place with rooms in the back, more than good enough. While getting our room the resident pizza shop cat follows us in, jumps on our bed and tries to hang out. Come here you… Ohhhh… I can’t be mad. But seriously, scram, after some hugs, I’m allergic. Now I can’t breathe and my neck itches. Time for pizza and wine and a run to the grocery store for a pack of smokes. We’re taken aback when we’re told we can’t smoke at our table, isn’t this Central America? Spanglishing with a super cute Argentinian waitress, the cat jumps back in my lap while I’m eating – seriously? get outta here you – while all the local kids hang out on the sidewalk across the road, showing up helmetless in a procession of 150/250cc dirt bikes. We smash back a decent amount of wine and call it an early one.

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