The restaurant at the Peñas Blancas border crossing was more of a shack than an actual building. The walls were cobbled together with scrap boards and the roof was corrugated sheet metal. Inside, there were plastic tables with plastic chairs, and a bar, backed by a glass shelf with a bottle of Flor de Cana rum and a cup-a-noodles on display. A whiteboard showed today’s meal (and probably everyday’s meal) was fried chicken with rice. In the back, there was a concrete pila (a type of well or reservoir-meets-sink, used for washing clothes, food, and dishes), where I used a small bucket to rinse the vomit from my legs and feet. I was far from being actually clean, but I felt much better, just having that sick old woman’s bile washed from my skin. I washed my hands and returned to the front of the restaurant, where Santiago was waiting with a lady friend who had come to meet him before he crossed the border.
He introduced her as his wife, but he had already told me that he had a wife in Esteli. It turns out Santiago was quite the ladies man. He later confided in me that he has 2 wives, and neither of them know about the other. Also, when he goes to Costa Rica for work, he often gets prostitutes.
“I used to have a drinking problem,” He told me in Spanish. “Ahora sólo tengo un problema con las chicas.” He said with a smile. Now, he only has a problem with women. He seemed to be very comfortable with this “problema“.
After our lunch with one of Santiago’s wives, we said goodbye to her, and made our way to the border. A young, rough-edged, Nicaraguan boy offered to help us cross. First he offered to sell us our boletos, our tickets to cross. This is a common hustle. Just like every other border in the world, there is a form to fill out where you need to write down your nationality, your reason for visiting, your passport number. These boys call those forms “tickets” and try to convince you that you have to buy the tickets in order to cross. Of course, the form is free, and most people know that. So their secondary hustle is to offer to guide you through the border.
In the case of Peñas Blancas, it was actually worthwhile to have a guide. It was a border without order. A sprawling, disorganized mess. It was an expansive dirt and gravel lot with a couple buildings and people milling around everywhere, most of them not even interested in crossing the border. It was a parking lot for semi trucks, a market, a cesspool of hawkers, hustlers, and money changers, and of course, an official, government-run, border crossing. For some reason, it was always under construction and the buildings had no signs, so you never knew which buildings were abandoned, and which ones you needed to enter to get your passport stamped. All of this chaos in the strange no-mans-land between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
I’d crossed this border a few times, and so had Santiago, so we knew the way and we certainly didn’t need a guide. But we promised the boy a couple of coins in exchange for the proper forms and a bit of conversation, while we waited in the lines. We filled out the forms while, paid our exit fees and entrance fees at the appropriate windows, and finally, I got my exit stamp out of Nicaragua, and my entrance stamp into Costa Rica.
That last stamp was a huge accomplishment. It meant 5 countries in 5 days. It meant countless sweaty, overcrowded Chicken Buses and countless hours of discomfort and some of the most difficult travel I’d ever done in my life. I half expected that last stamp to come with a high five, a round of applause, a pretty girl to walk me down the red carpet into Costa Rica. But there was no celebration. There was no high five and no pretty girl and there was no red carpet. Instead, the disinterested immigration official waved me through the doors and down a gravel path flanked by semi trucks, where I met back up with my Nicaraguan friend Santiago.
As we cleared immigration and went to board a bus towards Liberia, a Ticabus pulled up to the immigration checkpoint.
The Ticabus is the anti-Chicken Bus. They couldn’t be more different. It’s air conditioned and the seats recline. They never sell more tickets than there are seats, and they make very few stops between destinations. They show movies on board. It’s like an airplane. You can take the Ticabus from Guatemala City to San Salvador, then San Salvador to Managua, and then Managua to San Jose. It would take only 2 days, only 3 buses, and cost less than $100. The bus would be full of other gringo travelers, many of them who have never even been on a Chicken Bus. They’ll go home after spending a couple weeks bouncing from one tourist destination to the next, riding shuttles and Ticabuses, and they’ll see a lot of Central America, and experience a lot that this part of the world has to offer. But none of them will have been vomited on by an old lady, or contemplate adopting a Nicaraguan baby, or drink beers with a Guatemalan friend on his mom’s couch, or shared deep conversations with a lonely old man on the side of the road in Honduras, or any number of things that I had lived though on this journey.
I laughed at how different this experience had been from the typical gringo journey. How exhausting. And how rewarding.
I snapped a photo of the Ticabus, Santiago and I changed our Cordobas for Colones, the local currency, and boarded the bus for Liberia. He invited me to join him for drinks in the little town outside Liberia where he was opening his bakery. He told me there was a nice hotel there, and that it would be cheaper to stay here than in Liberia. I accepted his invitation and we got off the bus at the turnoff for Cañas Dulces.
It was a desolate junction. The road to Cañas Dulces met the Pan American Highway about 20 minutes north of Liberia, in a sea of barren farmland. We sat on our luggage in the fading sunlight on the edge of the road, waiting for a bus or a car to hitch a ride with. The bus eventually came, and a few miles down the road, I found myself in a very small village. There was no hotel here. He swore that he thought there was a hotel there, but it seemed like he really didn’t know much at all about this town at all. He did have a friend who he was staying with, and they were able to arrange for me to rent a room from one of his neighbors. It was sparse, but clean, and it was in a separate little building in their back yard. They asked for $20 for the night, and I paid $15.
I dropped my bags, and rejoined Santiago and his local friend so that we could go out for dinner and drinks. The only restaurant in town was a run down soda. In Costa Rica, the cafeteria style restaurant / diners are called sodas. This place had nothing but greasy empanadas and crispy tacos dorados for dinner. This was a very small town, and it certainly wasn’t used to having gringo tourists around.
After dinner, we walked though the quiet town to a dirt road with no street lights. Santiago assured me there was a bar just down the road, and I trusted him, so I followed. The road was more of a drainage ditch than a road, and a stream of mucky water ran down one side, with rivulets occasionally leading to muddy puddles that had to be dodged in the dark of night.
Eventually we came to the bar. Santiago ordered beers for me and his friend, and a Fresca for himself. We sat at the bar and chatted with the owner, who was a a large and friendly Tico in a too small shirt. He was very proud of his new smart phone and kept showing me clips of soccer goals on Youtube. There were only two other patrons in the bar. One was a crazed old man who actually wasn’t allowed to enter the bar and just hoovered around the entrance, shouting occasionally, in an attempt to be part of the conversation. The other was a prostitute who sat behind the bar, apparently off duty.
She was drinking a beer and she was very chatty. I spent most of the night talking with her, while the bartender continued to show the boys soccer goals on his smart phone. She was a black girl from the Dominican Republic. She had light skin, curves in all the right places, and a pretty face. She told me that she was looking for the right man to take care of her and share her life with. She didn’t mind her job, “Tengo la oportunidad de conocer muchos hombres.” She said with a sexy smile, I get to meet lots of men.
We had another beer together and shared some laughs. We barely broached the subject of prostitution, and most of the conversation was friendly, idle chit chat. Small talk. It was nice to get to know her as a person, fun and full of positivity, and not on the hustle every minute.
Santiago and I were tired from our travels, so after my second beer, we decided to head home. The town of Cañas Dulces was dark and silent. As I walked down the gravel road towards the house where I was staying, I could hear frogs croaking in the drainage ditch. The moon was half full, and hung high in the sky. A dog barked viciously from behind a fence. It was, and had been, a strange night.
I found the house, let myself into the backyard, and into my room. I hit the mattress hard, closed my eyes and fell almost instantly asleep.
Bienvenido a Costa Rica