Costa Rican/Nicaraguan Border Towns
Los Chiles, Alajuela, Costa Rica
My friends Theresa and Randy, whom I traveled extensively with when we all worked at US Airways together, visited for a few days this week. I love spending time with them because they share my interest (actually, my obsession) with visiting new places, usually off the beaten track. And, this week was definitely off the main road.
We decided to head north and make our way into Nicaragua as none of us had been there before. Now, we are not talking about visiting the beautiful old colonial town of Granada or the capital, Managua. We’re talking about visiting the area where the Contras supplied arms during the war in Nicaragua in the 1980s – we’re talking Ollie North.
So, we hopped into my trusty (or later to find out, not so trusty Izusu Trooper) and headed for the border. Destination: Los Chiles on Costa Rican side. It was actually a pleasant drive up. We stopped in the town of Zarcero on the way. Zarcero is set in the hills north and east of San Ramon and has a lovely town square with shrubs made into various animals. It takes a lot of work to get the shrubs to look like bears and other animals. Though we wondered a bit about the some of the animals being intertwined as we couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to be doing; we had an idea which I won’t print here!
Heading north out of Zarcero, the highway got remarkably good all the way to Los Chiles. The land was flat and there were no potholes or even many cars. We wondered why the road up ,there which I don’t believe is a well-traveled tourist road, was in such good condition. Perhaps it just stayed in good shape due to a lack of use? Perhaps there is a good deal of inter-country commerce and they need the road to be good? Maybe it could be that money poured into the region from overseas development funds? Perhaps there are other nefarious reasons for the road being so good? Whatever the reason, it was the most pleasant drive I’ve taken so far in Costa Rica.
Before hitting the border town of Los Chiles, we stopped at Cano Negro National Park as we thought we could get a boat from there into Nicaragua. That was our intention: leave the car in Costa Rica and take a boat up the Rio Frio into Nicaragua that dumps into the very large Lake Nicaragua, before hitting the first town on the Nicaraguan side (mainly because there was not an open road crossing this area).
On the way up, car problem number one occurred as I discovered I need to press the brake all the way to the floor to get the car to stop. Luckily, we found a mechanic in Quesada. He flushed the fluid, patched a leak (or something like that) and we were back on our way in an hour.
We quickly learned from a local hotelier that getting the boat from Cano Negro was not possible that we would need to head the 26 km up to Los Chiles. For a border town, Los Chiles was decent enough. It had a nice “downtown,” some decent looking restaurants and some shops. However, our stay in town was short-lived as we headed straight for the boats heading to Nicaragua. Our timing was great as we arrived at the docks around 2:30 and the next boat was leaving at 3:30 p.m.. There were two problems though. First, and most importantly, I’d have to leave my car on the street there and as the local guide/money exchange person told me, “Don’t worry. Park across from the police station and it should be okay.” The second problem was that there was no boat back into Costa Rica from Nicaragua the same day. In other words, we’d have to “overnight it” in Nicaragua. We wondered about that. It was not a long boat ride (1.5 hrs). Perhaps the boats were not allowed to travel at night or the immigration offices on either side closed before dark? Or, and this is a stretch, the authorities were trying to promote tourism in the area, propping up the local hotel industry? So, with no information about the border town on the other side, we winged it. Heck, we’ve driven on dirt roads and through tunnels made of hard dirt in the middle of Bosnia in the dead of night and we’ve careened down mountain sides in Greece near a military installation we were not supposed to be at, so this was fairly mild by comparison.
The boat ride up the Rio Frio was pleasant and uneventful. We saw monkeys and sloths and various colorful birds – none of which I was quick enough to get pictures of. However, all things being equal, it was a nice experience we shared with mostly locals.
On the way up the river we saw very prominent signs welcoming us to Nicaragua – about halfway up the river I suspect – though we also noticed on the river banks at the border quite a few “border police” with paramilitary outfits and sub machine guns. Perhaps it is a throw back to the 1980s. They actually waved to us, so I assume they were not about to shoot and kill if one of us jumped overboard and started swimming for the shore (the water was pretty brown and who the heck knows was lived in it however!).
The Rio Frio spilled into the vast expanse of Lago Nicaragua with quite a few mountain ranges on the distant side of the lake. It is a huge lake though surprisingly I saw little boat traffic. After just a few minutes, the Nicaraguan border town of San Carlos was before us.
San Carlos was about what I expected even though I had thought little about it. A bunch of ramshackle, low-rise wood houses with cheap tin roofs and businesses catering to the fishing industry dotted the shoreline. We arrived at the dock which was also the immigration and customs area. As usual, we had to fill out forms, pay a fee and have our bags thoroughly checked (basically in a grubby alley between barely standing houses) before being allowed onto the main street where we were aggressively greeted by hawkers looking to unload Nicaraguan currency.
The little bit of research I’ve done on San Carlos after returning home suggests it is nicer than I think it is, and I’m sure Randy and Theresa would agree. However, I don’t think it is right to disparage anyone’s hometown mainly because I am sure people might think the neighborhood in Washington, DC that I lived in was not so nice.
Theresa summed it up in a good way: Los Chiles in Costa Rica represents poverty (very high end poverty though), San Carlos is squalor.
I think our dim view of San Carlos was partly due to the fact that by the time we arrived there it was getting dark, and dusk just isn’t very pleasant there. There wasn’t much lighting on the streets, it was damp and drizzling and yes, we often saw the shadows of people on street corners, others standing in doors coming in and out of alleys. The people seemed friendly enough however, though their meager existence certainly didn’t make for the same cheerfulness one finds throughout much of Costa Rica.
Our first and only order of business was to survive the night; therefore, finding suitable accommodations. I had suggested during the boat ride that I bet we’d find a “Hotel San Carlos,” and sure enough we did. From the looks of it from the outside, I was pretty confident they wouldn’t give me points on my “Starwood Preferred Card!” In fact, they wouldn’t be able to provide much of anything as we found out later.
An old lady met us at the front door of the hotel after we passed by three pretty young girls sitting on the ground near the entrance. In our broken Spanish we asked to see some rooms, figuring we could probably afford separate rooms here. The common area downstairs was dark but it looked decent enough; in fact at it had a nice veranda facing the lake with nice rocking chairs.
Apparently, the rooms were upstairs as the old lady went to fetch one of the young girls to take us upstairs. I could read her body language: “I’m not making the climb up those stairs. Let the kid do it!”
The stairs were dark and we stumbled up to the second floor minding the broken steps and the very low overhang near the top. It was nice though that the girl turned on the lights at the top of the stairs after we were at the landing upstairs!
The girl showed us three rooms and well, that was enough to convince us to stay somewhere else, even sleeping on the street if we had to! The rooms were filthy with dirt covering much of the walls, tattered rodent-infested sheets (from what I could tell) and had ceilings covered in mold. I think it would have been better to call the rooms “cells” and offer realistic prison tours!
So, we had to figure out a “Plan B” as this town did not have a plethora of hotels! We’ve learned from our many travels to find a taxi driver who knows the area and we did just that. Finally, after searching for what seemed like hours, we found a clean hotel in town on a quiet street.
San Carlos does have a long waterfront with a terrific view of Lago Nicaragua. However, to make it suitable for higher-end development, the town would definitely need to be “John Deer’ed” if you know what I mean!
There wasn’t much to do at all in San Carlos at night – at least from what we knew – and finding a suitable restaurant was a challenge. We finally found a small “hole in the wall place” to eat at and the food was okay. It was beans and rice and some kind of tired-looking carne. At least we didn’t get sick from it! From there, Randy and Theresa stayed up for a while and drank some the rum we bought en route to Los Chiles while I went to bed early. I think I got 12+ hours of sleep that night. At least I caught up on my sleep! The next morning, rather than finding breakfast options, we simply slept in and made a bee-line for the 10:30 a.m. departure back to modern civilization, I mean Costa Rica.
Car trouble again – this time it really was the transmission – I think….
Driving back from Los Chiles went well at first, except when less thoughtful heads prevailed (me and Theresa that is) and we decided to take some “scenic routes” heading south towards my house. First, we thought it would be easy to cut across highways through smaller roads rather than take the long way home. Good idea for a while and dirt roads we ended up on were packed hard and dry, however we took the wrong turn as often happens here given the lack of street signs, and ended up on a steep incline in mud. Stopped on a lonely road in the middle of nowhere we debated for quite a while as to whether to let the car roll down the muddy hill and hope for better road or try to back up the hill and get out of the quandary we were in. And, of course, we did not know if we’d get any traction in the mud backing up even though I had the 4×4 on. So, we sent Randy down the hill – in the rain of course – to inspect the next km of the road. He reported that the road got worse, not better, down the hill a bit and that we’d have to make it up the next hill from there. All the while I was getting no signal on my cell phone. There we were like sitting ducks in the rain with the only option being hope. Hoping the car could go in reverse up the hill and hoping it would get enough traction. Hoping I wouldn’t drive it in the ravine on either side of the narrow road. Hope that I’d have a hot shower somewhere, hopefully at home!
So I gave it a whirl, revving the engine trying to get it to move with Randy giving me directions from behind the car. Actually, Randy was jogging up the hill trying to stay out of my way! Fortunately, I caught a hard rocky area on the road and we made it up out of that swamp of mud and dirt.
The car survived for a while but I think the incident in the mud plus a few other dirt roads we found ourselves on that day put the car into intensive care when we all noticed the poor thing could not get into 3rd or 2nd gear heading up hills on the good roads. About an hour or so north of San Ramon we finally had to summon a mechanic and take a look. He couldn’t fix it there and thought the gear box was burnt out. So, the next day the poor thing was towed to my mechanic here and I anxiously await the car doctor’s prognosis! It could be a few days or weeks before he recovers fully, if at all. Yikes!!!
I should mention that we discovered the car problem right after we learned that a major bridge between Volcano Arenal and my house was out. Yes, there were no signs warning us, we just came upon the bridge. Apparently, several of the railroad-tie-looking boards across the bridge were damaged and someone put a huge pile of dirt in front of the bridge to stop traffic. As we approached the bridge, we watched bus riders get off their buses, walk across the bridge and get onto buses waiting for them on the other side. It was, of course, raining.
We studied the map after being told we’d have to drive all the back to Arenal, and then catch another high way east of this road, and head south again. It looked like there were one or two road that would cross over to the other highway south of Arenal but this time we weren’t taking any chances. We asked a local policeman about these two routes and wouldn’t you know it, both cross roads were washed out. Our only option was to head back to north to Arenal and then head south again!