Puntarenas to Nicaragua

US$1 = 200 Colones

At 7am I hopped on an empty bus across from Puntarenas’s main terminal where the now dormant, but once thriving railroad, terminates at the waterfront. Gradually the old bus filled to standing room only, & then thinned out again with an ongoing musical chairs routine. This went on for three hours as the bus continued its northward journey to

Across the street from the bus stop was Liberra’s market place which was one of the cleanest ones I have encountered. Had a great meal there – Pino chleta (pork chops), rice, beans, tortillas & pineapple juices for 350 Colones…no tipping in Costa Rica. Had a choice of many different stands to choose from & a table type restaurant as
well. Liked this market place. The bus stop also had a variety of sodas to choose from..nowhere was there a beer to be had, however…no drunks lying about.

The bus for the frontera – Santa Cruz, arrived minutes before its scheduled departure time that was listed on the wall of the bus stop…fought my way on board this 11am bus..all ages of men, women & children pushing & pulling. I was lucky…or nervy enough…to
nab a seat on this much larger & modern bus than the one from Puntarenas. It thinned out fairly quickly after it departed on time.

About an hour later & half full we made a stop at La Cruz. An equal
number of passengers got on & off for our final leg to the boarder city of Penas Blancos & we arrived there 30 minutes later at 12:40.

The following is how my customs & immigrations procedure went:
Costa Rica…Line 3 – 4 deep for passport check & stamp…agent then threw passport to the man in the next window who gave me 25 change for my 100 Colones bill….no smiles but very expedient.

Walked 400 meters to Nicaraguan border after changing $50 US into 740 Cordobas…much better exchange for my $50 bill than for Colones or American Express which I also carried along with me on this 2 week trip.

Agent at border looked at my passport, gave them back & then told me to wait on the other side of the street for the bus. Bus shows up 30 minutes later at 1:45…fills up 3/4 full & starts the 5 kilometer trip to the immigration offices, but we were stopped a few minutes down the road where 2 immigration officers boarded & each checked my passport very quickly before we again moved on.

I had a seat in the front of the bus so I was one of the first to make it over to the building on the left side of the bus. The first cage to the left asked for 5 Cordobas & gave me a slip.

Next, I went into a small office off to the side of the cage & paid $7 US (they take dollars only)….signed a slip of paper & received 2 more pieces of paper in return. Met a German guy here once before passing through this entry point with me & he was charged $42 US. He complained good naturedly about how I should be charged the
larger amount because my country was the one that bombed them; furnished arms & otherwise encouraged guerrilla activity. Found out later in my readings that Granada has the dubious distinction of being the first city civilian population that was bombed by an air force.

Left the office & filled out one of the forms that I was given there….Name, Passport # etc…I then handed it in at the next counter along with a few other pieces of paper that I had
accumulated thus far in the process. I was given 3 pieces of paper
back…one stamped along with my stamped passport.


Now in an outside line, waiting to get into a building where they are
checking baggage…change another $50 to Cordobas at 7.50 per dollar.


Had a cursory check of my luggage and got a signed slip…Another cursory check of passport & baggage slip from last stop. I’ve never kept strict track of time at this border before, but this hour & fifty minutes is about as good as I could manage…waiting for
transportation was about 45 minutes of this crossing though.

Joined up with a couple of other gringos in a taxi going to San Juan del Sur. Drove for about 15km up the Pan Am highway… west at sign by a little pueblo…& then another 25km to San Juan del Sur.

Arrived 3:10 in San Juan del Sur…Got a room at the Casa International Joxi for 100 Cordabas. Clean room with a double & single bed, a small but efficient bath with complimentary toiletries. The bath had a bucket for water & a scooper for the wash basin should the water fail. The owner is a Norwegian who speaks English.

There are other hotels some as low as 22 Cordabas a night with communal baths & one I found with a private bath for 30. Ate at one of the water front restaurants…most expensive place in town…3 lobster tarts, rice, salad, french fries & a
couple of beers for 80 Cordobas. There’s a lot of less expensive places to eat especially at the central market.

San Juan del Sur’s main business is the port…with workers lining up daily for work as stevedores. The harbor is serene with small cargo ships, & fishing boats at anchor. The surf is small & inviting…as I brought my fins I did a little bit of body surfing but it wasn’t
very good….needed a board. Of course there’s the ponga fishing fleet which utilizes primarily the drift net.

San Juan del Sur is also one of the three most popular 3 day passport
clearing border destinations for non-resident gringos living in Costa Rica…the other two being David & Bocas de Toro in Panama…the latter is my favorite. To cross into Panama here from Costa Rica, one has to walk across a long train tressel over the river that
divides the two nations. Under normal conditions, Costa Rica only issues a 90 day visa & then one must exit the country for 72 hours thus “clearing” the passport before returning.

Took a rickety old bus whose average speed of 20mph was made possible by some down hills into Rivas. Rivas was muddy from the previous night’s rain & looked even more uninviting than normal. Had a couple of beers at the market place & watched the people who were very courteous. Then I caught a cab for the 4km ride to San
Jorge & bought a ferry boat ticket to Ometepe for 15 Cordobas.

The Santa Martha was a piece of art & I loved our 1 hour journey to the city of Moyogalpa with its population of 10,000. She was 40 foot long with a 13 foot beam. The pilot on the bridge signaled the engineer down below with a bell to go forward & a couple to go back…or something like that. It sounded like I was on a cable
car in San Francisco.

Got a room for 50 Cordorbas at the Hotel Ometepe. It was a clean end unit giving it an extra window & had a private bath. During one night the main water main for the whole city broke & lots of people were out bathing in the lake the next morning. I ate a dinner here one night & it was pretty good.

Met a guy whose name I think was Cipriano…#046-94105. He owns a few boats & operates a fish charter business. Told me that it was possible to make it to the Atlantic via the San Juan River & then down the Caribbean to Limon, Costa Rica…Take boat to San Carlos at 5pm from Altagracia on the other side of the island to San Carlos. Catch
boat in the morning to Castillo & ask about for a boat to the african palm oil plantation in Bocas Sabalos. Ask about there for a boat to San Raphael on the Atlantic & from there I should be able to get a boat to Lemon.

Took a rickety old bus…except for long distance ones that’s all there is in Nicaragua…to Altagracia. There’s a couple of places to stay in here…they’re both within a couple of blocks of each other. One has private baths but the other, which is called the Hotel
Castillo, has a nice restaurant & a some better conversation…including some with the proprietor Ramon Castillo.

Ramon arranged for a guide to take a few of us up the volcano Madera. 80 Cordabas for the 6 of us…great all day hike…got muddy & had to do some semi-serious repelling…lake along the way…will do again. This is a laid back island…with two volcanoes dividing it in two…Found it fascinating & will return…maybe with the motor home as it has some great private places along the fresh water shore to camp.

The dock to catch the ferry, “Gustavo Orosco,” is about a 35 minute walk from town…& was scheduled to leave at 7:30…but it was 40 minutes behind schedule after loading 30 plus 3 foot diameter baskets of various vegetables aboard. Lots & lots of laborers performing the chores.

I found a limited space to lie down on the deck…a covered spot on top & managed to get only a couple hours of sleep before the rain came. The whole deck became drenched whether covered or not & I had to seek shelter inside which was already crowded. It was a miserable night as I had no room to stretch out, the food they were serving
looked terrible & they had no beer. Times like this are no fun.

Arrived in Castillo after 3 in the morning & tied up to Gustavo Orosco’s sister ship “Hilario Sanchez”. I walked through the muddy & deserted streets looking for a hotel when a policeman blew a whistle & scared the shit out of me. I walked slowly & unchallengingly toward him & was rewarded for my cautiousness as he never raised the
automatic weapon he was holding. When I informed him of my intention to rent a room he guided me to a hotel, knocked on the door & departed before the proprietor answered. The proprietor informed me that he was full but suggested 2 other hotels around the block. He smiled & said no problem when I apologised for waking him.

Got strike two & a repeat performance at the next hotel & with increased despair walked over to hotel number 3. I had to rap on the door a half a dozen different times over a 5 minute period before a lady called out to me. After she acknowledged the fact that I
wanted a room it took a few more minutes before she opened the door. To say that the room that she showed me was spartan would be most generous, but it was raining & I was tired & miserable.

San Carlos is a pretty miserable little town…made especially so during my time there that was mostly rainy. People were friendly enough but I could see a lot of despair in their eyes. Changed $100 at a 7.40 per 1 rate.

Left San Carlos on a barge that departed at 8 in the morning for a 30
Cordobas fare. Before boarding I picked up 10 small loaves of bread for 5 Cordobas, 2 1/2 more got me a bunch of bananas & 11 more for a couple of cokes. Found my boat pretty full when I boarded at 7 that morning. They then added a third boat to our flotilla & people made a
dash to fill the void. I have a seat on the pilot boat at the rear where the toilet is located…a place for privacy that hangs off the aft. It’s a place to watch your step also as the rudder hardware, which is controlled from the pilot house way of front, is exposed
here & can operate at any time. The extra barge then disengaged & pulled out leaving us again a pilot boat with an attached motorless barge of about the same size attached to our bow.

The river ride is great..usually about 300 yards wide but sometimes it narrows considerably along the way. There’s the occasional splash as some critter tries to eat another critter. See the occasional village & sometimes a fairly nice home dotting on shore or the other. San Pedro lodge on the South side was about an hour out from San Carlos.

The barge stops along the way to let a few people at a time get off in
pursuit of an illegal entry into Costa Rica. The river at San Carlos is a few kilometers inside of Nicaraguan territory & gradually narrows that gap until it becomes the boundary line between it & Costa Rica a few kilometers east of Castillo. I’m told that the more miles the
potential illegal immigrants chose to go overland increases their chances of success. That theory seems to hold out as the women with children stay on the barges longer & therefore cut down on the amount of terrain to cover by foot.

My heart goes out to those I spy with babies in diapers but I joined in the cheers as a recently married young couple hopped off together in their bid to start a new life in Costa Rica…everybody cheered them on. Was told that they had about a 5 kilometer walk to some other mode of transportation that hopefully
will take them to a $8 a day job. The Costa Rican banana industry uses a lot of Nicaraguan labor & it’s not uncommon for domestic buses to be stopped along migrant routes for paper inspections…ala San Onofre in northern San Diego County.

I moved out onto the barge in front & make a makeshift bed among the sacks of produce. The river is smooth & doesn’t appear to be moving. It has a murky brown color to it & is hardly inviting for a swim even if the reptiles weren’t enough to scare a person off. Every now & then I see a small dugout with a person or two in it that I suppose are fishing…but it’s hard to see what or how they are going about it as they are semi hidden in amongst the thick foliage that does a ample job of shielding the shore from view.

Made it to Bocas de Sabalos by 1 that afternoon. Had a lot of people getting on & off as a major sawmill operates here. Had a lot of activity the 10 minutes we were there but I had a chance to jump off & get a soft drink…but no time to check on catching a ride to
the Atlantic. We dropped off the barge & I was lucky to get a seat on the now full self propelled one. I ate some fruit that they were selling out of baskets on the barge. It was also available from some enterprising entrepreneurs who boarded the boat while enroute
rowing their dugouts deftly along side.

The water turned a little bit shallow just south of Bocas Sabalos about 30 minutes…about 1:45. We then started dropping off some of the passengers…a bunch of them at one time as we took a side tributary to do so…these people were all on their way to illegal jobs in Costa Rica…shades of San Diego/Tijuana. We were down to less than 20 now as we passed the barge that left early from San Carlos & was now returning there from Castillo. The time was now 2:15.

Arrived before 3 in Castillo & got a room at the Albergue El Castillo. This is a beautiful place with about 10 rooms that have a commanding view of the river. It’s here that the river makes a couple of bends that give it a strategic military advantage; & thus the reason for the fort. It is also here where the rapids are the most difficult & the only place in the river where the ironclad steamboats in the employ of Vanderbilt Transit Company had to enlist the use of block & tackle in navigating it while transporting passengers during the California gold rush.

There’s another hotel in Castillo with a half a dozen rooms or so that has private baths & charges less than Albergue El Castillo for about 70 Cordobas a single & 100 for a double, but not of the former’s charm. It’s called Hotel Richardson & it also has a restaurant &
cold beers.

The only drawback to the Albergue is communal baths, but they are spotless & well lighted at night. The bar, an honor bar, is situated in the middle of a large two story high atrium where they also serve meals. I was happy to be able to get a large carafe of freshly brewed Nicaraguan coffee as this is difficult in this cash poor country that needs to export this precious resource & survive itself on instant. I had a room upstairs that overlooked the atrium on one side & then had a deck on the other that had a commanding view of the rapids below. Went to sleep to the river’s music every night.

I made a lot of acquaintances in my few days here…just walking around & people would invite me into their houses…some with great water side wooden decks to observe the rapids from. Also made friends with a couple of the barge pilots: Manuel Anguilar & Noel Acevedo Hernandez. Manuel had me to his home which was a couple of blocks up
from the river in this town of no vehicles. It was just a shack that housed his eager to please wife & 3 kids.

Got in a basketball game with the locals. I’m short & 50 years old but would be all village in this neighborhood. Lots of people of all ages watching us play on a riverside court with 9 foot hoops. Was lucky enough to put the other team’s big man in the popcorn machine the first time I got my hands on the ball & go around him for an easy
lay in on the low hoop. They all went crazy & my stock went way up. My counterpart got his pride back when I played some soccer with them on the same court later in the day…he embarrassed me a bunch in return.

Hired a guide in a ponga boat to a nature refuge one day…visited the fort that was built by the Spanish in 1675…5 Cordobas. It’s a pretty neat place & easy to understand why it was fought over so much as it controlled the entry to Lago Nicaragua & access to the city of
Granada. Met a rich Nicaraguan who fled the country when the Sandanistas took over & has just returned & living in Managua following their fall from power. He came in on a hover craft that can navigate the rapids with ease. He wasn’t staying here but at the San
Pancho Lodge with his family including his daughter who attends Florida State University where he had been living in exile.

On a launch with Manuel & Noel later I worked the boat with them & helped man a ponga boat as we transported people from barge to shore…then speed to catch up with the barge again. I felt like part of a family & they seemed to enjoy my company.

Back in San Carlos at 9:30am after a 5 hour plus ride from Castillo. Walked off the dock area & out the gate…hugged the waterfront for about a block & took a narrow walkway down to where about 3 boats of different sizes were waiting. Got my passport stamped through a little window, gave the guy $2…dollars only accepted from
gringos…a Canadian guy I joined here paid 15 Cordobas. I boarded a 30 foot outboard powered boat that took off at 10:30 with 25 people taking up the space on the 8 slates that crossed over the 6 foot beam.

Stopped at 11:00am at a military check point along the river that meandered through the jungle. A lady on the boat collected my passports along with the others…wrote my name on a sheet & took everything up to a check point. She returned a few minutes later with
our processed passports & collected the 15 Cordobas for the boat trip.

The next stop was at 11:45 in Los Chiles, CR. where I disembarked & had a half assed search of my bags there at the boat landing. I then walked about a quarter of a mile up the street to the immigration building. Officer there was fast & courteous…& there were no fees.

After a nice lunch & a couple of cold beers I caught a bus to Quesada where I arrived at 5:30. Another connection there had me in San Jose at 8:00 and an hour after that on one of the last buses to Puntarenas at 9. As the day changed into tomorrow I was already showered & sipping a beer outside my little apartment in Puntarenas…& dreaming about my next trip….

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