A Tale of Two Border Crossings: Part 2
In order to fully appreciate this blog post, you really need to read the first post I wrote about our trip to renew Costa Rican tourist visas in Panama. That truly was a nightmarish trip if there ever was one. So, to say that I had LOADS of apprehensions about doing ANOTHER "border run" just 30 days later would be an understatement.
As our 30 day visas rapidly approached expiration, we honestly initially weren't planning to renew them. Taking 7 people on a very long journey to renew visas and spend 72 hours in another country isn't cheap. And to think we could turn around an only get another 30 days made me sick to my stomach. But with extended family members questions about when we were going to make the trip, where we were going, etc., we felt the pressure to stay legal and head for a border. However, there was NO way we could have gotten the children "on board" with another trip to Panama. The misery was still too fresh in their minds, and mine, too, to be quite honest.
So with less than a week before our visas were up, we found a neat, affordable rental on vrbo.com in Granada, Nicaragua and got bus tickets for a Thanksgiving day trip on TransNica bus lines. The funny thing about buying bus tickets here is that you HAVE to buy them in person. No online purchases or paying by phone. Nope. They want to see you and your cash at their ticket window. The Pilot and our oldest daughter took on that challenge. I wasn't up for trying to figure out where the bus stations were in San Jose. Not my cup of tea.
So SUPER early on Thanksgiving day (I think we left the house around 5:30am…much too early for my taste), we left our home for what would be a 13 hour travel day. I was so nervous. I had all these visions of everything possible going wrong, but thankfully, everything went very smoothly.
We passed through the border with no issues. TransNica does a fantastic job of handling the whole process. They have everyone fill out all the paperwork on the bus beforehand and then collect all the passports and hit the border offices for the passengers. All we had to do was get off the bus, let them look through our luggage (but they didn't go through ours because all we took were our backpacks) and wait for the signal to get back on the bus.
The "frontera" of Costa Rica was much more run down and under construction than we'd imagined, but Nicaragua's was newer, had stores, and even an ice cream vendor selling treats. For about 50 cents each, we got some snacks to tie the kids over. One odd thing we saw at the border in Nicaragua were official money changers that walked around with HUGE handfuls of cash. And I mean HUGE, like 4 inches thick of bills from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the US. We didn't change any money on the way in because we thought it might be dangerous or a bad idea. NOT changing money ended up being a bad idea.
We arrived in Granada around sunset and then found out that the office for the rental we had arranged was closed. Nice. The nice folks at the office next door called the agent for us and gave us directions to the rental so we could drive there. When we arrived, it wasn't the agent, but the cleaning lady that let us in, explained everything to us and gave us the keys. Oh, and this was after having major ATM issues at several banks trying to get enough cash out to pay for a taxi and some groceries so we could eat dinner and breakfast the next day.
That night, in the dark, in Nicaragua, we all walked several block to a nearby grocery store to stock up on bottled water, cereal, milk, snacks, napkins and something for dinner and possibly lunch the next day. It was a bit nerve wracking being in this new country that we'd heard so much bad stuff about, but we survived. And we even bought some tamales from a lady selling them on the street, cooking them over a live fire in a gigantic pot. We got 4 huge ones for under $5…and they were GOOD…and nobody got sick. :o)
Overall, our impressions of Granada were that it is a beautiful old city, albeit a bit dirty from dust & trash on the roads, very friendly people, aggressive vendors, and hot. Very hot. We were thankful that our rental had a/c in the bedrooms and a pool that was cold enough to actually be a bit painful to enter. (The kids, except our oldest and youngest, all got in to swim. I couldn't get in past my thighs and the Pilot had to jump in and didn't last long!)
While in this historic city, we toured several old churches, walked through a private, paid park that had some nice playgrounds, but the most horrible swarms of bugs we've ever had the misfortune to walk through, had some delicious and cheap food from a local "soda" or quick service restaurant, took part in a movie put together by local college students, took a horse drawn carriage tour of the city and more. If you check out the video below, you'll see some amazing views we got when we climbed the bell tower of the city's oldest church, La Iglesia de Merced, as well as the ultra modern windmills we passed just north of the border.
We all were pleasantly surprised by Granada. There were lots of foreigners, or extranjeros, and the food was significantly cheaper than in Costa Rica. So much so that I was actually a bit miffed about how much more food costs are in Costa Rica. (I plan to do a blog post soon on what things cost in Costa Rica.) For 2 trips to the grocery store to buy breakfast for 3 days, lunch for 1 day and dinner for 2 days, as well as laundry detergent, paper products, snacks and at least 2 gallons of water cost us around $31 US dollars. Astounding. Those same groceries at the SAME grocery store chain in Costa Rica would have cost at least $50, if not $60+.
But I had to be reminded that I did not feel as safe in Granada as I do in Costa Rica. So safety does have a price and it shows up in my grocery bill.
When it was time to head back to Costa Rica, we had a bit of a scare with our littlest princess. The night before we left, she had hopped out of the pool to "warm up" by running around in her air conditioned bedroom and slipped and fell hard on the tile floor. Being the overly paranoid mom that I am, I was very concerned about a concussion because she had a BIG bump, got very sleepy and then acted a bit disoriented and began vomiting.
Yes, I'm sure you may be thinking that we should have taken her to the nearest hospital (that was probably over an hour away by taxi), but Nicaragua isn't exactly known for its high quality and sterile medical care. I didn't want to show up for a possible concussion and brain bleed (yes, I thought she may have a brain bleed…she fell REALLY hard) and end up with her getting some weird tropical infection from a dirty IV. I shared a bed with her that night, got very little sleep, and by morning, she was acting more normal. I didn't want to take any chances, so my husband cut a large hole in an empty gallon water bottle and it turned into our "barf bucket" and it came with us on the bus. Rather, it came in handy on the bus…our little guy got sick, too, which was somewhat of a relief because it meant that whatever caused the vomiting in our daughter was viral, not from a brain bleed. Shew!
Our return bus trip was equally as uneventful as the trip to Nicaragua. No issues at all with our entry stamp into Costa Rica. We didn't even have a date put on it! I was so relieved to have those stamps and be back on a bus. We arrived home, safe and sound, after another long day of travels, but having enjoyed our short trip to Nicaragua. This trip, more than any others so far, has proven that travel DOES remove prejudices we had about another country. We got a small taste of the real Nicaragua (at the grocery store and eating at non-touristy spots) and are thankful for the opportunity to experience the lovely people of a once tumultuous nation.