Greetings from Costa Rica.
I’m writing to you from San Jose, which is the first place on our trip to completely surprise me. What I mean by that is that, on every trip, you have a few places that you enjoy far more than you expected to. Throughout our Panamanian travels, we’d heard people tell us to skip Costa Rica and head straight to Nicaragua. I understood the idea behind that—Costa Rica is more expensive than the rest of Central America (though still less expensive than the U.S., or most of Mexico for that matter), and travelers looking at a long journey with limited resources might find it easier to keep going. I’ve also realized, based on the little of the country that I’ve seen, that this might be a very difficult place to leave. Maybe that’s why people were telling us to move on.
But San Jose is even more of surprise, because the people who did spend time in Costa Rica almost universally moved on without giving it a second look. As a result, I sort of expected to be unimpressed when I arrived. I was too busy being sick when I arrived to be impressed (more on that in a minute), but I’ve been completely taken with the city since I’ve been well enough to walk around. San Jose, it turns out, is a damn fine town.
Corrinne and I woke up this morning and went straight to the Teatro Nacional, which houses a lovely little café serving excellent coffee and crepes. The atmosphere inside the place is very old Europe—heavy on the Parisian overtones, from the floor tile to the tables to the heavy curtains. You could almost believe you are in Paris, until you notice the bright tropical flowers on the counter, and the screen behind the bar showing images of waterfalls, jungle critters, and brightly painted birds.
Breakfast at the Café Teatro—Café con leche and a chocolate crepe with vanilla ice cream.
San Jose is a lively place, very cosmopolitan, but with enough old colonial structures to give keep the character going. There are mountains looming all around town, and the air is cool and fresh. Along Avenida Central, we encountered three men with guitars singing traditional Costa Rican songs, and waltzed in the middle of the street to one of their numbers. For breakfast and lunch, we hit the Mercado Central, a labyrinthine set of hallways and shops, with scattered food stands, that covers two solid blocks downtown.
The streets here are all small, and most of the buildings are, too. It lends to a sense of intimacy in the city that I find very appealing. We walked for over six hours, ducking in and out of curio shops, bookstores, and panaderias, before returning to the Café Teatro to fill out some postcards and sip another cup of coffee. When we went over to the post office to send them off, a small motorcycle gang was pulling up in front. These were the mailmen, driving their motorcycles back into the building after finishing their daily run around the city.
San Jose’s Central Post Office. Our postcards are sitting there now.
Today has been a surprise, and not just because we liked San Jose more than we expected to, but because we expected to be in Nicaragua today. We caught an early morning bus yesterday, hitting the David bus station before the oppressive heat started to come down. We rolled out of the city at 8:30, and found ourselves at the first border crossing of our voyage an hour later.
Customs line at the border.
There’s an order to things when it comes to border crossings in Central America, but what that order is varies from border to border. The first step here is to get off the bus and get your bag, lay it out in a line with everyone else’s bags, then wait for the drug dog to give it a couple sniffs. You then line up to get an exit stamp from Panama, along with a one-dollar stamp that someone sells you while you stand in line. This end of the process probably took twenty minutes.
After that, we stuck our bags back on the bus and walked five minutes to the customs building on the Costa Rican side of the line, stood in line for about fifteen minutes, and got our entry stamps. The bus pulled up with all of our bags, and we pulled them out for a quick search from the immigration officials, then set them back on the bus and waited for everyone else to get their bags on. Once that was done, we rolled out and started through the Costa Rican countryside. I was pretty impressed by the efficiency of the process. In all, we were through in about 45 minutes. I’m not sure what to expect at the next border, which is apparently a little more difficult. But we’ll see.
We were still in the early part of the day at this point, and I was feeling good. I didn’t realize that we were still nearly seven hours from San Jose, and as the bus ride dragged on, I could feel my energy beginning to wane. We stopped halfway up the coast for lunch, and I got myself a big bowl of beef stew, which I believe was the culprit for what happened next.
After dropping a few passengers in the surf town of Jaco, we turned up into the mountains that have made Costa Rica impossible to invade since it became a state. The cool air of San Jose was a nice relief after leaving David’s sweltering heat, and after docking at the bus station, we got ourselves to our hostel (which was full, but the owners were nice enough to see us to another hostel and give us a bigger room at the same rate).
And that’s when the food poisoning hit.
Ah yes, an inevitable part of travel, I suppose. But I spent the next few hours doubled over and moaning, occasionally sipping water loaded with rehydration salts so I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital with dehydration (this happened the last time I had food poisoning). After a few hours of this, I passed out and slept for ten hours, and woke up feeling like a million bucks.
I’m realizing now that the planned sections of our trip have left us feeling off, while the unplanned bits (San Jose, La Jungla de Panama) have been the highlights of the trip. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. We’ll see if I’m smart enough to learn it.
Off to Nicaragua tomorrow. Where in Nicaragua? I’m not sure yet. Maybe we should leave that unplanned. I’ll keep you posted.