Taking a cab in Central America, the good the bad and the uglyThe good
Cabbies can be surprisingly honest. Often when I forgot to ask the price beforehand, they did not end up overcharging me. In San Jose, the only place in Central America where cab drivers use a meter, some used theirs without any argument and drove as far as I could tell straight to the destination.
I also met quite a lot awfully nice cab drivers, who ended up telling me their life stories, giving me advice about what to do in the places I was. I found this especially to be true in Panama City, maybe it was due to my Spanish improving to the point that I actually could have a conversation, though.
When I visited the Causeway in Panama City one cab driver that had driven me earlier that day waved at me merrily when he was passing in the opposite direction, which was nice.
Although some cabbies give a fair price overcharging is quite common, so it does make sense to ask a local before hand.
Another thing in Central America is that addresses are strange. Knowing a street name and the house number does not mean the cabbie will understand where you are going, street signs and signs in general are absent (if I ever have a lot of money I will donate it to Central American countries to put signs up) and addresses are referred to as "100m from that grocery store" or the like.
It does not help that the Lonely Planet sometimes finds it unnecessary to give the Spanish names of Tourist attractions or even streets and landmarks.
I had to convince one cabbie who tried to drive me to a place, but did not really know where it was to accept payment for the ride, as this was more LPs than his fault.
When my bike broke down in Ometepe and I was walking by myself in the dark the cabbie asked three times the normal price, clearly taking advantage of my situation.
In San Jose cabbies regularly tell their passengers that the hotel they want to go to does not exist or is closed down and even go so far as to drive you to the wrong address to then hassle you to a hotel they get commission from.
One cabbie did that with us and when we pointed out that we know it did exist he pretended to call someone and then drove us to the real place, saying there are to hotels with the name (BS!) and charged us extra for the "longer" drive.
UvitaThis is a small town on the pacific coast, right next to the "Parque Marina Ballena" and this is Ballena as in whale. I saw none though, I did not feel like going on another tour after Tortuguero and I have been on a whale watching tour before.
I went to the beach and snorkeled a bit instead. The beach was empty, apart from a few local families and snorkeling was nice, though I am spoiled from Utila, which was like snorkeling in an aquarium. Because of the rainy season there also was quite a bit of sand in the water.
The Pacific is a lot wilder than the Carribean and seeing a thundersorm gathering over the beach was quite a sight.
TortugueroFor the hardcore traveller Tortuguero might be too touristy.
Yes, the main economy in the town is to cater to travellers who come to see the turtles and row canoes through the rainforest to see wildlife. If you are looking for an isolated "unspoiled" from modern life jungle village you are in the wrong place.
Apart from the obvious drawbacks of romanticising poverty, criticising the tourist industry in Tortuguero is hard after passing hundreds of hectars of banana plantations (courtesy of Chiquita) and seeing the remnants of the old saw mill from the time the lumbar industry was the main industry in Tortuguero.
Additionally I met one of the guides on the bus, a very enthusiastic 26 year old, named Mauricio, who had grown up in Tortuguero and new everything about the history, the jungle, animals and combining it with his stories of growing up there and rambling in the jungle as soon as he could walk. Now I know that it is possible to make ants fight each other, but not the bull ant as it will sting you. And five of these can kill a toddler, so the sting will land you in hospital.
Anyway, seeing a local obviously enjoying showing a traveller his hometown made me feel more like a visitor and less like a tourist. Additionally, snubbing Tortuguero is really stupid, the place is awesome, we saw crocodiles launching on the river just from the boat to the village. To see smaller wildlife than crocodiles it does make sense to have a guide, though. Especially with iguanas finding them in a tree is a bit like "Where is Waldo?"
To see the turtles nest a guide is required, so that one does not disturb them too much. Man, it is hard to be a women when one happens to be a turtle.
One has to heave 10 kilo of oneself onto the beach, crawl around to find a good spot to nest while trying not to get eaten by jaguars, dig a hole with tiny flippers, lay about 90 eggs, which is so painful that one falls into a trance, meanwhile being poked by scientists, cover the eggs and dig another hole to fool predators, crawl back to the sea and look forward to having to do all of this again next year.
All the men have to do is 5 min of fun. Although this is a guess, I have no insight into turtle sex, how does that actually work with all the shell around them?
Bordersjust after I wrote about losing things, I lost something again. This time it was my wash-bag and at first I thought losing my toothbrush is not so wild. Then I remembered that this where I hid my spare credit card. Still, I thought I can notify the bank, not worth going back to Costa Rica for. I laid back on my bed, having retired early as I wanted to hike the volcano Baru the next day, just to sit up again.
My jewelry case was in that bag. And in that case the silver cross that used to belong to my mom. It was pretty much the only piece of jewelry she wore every day and there was no question that I would let it be lost, if I can go back to get it.
I crossed back into Costa Ricathe next day, and crossing the border I thought I could give a little insight about border crossing in Central America.
Going by foot over the border always follows the same system, one finds the immigration office of the country one comes from, gets an exit stamp, pays exit fees if applicable, crosses the border on foot, find the immigration on the other side and gets an entry stamp, again paying for tourist cards, or entry fees.
Having small dollar notes with you is handy, the money changers use a rate far from what is said on the net, but are often the only way to change currency from the country you are coming from(I was stuck with pesos all through Guatemala and finally changed then on the border to Honduras). Make sure you change after you have paid the exit fee...
Here are the borders I crossed.
Mexico to Guatemala over Rio Usumacinta
Mexico immigration is on one side of the river, Guatemala on the other. Get your passport stamped before going on the boat. As I described before the bus driver and border official extorted money from us. Slightly scary and frustrating.
Guatemala to Honduras in El Florido
Nothing special happened here, walkover border as described above. Fines were all the official fines, we got a receipt and everything. I think it was 2 dollar to leave and 3 to enter.
Honduras to Nicaragua at Las Manos
The border itself was the same as Guatemala to Honduras, nothing out of the ordinary. There was a 2 dollar exit fee from Honduras (if you go by plane this becomes 35!) and the tourist card to Nicaragua was staggering 10 dollars. I guess they need the money. We got a receipt, so it was legit.
I did meet the slowest border official in the world, instead of giving us the entrance forms to fill out (like at every other border) he filled them out himself, checking every entry three times. He even managed to stamp slowly. For some reason one does not get a stamp in the passport, but a bunch of papers.
The annoying thing about this border were the two British girls I crossed with. They complained about everything, having to wait, having to pay ("they should pay us for coming here" they said.).
When we got on the bus to Esteli I sat myself away from them, before I could say something rude.
Nicaragua to Costa Rica
This was the most stressful border, not because it is fuller than the others, but because everyone kept hassling me. As soon as I got out of the bus a tourist guide jumped on me, pulling me to the immigration, talking excitingly and pressing the exit form in my hand. Meanwhile money changers were waving wads of money at me.
After I got my exit stamp, I tipped the guide, hopeing to get rid of him, but he was replaced by a lady from the bus company, pulling me towards the bus. I was busy putting the money away I had exchanged, trying to follow her at the same time, missed a step and fell flat on my face.
Everything fell out of my hand, I was afraid for my passport for a second, but Nicaraguans are nice, everyone helped me up and was concerned I had hurt myself, passport and money all staying with me.
When I arrived at the bus I had to wait 15 min for it to leave.
On the Costa Rica side I had to buy a bus ticket back to Nicaragua to be allowed to enter, which I disgruntled me even more. The nice American lady sitting next to me on the bus told me to roll with it after all I was on holiday in a beautiful country and I can't change it anyway. I noticed I was turning into the English girls, which shut me up quickly.
Costa Rica to Panama
This is the border I will be crossing for the third time today, as just retrieved my wash-bag. And lucky it is. This border is fun, it is a free zone, which means it is riddled with malls, little shops and food stalls. The whole atmosphere has something of an amusement park, Costa Ricans and Panamians coming here to shop. And migration is quick and hassle free on both sides, border officials being used to people coming over for a day.
The ticket I had to buy in Costa Rica has been useful, to enter again into Costa Rica and also to enter into Panama, as I need a return ticket for that as well, and for some reason a ticket from San Jose (CR) to Managua (Nic) seems sufficient.
Costa Rica 10 daysLa Fortuna/Monteverde 4 days
Tortuguero 4 days
Uvita 2 days
Wildlife!Costa Rica seems to be all about animals. I might encounter Monkeys, Parrots, Turtles, Whales, Lizards, Manatees and lots more during the 10 days I will spend there. Here is the itinerary:
From La Fortuna to Monteverde or St Elena (Horeseback!)
La Fortuna is right next to an active volcano, which gives me the perfect excuse NOT to climb a mountain (unless I feel like dying). But I can hike around lava streams and bath in hot springs. Sound familiar? From La Fortuna it is possible to g by horseback to Monteverde a nature reserve with many independent hiking options and a butterfly garden.
From Monteverde I will find my way to San José, just to go on to Tortuguero, the Reserve next to it is also called a mini-amazon with the possibility to travel around by boat and see countless animals. See www.tortuguerovillage.com
Last I will stop at Uvita, especially if I have not seen turtles (i'm a bit out of season for the ones in Tortunguero) in the Parque Natinal Marino Ballena I cannot only observe turtles, but also lizards and maybe even Humpback whales!