When we were putting together our initial itinerary, we knew that we wanted to start of with something easy – something that was different enough from what we usually do that it was interesting but would allow us to get our travel-legs underneath us without freaking out too much. We decided on Costa Rica as a good place to start. We would be able to see lots of “different things” and get from place to place easily. Realistically, it is a vacation rather than travel – exactly what we wanted based on the level of stress we have each carried over the past few year.
We began with a week of kiteboarding lessons in the very north of Costa Rica, just 25 km south of the Nicaraguan border. We rented a little house on the Bahia Salinas bay and took kiteboarding lessons every day that the wind was strong enough to fly a kite. Unfortunately, that was not very often! While the wind is usually quite consistent in this location, the week we were there, it only really blew a couple days so neither Colburn nor I were able to get up on a board. Disappointing, yes, but there was plenty of relaxing and adventuring for us to do in the area, so it was a wonderfully slow introduction to travel. The area we were in is quite rural and exploring the back roads and national parks proved to be great fun. Mac has a keen eye for wild life so we quickly realized that when he said, “Stop, I see something!” we really should stop and see it. If you’ve read the kid’s blogs, you have been keeping up on our wildlife tally – the diversity is quite impressive actually.
Leaving Bahia Salinas, we had to make our way by public transport to the Nicaraguan border. It was the first real test of our travel mettle. First we had to take a public bus to the border and negotiate leaving Costa Rica in Spanish. Because we had not been on the main tourist trail, I had dusted off my high school Spanish and felt comfortable with this part – it was relatively easy.
Once “out” of Costa Rica, we had to walk a kilometer or two across no-man’s-land with our bags under the blazing equatorial sun in order to enter Nicaragua. This part was not so easy. Between the sun, the humidity, carrying our bags and the chaos of Central American border crossings, I was pretty much a wreck. As we were standing in a mass of humanity ready to enter Nicaragua, Lucia commented that she had never seen me sweat so much and I have to agree, I don’t know that I have ever been that sweaty before. Part of the sweat definitely came from nerves. As the only one in our family with any Spanish skills, I was the chief translator and person to figure out where we had to go and what forms needed to be filled out. If you have never done a border crossing by land, it is something that has to be experienced to be understood…at least in Central America. The buildings are not marked, there are no signs pointing the way or providing instructions (i.e. fill out this form), and it is dusty and hot. Unlike entering by air, there is no control over who is between you and the immigration official. There are swarms young men with official looking identification offering to help you get to the front of the line and telling you want to do for a “small fee”. Our passports had to be checked by at least five different officials at various points along the way. There are money changers and bus touts and old ladies selling food. There are dogs with pleading eyes, lines of tractor trailers getting sprayed with disinfectant, work crews building a new road and European 20-something backpackers with dreads and baggy pants looking equally confused. Interestingly, unlike entering Costa Rica by air, we did not see one other white family in the whole crossing process. We felt like intrepid travelers. Once we cleared Nicaraguan immigration, the stress was over as we were being picked up by a shuttle driver to take us to our destination in an air conditioned van.
The focus of our time in Nicaragua was learning Spanish and taking surfing lessons. We signed up for two hours of immersion Spanish each day and all made progress with our language skills. Eventually were able to have an introductory surfing lesson and all of us were able to stand (briefly) by the end of the lesson. Despite the threat of sting rays and sea urchins, we all had a blast and want to make an effort to get more lessons when we go back to Costa Rica. Kiteboarding lessons were fun, but at our age, learning a new “extreme sport” may not be the best idea. If we had gone through the learning curve 10 or 15 years ago, it would probably have been great, but we didn’t, so it is probably not something we will develop a passion for at this point. Surfing, however, was an absolute hoot, does not involve nearly as much gear and does not pose a substantial threat to personal safety. It was definitely something we can all see doing together. The beaches of Nicaragua are phenomenal and the whole place was an adventure. We wrapped up our time in Nicaragua in the city of Granada, one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Central America. Granada itself is beautiful with wonderful food and churches and deserves a longer look. Unfortunately we did not have much time, but it did whet our appetite for a return visit at some point.
After completing the same border crossing process in reverse (much easier the second time when you know which buildings are which and what you need to do at each), we’re back in Costa Rica now and up high (about 4500 feet) in the cloud forest at Monteverde. We have a little tree house just a couple kilometers from the biggest reserve and have had a blast. Monteverde is known for canopy tours, wildlife, and waterfalls. We have been busy every day doing something adventurous (ziplining, wildlife hike, coffee/cane sugar/chocolate production tour, etc.) and getting some school work done. We are definitely settling in to the process of travel and getting our “travel legs”.
One question we are often asked is which country do we prefer – Costa Rica or Nicaragua? Honestly, Costa Rica is a lovely vacation destination, but not much of an adventure. It is fun, but rather bland. You can find pancakes, hamburgers, and chicken tenders on every menu. Nicaragua is definitely an adventure, but is still an easy adventure. While it has a substantial tourist infrastructure, Nicaragua has not sold out to American tastes yet and retains a bit of character.
Although the areas we have been to in both areas are culturally similar, the differences are still striking. Everything that Costa Rica is, Nicaragua is not. Everything that Nicaragua is, Costa Rica is not. I am very glad to have experienced both. Costa Rica is very orderly (people follow traffic signals), safety conscious (everyone wears seat belts and helmets), and the dogs are fat. In Nicaragua, we didn’t see anyone using a helmet or seat belts (we had to jerry rig our Jeep so that we would not become projectiles), a bit chaotic (cars parked willy-nilly on the street) , and the dogs were very skinny. Nicaragua was genuinely welcoming and English was the exception. In Costa Rica, people seem to be nice to you because it is part of their livelihood and English is relatively common. Nicaragua was an adventure, a bit wild, and Costa Rica is very interesting but well-trod. In Costa Rica, someone comes to your house/hotel in a spotlessly clean van to pick you up, in Nicaragua you have to make your own way to where you want to go. Costa Rica relies on international volunteers to protect turtle nesting sites while in Nicaragua the same types of sites are patrolled by the National Army (complete with automatic weapons). Nicaragua is very poor while Costa Rica is quite wealthy by comparison. Nicaragua has a developing government where Costa Rica has a relatively stable and competent governmental system. For being so close together, they are very different. Now that we have our travel legs, if I had to choose only one location, I would say that Nicaragua is more interesting.