by Michael Miller
Border-Run to Nicaragua
I just made a border-run to Nicaragua. In years past, that was a common occurrence. Not so much today.
If you are unfamiliar with the term “border-run,” here is a quick explanation. Many North American expats (from the U.S. and Canada) come to Costa Rica and spend all, or most the year here. If they are not official residents of Costa Rica, or in the process of becoming official, they are allowed to stay in the country for only 90 days. After their 90 days is up, they are required to leave Costa Rica. They can then return and receive another 90-day visa.
In years past (pre-covid), many U.S. and Canadian citizens would hop on a bus and make a quick trip to either Nicaragua or Panama. They would spend 3 days, then return to Costa Rica and get stamped back in for another 90 days.
One popular border-run destination was the city of Granada, Nicaragua, which lies 2 hours north of the border. I used to visit Granada at least once every year and I always enjoyed my time in that beautiful colonial city. It was inexpensive. It was safe. It had great restaurants. And as the oldest city in Central America, it has five centuries of history.
Last month (October, 2021), I decided to take my first border-run to Granada, Nicaragua in almost five years. I have since been peppered with questions about that trip. This article will try to answer some of those questions.
Here are two quick impressions:
First, Granada is still a charming, beautiful, and fascinating place to visit. It has much to offer. I highly recommend it.
Second, the journey (both going there and coming back) was a nightmare.
The hassles started before the journey began. We chose to travel on Tica Bus. We visited the Tica Bus station two days before our trip so that we could reserve our seats. It was a good thing we did, since there were very few seats left.
The round trip fare was about $60 (US dollars) per person, plus $8 per person for an exit tax to the government of Costa Rica. Next we had to get a covid test (the nose swab), and of course, the test results had to be negative. The covid tests cost another $60 per person.
The clerk at the bus station also gave us a form that we were required to fill out, then photograph, and then email to the government of Nicaragua. This had to be done before the travel day.
I should mention that I was traveling with the famous Costa Rican tour guide, Nury Mora. She is a native of San Jose. She is bi-lingual, has tremendous patience and is very savvy in dealing with the bureaucratic details of the many layers of government.
On the morning we were to leave, we got to the Tica Bus station at about 5:20. The bus was scheduled to leave at 6 a.m. It left the station at 6:18.
The bus was comfortable enough. It carried 60 passengers. It had air conditioning, seats that reclined (slightly), a bathroom, and movies that ran for the entire trip. The difficulty was that we were going to be sitting in that bus for hours and hours, the whole time wearing a face mask.
The bus followed Highway 1, which is part of the old Pan American Highway. During the long ride to the Nicaraguan border, the quality of Highway 1 varied dramatically. For a few miles near the city of Liberia, we sailed along on a modern four-lane divided highway. But most of Highway 1 is a two-lane country road. And sometimes not even that. There were several times when the bus came to a complete stop since only a single lane was passable.
We finally arrived at the border crossing at Peñas Blancas just after noon. Little did we know, we would be at the border for the next three hours.
The first stop was on the Costa Rican side of the border. We all got out of the bus and lined up outside a government building. They let us into the building one person at a time. The purpose of this stop was to get “stamped out” of Costa Rica.
My tour guide, Nury, told me that there is a popular joke among Ticos. It says that when you go into a government building, there are often 8 or 10 windows set up to handle people as they arrive. But there is always only 1 clerk at 1 window . . . no matter how many windows there is always only 1 clerk.
When it was my turn to go into the building, I saw that it was no joke. There were indeed 8 windows and there was only 1 clerk. What should have taken 10 minutes took us nearly an hour. And that would prove to be a model of efficiency compared to the Nicaraguan side of the border.
I will provide you a streamlined version of our experience with the Nicaraguan officials.
Our bus took us a few hundred yards to the Nicaraguan side, but we were not allowed out. We waited until Nicaraguan officials came aboard the bus to check our passports and our covid test results.
Then they let us out of the bus. We carried our bags and we stood in line at a window so that a different team of Nicaraguan officials could check our passports and our covid test results.
Next we were told to go inside the immigration building. A very unpleasant woman in a uniform stood at the door and demanded $2 per person before we were allowed to walk into the building. Once inside, we stood in line again. And again, a Nicaraguan official checked our passports and our covid test results. He then charged each of us another $14 as an entry tax.
Then we were directed to get in yet another line, this time to put our bags through a scanner. Here a Nicaraguan official checked our passports and our covid test results.
When that was completed they let us out of the building. We thought we were home free. No such luck.
We were required to stand outside the bus for nearly 30 minutes and wait for another Nicaraguan official. That person then checked our passports and our covid test results before letting us get back on the bus.
I'm not joking. That was the streamlined version.
* * * * * * * * * *
Our three days in Granada were just delightful.
We stayed three blocks from the central plaza at a very pleasant hotel with a pool which was big enough for swimming laps. Our room included a small kitchen. It was clean and comfortable and it included breakfast. The most noise we heard at night was the clop-clop-clop of horse-drawn wagons going by, and in the morning we were roused by the neighborhood roosters.
The center of Granada is dominated by its iconic yellow cathedral. The current cathedral is only about 100 years old. But it stands on a site that has had several other churches and cathedrals since the city was founded in the 1520's.
Nury and I enjoyed the days as we explored the nearby streets and alleys and plazas of downtown Granada. We found an open-air market area, a museum with exhibits of some of the city's history, and a nice art gallery. We discovered that the Selina chain of hostel/hotels now has a very impressive branch right on the central plaza. And we took a tour of the city on a horse-drawn carriage.
The highlight of our visit was a boat ride out to some of the nearby islands on Lake Nicaragua. This huge freshwater lake has tens of thousands of islands. There is a cluster of small islands about a mile to the south of Granada. Many of these islands are homesites for wealthy people from all over the world. It was great fun cruising between the islands and looking at the beautiful houses, some with swimming pools and tennis courts.
The captain of our boat made a special effort to stop at some swampy areas to find a variety of wild flowers for Nury. Some of the flowers were exceptionally beautiful.
During our time in Granada we saw many indications of how bad the economy was. On our boat ride on Lake Nicaragua we were the only passengers on the boat. At the central plaza the horse-drawn carriages wait for hours to get a single passenger. We saw nice hotels with signs out front saying that rooms were available for under $30 a night.
One evening we had dinner at a fine restaurant and we chatted with our waiter. He was a sharp looking young man, obviously quite intelligent. He told us that he had been unemployed for over a year, and now he was very happy because he had just found this job as a waiter. He told us that he was now making $120 . . . that was $120 per month!
After our three days in Granada, we began the arduous journey back to San José. It was just as frustrating and difficult as the trip to Granada. Including the unnecessary hours of nonsense at the border, the trip took over 12 hours, during which we were forced to wear a mask almost the entire time.
On the long ride back to San José I had more than enough time to think about Granada and about Nicaragua. The country is every bit as beautiful as Costa Rica. In addition to the charming, historic city of Granada, the country has excellent beaches, picturesque farming communities, pristine rainforests and the magnificent Lake Nicaragua.
Like every country in the world, Nicaragua has suffered because of the covid virus. The travel restrictions during 2020 and part of 2021 have shut down hotels, restaurants, tour companies and little businesses like the tour boats and the horse-drawn carriages.
Now people are starting to travel again. They are eager to visit and enjoy new places. And some of those travel related businesses are getting back on their feet again.
I do not want to comment about the political situation in Nicaragua. But judging from my experiences at the border, it seems that the government of Nicaragua is doing everything it can to make it difficult to visit that beautiful country.
It is my sincere wish that Nicaragua (and all countries) will soon eliminate the onerous requirement for a covid test. After all, only the labs are benefiting from that. Then they need to eliminate the layers of bureaucratic horse manure at the border that accomplishes absolutely nothing. They should check my passport once. Six times is ridiculous.
And it wouldn't hurt them to be a little more friendly. They should remember that we will be spending money in their hotels and restaurants. And our presence will help put thousands of their countrymen back to work.
Once they have determined that I am a good person, it would be nice to see the surly border guards smile and say, “Welcome to Nicaragua. I hope you enjoy my beautiful country.”
Michael Miller is the author of the renowned guide book of Downtown San José, Costa Rica titled The Real San José.
Mr. Miller is also the author of the exciting new novel Tribune Man. It's more than a novel. It's a portait of Oakland, California, a beautiful, fascinating, and often under-rated American city. Click here for more information: tinyurl.com/wefs2xe7