Day 105: Upriver to Costa Rica

Overland miles: 4756 Tacocount: 73 Days without sodas: 8

After San Juan del Sur’s surfing (mis)adventures, we made our way to Isla Omepete, an island formed by two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Here, we decided to stick to doing things we knew how to do, and hired some rather rickety bicycles so we could explore the island properly. Four days later, feeling sufficiently saddle sore after pedalling our way to all corners of the island, it was time for us to catch the twice weekly overnight ferry from the port of Altagracia to a town called San Carlos.

Our trusty steeds

Our trusty steeds

San Carlos itself has very little going on, but as it’s conveniently situated on the banks of the Lake Nicaragua, the Rio San Juan, which leads into the Caribbean Sea, and the Rio Frio, which crosses the border into Costa Rica (our next port of call) it’s a useful stopping off point on the route south. For us, it was also a tactical move as we’d heard stories of eagle-eyed guards at the busier borders asking to see proof of onward travel (which we don’t have). As this border sees much less gringo traffic, it was a much safer bet. Furthermore, getting a boat sounded like a much more interesting experience, and certainly more fun than a long distance bus.

Altagracia's port, we were really glad we arrived early...

Altagracia’s port – we were really glad we arrived early…

As it was going to be a long journey, we decided to splash out £4 each on first class seats which were in the heavily air conditioned upper deck. Seats in the lower deck were just £2 each, which for a 10 hour journey probably makes it one of the best value boat trips in the world.

The overnight ferry rolls into town

The overnight ferry rolls into town

After a visit to the ship’s cafeteria for a meal of the ubiquitous gallo pinto (rice and beans) with slightly overcooked pork, we secured a bench each in our compartment and settled to watch some movies of dubious origin and terrible quality (clearly illegal copies of new releases despite being shown on a Government operated ferry), that were helpfully being screened at top volume.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep (inversely linked to the quality of the films being shown), we woke at 5.30am to a grey, misty dawn and our first views of San Carlos.

As our connecting boat wasn’t due till 10.30, we bought a couple of cups of sweet black coffee and waited dockside, watching the town wake up. Locals rise early over here to avoid the heat of the day and we saw people bringing in the night’s fishing catch and bundles of live chickens, tied together by their legs and casually stacked atop carts of bananas, presumably to be sold at the market.

After hearty breakfast in a local cafe, which Jove rated as one of his best in the country, it was finally time to go to the immigration office to sort out our paperwork and get on our second boat, which turned out to be a slightly more cramped affair. Our fellow passengers were mostly Costa Ricans (Ticos) and Nicaraguans (Nicas) and a few Americans from Alaska who were on a fishing holiday. We sat squashed together, dutifully wearing our life jackets (for once, health and safety rules were being adhered to) for an hour as our boat wound its way down the palm fringed river. We were rewarded with sights of herons and anhingas (a cormorant-like water bird) resting on the banks of the chocolate coloured water, and the eerie sounds of howler monkeys in the trees.

Thankfully, our calculated risk that we wouldn’t be asked to show a ticket out of Costa Rica paid off. On arrival in the hot, dry and dusty town of Los Chiles at high noon, we found that the computers in the immigration office were down. We were asked to surrender our passports and wait in the town for an hour before we could get them back. We found a cafe thankfuly serving cold, fresh lemonade, where we could work out the exchange rate on our unspent Nicaraguan cordobas and continue the waiting game. Finally, nineteen hours after we left Ometepe and just as a thunder storm was brewing, our passports were returned with the requisite stamps. We duly lugged ourselves and our possessions to the bus station to board a bus to Costa Rica’s capital city San Jose.

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