Central America is a place where everyone wears American seconds. You know those big metal boxes located in every American parking lot? People in Central America pay for those donated clothes. A shirt stretched across a man’s belly says “Pregnant AF.” Another wears one stating, “I’m not old, I’m a recycled teenager.” A red, glittery-lettered USA tee with a scoop neck was a favorite of our friend Negro’s, a father of four. I saw a guy sporting a Waterford Lancers Dance Team zip-up, black and pink, sparkling in the San Jose sun. In cities, women wear dark eyebrows and red lips and high heels, always three inches, or else they aren’t Tica. In the mountains, the uniform is high rubber boots, a matchete, and a ball cap. If you look closely, the woman below is wearing a Pokemon hat. One man’s Halloween costume is another Tico’s everyday cap.
It’s a place where families of four ride on one motorbike. Sometimes their dogs follow on the main road. New flatscreen TVs are sandwiched between the driver and passenger, the box carefully balanced on the narrow seat. For school drop-offs, moms perch their youngest in front and the oldest behind them, their heads awkwardly huge in their motorcross helmets.
It’s a place where you pay to use the bathroom. There’s never toilet paper. Flushing is a luxury. Hand dryers are a decoration. Handsoap? What handsoap? The shower head is a single pipe, the water, usually, cold.
It’s a place where wild dogs roam the streets. Cuts and patches of fur missing. Some look dead, bony and sad-eyed. Tico families own three to five dogs.
It’s a place where most people don’t own a car. Women load groceries onto the public bus or in taxis. Mothers carry their babies without the American standard of accessories: plastic carriers, diaper bags, strollers, or toys. All students pay their fare. Traveling across country requires three to four connections. In Nicaragua, “chicken buses” are the norm. Old American school buses are shipped over in masses and used as public transit. A trip from Rivas to Las Salinas means every seat has two to four people. The racks over head are stuffed with perspiring sacks. The aisle is full of standing passangers while vendors push through shouting and selling sodas, popcorn, q-tips, watches, and cellphones. As the driver packs more people in, men load sacks of rice and goods on top of the bus. Boys help, balancing 30-pound bags on their heads, climbing the rear ladder, while the rotating vendors exit the back hatch.
It’s a place where the people are kind. They compliment my terrible Spanish and always inquire where we live. They invite you into their homes and feed you well. No one speaks English, but the conversation seems to flow with the help of Google translate. Juego de cas or coffee is consumed in large quantities. And help is offered no matter the inconvenience. Negro was a special Tico. He worked on the farm with us, but became a good friend. One who helped me with my Spanish. I called him my maestro de Español. He educated us on the local coffee plants and showed us Santa Rosa’s waterfall. He helped us store our luggage when we decided to leave Costa Rica early and visit Panama and Nicaragua. A good friend.
Nicholas and I worked on a farm in Costa Rica for a month and a week, and it sucked. Don’t get me wrong, there was beauty. Maybe “sucked” is too strong…perhaps disappointing? I loved the Ticos we worked with; they were the best part. But there were no lush rows of green beans, carrots, or tomatoes. My idyllic dream of picking cucumbers by the mountainside was slashed by the harsh reality of machete work and monotonous labor of wrapping tinfoil around baby trees. We had the weekends to explore, but traveling by bus ate up most of our time. We both suppressed our feelings of discontent until it got bad. Nicholas contracted Leptospirosis on the farm and was hospitalized for six days. Six days in a third world hospital. This next part baffles me, when I told our host Nicholas was released, they messaged us to move on. I guess having a sick volunteer is too much trouble. We had decided to leave early anyway, but still, heartless. We packed our things and left. So while many may think, damn, that sounds like a big fat pile of fail, I think it was a learning experience. It wasn’t all bad. Meaningful moments punctuated the suckage. It’s okay if something doesn’t go right. Travel is not all coconuts and bikinis and raging hot influencers. Sometimes it is Leptospirosis in dirty hospitals.
But what happened when we left Costa Rica?
Cue coconuts, bikinis, and raging hot surfers: Panama! After taking three buses, a taxi, a van-bus-thing and a water taxi, we arrived on Panama’s island, Bocas Del Toro.
(For those curious how to get to Bocas from San Jose: bus to Turrialba to Siguerres to Limon to Sixola. Walk Panama’s border, bus to Changuinola to Almirante to a water taxi to Bocas.) Granted this is if you are cheapos like us.
Nicholas was not completely well. He was still battling a bad cough that had us afraid he contracted bronchitis in the hospital. The main objective behind Bocas Del Toro was to have him recover. And why not do that on a beach?
We stayed at Pipa Loca Bay Hostel for four nights. This was our favorite hostel of our Central America travels. The owners, David and Katie, were super chill surfers from Cali. The hostel was directly on the water, had hammocks, and a Bambam.
We visited Playa del Drago and Starfish Beach. I spotted starfish in the water and sloths in the trees. Finally…WILD SLOTHS!
We rented bikes and rode 5 km to Playa Bluff. Soft sand and rolling waves made this a great day.
I took a bioluminescent plankton and snorkeling tour with two Germans at night.
Next was Nicaragua.
We took an eight hour ride from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Rivas, Nicaragua. We stayed in Rivas for one night in a hostel that claimed they were “one notch above camping.”
The next day we boarded a chicken bus for San Juan Del Sur. Spent four nights in this party town filled with Canadians. Hopped up to Popoyo for three nights. This little town in Nicaragua is where all the hot surfers go. They are tan, toned, towheaded beach gods. We took a four hour surf lesson, because who doesn’t want to join that club? Nicholas and I both ended up riding 12 or more whitewater waves, which was one of my favorite experiences in Central America.
Second day of surfing didn’t go as smoothly. We went into an intermediate area where I couldn’t get my footing on a bigger wave, which resulted in riding it like a toboggan on my knees, having the nose catch, and somersaulting under water. Then an hour later, I took a surf board to the face and split my lip. Thoroughly discouraged, I sat on the beach for awhile before heading back out. In the last hour, I successfully rode five whitewater waves. I’ll take it. Bruises and all.
Our method getting to Granada was unorthodox. We rode 10 kilometers on a veggie truck, first. Then a French surfer, again very attractive (Nicholas and I are convinced all the hot men move to Nicaragua), picked us up. The Frenchman needed to go elsewhere, so we began walking on a dirt road where locals told us a bus comes at 11:30 a.m. But there was never a bus. We ended up walking 7-10 miles in the middle-of-nowhere Nicaragua. An old lady sold us a Pepsi and gave us a Christmas gift baggie for free. We bought more juice from another old woman at her house. It was a scorcher. Eventually, dust swirled around us and a small pickup approached. We waved them down and asked for a ride in the already crowded bed: three Nicaraguans and severval large sacks of mangos. They agreed and they took us all the way to Masaya. A quick bus from Masaya to Granada completed our day’s journey.
Granada was a rainbow. I loved the old Spanish colonial architecture. We witnessed where Goodwill sends all the clothes they can’t sell. Their market is deep and smelly.