On how not to do a border crossing
It was an early start. 5 o’clock pick up to get to the border – and completely unnecessary as it turned out. I was travelling from Costa Rica to Nicaragua with my colleague Jamie and we were there to check this new border crossing. Formerly by river via Los Chiles, the crossing was a long winded affair taking most of the day; but now, thanks to the new bridge built over Rio San Juan in Nicaragua and thus a continuous road linking both countries, formalities should be quick an easy. And they were. Well, mostly. Or at least in theory... put it this way – we did this so your crossing will be a smooth affair.
All started with my serious doubts about the pickup time. We were in Arenal and, river or road crossing, we knew the drive was about 2 hrs to the border - if not less. Why, I wondered, do I need to be picked up at 5 am if our agents in Nicaragua were going to meet us at 10 am? So I checked, as polite as I could, and was told that it was ab-so-lu-tely necessary – just in case (le sigh...)
Dark and early – did I say it was raining? Pouring, actually; slamming it down, the sky falling over our heads and all that – we set off to the unknown, literally, as our driver casually remarked that he’d never driven beyond Los Chiles, so didn’t have a clue what was going on with this new border. But the only untoward thing that happened was a continuous road that ended 6 kms after Los Chiles, in a military looking driveway with some temporary booths and a big sign with “Las Tablillas Frontera Norte” on it and the opening times from 8 am to 4 pm. It was 6.40 am.
And so we waited. We had been told – or rather silently motioned - by a sleepy teenage-looking guard to wait “there” behind him. There was a kind of gazebo with two tables and 3 chairs – currently occupied – under it. Considering the circumstances, I decided jump on and lie on one of the tables, using Jamie’s pack as a pillow, and peacefully started reading my book. Soon, though, I noticed a guard taking a picture of me with his phone. Something told me this wasn’t because of my stunning looks, and thus I gave him a stern look. To which he answered with an even more sternly one and ordered me off his tables. I was rather offended by his tone and so I querulously replied I would if he would be so kind as to offer me a seat to wait. Jamie, in the meantime, nervously whispered that you shouldn’t argue with armed border guards, but I was too much into it to notice the menacing gun. Then again, he wasn’t wielding it, so why worry? And I was justified as he then, rather puzzled, asked why I didn’t go to the actual waiting area... (another sigh...)
And so we continued waiting. In the meantime, a notice in one of the closed windows mentioned that the payment for the exit visa must be done in the ATM-looking machine at the back, using only a debit or credit card and passport, no cash. Except that the machine wasn’t working. A very helpful guard said he didn’t know how else we could pay it and another mentioned you could in Los Chiles – 6 kms back. Good luck was on our side, though, and I managed to hitch a ride with some Good Samaritan (clever, getting in a battered car with an unknown male in a Central American country. How wise was that? Emergency measures...), managed to quickly pay the tax (plus an extra dollar “handling fee”) and soon enough we were walking in no-man’s-land towards Nicaragua with the blessings and smiles for the Costa Rican guards.
The rest was easy – trying to queue when there was more of a scramble wasn’t the best of tactics, but Nicaraguans were tremendously helpful and happy to see a British passport for the first time so, although I had to explain to a puzzled but friendly looking guard that the name of the country wasn’t Ireland, all ended well. And it stopped raining.