09 Dec

Tales and Nacatamales beyond the Nicaragua border

Ahh, border crossings. You can’t avoid them if you want to see a new country! In fact, they are part of the adventure. Sometimes a headache, but sometimes you come out with good stories. In this instance the annoyance was soothed with excellent Nicaraguan food waiting for us on the other side!

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Leaving Costa Rica – Monday, Nov 23, 2015 @ 9:00am.

The Costa Rica side of the border at Peñas Blancas was familiar. We had crossed into the country here back in May. Just had to do everything in reverse. For an overview map of the area, here’s our post from the southbound border cross at this location.

We did the Aduana (Customs) first, because geographically you hit this building first going north. We enter the building, handing over passports and our vehicle permit to be cancelled. No money is exchanged. The permit is stamped for exit and returned to us, all very quick. Move along to the Immigration building. More people are milling around, but hardly anyone going in. Guard checks your passport and lets us in, there is no line. We go straight to the counter to have our passports stamped out of the country. The $7 USD exit fee was paid back at our Cañas Castillas campground, since they are a registered agent to process these fees.

Cuban Migrants at the Costa Rica Border 

The Aduana building is also where we get our first glimpse of how the Cuban migrants have been living for (as of this post date) the past 25 days. There are clothes everywhere, drying in the sun. Few families have inflatable mattresses, but many others are sleeping on the concrete walkways of the Aduana building.

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If you’re not familiar with the Cuban migrant situation, here’s a quick summary of our understanding. The times are a’changing and the U.S. is slowly backing away from their crazy-pants 1960’s cold war embargo against Cuba. There is speculation that as relations continue to warm, the US will soon stop freely giving green cards (permanent residency) to Cubans who flee Cuba. This possible change in foreign policy has led to a large number of Cubans to try to migrate to the U.S. asap. Apparently, the easiest way for Cubans to do this is to fly to Ecuador (which currently doesn’t require a travel visa for Cubans, though this is soon changing as well), and then begin traveling over land all the way up through Central America and Mexico, finally crossing into the U.S. A long, arduous and potentially very dangerous journey for them.

As if the journey alone was not enough of a hurdle, in mid-November the situation got much worse for these migrants. Cuba’s long time friend Nicaragua made the decision to start blocking any and all Cubans from crossing through the country. The result is that about 4500+ Cubans are currently on the Costa Rica side of the border, waiting for permission to pass. This number grows daily by about 100 people.

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When we crossed the border last month, there were about 2000 migrants in the area waiting to pass. Costa Rica is housing and feeding most of them in shelters in the nearby border towns, but these are the few that have decided to camp out and keep the pressure on the governments. To remind everyone that they are still here and still not being let through with valid passports! I feel for them, because what if – all of a sudden – we were stuck, unable to move through a country, simply because of the passports we held? Their personal funds are dwindling daily and there is no solution yet in sight.

Entering Nicaragua – Monday, Nov 23, 2015 @ 9:30am.

We cross over to the Nicaragua side and there is serious military presence. More than we had seen on the way down and we assume this is out of the ordinary. There are local cops in riot gear, and fatigue-wearing, rifle-toting army dudes. This is leftover from the previous Sunday when frustrated Cubans created a blockade of the highway. When we crossed, the military seemed out of place, as all was calm and there was no one to police.

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Passport checks out the car window immediately. Not Cuban? OK, go on ahead. Really sickening. First stop, fumigation. Get out of car cause they do the inside too! Pay $3 USD and get receipt. Drive on ahead and park in the parking lot on the left hand side. We expected this to be familiar as well, but the Nicaragua border agencies have moved into a brand new all-in-one building since we were last here. Our friends over at Live.Travel.Play. detailed their southbound cross with more details about the new building here.

Complete in any order you choose: Immigration first or Aduana for the vehicle. Immigration is the last door on the left of the building. Pay local tax of $1 USD per person to the lady in the booth when you step inside. Move ahead to one of several immigration officers. Hand over passports and pay the entrance fee of $11.64 USD/pp. Get stamped in.

Now for the car! Buy Nicaraguan insurance for $12 USD. You will find them to the left of the immigration doorway, under a tent. You need the original vehicle title and a passport.

Find the Aduana folks. They are hanging around the parking lot with clipboards wearing blue “DGA” labeled shirts. They will want to inspect the inside of your car and see all your documents. Best to have at least one photocopy of all the important stuff to hand over: Title, Registration, Driver’s License, Passports and Nica Insurance. They will sign off on a form that you now need to take to a police officer.

Find the cop ladies also milling around the parking lot (our cops just happened to be two ladies). Have patience while they do a second thorough search of the car. Bruno didn’t like his insides poked and prodded! After you’ve put the car back together for the second time, ask for directions to the Aduana office around the back side of the building. There, they will take the aduana form (signed by both the DGA official and the police) along with your passports and you will receive a temporary import permit for your vehicle. No money exchanged!

Rolling through Nicaragua

On our southbound journey, we spent two weeks in Nicaragua. This time, we only spent a couple of days. We’re bee-lining diagonally through the country and climbing from sea-level to mountain-top in order to reach the Honduras border. Knowing how much we loved Nicaragua the first time around, we stopped at a few new sights along the way.

While zipping past the shores of Lago Nicaragua, we get a glimpse of the two massive volcanoes on Isla de Ometepe that we visited last time we were here. The road climbs slightly and we enter the beautiful little town of Catarina, which has an amazing view of the Laguna de Apoyo volcano crater. From the lookout at the edge of town you can see the entire lagoon, as well as the city of Granada with Lago Nicaragua at its shores. Volcán Mombacho is visible in the distance (not an extinct volcano but the last eruption occurred in 1570).

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We pay 20 Nicaraguan Cordobas to enter the view area and park the car. After enjoying the view, we start our routine of cozying up to the parking attendants, the lady in the toll booth, asking about potential camping. Everybody seems ok with it, so for the cost of the parking ($0.70 USD) we get to camp in a parking lot with a beautiful view! Downsides to camping in a parking lot? A soccer game may break out around the car while you’re inside sleeping. Thanks to Bruno’s tinted windows, we could see out but they couldn’t see in!

With Bruno secured, we start out on the town. First we pass the local Catarina church, preparing for a Thanksgiving festival of sorts. All those colorful fruits being strung up was hard work! Though more locals were standing around watching than actually helping. We joined the gawkers and took some photos. Bananas, papayas, pineapples, coconuts and flowers. Makes for a very colorful offering to some lucky Saint (Catherine, perhaps?).

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Travis was sizing up one of his beloved fried chicken places, when he spotted a small cat with his keen cat-loving eyes. A kid came along and scooped him up, which then warranted our asking for a picture. His mother was nice enough, but the kid was wary of us and the camera.

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Free camp means we can treat ourselves to dinner. Well, not always, sometimes we just high-five about it. In this case, we just felt weird setting up to cook dinner in a highly touristy parking lot. The security guard recommended a local woman’s restaurant down the street that is run out of her home. The backyard was decked out in Christmas lights and we order her “house special” for 115 Cordobas or $3.85 USD each. Bistek de res (beef steak) with a tomato/onion salsa on top, plantains two ways (battered/fried and grilled) and always rice.

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We drove into the town of Masaya for breakfast, since the tourists started to show up at our “camp site” / parking space. Masaya is the third most populous city in Nicaragua and just east of Volcán Masaya, from which the city takes its name. We visited the volcano back in May and had the thrill of a lifetime getting that close to an active crater.

Masaya residents were just beginning their work day. We wove through street traffic and asked a passerby for a recommended breakfast spot. We ended up at a European-style café offering typical Nica dishes. Wanting to try something different along with our usual breakfast of eggs, we ordered Nacatamales. We find out that this is basically a Nicaraguan version of the more commonly known Mexican tamale! Warm cornmeal with shredded pork, tomatoes and onions, ladled and served in plantain leaves. It was spiced with annatto, a common spice in Latin American cuisine and it was delicious!

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It was a four hour drive from Catarina to Ocotal and the well-kept highway slowly winds into the upper elevations of the country. Sunny skies and beautiful weather, Nicaragua really agrees with us.

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Ocotal is set up in the mountains, and we found a restaurant owned by a Nica who had spent a lot of time in New York City. Travis took the opportunity to have a NY steak sandwich. We stayed in a cheap hotel (the best in town!) and had a hearty hotel breakfast before setting out for the Honduras border. The plate may look simple, but we love plantains in the morning (or anytime, really). Also queso fresco, that little white block of soft cheese, frijoles (beans) and some scrambled eggs and sausage. Yumm.

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It seems like all we did is eat, drive, and ogle the scenery all the way through Nicaragua this time around! We waved to the kiddies on the road side, and reminisced about the last time we were here and how much we’re going to miss it! Hearts and hugs for you, Nicaragua!

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  • Dea

    This post was particularly good for my daily dose of escapism in the morning and inspired my first comment. I think it was all the food…Mmmm! I tip my hat to you both and wish you the best on your journey to Nova Scotia! I have family in Economy and the Halifax area. Your blog is giving many some travel and ER experiences to aspire to!

    • Amanda

      Hurray for first comments! Happy to hear from you and hope there is more content that inspires you in the future 🙂 I’m really looking forward to exploring more of Nova Scotia and the Canadian Maritimes.

  • Mmmmm all that food looks delicious. That “house special” in the lady’s back yard sounds like a cool dining experience.

    • Amanda

      It was wonderful! Another plus was the simple fact of not having to prepare it ourselves 🙂

      • Always great to have others cook for you. 🙂 One of my regrets from our trip to Mexico this past summer was NOT spending more money on dining out or take out since the cost of meals is so cheap.

  • Matt @ The Resume Gap

    Great update on your adventure! Love the photos of the city scenes and the food. I’m salivating.

    Does one or both of you speak Spanish? Those border crossings sound like a bit of a nightmare if you weren’t proficient with the language.

    • Amanda

      Both of us started from zero-Spanish around October of last year. We listened to Pimsleur audio lessons in the car and train on the way to work in preparation for the trip! Our learning really took off when we crossed into Mexico and had to use the language for real – every single day. Each border cross became easier to manage as time passed and we became more proficient.

      Luckily, Mexico is a really big country – you can learn a lot of Spanish in the time it takes to travel through the country – then be ready for the more frequent border crossings in Central America!

  • Jay

    Awesome! What a creative and unique adventure. Love the detailed updates.

    • Travis

      Thanks for reading, Jay!

  • em

    Your Blog is amazing! What a fun adventure. Just sent you an email regrading Monterrey Mexico 🙂

    • Travis

      Em, thanks for the invite in Monterrey! We can email you as we approach, will be late January.

  • Duston Richards

    how do I reach you for a question on a post you wrote about a few months a go ?