A dense line of trucks signals our approach to the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border. All the names and logos on the sides of the trucks are familiar. Dole. Chiquita. All headed north — a few more days and a few thousand miles, and these will all end up in my local supermarket. Wedged in between the giant containers of bananas and citrus is our taxi — me and Maggie and our driver, who is ferrying us to la frontera.
Even before the taxi comes to a complete stop, a bunch of men have surrounded us, all yelling in Spanish. One has stuck his head inside the car and is gesticulating wildly. The funny thing about Nicaragua is that even people who earn their living from the mostly English-speaking tourists don’t actually speak English. Whether that reflects an attitude of the people or just the fact that Nicaragua’s tourism industry can only be described as “nascent” is fodder for debate.
The yelling men, turn out, are offering to help us across the border. I pay the driver and snort derisively at the men, curtly no, gracias-ing them away — how hard can it really be to cross the border? I grab my bag and confidently start walking, whereupon one of the men points out that I’m going the wrong way. Less confidently, I turn around and enter the Nicaraguan immigration control area. I am immediately confused where to go next. I grit my teeth and let the guy who called out to me guide us through the process of getting our Nicaraguan exit stamps in our passports.
Within ten minutes, we have the stamps and I hand my leftover Nicaraguan cordobas to the man, whose barely-hidden glee tells me that I’ve wildly overpaid for his services. He points us towards the Costa Rican side and ambles off.
On the Costa Rican side, there are no screaming men trying to earn a few bucks by guiding us through immigration control. Somehow, I figure out which direction to walk, and soon enough Maggie and I are standing beyond the fences, officially in Costa Rica.
There are two buses going from the border — the tourist bus ($12) and the local bus ($6). After determining that the local one is not, at that very moment, on fire, I pick the cheaper option, which turns out to be surprisingly comfortable. The downside of the local bus, however, quickly becomes apparent, as the bus is stopped approximately every five minutes at police checkpoints. At every one, a policeman boards the bus to check everyone’s passports. At the first few checkpoints, the police, seeing our blue USA passport jackets, don’t even bother checking them and pass us by, but at the third one, the policeman actually takes our passports and flips through them.
As he does so, his expression grows puzzled. Even before he asks the question, I realize the problem. We don’t actually have any entry stamps for Costa Rica. With the absence of a guide, I clearly got confused and somehow completely bypassed Costa Rican immigration controls. I try to explain it to the policeman in my broken Spanish. I can see the indecision in his face as he debates with himself what to do with us. Finally, reaching the decision that his life will be easier if he makes it someone else’s problem, he shrugs, tells us that we’ll have a problema with immigration control later, and gets off the bus.
Maggie and I exchange looks. Here we are. In Costa Rica. Illegally.