5th-9th December 2015
Less of a ‘what we did’ one and more of a ‘general stream of consciousness’ for our couple of days in San José. There’s nothing that exciting about it as a city, and nothing hugely interesting to share about our time there. We’ve got to the point where we do a lot more thinking and general reflection on things so far, so here are some thoughts about our travels (interspersed with some random and only vaguely related San José pictures since I did actually take some there)
Journeys + scammers
Travelling from place to place takes up a huge amount of our time. Especially as we’d rather not fork out tons for tourist transport when local buses are a fraction of the price. This is a trade off though – with a shuttle you tend have (but are not guaranteed) a comfier ride, plenty of rest stops, a more direct route, plus maybe even air conditioning. It also makes borders easier, as you are in a little gringo group all doing the same thing.
Buses are variable. The ones we got from San Juan del Sur to the Costa Rica border were great. We took a lot of these local ‘chicken buses’ in Guatemala, and although they were often slow and hot, they usually cost around a dollar and are easy to use.
One of the troubles with making your own way is scammers. Not that you are free from this with shuttles, but it seems a lot of people are out to fleece you if you’re wearing a big backpack and looking lost. It’s a huge shame because we’ve met so many lovely and helpful people, but getting ripped off one too many times starts to make you cynical and judgemental of anyone trying to help you and that is very unfair on the majority.
The way the scammers work is by instilling a sense of urgency that just needn’t be there. We ended up spending a dollar buying customs forms for Costa Rica immigration on the Nicaragua side even though we had heard of this scam and knew we could get them for free on the other side. It sounds stupid but when someone who has made themselves look vaguely official is in your face telling you straight up you won’t be able to get through the border without it, you panic and just go for it, especially when everyone around you is. Borders are stressful places and you don’t want to be making things more difficult for yourself. The problem is, once you get to the other side and realise what you’ve done, you feel stupid and angry, making everything even more stressful (this wasn’t helped by the fact that the Nicaraguan border lady did not stamp my passport properly and we had to go around again to get it done, then wait for ages in the queue to get into Costa Rica).
This outright lying happens often. Taxi drivers tell you the hostel you want to go to is full or closed, to tempt you to a hostel which they’ll get commission for taking you to. We took a taxi from the bus station to our hostel in San José and they way overcharged us by quickly grabbing us from the bus and telling us a price in advance, then we later discovered taxis were metered and much cheaper. A pair of men at the bus station as we were leaving San José told us that all the tickets were sold out to our next destination for another 5 hours, and our only other option was to go with a different company (presumably one they were on commission from). That was a stupid scam though because a 15 second walk to the actual company’s stand told us that there were seats available for a bus in half an hour, which we happily bought. As I said, it’s just a shame. It makes you feel cynical towards people who are actually helpful, but also just is another thing you have to keep your guard up for, stopping you relaxing.
Price vs. Convenience
The principle of price vs. convenience as with buses and shuttles continues into the rest of life. Do we eat at the nice looking restaurant round the corner for a bunch of dollars or do we walk the streets for hours trying to find somewhere cheap? This was a particular problem in San José – Costa Rica is a big step up in price from pretty much everywhere we’ve been except Belize and cheap eats which weren’t just fried chicken weren’t easily found.
We do try and find a balance though. Cheap (comparatively) breakfasts here are great, usually a few dollars for gallopinto (rice and beans), eggs, toast, and coffee. If you eat well for breakfast, you can have a pricey meal in the afternoon and not feel too bad about it.
We don’t do much cooking for ourselves, which might make things even cheaper. When you’re moving about so much it’s hard to build up ingredients, and the hostel kitchens aren’t always fantastically well stocked. I do really like a supermarket though, and one thing San José did have that I loved was a massive American style supermarket. It’s weird, but when you’re feeling a bit homesick and you’re always in strange new places, a proper supermarket can feel very familiar and I can spend ages just wandering round and looking at what they’ve got (/marvelling at how much an imported Granny Smith costs). It is strangely relaxing, and weirdly put me sin a better mood.
Final thoughts about San José, life, etc.
As a capital city, San José is not an unpleasant place to be. There is a lot of public space, it is clean with plenty of shops, and people seem happy and friendly. It definitely shows that Costa Rica is in a good place financially compared to most of Central America – it’s almost like being in the U.S.A. But there wasn’t much for us there. The buildings weren’t that old or pretty, the museums didn’t hold tons of interest, and being in a city wasn’t really the relaxing break we still really needed.
It’s some time now since we started getting worn down by our travelling about but it’s weird how much it sticks. We’ve both been hit by a bit of homesickness as we miss friends from home, especially as it’s hard to keep in touch from out here, which just adds to it. Christmas coming up also makes a difference, and all the Christmas decorations in San José made it easy to think about the fact we’re not having a proper Christmas at home, and that’s a bit sad too.
But despite all this, we are still mainly having a great time! How could we not be really? I’m writing this from a balcony over a Caribbean beach in shorts and vest top despite it being December. It’s not a bad life, all this travelling, even if we do get worn out.