So why would you choose to travel around Central America during the pandemic?
Both Steve and I have confidence in the efficacy of the vaccines we received (Pfizer and Moderna) months ago. We had never been to Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, or Nicaragua before and were curious about all of them. And they were all welcoming visitors.
You’ve traveled a lot (to approximately 65 other countries, before these). How different was this trip?
In many ways, it felt like all our trips. We enjoyed it all, some things immensely. But some aspects were different — some better, some worse, and some just… different.
What was better?
Fewer crowds! In Guatemala’s spectacular Mayan ruins at Tikal, we had the place almost to ourselves. We never had to think about making a restaurant reservation anywhere. That was pleasant.
What was worse?
Having to be tested over and over to prove we didn’t have Covid. These tests aren’t cheap. The two of us spent almost $200 for the antigen tests required by Panama and the United States. The PCR test demanded by Nicaragua was almost $100 apiece. Guatemala was the only place that let us in with no hoop-jumping other than showing our vaccination cards. (Gracias, Guatemalans!) Costa Rica required neither testing nor proof of vaccination, but it made us get certain insurance coverage in addition to filling out a complicated electronic form.
What fell into the Just Different category?
Seeing almost everyone wearing masks outdoors, virtually all the time, at least in Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, maybe 60% of people on the street were masked. Steve and I almost never wore masks outdoors, and the only time we were ever chastised for this was by a bossy American lady tourist in the central park in Antigua.
We couldn’t discern whether the almost-universal mask-wearing was required by law or simply driven by people’s fear of getting Covid. Vaccination rates are low everywhere we visited, and we sensed that many people are scared.
We were fascinated by the requirement in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama that businesses take the temperature of everyone entering their premises and make them wash their hands. This has spawned an entire industry of automatic temperature-taking and hand-washing stations, though many places instead had a worker aim a temperature-taking instrument at every entering arm. In most places, no one seemed to be paying attention to the numbers displayed by the alleged thermometers. But it may have made some folks feel safer.
Did anything surprise you?
Over and over we asked hotel workers and tour guides and other people in the travel industry what they did when their governments closed the borders and tourism evaporated overnight. One hotel manager started going out to work with his fisherman father. A tour guide at Lake Atitlan started picking coffee beans. Another dusted off his carpentry skills and made furniture. Almost everyone tried to adapt. They sounded shell-shocked.
Did you ever come close to dying?
Maybe. It happened when we were being driven to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. We had a good driver (Alfredo) and made good time from the cloud-forest where we spotted the quetzal. Only once did we encounter bad traffic, passing through a market town.
We were less than an hour from Rio Dulce when the cars in front of us stopped abruptly. Uh-oh. After a while, we got out of our air-conditioned vehicle; it felt like a muggy 100 degrees outside.We realized that a six-car crash had just occurred about three cars in front of us; people were still being extracted from the wreckage. Steve and Alfredo and I all shook our heads and cringed at the thought of how long we would likely be stuck in it.But minutes passed, and no police or emergency vehicles arrived, and cars in both directions began creeping past it.
We sneaked by too and arrived in Rio Dulce having been delayed by less than a half hour. At some point it occurred to me that we missed being in that terrible accident by less than a minute — probably closer than I’ve ever come to dying in a car accident in a foreign country. That’s a risk that scares me. But I’m not willing to stay home to avoid it.
On our last night in Nicaragua, Steve and I sat next to the pool in the house where we were staying. Every few minutes the sky flashed with approaching lightning. The thought struck me, “This is a violent country.” It’s dotted with volcanoes and riven with earthquake faults primed to wreck human infrastructure, like one that in 1972 destroyed 80% of the buildings in Managua, the capital. Hurricanes sometimes batter its Caribbean coast and fierce thunderstorms are a summer commonplace. People have done a lot of bloodletting here, at least since the Spanish arrived 500 years ago. Pirates sacked Nicaragua’s cities. An unhinged American named William Walker invaded and got himself elected president in the 1850s (before going on to die before a Honduran firing squad). A long line of Latin-American dictators followed, until left- wing revolutionaries who called themselves Sandinistas toppled the outrageously corrupt Anastasio Somoza. Their war ended in 1987 but Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, now almost as rich and corrupt and vicious as Somoza, has positioned his family members to carry on a dark new dynasty.
None of this violence diminished the pleasure of our week in Granada (the oldest city in Latin America, residents boast.) Founded in 1524, its large, leafy central plaza anchors an orderly grid of streets lined with Spanish haciendas painted in hot tropical colors. I found a house-trading partner willing to accept guest points from us in exchange for a week’s stay in a building erected about 125 years ago. Its American owners restored it to pristine condition about five years ago. From the street it doesn’t look like much. But once beyond the metal gates and heavy wooden doors, we reveled in a 5,200-square-foot patch of paradise, configured around two open-air courtyards. The baronial master bedroom suite opened to them both. At the center of one was a beautiful garden surrounding a fountain……while the other held the swimming pool and adjoined a spacious kitchen.When we arrived (Wednesday, June 9), Steve and I felt tempted never to step outside this sanctuary.
We relented, of course, and were rewarded. One day we visited the potters in one of the indigenous villages not far outside of town. They demonstrated every step in the process of kneading local clay… …spinning it into various shapes on a foot-driven potter’s wheel…… dipping it in colored muds that are allowed to dry before being polished and engraved.They fire the end products in wood-fueled kilns that they heat to 900 degrees. The results were splendid.
Another morning we hired a motorboat to putter among the little islands sprinkled near Granada on Lake Nicaragua. Nicaraguan millionaires and billionaires as well as ex-pats have built mansions on them, which makes the outing part Lives of the Rich and Famous and part nature documentary.
Sunday afternoon we took a class at Granada’s Chocolate Museum. Cacao trees originated in this part of the world, and today Nicaragua is a major exporter of the beans. I’ve seen the pods before (in Peru and in the Amazon); I’ve sucked the delicious creamy white gel that covers the seeds that grow within the pods. But the class filled in the many steps involved in transforming those bitter seeds into creamy dark deliciousness: fermenting and drying them, then roasting them till they turn dark and aromatic. Steve and I each removed the husks from a dozen or so of them, then pulverized the innards. ￼You get a buttery chocolate mash when you do this. We mixed ours with honey and other liquids to make yummy chocolate drinks and with additional flavorings (salt! rum! bananas!) to make bars that we ate for dessert for three days.
It was all great fun, but I’m not sure I’ll remember it five years from now. What I doubt I will ever forget is the evening we visited Masaya Volcano. Several volcanos dominate the landscape near Granada. Masaya is the closest. It last erupted hugely in 1772, but it certainly cannot be called dormant today. We hired Carlos Medal, a tour guide and jack of all trades (he works for the couple who own the home we were staying in) to drive us out to the national park in which the volcano is located. We paid a quick visit to the informative little museum… …then motored up to one of the craters at the top. Steam was rising from a precipice.
We approached and peered in. At first we could detect only a faint glow within the steam…
…but as the sun set, it didn’t take long for the orange-red color to intensify…and grow hellish. For seconds at a time, the smoke cleared and we could see the magma churning barely 1000 feet below. It felt creepy and thrilling and mind-boggling, like glimpsing the inferno… before driving back to our lovely hacienda 45 minutes away.
It’s tempting for me to see the volcano as metaphorical. Nicaragua is beautiful but it ranks among the poorest countries in the world; some sources place it second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. The suffering is obvious: shacks in the countryside rival those we’ve seen in Africa. Beggars hold out their hands on every other corner. Men on the street sell single cigarettes all day long, every day. Meanwhile the Ortega family members live better than the Spanish kings and queens of old. They’ve murdered some political rivals; put others under house arrest.
Over the weekend we heard so many loud explosions we wondered if another revolution was starting. We asked what was going on, and people told us the noise is humdrum; that Nicaraguans set off firecrackers to honor saints, celebrate weddings, and otherwise express themselves. On Saturday night, we saw more evidence of auditory extremism when we walked down a pedestrian street filled with open-air diners. For at least a block or two, speakers as big as refrigerators were blasting music at volumes guaranteed to cause hearing loss. Yet the locals were tossing back beers and bouncing kids on their laps and acting like they were surrounded by Muzak.
As I noted sitting next to the pool, it all seems violent — violent in a way that makes the US feel like Switzerland. But what do I know… about thunderstorms or Latin American politics? Not much. The storm we thought was coming that night never materialized. The lightning faded away. I hope sunny days are ahead for Nicaragua. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
You’ve heard, no doubt, about the desperate Nicaraguans massed in Tijuana, trying to get into the US. I can relate.
Why it should be difficult for Steve and me to get into Nicaragua as tourists I don’t understand. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in all the Western Hemisphere; the poorest in Central America. You would think the government would be panting for US dollars, particularly when their international image is so tarnished. Their dictatorial president, Danial Ortega, has been ruthlessly smashing (indeed killing) political opponents and protesters since a wave of criticism of him crested three years ago. He’s been a Covid bad boy, accused of concealing the extent of deaths here and failing to organize any lockdown action in response to it.
What the country has done is to enact the strictest regulations in the region for incoming visitors. Only Nicaragua requires a negative PCR test obtained within the 72 hours before arrival. And that’s not all they ask for.
It took me a while to realize that Nicaragua’s particularly strict testing requirement complicated our plans. Months ago my research made me feel confident we could get Covid-tested near Nita and Marty’s house (where we were staying in Costa Rica). But it typically takes about 24 hours to get PCR results, and it finally dawned on me that because of the weekend, if we tried to go to Nicaragua on a Monday (our plan), we wouldn’t be able to get tested, pick up the results, and have them for the Nicaraguans within the required time frame. Argh!
I finally changed the plan and cut two days from our scheduled stay in Nicaragua. That allowed us to move from Nita and Marty’s to a beach near the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica’s second largest city. I made an online appointment for us to get the PCR test offered at the Liberia airport Monday at 1 pm.
That went just fine. We arrived at our appointments almost two hours early and joined a line of gringos waiting in a big white tent next to the Arrivals terminal. Lab Echandi, the outfit running the operation, seemed extremely efficient and well-organized.They let us get tested despite our having shown up early and said the results would be emailed to us sometime the next day. Less than 24 hours later, they showed up in my inbox — signed by a doctor, QR-coded, and, happily, Negative. The clerk at our hotel’s reception desk printed them out for us.
Only one wrinkle remained. The Nicaraguan government’s website stated clearly that in addition to showing proof of the negative PCR test, all visitors had to fill out an online form from the Ministry of Interior, “an agile, orderly, and secure application for admission, which must be submitted at least seven days before entering Nicaragua.”
A week earlier, I had found that form online, filled it in and submitted it, and within a day received a colorful email back (entirely in Spanish). It seemed to be saying that I had to email the negative test results to the email sender. In yellow-highlighted letters it also said that after sending in the test results, “you must wait for notification to enter the country.”
Of course we emailed them the test results as soon as we got them Tuesday. Within an hour, I received a reply… telling me I had to also submit the health form. I fired back another salvo, reminding them I had already submitted it. I attached a pdf as proof. Then we heard…..nothing. Nothing Tuesday, nor Wednesday morning, nor by the time the driver we had hired dropped us off at the land crossing.
With some trepidation, Steve and I hauled our roller bags across the invisible line separating Costa Rica and its neighbor to the north. The sun was blazing; it felt like it had to be over 90 degrees. Outside the immigration office, some white-uniformed women at a health station signaled for us to hand over our passports and Covid test results. A few minutes later, they returned them to us with stamped slips of paper that suggested the tests had been reviewed and approved. Then we entered the immigration office to find a sleepy scene: a booth manned by two officers and no would-be visitors other than us. One of the officials, a burly, round-faced man, motioned for us to approach and asked me cheerily in Spanish how I was. In the minutes that followed, he examined and stamped our passports, photographed each of us in turn, had us pay a lady a municipality tax of $1 apiece, asked for an additional $13 federal entry fee per person… but never said a peep about the online health form.
So did we technically sneak in? It didn’t feel like it. But this morning, after being here in Granada for almost 24 hours, another email from the Nicaraguan government popped up in my inbox. It was exactly the same email I had received three or four times before: telling me to submit the Covid tests; stressing (with the same yellow highlighting) that we must not enter until we’d heard back from them. I suppose it’s theoretically possible a knock could come on our door. We might be hauled off for questioning.
I’m not losing sleep over the possibility.
And I have to note: taking the two days at the beach turned out to be a blissful payoff for slogging through the bureaucratic quagmire. Steve and I rarely spend time at beaches during our travels. We declare, too archly, that we live at the beach so we don’t need to seek them out on vacation. But this beach on the north-central Costa Rican coast was nothing like our hometown San Diego beaches.
We walked for miles, seeing almost no one but crabs……and a showy while egret.
Along with two or three other people, we were almost the only guests at the beautiful resort that I had found online for about the same price as a Rodeway Inn at home. It was sort of creepy but also really cool to have it almost all to ourselves.
Call it the yin and the yang of traveling in the time of Covid.
When Steve and I left behind San Jose last Wednesday (6/2), weeks had passed since I watched a television show or movie. That morning we drove in our rented SUV to El Castillo, a tiny village (pop. 250) that clings to the slopes of Volcano Arenal in northwest Costa Rica. I had traded more of my HomeExchange.com guest points to arrange a five-night stay in a delightful two-bedroom bungalow owned by a couple of American ex-pats there.
A moon gate on the grounds led to a private trail into the rainforest. We had our own little private swimming pool… ,,,hand-carved doors and other colorful decorations.We also found an extensive collection of DVD movies, through which Steve and I leafed Thursday night after dining on excellent burgers at a local joint named after the monkeys that serenaded us every morning with their barks and moans (Howlers). Craving some electronic entertainment, we decided to watch Soylent Green.
Somehow we missed this movie when it came out in 1973. Turns out it’s set in the year 2022 in New York City, where the population has reached 40 million, a hellhole so insanely crowded that people sleep in stairwells, piled up like trash bags in a garbage strike. But it’s home to a buff young city cop: Charlton Heston. He and everyone else in the throngs are sweating because global warming has gone critical. We see people wearing masks (yikes!). In the end Charlton figures out that dead humans are being transformed into green wafers (Soylent Green) because that’s the only food left on the planet; even the plankton in the seas has all been eaten. Shortly before this climax, we watch him bust into the creepy facility where his old friend Edward G. Robinson, dispirited and hopeless, has gone to be euthanized. Because Edward G is so old, he remembers what the world used to be like, and as he’s dying, he gets to watch images from the pre-apocalyptic days on a giant screen. Tears well up in Charlton’s eyes when he sees deer eating grass in a flower-filled meadow; schools of fish swimming in the sea. “How could I have known?” he chokes out.
Pretty corny stuff. But also wildly comforting to be watching in 2021. New York City’s population, Wikipedia tells me, is actually just 8.3 million (and that was before the Great Covid Exodus). In the movie, no one mentions Costa Rica, but anyone paying attention in the 1970s would have likely predicted a worse future than New York’s 50 years down the road. More than 75% of Costa Rica had been covered by forests in the 1940s, but by the 50s and 60s, people were chopping down ancient giants as if they were weeds, clearing land for cattle and pineapple farms whose produce could be hollowed out and used to hide bags of cocaine. By 1987, more than two-thirds of the forests were gone.
And then the Costa Ricans miraculously changed course. By 1998, the deforestation had not merely stopped; the forested areas began expanding. Costa Rica is the only tropical country in the world where that’s happened. According to one estimate, 53% of the country was again covered by trees in 2019, up from 21% at the nadir.
Today the money from ecotourists and adventurers drawn by the tropical splendor makes up a big part of the economy. And now I understand why. If Charlton and Edward G could have seen what Steve and I experienced over our five days in El Castillo, they would have stocked a backpack with Soylent Green and headed south.
At least 1200 species of butterflies live in Costa Rica, and we saw a couple dozen types of these beauties on a visit to a butterfly conservatory located in El Castillo.
These two are mating.
We went on several long hikes, through dripping rainforests…Across suspension bridges…
…and over lava fields created by Volcan Arenal.
The volcano had been quiet for 400 years before bursting into life in 1968. It put on a spectacular show for 42 years, then it abruptly stopped in 2010. So we didn’t see any lava flowing, but the mountain is still a powerful presence.
Its magma heats an extensive network of hot springs throughout the area; frolicking in them is a popular tourist activity. Steve and I spent a couple of hours in one resort, and I thought soaking in the hot water was pleasant. But finding otherworldly flowers like these in the garden mesmerized me.
Even more mind-boggling was the guided walk we took yesterday morning on the Bogarin Trial. We’d been told this was a great place to see both wild sloths and local birds. We wound up getting that and something even more magical: more than three hours in the presence of Marvin “Geovani” Bogarin.
Geovani told us he was one of 11 children born to poor parents; their small house didn’t even have electricity. He was named Marvin (god knows why), but he always hated that, and as we learned quickly, he is not a fellow to passively accept what fate doles out.
Now 58, by the time he reached his late 20s, he somehow found his way to a career in guiding biological research teams and tourists. He worked at that for 10 years, and then around 2000, he was seized by a crazy vision. He wanted to take 300 acres near the center of La Fortuna (the larger and more touristy town near El Castillo) and transform it from grassland for cattle into a nature preserve. He had no money. But somehow he struck a deal with the land’s owner: if Geovani would do all the work to effect this transformation, he could use the land in exchange for splitting any eventual revenue.
Somehow he turned a landscape like this…
In the early years, he dug deep trenches and built up trails made of gravel and clay — flat and smooth enough that blind people and folks in wheelchairs could use them, as they do regularly today. (Giovanni thinks access to nature shouldn’t be limited to the able bodied.) He planted everything except for the handful of old-growth trees that still dotted the pastures. For long intervals, he slept on a platform open to the elements. Everyone in town thought he was crazy, even his siblings. But he persisted and by 2010 he had accomplished enough to begin shepherding tourists around the place. Today he welcomes visitors from all over the world, and if they see it through his eyes, as we did, it’s a wonderland.
A green basilisk (known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to walk on water) greeted us near the entrance, but we soon moved into the forest where Geovani scanned the canopy like someone taking in the headlines on Apple News. He pointed out a large male sloth that I would never in a million years have spotted in the leaves above us. For several happy minutes we watched him hang there, scratching at the parasites infesting his fur.Then Geovani heard a toucan, and we scurried after him to find and photograph it.
At another point, we called a broad-billed motmot to us. Or rather Geovani did. He commands at least 100 bird calls, an achievement that has gotten him onto the pages of the New York Times. For us, he not only whistled the motmot’s pretty song, but got an answer back.Eventually the bird alighted not far away. As much as it looked like the two of them were engaged in a conversation, Geovani said the bird and his mate had a nest nearby, and this guy probably had mistaken Geovani for another motmot who might be moving in on his territory.
There was more. Just three days before, Geovani been bitten for the first time in his life by the fearsome bullet ant, a denizen of these parts, and we wanted to hear the gory details (“24 hours of excruciating pain.”) Another grisly story involved a close friend who a few months before had died from the bite of a fer-de-lance, a highly venomous pit viper that lives in these woods (along with coral snakes and several other deadly serpents.) Compared to them, the tiny poisonous frogs (provider of the poison for blow darts) look childish, like something Fisher-Price would make. Geovani told us how he once had gotten careless after handling one, touched his eyes, and went blind for three days.
It wasn’t all horror stories. Geovani’s a thoughtful guy with a passion for studying geopolitics. So we talked about next year’s race for Costa Rica’s presidency. And we asked him how Costa Rica had been able to turn things around; how it had avoided becoming Soylent Green South. His thoughtful answer was too long and detailed for me to fully reprise here, but he cited many factors: the realization that struck many of his countrymen in the 1980s that tourism could be more profitable than farming, proselytizing on the part of some key environmental visionaries, the country’s high education level (something like 97% of the population is literate, an achievement Geovani attributes to not having to spend money on a military); some sensible laws protecting key resources.
He didn’t say it, but we left thinking we’d just met another piece in the puzzle: the existence of people like him. Tough, generous, brave, inspired, intelligent, unbelievably hard working. As long as individuals like that keep popping up on the planet, I don’t feel terrified about its future.
I have no personal interest in sex tourism. Never have; never will. It was instead a journalistic impulse that drove Steve and me to the Hotel del Rey Tuesday night. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world where women are allowed to legally sell their sexual services, though pimping and other forms of promoting prostitution are illegal, as is having sex with minors. Trying to wrap our heads around these extraordinary facts, we’d stumbled on wild online descriptions of the bawdy offerings to be found in “Gringo Gulch,” just a block off one of the main avenues in the heart of San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital city). Could this still be going on in the midst of what appears to be continuing Covid panic? Curiosity nibbled.
Nothing else about San Jose has seemed spicy — or even particularly attractive — since our arrival late Monday morning. The 91-year-old Gran Hotel where we’re staying in the city center is very nice, and it’s been fun to look out our window and see the people strolling across the Plaza de la Cultura. Almost every one is masked. But before 9 am, after about 7 pm, and at times in between, the streets radiating out from here have been depressingly empty.
The buildings lining those streets for the most part are forgettable, a mix of tacky strip mall and architectural brutalism. The national theater adjoining our plaza is an exception, and the post office building is so pretty we stopped to admire it. But where was the Spanish colonial heritage so evident in other Latin American capitals? The guidebook suggested an explanation: early Spaniards came here but when they found few natives to enslave and no gold, they lost interest and never left much of a footprint. “It’s kind of like Panama!” Steve exclaimed. “Only with volcanos and earthquakes.” (And of course no Canal.)
We spent most of yesterday giving San Jose our touristic best shot. Visited the Cathedral. Spent time in the national museum.
We should have done the jade museum, but after two exhausting hours of Costa Rican history, tromping up and down 5 stories to look at 7000 objects made of pretty green stone didn’t push my buttons.
In the afternoon we returned to the central market area (which had been lifeless at 8 am). It was crowded and colorful and studded with what seemed like the highest concentration of cripples and old ladies and other folks hawking lottery tickets I’ve seen anywhere in memory. I went Full Tourist and bought t-shirts that seemed to represent some of Costa Rica’s greatest charms.
Sloths are native and iconic.
And one of their presidents in 1948 dismantled the country’s military. Costa Rica still doesn’t have one!
Then it felt like we were out of things to do except study Lonely Planet for dinner options.
For my birthday Monday night, we’d had a great score — an Argentine joint featuring beef. Every table was filled, and we spent a couple of hours swooning over the food and loving the all-tango musical background. But even though Nuestra Tierra (our choice last night) had hundreds of enthusiastic online reviews, we and two saggy business types were the only customers, apparently for the night. Our waiter looked sad when we said we only wanted one beer apiece. When we turned down the free dessert, he looked almost desperate. The manager, sitting at the bar, may have been thinking of heading for the US border. It was then we resolved to stroll by the notorious Hotel del Rey, den of iniquity par excellence. Could some hilarity at least be found there?
We turned off the pedestrian-only Avenida Central…… which looked like this a little before 8 pm and walked the short block to Avenida 1, where the already-dim streets were darker and creepier. Almost all the storefronts were shuttered. Almost no one was out walking. But Google Maps insisted the Del Rey was just a block or two away. An online report had described the massive pink structure as sticking out like a sore thumb. This was true enough that we easily spotted it, but this thumb looked more dead than sore. Dark and lifeless, it made us wonder if it was yet another victim of Covid. Or had we simply been misinformed about its heyday?
We scuttled back to the main street, where a lighted storefront caught our eye: clearly a casino. Such gambling also is legal here. Lest our brief stab at vice-detecting fail utterly, we let the guy at the front door take our temperatures, and we squirted yet more sanitizer on our hands (the universal drill) and wandered throughout the two-story establishment. The light was gray and metallic. A few dozen patrons, each shielded by plexiglass barriers between their slot machines, slumped in front of the whirling mechanical images. In the far rear of the place, we found an electronic roulette wheel, so deserted that I managed to sneak a photo.
We didn’t feel particularly lucky, so we hurried back to the plaza of culture and were asleep well before 10. Now it’s morning, and we’ll say goodbye to San Jose in a few minutes and drive ourselves to the north. There the true Costa Rican experience reportedly awaits.