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Bus2Antarctica: 1 Day, 4 Countries

Andrew Evans recounts his dashing Costa Rican border crossing. Stay tuned for Part II of the adventure.

Mea maxima culpa, I have just committed the ultimate travel sin: I have visited too many countries in too short a time.

If foreigners aren’t deriding Americans for traveling enough, they chide us for our propensity to skip through countries like they were squares on a game board. We are most guilty in Europe, where we can drive across international borders without flinching and buy package tours allow us to take in London, Paris, and Rome in less than a week.

It’s true that taking the time to truly travel is fundamental to really delving into a place, but my 10,000-mile quest has me ultimately boarding a ship to Antarctica, and dawdling is not an option. I have limited time and an ultimate goal, which is why in my first 10 days of traveling I had to push myself onward, no matter how spectacular the scenery around me–and believe me, it has been most spectacular.

For those who haven’t been, the countries of Central America offer such unique and separate experience from one another, you must travel to each one in order to enjoy the full range of flavors and personality out there. I love all of it: Guatemala for it’s strong Mayan element and spiritual richness; El Salvador for its cuisine and deep green countryside; the old-fashioned hacienda feeling of Honduras; Nicaragua’s wild side–be it the untouched expanse of mountains or the maniacal streets of Managua; and Costa Rica for it’s superiority complex and sheer rainbow of birdlife.

If time were no object, I would have spent a week in each country, soaking up as much as I could, but instead, I found myself in San Salvador the morning of January 8th and a boat to catch in Costa Rica on January 9th: a daunting challenge but as I barely discovered, not entirely unfeasible (though definitely almost unfeasible).

Thus began a marathon day of Central American travel. It started with a 3 a.m. wake up call in El Salvador. I ate breakfast in Honduras, had a late lunch in Nicaragua, and a well-past midnight dinner at a truck stop in Costa Rica.

In one single day, I changed money three times: to Honduran Lempiras, to Nicaraguan Cordobas, and finally to Costa Rican Colones. I crossed three international borders, had my passport flicked through by countless officials in various-colored uniforms, all of them curious as they studied each of the stamps–¿Que?

Only two days in Guatemala?

The pure thrill of travel–and the constantly changing view outside my bus window–lulled me into a complacent feeling that all was well; that somehow it would all work out. That’s until I arrived at dusk in Managua and realized that my ticket to Costa Rica was not for 9:30 that night but for 9:30 in the morning, as in mañana–as in tomorrow morning. As in, arrive in San Jose five hours past the departure of the bus that goes to my ship.

I wish I could say I handled the situation calmly but I’m ashamed to say I was very American about the whole thing. I put both hands on the ticket counter at the bus station and insisted I be put on an earlier bus that got me to Costa Rica on time. I remember saying necessito over and over again.
But there were no buses. Not that night, not for that bus company and not for any bus company. The bus company tried to explain that they don’t run buses after dark–for safety reason but also for lack of passengers who want to travel at night. We were at an impasse: I couldn’t understand why in the entire city of Managua, there was not a single bus headed to Costa Rica and they couldn’t understand why a 12-hour delay was such a big deal. I wish I could explain everything I’ve learned about the unique Latin American concept of time but I think I’ll wait until tomorrow. Or the day after.

Or maybe even a little later than that.

To make matters worse, I discovered the border would close, “Maybe at 7, maybe at closes at 9.”

In any case, the more I said, “Necessito,” the more they said “no puedes” and offered to help me find a hotel for the night.

At which point I became very American and just hired someone to take me there. It was a 100 miles to the border at Peñas Blancas and it took me about five seconds to find a taxi driver in Managua who was up for the challenge. I won’t say how much I paid the man, but it was about the same it costs me to go the airport in Washington, DC.

My brave driver’s name was Panfilon. He was 67 and drove a very beat-up Toyota with a stick shift, the handle of which had been replaced with a giant red glass crystal ball. I had to pay half the fare in advance so that we could put some gas in the car and then we were off, tearing down the Pan-American highway at unreal speeds. I wish I could tell you how fast we were going, but Panfilon’s speedometer was kaput. Despite the windburn on my face and my life flashing before my eyes, the speedometer kept shrugging its shoulders and insisting we were traveling at zero miles per hour so what was the big deal?

Having started my day at 3 a.m. I was a little drowsy. Despite the adrenalin rush and the fact that we were flying across Nicaragua, I dozed on and off, catching glimpses of the immense Lake Nicaragua on one side and on the other, the chickens and children that were running for cover as we tore past. Panfilon was silent and determined, racing his car like a professional and making incredible passes, slipping back into our lane just as I could see into the soul of the headlights rushing towards us. I consoled myself by staring at the stars above, which in the darkness shone so brilliantly I completely forgot about my dilemma or the fact that if I even sneezed, Panfilon would be startled and our car would do big corkscrew turns in the air and land in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.

Then suddenly, we pulled to the side of the road and cut the engine. We had arrived. I didn’t need the speedometer to figure out that we had covered a hundred miles in 75 minutes. I paid Panfilon, shook his hand like a gentleman and then ran on foot to the border ahead.

Borders are strange places.

Somewhere out there was a line in the dirt where Nicaragua ends and Costa Rica began, but what I found was a spacious no man’s land in between. I formally exited Nicaragua at a dimly-lit concrete building, then trudged on with my backpack into the darkness, walking to a faraway light in the distance.  The light turned out to be a little booth with a bored Nicaraguan soldier inside who, after checking my passport, nodded to the ground and motioned to go on. I took a step forward and he said, “Now you’re in Costa Rica.”

Still, I had to walk another mile in the dark before getting to a relaxed wooden shed where the Costa Rican immigration officials seemed to be having casual Friday, except for the fact it was Saturday. They stamped me in and I suddenly felt relieved. I had made it. Four countries in one day. Somehow I could still make it to the ship on time.

As if on cue, it started to rain, oh so gently. I walked onward, regaining the Pan-American highway on foot, still not knowing how I would make it to San Jose but happy to walk for a ways.

I guess part of taking the bus is having to walk and shell out for cabs.  Sometimes the bus breaks down, sometimes it doesn’t show up and sometimes, there just ain’t no bus when you need one.

Also, you don’t rush Latin America. Yes, there are buses to anywhere you want to go, but you get there when you get there. And luckily, this time, I got there.

Andrew is currently on board the National Geographic Sea Lion, which is traveling from Costa Rica to Panama. Follow his Twitter feed here @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, and get the full story on the project here. All photos Andrew Evans.

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