Earlier this week, or the first time in my life, I stepped foot onto Costa Rican soil. Currently, I am in Tamarindo, which is barely Costa Rica at all, although it technically is inside the country’s border. It could easily be called Tourist Land International, along with places like Cabo san Lucas or Playa del Carmen in Mexico, Phuket, and Kuta. Maybe a company could be set up and market all of these places to potential travelers.
Come see TOURIST LAND INTERNATIONAL’s latest, greatest city: Tamarindo!
To be fair, Tamarindo is far more mellow and much cleaner than the super tourist meccas I have been to in Mexico or SE Asia. The beaches are almost completely trash free, and the people selling whistles or hammocks are, in general, pretty tame. I am guessing that the attitude of the sellers of random stuff is a cultural difference more than anything. Although it appears that roughly 50% of any local on the beach is also in the marijuana or cocaine distribution business as well. I can’t remember anywhere that I have been offered weed by so many people. While I enjoy myself a little green every so often, I never buy it in foreign countries. I have seen enough of “Locked up Abroad” to tempt fate even a little.
To get to the Costa Rican tourist hot spot that is Tamarindo was a typical third world travel adventure unto itself. I left San Juan del Sur without any problems: got on the “chicken bus” (which was chicken free) from SJDS to Rivas, which is the larger city in the area. Of course, there is more than one bus stop in Rivas, and the ticket that I purchased was for a different bus picking up from a different stop. There are things I really enjoyed about Nicaragua, but efficiency or logic when it comes to transportation do not top that list. I wandered around the bus stop, trying to figure out where the hell my bus was supposed to stop. Eventually, a taxi driver told me it was on the other side of town, and because the bus was leaving Rivas in about twenty minutes, I sure as hell wanted to get to that other stop. The chicken busses were filling up, and some even went to Costa Rica, but I had paid $30 in American currency for an air conditioned mode of transport, and I was damn well going to find this particular bus. The taxi man said he could take me to this other bus stop for $4, so I quickly said yes and we were on our way.
About ten minutes later, he pulled up to what looks like a random city bus stand, with a few benches. Ok, guess this is…it? There were five other tourists with their big bags, so clearly this was a stop for the big busses. Gotta love third world transit. Oh the BIG busses? Yea they stop at a tiny popsicle stand on the other side of town without any signs or anything. After a few minutes goes by, one of the chicken busses pulls up in front of me, clearly meaning I could have taken that bus to at least here. Nicely done, taximan. You successfully got $4 out of me. To be honest, I didn’t regret it at all, since I wanted to make sure I got on a bus going to a different freaking country. If I would have missed it, then another series of hoops to jump through would have started. I was trying to minimize hoop jumping.
To my surprise, my bus came pretty much right on time. I showed my ticket, along with a few of the other tourist looking white folk waiting at the popsicle stand, and boarded what was relative luxury compared to the other busses in Nicaragua. You mean I get air conditioning and my knees aren’t embedded six inches into the seat in front of me? This is heavenly!
Before too long, we reached the Nicaragua/ Costa Rica boarder. As with most things like border crossings I have experienced during my travels, nothing is ever explained. Our bus drives by a monster series of lines, like people waiting to ride Splash Mountain in June, so I prayed to the old gods that I do not have to stand through that. The bus stopped in a corner of the parking lot, the rest of the passengers started getting off, so I followed in line and do the same. Some sort of police officer/ border security checked my bag for .02 seconds and waves me off the bus. I exchanged my Nicaraguan Cordoba for Costa Rican Colon, while not sure if I had been taken advantage of yet again. Fortunately, I didn’t have much money to exchange, so they couldn’t have tricked me out of too much money no matter what. Everyone from my bus stood around for roughly thirty minutes while a series of food and souvenir vendors attempted to exchange their wares for pieces of paper currency. Not many people accepted their generous offer. Eventually, one of the border guards returned with a fat stack of our passports, and began calling names to redistribute them to their rightful owners. My name got called, I raised my hand, and the passport distributor wants me to take off my hat and sunglasses to confirm my identity. I complied with both requests, smiled, am given my passport back, and re-boarded the bus. Good times at the border patrol.
After the “call the name, return your passport” game is complete, the bus is moving again. Before long, I see a sign that says “Welcome to Costa Rica,” and thought, well, that the crossing wasn’t too bad. Oh, silly Ben. I got my hopes up too soon. A quarter mile later, we made another stop. The first check was just to leave Nicaragua. Now we need to enter Costa Rica. Two different stops, two different checks. For this particular charade, everyone exits the bus once again, and gathered his or her respective bags. We all waited patiently in line, showed the passport to the Costa Rican officer, received a stamp, sent our luggage though an x-ray scanner that I don’t think anyone was actually looking at, exited the border check and once again got back on our bus. Now, I am officially in Costa Rica. I think.
By this point, I was pretty tired from a half day of travel, so I slept a bit after the double border cross dance extravaganza. The bus employee knew I want to get off in Liberia, and not go all the way to San Jose, so after another few hours he woke me up to let me know I am at my destination. I got off the bus… in the middle of fucking nowhere. It felt like a scene out of a movie, where the city boy visitor gets to the dusty town out in the sticks. The street I am dropped off on has an insane amount of construction and a McDonalds within eyesight, as well as several metric tons of dust and dirt swirling in the wind. Instantly, as is custom, a taxi driver asked me where I was going and if I want a ride. A “generous” (his words) offer of $80 was instantly slashed to $50 without me even saying a word. This was still far too rich for my cheap travel budget, so I asked him where the bus stop was for Tamarindo, and he thankfully pointed me in the right direction. With all by bags in the midday heat, I sweated my way over to one bus stop, learn it was the wrong one, receive several more $50 taxi offers, decline, and found the second bus stop to be the correct one. Praise the old gods and the new! The next bus to Tamarindo was leaving about an hour later, so I enjoyed an average hamburger and waited along with everyone else, hoping this bus from Liberia to Tamarindo was going to show up.
Thankfully, my bus did show up, pretty much on time, and I was finally on my last leg of transport to Tamarindo. Before really getting on the road, it was time for another unplanned incident. as the bus was backing up out of the station, I heard "pop pop pop" sounds behind us. I am far from a firearms expert, but the sounds did seem like they could have been gunshots. My suspicions were quickly confirmed by the people I could see running either toward the sound (to see what happened) or away from it (to avoid any rogue bullets). Everyone on my bus stood up to see what was happening, but we couldn’t see anything from our vantage point. Crowds of people gathered around the station, pointing in different directions, possibly where the shooter ran to. Police cars are soon zipping by, and our bus starts to head toward Tamarindo. More groups are gathered on corners, pointing and trying to see what is going on. We can see cops running around, pointing, apparently trying to find the suspect. This goes on for a few minutes, and then we seem to be successfully away from whatever skirmish just occurred. Oh, no, not done yet.
A cop car whizzes by the bus, and the bus stops. I am in the far back, so I can’t see what his happening in front of us. Everyone stands up to get a better look. Next thing we all see is a cop standing at the back door of the bus, which promptly makes everyone sit down. A second cop then comes running through the bus, as they thought the shooter had boarded perhaps. He shakes his head no, and the two cops move on. Not sure if this is a regular part of the Costa Rican bus system, but it sure was exciting. Hope nobody got hurt.
After driving on this final bus for over an hour, I could see why a taxi was a much quicker route. The bus drove into several small communities on the way from Liberia to Tamarindo, making what seemed like seventy eight stops within each little town. It took over two hours to reach the end of the line, but I enjoyed looking out the window at the Costa Rican landscape. I was on the final leg of my eight hour travel day, and could feel that the final destination getting closer. Empty ranch and farmland quickly turned into a street with a gaggle of tourists. I saw all sorts of signs for surf shops and restaurants. There are high end hotels all over the place, so I know, without a doubt, I was officially in Tamarindo.
The area reminds me a bit more of Hawaii than other tourist hot spots like Phuket, Cabo, or Kuta. It isn’t nearly as built up as somewhere like Waikiki beach, since there aren’t any massive sky scraping hotels and there is only one main road, but it has a feel sort of like that. There is a Sharky’s with beer pong on Sundays, if that gives you any indication of the type of area it is. My hotel is pretty nice for $45 a night, although I believe the property may have been built on an ancient ant burial ground. Bugs are everywhere in tropical climates, so I am semi-used to them, but the ant population at my hotel must number in the multi-trillions. I don’t mind them outside, but when the big suckers get into my room, well, it’s execution time. If I don’t dispose of the dead ants properly, a group of mini ants find the deceased bigger ones and carry them off to…somewhere. I like to imagine that they are taking them away for an ant viking funerals, to be buried properly among the other trillions of their dead brethren.
The beach in town is pretty nice, although sufficiently overpopulated with large, white humans. After being in places like Las Peñitas in Nicaragua, which never had more than ten people within sight, Tamarindo is a stark reminder that the tourists like to flock together. My main issue with this area is that the food is really expensive, and, for a third world country, it is pretty outrageous. I have not been able to eat for less than $6, and that is without any type of beverage. Most meals are closer to $10, and I continue to search for cheaper options. I even resorted to cooking my own breakfast to save a few shekels a day. The majority of visitors seem content spending $20+ on a meal, since they are, you know, on VACATION! Money is no object, right? Even the 12 oz beers at the local mini marts are about $1 each, which isn’t outrageous, but not super cheap either.
Overall, Tamarindo is still a beautiful place. It is simply overpopulated with short term first world tourists, which jack up the prices of everything to first world levels. I can’t really recommend it, and don’t plan on coming back anytime soon, if ever, but it hasn’t been a bad stop either. I will relax, and enjoy my stay here for a few more days before heading farther south, away from the blinding glare of several thousand pale temporary residents of Tamarindo.