I chose the fairly popular TICA (Trans-International Central America) bus line for the leg of the trip from Honduras to Costa Rica. It's pretty simplistic, but a lot more comfortable and faster than the chicken buses. Think a little more Southwest than Midwest Express. However, somewhere in my super-rudimentary Spanish skillset, I managed to miss a key point. Though I bought a ticket to San Jose, it turns out the first bus only went as far as Managua, Nicaragua. We were to stay the night there, and complete the trip to San Jose the next day. Well hell.
I didn't know much about Nicaragua, only that Managua isn't that nice of a place. Tim, the owner of the hostel in Tegucigalpa looked at me as if I were crazy when I told him about the situation. "Good way to get robbed." He stated flatly. Sweet. Apparently, if you are to stay any length of time, it's best to go to Leon or Granada, a couple of old colonial towns on either side of the capital. I didn't really have the time to figure all that out, and didn't really want to spend a lot of time in Nicaragua. So I now had the worry of finding a hotel. Turns out TICA Bus is trying to separate itself from the competition by offering some additional services. Starting with, for example, a brand new hotel in its Managua terminal. I went ahead and booked a room. At least I'd somewhat reduce the opportunity for a mugging.
I ended up with a seat right behind the driver again, but thankfully this time no one sat next to me. It was relatively un-eventful. However, this ride confirmed for me the absolute insanity (or lack of taste) of the people picking movies for us to watch. Let me explain - The "screens" usually consist of two (maybe three) 15 inch TVs poorly mounted in the ceiling at a perfect level for contact with my forehead. The system is run from a central DVD unit up by the driver. And judging from the quality of the DVDs, they're pretty much all illegal copies picked up from street vendors. You have to understand - this is an absolute assault on my movie-watching senses. If nothing else, I have seen a few movies I'd never had seen otherwise - and a reminder as to why. On one trip, we saw "Cars", "John Tucker Must Die" and "Little Man". It was a double header of Spanish-dubbed Jean-Claude VanDamme movies on another. On this particular leg, we saw "Juwanna Mann", "Mr. Deeds" and "Out of Time". It wouldn't be as bad if the audio wasn't piped through the bus' PA system. Loudly. Even my iPod can't really compete with it. Oh well. My Spanish is getting a little better through subtitles.
As we hit the border, we all had to get out for passport inspection, walk from one dilapidated building to the next, navigate the throng of change-makers... the usual inconveniences of a border crossing. Everything was relatively normal until a kid in his early 20s was questioned pretty strongly, then asked to take all his stuff off the bus and follow a customs agent. We all got back on the bus, then sat around for about 20 minutes waiting on him. When he finally returned, he had a pretty disturbed look on his face. I found out later he got busted for having weed stashed in his guitar. Not a smart move when crossing into Nicaragua. I don't know what kept him from being detained - likely a hefty fine or something, but he didn't look happy.
We pulled into Managua around 5:00 pm or so. The bus station actually looked pretty new - or at least had new paint. I confirmed my ticket for 8:00 am tomorrow, then found my hotel room - actually a fairly nice place compared to some of the hostels I'd been in. Somewhat like a real hotel, I had a private room, my own bed, and a towel. I had to share a bathroom, but it had multiple showers, basins and toilets. It was actually refreshing. I did a little laundry in the sink, grabbed some dinner from the snack bar, and went to bed.
My bus was to leave at 8:00 am. I awoke to my alarm accordingly, and went down and checked in as instructed at 7:20. The young guy at the counter told me in decent English that I was early and that they'd call us up in 15 minutes if I'd just wait in the lobby. No problem. I was soon joined there by a very cool Swedish couple I met on the bus from Tegucigalpa - Tony and Senna. They were in the same boat. We talked for a good bit, sharing stories of bus travel and comparing notes on Central America. Around 8:00 we saw our bus pull up in the window, and people started lining up to board the bus. We joined them, having already checked our bigger luggage. When we got to the door of the bus, the attendant checked our tickets and waved us back to the counter. We headed there - only to find out they had given away our seats to other passengers. Needless to say, this wasn't good. The Swedes were PISSED. They argued like champs. I was impressed at their tenacity.
Since none of us spoke more than 10 words of Spanish, the brunt of our wrath was brought down on the little guy at the front counter who spoke English. He explained we hadn't shown up at the counter 45 minutes ahead of departure as the signs instructed. Now, I explained to him that indeed I did, and that I in fact talked to him. He quickly said "they called you up later". No, no they didn't. There wasn't a PA system installed, and I was facing the counter - not a soul announced the check in for our bus in either Spanish or English. After about 15 minutes of arguing, I came to the understanding this was a battle we weren't going to win - and to make a long story short, we didn't. There was another bus heading to San Jose at noon, and we were booked passage on it. This meant waiting around in the terminal for 3 more hours, but at least we would be in Costa Rica tonight.
The ride to San Jose was actually really beautiful. The city of Managua borders the Lago de Managua (Managua Lake), which is quite a vision. Two picturesque volcanic cones rising up out of the water, tops shrouded in clouds. The lake spread around them toward the bus, a stretch of land about a quarter of a mile in width filled with beautiful trees, pasture land and the occasional ranch separating us from the water. It was breathtaking. About an hour later, the sun was starting to go down, and another volcano peak rose in the East. A large bank of clouds stirred behind it, and over the course of the next 15 minutes rose over its top and engulfed it completely. In time, setting sun created two large rainbows on either side of it. It was something out of a movie.
Night fell, and we arrived in San Jose under streetlights. Fortunately, our extended time in the bus station and on the bus itself afforded ample time to get to know Tony and Senna. They seemed about my age - probably 25-30 and were from Gothenburg, Sweden. Tony is a self-employed Web designer, and Senna a journalist. They were recently married and were taking their first "proper vaction" in a couple years. Without a doubt the coolest people I've met on the trip.
We shared a cab to a hostel called "Costa Rica Backpackers". It's a very unique and interesting place. Many, many rooms, both private and dorm-style, a pool, 7 computers with internet access, a friendly English speaking staff, a restaurant that shows movies at 5:00 every night, etc. It's catered exclusively to the traveler crowd, and is rewarded as such by a consistent set of transients of all ages and backgrounds passing through its doors.
The next day Tony and Senna headed on to Manuel Antonio, a beach town about 3 hours Southeast of San Jose. I stayed in San Jose - walking around the city, exploring the main streets and plazas. It's actually pretty nice, especially compared to a few other cities I've been in. It was Sunday, and like any red-blooded American male, I thought about the NFL playoffs. After asking around for a while, I ended up watching the game on 7 screens with about 50 other traveling Americans at a little sports book on the second level of a downtown Casino. It's fun to see people of all shapes and sizes show up with their old-school Walter Payton jerseys, or Reggie Bush shirts in the middle of San Jose.
Monday I went about investigating a way to get to Panama City. It seemed wrong for me to be this close and not make an attempt to see the infamous canal. Even after my less-than-pleasant experience with TICA bus, I checked their office for a bus the next day. They were booked solid until Friday, the 26th. My flight to Quito was set for the 31st., so that didn't really work. I read in the guide book a company called Panaline did daily trips to Panama City. I checked them out and ended up booking a trip on Tuesday.