Flying out the door before 6.30 a.m. on Saturday, we made the 180 kilometers to the Nicaraguan border by about 10.00 a.m. The crossing at Peñas Blancas, which is one of only two between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, was a nightmare. The Nicas search every single truck for drugs, so the line extends three or four kilometers back from the checkpoint. Two Guatemalan truckers I spoke with had been there ten hours, since midnight, and those poor bastards still had about 1.5 kilometers to the finish. This is typical here, they said, and international borders at Honduras and El Salvador loomed yet ahead on their 1200-kilometer trip from San José to Guatemala City. I couldn’t help thinking the congestion must be a dfreadful blight for those whose homes are along the road. The Interamerican Highway has just two lanes, one clogged by these trucks, many of which sit with idling engines. Besides the acrid odor of diesel fumes, there’s lots of commotion with vendors selling juice and whatnot from carts. (Perhaps for those truckers who spend the night, other specialized services are offered.) One driver stood on the top step to his cab, brushing his teeth, and an environmental hazard was implicit in his ultimate need to spit on the road. The men—I haven’t found a woman trucker in Latin America—must also need to answer nature’s call, and who knows about the arrangements for that?
Beating a retreat amongst the poro-poro trees
Northbound cars are allowed past the big rigs, but every so often a southbound vehicle approaches, having just entered from Nicaragua, and you play chicken or decide how to share the lane: it helps that some truckers leave gaps between themselves, but where they’re jammed nose to tail, the imposingly steep shoulder of the road comes into play. When we got to the actual border checkpoint, a nondescript structure without special signs, several young men started waving and yammering, and they directed us to a parking area in front of the building. Wanting to change our money into córdobas and promising a better exchange rate than the commercial houses across the border, one had a thick wad of cash in hand. Another wanted to park our car. Still another wanted to arrange a taxi from the border to the colonial city of Granada. All were in my window and my ear. Leaning through Susan’s window, the Nicaraguan tramitador, a border official, wore a blue polo shirt with a small logo on the right breast. He was very gracious. But as soon as he saw the papers for our Daihatsu bucket of bolts, he said we couldn’t drive a rental into the country. We would have to take a taxi or bus to Granada.
So we turned around and retraced the 23 kilometers south to La Cruz, the pleasant town where we had eaten breakfast in a small restaurant. (Fried eggs, beans and rice, and coffee for me and juice for Susan had come to 3600 colones, or about $6.25.) We continued 11 kilometers farther before turning west. A twisting road led into a bayside village, Cuajiniquil, which might be even harder to pronounce than it appears. Here the paved road ended. I stopped at a tiny store that was just a wing on a family’s shack, bought a grape Fanta there, and got confirmation that the road indeed led into the Murciélago conservation area. There were a few more shacks along the way, and as we were about to go up a hill I stopped for a man and woman who had just walked down it in the road. They were a pleasant-looking, middle-aged pair. Susan observed that the woman, carrying an unopened umbrella for the strong midday sun to come, wore a straw hat over a cloth one, a nearly long-sleeved white and pink printed knit top, a long light-blue skirt, socks, and tennis shoes. I asked them about the trees with deep golden-yellow flowers. We knew the Cortez amarillos, a lighter yellow-blooming tree, but it was our first encounter with these golden blossoms. They said it was the poro-poro. (Or maybe the said poroporo, Poro Poro, Poro-poro, or any of the other ways I’m seeing it written; at any rate, the idea is that it blooms now, in the dry season when so many other trees have dropped their leaves, and produces fruit and then seeds that fall to the ground in time for the rains that come later in the year.)
A remote beach and the people from Cuajiniquil
At the entrance to Murciélago a ranger stepped out of the small house as we shut off the engine. He’d had a cleft palate repaired but was a fine-looking fellow of around 30, name of Javier. The top couple of buttons of his ranger shirt were undone. We chatted with him and Susan wanted to know how many visitors came through. He said about 30 per week, except Holy Week, when 500 are expected. He pointed to the small campground, raising the question of how deep they stack up at bedtime. When it was time to pay the entrance fee, Susan went back to the car for 11,000 colones. Javier asked which country we were from. I was surprised he couldn’t tell, whether by my accent or how we were dressed, so I asked where he thought we were from. After deliberating long enough to earn the “I’m sorry” buzzer in a game show, he finally said he thought it was the United States. I felt a bit of relief that he hadn’t said Germany. On the other hand, if he had guessed a Nordic country, I might have been flattered.
From the ranger station we started down the 18 kilometers of rocky, single-lane road to the beach at Bahía Playa Blanca. A vista point halfway along displayed the Gulf of Santa Elena and Nicaragua’s mountainous coastline beyond it to the north. Reaching our destination, we found three other vehicles in the parking area, but no one was evident. Then a voice emanating from the shade of the beachside trees startled us. A party of five or six was from the cute little hotel back in Cuajiniquil. Another group beside them was of mestizo fishermen who had motored around Punta Blanca from Bahía Cuajiniquil in a 17-foot wooden boat. We bantered with the hotel crowd and greeted the fishermen, and everybody smiled pleasantly. To my remark about the rough road, a handsome man with a long face and round glasses, who presented a cerebral aspect, responded, “Vale la pena.” I had to remark, at least to myself, the coincidence of this, having just learned the phrase earlier in the week: Worth the trouble. After a couple of minutes of this talk, Susan and I set off on a beach walk. I have to confess feeling immediately as though I were in a Corona commercial. All the white sand, the azure bay, the one small island and one small fishing boat near it, and the flowering trees of the dry forest from Punta Blanca on the right all the way around to Cabo Santa Elena on the left: not a car, an airplane, a voice: just the small breakers washing over our feet. The only birds in view—merely two of them—floated serenely on the water. I would almost rate as the next hour’s highlight the drama that was enacted when we surprised a large crab on the sand. It scrambled off in its panicky way, heading for a hole, and, arriving there, evicted a smaller crab that was now faced with the dilemma of where the hell to go; after quite a long run ahead of me, it decided to become invisible and just scrunched down. I used the bottoms of my sandals, which I’d been carrying in my hands, as a pair of tongs and picked up the little fellow for an eye-to-eye, a carapace-a-tête, and Susan and I found ourselves laughing again after I set him back down and he fled into the water.
She uttered her resolve to preserve this tranquility upon returning home and getting caught up in normal life.
We returned to the Interamerican Highway and drove a couple of hours through the neotropical savannah country—Liberia, Filidelfia, Belén, where we bought beer for me and an ice cream bar for her in the Super Compro market, but I failed to find a sabanero hat like that I’d seen on the head of a horseman along the road—and then back over the coastal hills, arriving at Tamarindo just in time to watch the sun set over the bay. From our vantage point above the estuary, where the water taxis and excursion boats sit at anchor, the sun seemed to be internally fueled by carmine flowers and blood oranges. It met the horizon and plunged beneath it to bring day to the eastern hemisphere.
Granada, Nicaragua: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granada,_Nicaragua
Poro Poro tree: http://www.cds.ed.cr/teachers/harmon/page43.html
Cuajiniquil, Costa Rica (and map): http://www.cuajiniquil.com/index.html