Needing to use vouchers with NatureAir before they expired, Bill decided he would like to spend his birthday on a one day tour to Nicaragua which involved a boat ride out to some islands.  We flew from SJO to FON, less than a half hour north, which would take a few hours by car.  A taxi arranged by the Arenal Volcan Inn picked us up for for a “mere” thirty dollars for the six kilometer ride to where we were staying.

Gosh, is it hot and muggy there with the lower elevation!  At least we had a fantastic view of the volcano and seemed to be right at it’s base.  Often it was hidden with the rainy season clouds, but we did enjoy some towering vistas.

The villa we stayed in was listed under AirBnB and seemed to be part of the personal deal of the inn’s manager.  With fees we paid $65 a night, including breakfast.  There was a refrigerator in the room which came in handy for the box breakfast they provided the first morning as our tour began before the dining room opened.  The AC was welcome relief from the oppressing outdoors.

After a light lunch and despite the climatic conditions we did roam around the colorful landscaped grounds on the intertwining paths leading to various duplex villas and pool.  The workers certainly must be kept busy maintaining all the flowers, shrubs, and trees as well as lawn.  In the back of the property are two large solar panels to heat the water.  It was from there we had the best volcano views when the skies were clear.

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Since it was too hot to walk several minutes to try other restaurants we remained at our digs for dinner.  A large pizza contented Bill while I was very pleased with the delicious cheese ravioli in pesto.  So yummy!

Ecoterra came as planned at 5:50 AM to begin our excursion across the border.  Our hotel breakfast provided fresh fruit and mostly tasteless bread so even though the tour boxed version was not what we normally would eat, processed meat and plastic cheese sandwiches, it did taste pretty good!  There was also very sweet yogurt with hard to eat granola, cookie sandwiches, and a strange lightweight granola bar.  Ah, but there was lots and lots of bottled water and some flavored tea and the van had AC.

About an hour and a half later we arrived at the border.  First we had to exit Costa Rica by going through immigration and then walk down the road to enter Nicaragua.  The process seemed overly cautious.  After we were stamped out of Costa Rica and were at the actual border, our passports were checked by another local agent.  As soon as we entered Nicaragua a formidable young woman reviewed our passports.  She seemed displeased at all our recent travels and I fully expected her to state some problem.  Begrudgingly, she handed them back to us.  Then it was on to the official processing where our picture was taken and the facts that we are retired and married were duly entered into the computer.  The long wait was then for the van to be fumigated and paperwork checked and recorded.  Ecoterra used to have Nicaraguan vans take the tours on their side of the border, but they were rather unkempt and not up to standard.

Finally, we were on our way.  But wait!  Just to be sure all was well agents down the road wanted to see our paperwork and ask about our purpose.  Ok, now we are done.  Oh, think again!  A few minutes further down the road is a friendship bridge donated by Japan.  Agents there needed to look inside the van and our passports!!  Good grief!  Four checks on the Nicaraguan side of the border!!

A half hour or so later we entered San Carlos, a rather dirty town of a few thousand people.  There we met a local young woman who speaks English pretty well who was to guide us around the area and out to the islands where she lives.  The town used to house a castle where there were skirmishes.  Costa Rica and Nicaragua have never gotten along.  When there were concerns about William Walker, Costa Rica invaded Nicaragua unannounced to get rid of him.  That did not go over well and eventually the Ticos had to withdraw.  There have been issues regarding the border between the two countries for decades with each country taking over boats from the other country.   In 1977 the Sandistas, who Costa Rica supported to get rid of Somoza as he wanted to invade Costa Rica, attacked the National Guard along the San Juan River there in San Carlos and who were able to push them back.  During this, Nicaragua strafed three Costa Rican boats inside their own territory, which did not help relations.  Costa Rica granted asylum to almost a dozen Sandinistas.  Many Ticos were ambivalent about the guerillas, not being sure they were actually of communist persuasion.  They certainly did not want communism in their own country, though.

Enough of a complicated history…after a stop at a mirador for a look out over the river we headed on down to the dock and boarded our boat for the hour ride out to the volcanic Solentiname Islands.  The refreshing breeze as we sped across the Lake Nicaragua was very welcome!  We paused along the way to view thousands of cormorants, storks, ahningas, and a few tiger herons and whistling ducks which littered the trees and shore.  Our destination was the largest of the four inhabited islands of the thirty-six in the archipelago, Mancarrón.  No electricity or roads with minimal running water make the humid conditions very uncomfortable for those not acclimated to it.

Many of the islands’ 900 or so inhabitants combine farming and fishing with painting and balsa woodcarving. Yet we saw just a few people.  Almost 50 years ago, they began to produce primitive art inspired by their daily struggle and dreams as well as the islands’ verdant landscape.   Politician, poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal has been instrumental in guiding the residents, and he is there part-time, to help them find justice in their lives. During the revolution that brought the Sandinistas to power in 1979, it was a hotbed of political activity. We visited Cardenal’s cabin and church, with its pre-Colombian style altar and whitewashed walls decorated with the locals’ paintings.  Many were done by children representing their dreams.  I loved this humble dirt floor simple church with its primary colored moveable benches.  This is how churches should be, not gaudy showcases.  There were chickens and rooster roaming about, oropendolas calling above near their nests, and five peacocks also take up residence there.  A pre-Colombian museum displays several clay pieces found there on the island.

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We then followed the sidewalk up a slope towards a hotel, formerly a university, and through humble abodes.  One man was carving the balsa wood and a young woman was painting his creations; toucans, parrots, flowers, etc.  They were for sale but we weren’t in the mode to purchase anything.  The sidewalk meandered through the residential area where high school students go to school twice a month and spend the rest of the time doing a lot of homework.  The younger kids attend about five hours a day.  Spiny palm trees were pointed, ha ha, out to us.  Some are cut down and pieces are carved out and filled with water.  After a few days fermentation has created a rather strong alcohol.

We returned to the boat for a quick ride around to another hotel for a delicious and simple chicken lunch.  The orange flavored meat was very salty so the cabbage salad, very thin fried plantain chips in strips, beans, and rice balanced that.  Dessert was a winter type squash boiled with tapa dulce, a brown sugar formed during part of the sugar cane processing.  Very sweet!  Lemonade made with “good water” was also served though none of us drank it.  Our guide had informed us of the questionable water in the area.  While waiting for the boat to return we relaxed and admired the oropendola nests hanging way overhead from the trees.  At times the babies hidden inside were chattering away when Mama came to feed them.  Boa constrictors are on the island, though we didn’t see any.  One of our guide’s kittens was eaten by one of the serpents, surmised when it was missing and the other two were being threatened by one.  The baby birds are also at risk of being eaten by a boa.

During the shorter boat ride back to San Carlos a bit of rain finally fell.  We were given a long piece of folded plastic to cover ourselves.  By the time we reached shore it had ended.  We really were very lucky that with the threat of rain all day that was all we had to endure.

Passage through immigration was much faster and leaving Nicaragua was clearly less concerning to them as there were fewer checks.  Costa Rica didn’t care about fumigating the car after being in Nicaragua and being a local car made the re-entry quick.  Shortly before arriving at the hotel our very observant guide spotted some howler monkeys up in a tree and had the driver stop so we could observe them.  They were a bit far away but with binoculars I got a pretty good view.  Always cool!

For Bill’s birthday dinner he decided upon sopa Azteca so he could enjoy his coffee flan for dessert.  Whatever I had was mediocre but the strawberry gelatto was yummy.

After a quiet morning we left by taxi to return to the airport, and this time the cost was only $20 as all he had to do was drop was off, no waiting.  Turns out he is from the same town where we now live and knows well the Toucan Rescue Ranch where we have been volunteering most of the past year.  We had to wait a bit for our very casually dressed NatureAir agent, sporting a new tattoo under plastic, to check us in.  He had the audacity to set out a bowl for tips.  That was a new one.  Guess he needed to pay for the newest ink.  The flight back was via Quepos where the landing strip is among a palm tree plantation.  It was pretty fun descending into that.  Deboarding was at Tobias Bolano Airport in Pavas, which is further from home but the only option.

Another adventure under our belts!

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