Waiting for the boat to Nicaragua

The muelle (dock) at Los Chiles, Costa Rica

The muelle (dock) at Los Chiles, Costa Rica

After a delicious Thanksgiving dinner with all the gringo trimming (thanks to Christine at Desafio Adventure), we left  La Fortuna early for a half-day wildlife tour of Cano Negro in northern Costa Rica, in part to get a ride up to Los Chiles.

From Los Chiles the plan is take a boat up the Rio Frio into Nicaragua, where we’ll spend a week or so exploring the Rio San Juan (the watery border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua), an old Spanish fort called El Castillo, and the Solentiname Islands, where in the 1980s Sandinista poet-priest Ernesto Cardinal taught locals his own fiery brand of liberation theology and also encouraged them to paint pictures of their surroundings. They’re still painting, and I’ve also heard that they are some of the staunchest Sandinista supporters in the country.

But good things come, apparently, only to those who wait.

The afternoon started off deceptively easy. Immigration in Los Chiles is the fastest I’ve ever left a country. We filled out a short form (the clerk loaned us his pen), got our passports stamped (there was no line), and we were on our way…to the town dock, where we would wait, and wait, then wait some more.

It was around 1 pm, and there was a chance that a boat would come for us at 2. Or so Phillipe, the French expat owner of Esquina del Lago lodge in Nicaragua, had emailed me. But he’d also outlined other options involving the bote publico (the pubic boat) from Los Chiles, Costa Rica, to San Carlos, Nicaragua. This boat, which costs $10, leaves at 10:30 am, 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm, and 3:30 pm. Unless it doesn’t. Maybe there aren’t enough people to make it worth their while, or the captain needs to run some errands in town.  And even if the boat does go, as the 3:30 boat that day ended up running, it probably won’t leave until 4 pm or so. Unless, of course, it leaves early.

Waiting for the boat to San Carlos, Nicargua

Waiting at Los Chiles for the boat to San Carlos, Nicaragua

Meanwhile, we wait. A group of boat captains lounges at one end of the cement pier. One half-heartedly tries to get us to take his boat to Nicaragua instead of waiting for the public ferry. Someone asks David where he got his sunglasses. Ebay, David answers.  At the other end of the pier teenagers with drooping pants act out some sort of antic scenario that is supposed to distract us from noticing that they’re eyeing our bags. When they slouch by and disappear upriver we’re relieved but soon miss having them to look at. A tarpon jumps out of the green-brown river and slaps back down, making a surprisingly loud noise. The locals barely look up, but one informs us, “Sabalo” (Tarpon).

Thirty minutes later, an aguacero (downpour) relieves the boredom for a few minutes. Even under a corrugated tin shelter, it feels as if we’re in the eye of storm. It’s coming down so hard it’s bouncing off the cement and onto our legs, and then a sudden wind blows the sheets of rain horizontal.  Water floods the slab that is the pier, and we have to move all out bags onto a narrow metal bench right on the water.  The corroded pole that serves as a backrest barely keeps the bags from toppling into the river.

How to handle an aguacero (downpour) in Los Chiles, Costa Rica

A young man with a sweet face smiles and shrugs, as if to say, “Wadya gonna do?”

A man peddles by slowly, one hand on the bike’s handlebar, the other holding an umbrella.

Waiting for the boat to Nicaragua, a pick up truck drove by with an unidentified oblong its bed,

While we waited for the boat to Nicaragua, a pick up truck drove by with an unidentified oblong in its bed.

Ten minutes later, an old pickup truck with wood plank sides drives by with an oblong  box in the back. It’s swaddled in plastic tarps so it’s hard to tell what it is, but I imagine it to be a casket.

Two o’clock, when the boat from lodge was supposed to come, is long past. It’s looking like we’ll take the 3:30 bote public.  But it’s nearing that time and there’s no sign of anyone boarding.

A diversion drives up—another plank-sided pickup with a tarp roof, this one full of sheep. Two muddy teenage boys hoist themselves out of the back, where they’d been riding with the livestock, and make a run for the river, yelling and laughing. They dive in fully clothed (the one with rubber boots pulls them off first), no doubt to rinse off the sheep dung and mud.

Sheep about to head upriver on the Rio Frio

Sheep about to head upriver on the Rio Frio

The driver gets out, stretches, calls mocking greetings to some of the boat captains, then motions for a kid captaining a lancha, a narrow wooden boat with ten or so rows of plastic seats in its hull, to take all the seats out. He does, and the man starts loading sheep, one by one, into the boat. They’re worth $150 each, we later learn, and they’re destined for a ranch upriver. The man knows just how hold the sheep so they don’t squirm out of his grasp or kick, but one unruly one gets in a pretty good kick.
When the boat takes off, he yells out, “Bon voyage, hijueputa!”

Have a good trip, you son of a bitch!

Photos (except of David) by David Webster Smith