Our final day started with a breakfast at the hotel, a farewell to Dirk, settling of our accounts (hot sauce, dinner, 3 nights) over poor WiFi that took 20 minutes to transact a Paypal transfer, and then finally leaving Nuevo Arenal and departing Costa Rica. Dirk had to kick all other guests off the network and lock it down simply so we would have enough bandwidth to get on. It’s amazing how much we missed fast internet.
We took one last pass around the room and were in the car and on the road by 915AM, anticipating a 2 hour or less drive back to Economy Rent A Car in Liberia. The drive back went smoothly except for a weird detour that Google Maps recommended we take to hypotenuse around a section of the 142 road. It took us on a very bumpy and windy dirt road and we ended up behind two slow trucks (we knew we were on the right track, but it was painful going and we wished we hadn’t). Incidentally, this was the first time we experienced a negative outcome from using Google Maps over Waze – which we were warned about by the rental car lady. Departing Costa Rica was a lot easier than departing Nicaragua.
We stopped at a gas station in Liberia, a few km from our car drop-off point. The gas stations in Costa Rica are all full-service so gas is fairly expensive. However, this was probably the cleanest gas station bathroom that I had ever seen (thank you Gasolinera Ciudad Blanca).
The rental drop-off experience was also easy while departing Costa Rica. Despite the horror stories we had heard from fellow travelers around the scam at the end (charging you for scratches and damage you didn’t do), we didn’t have any trouble. The inspector mentioned several scratches (that we did not do!) but the nice rental lady (who we got thankfully once again) said we were good to go – probably because we bought the insurance. The inspector, who doubled as a shuttle driver, then whisked us away on our private, comfy, air conditioned shuttle to the Liberia Airport (LIR).
The airport and airline experience for departing Costa Rica, despite a 45 minute delay on the way out, was similarly a breeze. The airport was clean and a little air conditioned. There was your normal selection of souvenirs and a few upscale artisan and jewelry boutiques as well. The downside was the foot options – basically Quiznos and a race-car themed sit-down restaurant. We ordered some guacamole, tacos, and a chicken burger, and two sodas, and the bill was $70. We were shocked! We did not even blink when ordering because the menu was in Costa Rican currency, which we just assumed would be a reasonable exchange rate (it was not, obviously!). That was the most expensive and worst tasting guac I have ever had.
We had a packed flight to Houston departing Costa Rica, but it was comfortable in premium economy for a short flight, and we even (for the very first time ever) completed an entire New York Times crossword puzzle published in the Hemispheres in-flight magazine. Finally, I was able to cash in on my drink tickets as well that I had accumulated for being Premier Platinum level on United.
At Houston, we had nearly 2 hours to catch our flight to Denver, which also ended up being 30 minutes delayed. Immigration at IAH is great, but the post-immigration security checkpoint is slow as molasses and there is no pre-check lane. I just myself realized there’s a #travelhack waiting to happen here – just exit the airport and use the regular security lanes that have PreCheck!
Our last United flight we again indulged in the first-class service experience (the hard product was of course terrible on these regional flights) complete with drinks, hot towel service, warm nuts, and dinner.
We landed 2 hours later, and circled the runway in Denver for what seemed like 30 minutes (it had just snowed and there were few clear paths). While we waited for our luggage, I continued pursuing my damaged bag claim from my last trip to the UK with a United baggage representative (it did not go anywhere, other than forwarding the claim somewhere else). Our bags came shortly after, and we grabbed a Lyft within 10 minutes, which brought us home at around 1030PM.
Reflecting back beyond just howler monkeys and hot springs, we decided that Costa Rica was about 30 years beyond Nicaragua in development, and showed what Nicaragua *could be* if It wanted to (not that it did, which clearly our expat friends living in Nicaragua did not want). In Costa Rica everything was easy and accessible, set up for tourism. It was squarely second world, approaching first (the only caveat is that you couldn’t flush your toilet paper). You could even drink the water. The Danish couple we met at the Ceiba Tree Lodge before said that, when traveling with a baby, it was important to choose a clean country – and Costa Rica certainly was.
Other than Leon, Nicaragua was not easily accessible (in my limited estimation). However, Nicaragua had beauty too – you just had to scratch the surface and work for it. Many tourists in Costa Rica that we encountered were intrigued by the notion of Nicaragua, but had heard it was dangerous or had heard it was dirty. It was certainly not dangerous, and Leon was certainly visibly clean within the city limits, but it was no Costa Rica. While Nicaragua had similar terrain (although not as lush), it wasn’t as well-manicured and cared for as in Costa Rica. Moreover, Nicaragua did not have the same sense of conservation that Costa Rica had, and was still struggling for a national identity in the global landscape.
The pro of Nicaragua is that is it undeveloped and untapped, though not unspoiled (American fast food restaurants dotted the landscape). The con is that it is unproven and the political situation could lead to economic instability and financial risk to anyone who has bought in. The pro of Costa Rica is that it is well-developed and easy to navigate solo, but the con is that it may be over-developed and a bit too saturated with expats and tourists.
All in all it was a great trip that we were able to do fairly economically ($1500), and we got to see two neighboring countries at different ends of the development spectrum. More importantly, we got from Leon to Nuevo Arenal in less than 9 hours and proved everybody wrong. 🙂