A Prison Room, Art Museums and a Drug Bust: The Girl Trip from Guate to Costa Rica By Bus

The Girls are on their own! Our last 2 weeks in Panajachel, Guatemala

After Ken and Tag took off for Costa Rica, Ela and I spent another 12 days in Guatemala finishes up the school year and spending time with friends. Since I had 3 full-days of school after the last day for students, Ela had several play dates. During our final weekend, Ela spent the night with a friend which meant I was able to spend an evening with my friends at our favorite hostel, La Iguana Perdida. It was the perfect last weekend playing games and hiking around the lake with my posse of girlfriends. 

Two of Ela's playdates were across the lake which meant commuting by boat...by herself! At the beginning of the year, this would never have happened. By the end of the year, the benefit of playing with a friend far outweighed the scariness of taking the boat by herself. 

Two of Ela's playdates were across the lake which meant commuting by boat...by herself! At the beginning of the year, this would never have happened. By the end of the year, the benefit of playing with a friend far outweighed the scariness of taking the boat by herself. 


No more Gas! Our last 6 days in Guate also involved living without gas. We'd run out and I'm too cheap to pay $50 to fill a 100 lb tank that usually lasts 4 people at least 6 weeks. Instead, we went without. Unfortunately, this meant no use of the cooktop or oven and no hot water. In the end, this made our last week a little more fun. Sure, I didn't get my decaf Starbucks Via coffee in the morning (only one shop sells decaf in Panajachel and my supply of Via was brought to me by US visitors). Instead, we spent every evening enjoying dinner with friends. I negotiated a shower (no gas means no hot water) in exchange for taking Ela's friend to dinner one night! Other evenings, we'd bring whatever leftover ingredients we had to a friends and make delicious meals from miscellaneous food. 

Bank Bureaucracy On the final day of school, four of my friends and I were given our our final paychecks. It was Summer pay (which amounted to two paychecks in one). This is one way the school incentivizes teachers to stay the entire year. We got our checks and headed to the bank. Part of life in Pana meant going inside the bank whenever we needed cash or to deposit a paycheck! Of course, cashing our final paychecks was no simple process. Because the checks were for double the amount, the bank needed to call the school and verify that the checks were legit. As soon as this process started, we gave the bank clerk all 5 of our checks so that they could all be verified at the same time. 40 minutes later, this was complete. Luckily we were able to get our money in US Dollars which was nice for those of us leaving the country. US Dollars are more acceptable that Guatemalan Quetzales in other Central American countries. 

 Day 1: Leaving Panajachel and Lake Atitlan

Our last full day in Guatemala was bittersweet. As it turned out, all of my good teaching friends were leaving Panajachel on Saturday morning. Therefore, we hired a shuttle driver to take us to Antigua and Guatemala City. Slowly the van filled with my friends, two of us with kids, and all our luggage. While I'm not one for symbolic endings, somehow it felt right leaving Pana in a van filled with great memories as well as individual excitement for each person's next destinations, including Mexico, Honduras, the US and Costa Rica. Slowly the van emptied as we said goodbye again and again and again. Finally, Ela and I made it to Guatemala City where we were dropped off at the Tica Bus Terminal, complete with a hostel above it. 

Guatemala City

When Ken and I first discussed separating so that I could finish the school year and we could do the house sitting gig, we assumed Ela and I would fly. A day later, I questioned that. Why not take the bus? Flying felt like cheating. If the boys had to go overland, so should we. We'd get all the same passport stamps and take a similar route. Plus it was cheaper. A lot cheaper! And we'd get a great experience. I'd never been on a bus trip and this was the perfect opportunity. 

While I was a bit nervous about traveling through 5 countries by bus with my 9-year old, I figured the worst that was likely to happen was getting scammed out of some money. I was also worried about Ela and her car sickness. She had a new bucket in her backpack just for this.

I wasn't nervous about buying bus tickets since it was the low travel season. However, if it had been the peak season, this would have been more difficult. As of today, it is not possible to buy tickets for Tica buses online. The very first thing you can click on their website is "Online Reservations" but when you click it you go to an "Under Construction" page. Because of this you have to show up at the Bus Terminal and hope the bus you want isn't sold out. Overall, I was impressed with the customer service at the Tica Bus Terminal and the hostel, Hotel Santiago, that's above it. They asked where we needed to go and put together the fastest, most convenient route. They even made us hotel reservations, at another hotel upstairs from the bus terminal, for the following night. Ela and I checked into our room, took much needed showers and headed out to find dinner. While being alone in Guatemala City made me the most nervous (it's not the safest city in the world and we've avoided it as much as possible), I felt safe enough to take the public bus to a nearby mall. 

I called this our New York style hotel room in Guate City. We had to push the beds together to make room for our bags. The curtains did nothing to diminish the noise or light from the busy street. Our shared bath was down the hall, and we didn't have to share it with anyone!

I called this our New York style hotel room in Guate City. We had to push the beds together to make room for our bags. The curtains did nothing to diminish the noise or light from the busy street. Our shared bath was down the hall, and we didn't have to share it with anyone!

Teaching Ela to use public transportation in Guatemala City. Ken and I are serious about making sure we use the amenities that are available to us in big cities. We hope our example teaches our kids to seek out resources like this when they're older. 

Teaching Ela to use public transportation in Guatemala City. Ken and I are serious about making sure we use the amenities that are available to us in big cities. We hope our example teaches our kids to seek out resources like this when they're older. 

Foosball Tournament Championship at the mall! This was day 4 of a serious competition. There was an emcee giving the play-by-play the whole time. It was very loud!

Foosball Tournament Championship at the mall! This was day 4 of a serious competition. There was an emcee giving the play-by-play the whole time. It was very loud!

Here are some of the latest fashions at the mall! Seriously. 

Here are some of the latest fashions at the mall! Seriously. 

Day 2: Goodbye Guatemala, Hello El Salvador

We checked in for our bus at 5:00 am! Yes, the bus schedules start early. We had assigned seats in the front row on the right. I hoped that being able to see the road would help Ela with her car sickness. As it turned out, the front of the bus reminded me of the bulkhead in an airplane. There was a window with a curtain and a door that shut to separate the bus driver from all of the passengers. We couldn't see in front of us at all! 

5:00 am check-in for the bus! We traveled with 3 largish and definitely heavy bags, 2 backpacks, a blue bag with food and a pillow! Years ago I learned not to use a white pillow case when traveling with a pillow. A pillow case with birds makes it a lot more obvious that it's personal and I'm less likely to leave it behind. 

5:00 am check-in for the bus! We traveled with 3 largish and definitely heavy bags, 2 backpacks, a blue bag with food and a pillow! Years ago I learned not to use a white pillow case when traveling with a pillow. A pillow case with birds makes it a lot more obvious that it's personal and I'm less likely to leave it behind. 

And we're off! Doesn't this photo prove we're on a bus?

And we're off! Doesn't this photo prove we're on a bus?

As Ken mentioned in his post, each border crossing is actually 2 border crossings, the crossing to exit a country, followed by a 1/2 mile or so before the second border crossing where one enters the new country. Just before we arrived at the border leaving Guatemala, a representative of Tica Bus collected our passports. Shortly after, the bus stopped briefly and then we moved on again. Goodbye Guatemala. That was it. A bit anticlimactic, but okay.

Five minutes later, we arrived at the border entry for El Salvador. After waiting for about 20 minutes, a border representative boarded the bus and questioned several of the passengers, including us. He had our passports and wanted to know our final destination and when we'd arrive there. Ela and I only had a 6 days left on our 90 day visas for the CA-4 (Central American 4 which includes Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). Once I answered his questions and he was satisfied that we were leaving the CA-4, he moved on.

20 minutes later and a Drug Enforcement Officer walked the length of the bus, looked around, and left. From inside the bus, we could see several car inspections where all passengers were asked to exit the car while the trunk, car doors and underside of the car were inspected. Ken and Tag got to endure this fun firsthand when they drove down. Five minutes later we left the border, and shortly thereafter made our only stop of the day when passengers exited the bus.

Hello El Salvador! 

A thorough car inspection at the border into El Salvador.

A thorough car inspection at the border into El Salvador.

We were given a 10 minute break at a collection of tiendas and small food stands to stretch our legs, exchange money and get something to eat. 

We were given a 10 minute break at a collection of tiendas and small food stands to stretch our legs, exchange money and get something to eat. 

Ela bought this ice cream treat, took one bite and discovered ice cream inside. She avoids dairy when traveling. I ate the treat! Lucky for both of us and all the passengers on our buses, she never got sick once! I guess car sickness is only for cars.

Ela bought this ice cream treat, took one bite and discovered ice cream inside. She avoids dairy when traveling. I ate the treat! Lucky for both of us and all the passengers on our buses, she never got sick once! I guess car sickness is only for cars.

San Salvador, El Salvador - We arrived at the Hotel Meson de Maria, again upstairs from the Tica Bus terminal, at mid-day and had some free time in El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador. We had a quick FaceTime with Ken and Tag, researched "Things to Do in San Salvador" on Trip Advisor and headed out to see what we could find. Our first destination was the Museo de Arte de El Salvador. After consulting a map, I knew it was only a few blocks away. Everyone I asked, insisted I turn right at the traffic circle, but I thought we should go left. We went right and arrived at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Maybe the museum recently changed names? Things like this happen often in Central America and Trip Advisor doesn't always have phone numbers or hours listed for many destinations. Maps can also be misleading. While Ela was less than thrilled with a trip to a museum, she was thrilled once we arrived. They had a big exhibit of classroom art from several local schools. Needless to say, we now have a list of artists to study and ideas for our own art projects. 

After the museum, we headed for lunch. San Salvador is a major city and when it comes to food you don't have to look far to find US influences. There was no McDonald's in sight (thankfully!) but there was Denny's. Not my first choice, but much better than KFC or Wendys. We went to Denny's. It was Father's Day Sunday and the place was packed! I have no idea if they were celebrating Father's Day, but there wasn't a empty table the whole time we were there. 

After pancakes and spaghetti, I decided to take that left that I thought would take us to the original museum. Up a hill and sure enough, we were there, the Museo de Arte de El Salvador. Again, Ela wasn't excited to be going to another museum, but after stepping inside, she was thrilled. Seriously, she still talks about these museums a month later. Did I really take my daughter to two museums in one day (in a city that is considered dangerous)? Did we really have a good time? Yes and yes!

En este mar, by Mauricio Linares (1966) - Ela and I both decided this was our favorite painting in the whole museum. We went back to look at it a couple of times. 

En este mar, by Mauricio Linares (1966) - Ela and I both decided this was our favorite painting in the whole museum. We went back to look at it a couple of times. 

Los granitos en la guerra civil en El Salvador, by Bernabe Crespin (1954) - We also decided this would be Tag's favorite picture! 

Los granitos en la guerra civil en El Salvador, by Bernabe Crespin (1954) - We also decided this would be Tag's favorite picture! 

Day 3: Goodbye El Salvador, Was that Honduras? and Hello Nicaragua

On day 3, we caught a 3 am bus. Once again, a bus representative collected our passports upon leaving El Salvador and entering Honduras, and kept our passports until we exited Honduras. I'm pretty sure we slept through much of this, and we never even stepped onto Honduran land. We may have Honduran stamps in our passport, but I can't really say we've been there. 

Nicaragua is a different story though! Upon entering Nicaragua, we had to get off the bus, collect all of our baggage, and stand in line to answer questions by border guards, get stamped and then get back on the bus. While I want to complain about this, I just can't. We were entering another country! This is what we should be expected to do each time! 

Customs in Nicaragua - Ela is in charge of her backpack and the bag on wheels. I was responsible for the 2 large bags, my backpack, the food bag and the pillow. Look at the bus we didn't take (background). I'm not sure our bags would fit anyway.

Customs in Nicaragua - Ela is in charge of her backpack and the bag on wheels. I was responsible for the 2 large bags, my backpack, the food bag and the pillow. Look at the bus we didn't take (background). I'm not sure our bags would fit anyway.

Nicaragua is tough on looking for drugs. About an hour into Nicaragua, the bus was pulled over at a check point and everyone was asked to exit the bus. Men formed one line and women another. I had no idea what was going on, but I assumed they were looking for drugs. It was a bit freaky, and I was sure to keep Ela close to me. One woman with an infant child asleep on her lap stayed on the bus, and this was okay. Since I was also traveling with a young child, I probably could have done the same (one woman was telling me to stay, but I didn't understand why so I didn't). A female police officer frisked every woman in line. Hands out to the side -- just like at the airport. Ela was exempt from the frisking. Once we were frisked, we were allowed back on the bus. The men were frisked after us. Overall, it was uneventful. Every car traveling on the same road was also stopped, and every passenger was frisked. Trunks were checked and there was a lot of questioning. 

Day 3-4: Hello Granada, Nicaragua

We arrived in the capital city of Managua at 3:00. After hearing about Granada on Ken's way south, I decided that Ela and I needed a similar adventure. We hopped in a taxi and took it 40 minutes south to Granada. We stayed in a hostel across the street from the bus terminal and decided to lengthen our journey by a day. After our 4:30 am and 1:30 am wake-ups, we wanted a day to sleep-in, enjoy the pool and explore Granada.

1st Stop in Granada - A new favorite smoothie flavor - kiwi, grape, pineapple and orange. 

1st Stop in Granada - A new favorite smoothie flavor - kiwi, grape, pineapple and orange. 

Ela & I in the main square in front of Catedral de Granada. We had a blast on our girl vacation day.

Ela & I in the main square in front of Catedral de Granada. We had a blast on our girl vacation day.

For $5 each, we took a horse and carriage ride through town and to Lake Nicaragua. 

For $5 each, we took a horse and carriage ride through town and to Lake Nicaragua. 

Lake Nicaragua - We didn't spend any time on the lake. Maybe we'll be back.

Lake Nicaragua - We didn't spend any time on the lake. Maybe we'll be back.

Goats eating the baseball field. This picture is dedicated to my sister, Shay. (Will you name a goat after me now?)

Goats eating the baseball field. This picture is dedicated to my sister, Shay. (Will you name a goat after me now?)

Ela's Marilyn Monroe shot at the top of the Bell Tower at the Catedral de Granada

Ela's Marilyn Monroe shot at the top of the Bell Tower at the Catedral de Granada

View of the main square in Granada and Christopher Columbus Park from the Bell Tower of Catedral de Granada

View of the main square in Granada and Christopher Columbus Park from the Bell Tower of Catedral de Granada

Doors of Nicaragua: I loved much of the architecture in Granada. Who wouldn't want these doors? 

Doors of Nicaragua: I loved much of the architecture in Granada. Who wouldn't want these doors? 

Ela receives a spinning pottery lesson in Granda

The owner of the hostel called this the Prison Room! For $30/night, I'll take it. There was a shared bath with shower right next to our room as well. We haven't slept in more than a sheet since we left Guate City. It's too hot for anything else. 

The owner of the hostel called this the Prison Room! For $30/night, I'll take it. There was a shared bath with shower right next to our room as well. We haven't slept in more than a sheet since we left Guate City. It's too hot for anything else. 

Guadalupe Church in Granada, Nicaragua

Guadalupe Church in Granada, Nicaragua

Ela was very excited when the restaurant said they could make her a custom grilled cheese sandwich! She thought it was delicious.

Ela was very excited when the restaurant said they could make her a custom grilled cheese sandwich! She thought it was delicious.

This happy group was performing a traditional Honduran dance in the streets. They were eager to gather some spectators so we followed them. 

This happy group was performing a traditional Honduran dance in the streets. They were eager to gather some spectators so we followed them. 

 Day 5: Goodbye Nicaragua, Don't Carry Drugs Across the Border and Hello Costa Rica!

After a quiet day in Granada, there was quite the commotion at the border crossing leaving Nicaragua. Once again, the bus representative collected our passports, but unlike other border crossings, we were required to get off the bus. While the bus representative went inside to process all the paperwork, we could buy snacks and souvenirs from vendors at the crossing.

There was one other bus present and it was apparent that two girls were being arrested. A local man, selling souvenirs, gave us the scoop. "See those girls. Look at those shirts. They have cocaine strapped around their middles. You can see the bump around their middles. Look around. What do you see? There are woods to the left. There are woods to the right. Why would you go through the border crossing? They should go through the woods. Dumb." The two girls in their early twenties were handcuffed together, and were made to stand in front of the bus while several people around them took pictures. The police were videotaping the entire thing. Their bags were collected and they were loaded into a police truck and taken away. So, what did Ela learn? "If you're going to transport drugs, go through the woods!" 

Look closely - These two girls standing in front of the bus doors were caught transporting cocaine across the border into Nicaragua. Apparently, the cocaine is strapped around their middles and covered by the big shirts.

Look closely - These two girls standing in front of the bus doors were caught transporting cocaine across the border into Nicaragua. Apparently, the cocaine is strapped around their middles and covered by the big shirts.

The girls are now being put in the back of the pick-up truck and will be taken away. I was appalled and surprised that numerous spectators were taking pictures and filming the event. I kept thinking about the poor girls and their terrible decision, as well as how best to share this with Ela. Next time, I'll send Ken in for better pictures. 

The girls are now being put in the back of the pick-up truck and will be taken away. I was appalled and surprised that numerous spectators were taking pictures and filming the event. I kept thinking about the poor girls and their terrible decision, as well as how best to share this with Ela. Next time, I'll send Ken in for better pictures. 

No joking though. This gave me a great opportunity to talk with Ela about drug use, the consequences of transporting illegal substances and what might happen to those girls. Goodbye Nicaragua!

I was a bit nervous about entering Costa Rica because Ela and I didn't have proof we'd be leaving the country in 90 days. Costa Rica is known to be strict for requiring proof from each person that they have the means to exit the country when their 90 day visa expires. They want to make sure you don't stay in the country and drain their social services.  For normal visitors a return plane ticket fits the bill but overlanders can be hassled.

Ken and Tag had the car as proof they had the means to leave the country. The bus representative kept badgering me to buy two of their cheapest bus tickets for $25 so I would have proof that I was leaving. The tickets were nonrefundable, but transferable. However, I didn't want the hassle of having to sell them. I finally got him to agree that if customs didn't accept the digital copy of our car permit (that I'd downloaded to my phone via an email from Ken), then I could leave customs and buy two bus tickets. Luckily the customs agent was flexible, recognized the digital paperwork, and from it wrote down our car's license plate number as proof that we'd be exiting the country within 90 days. No problemo! Hello Costa Rica! 

We arrived in San Jose at 3:00 pm. We grabbed a taxi and headed to the public bus terminal to take another bus 3 hours to the beach. I borrowed a stranger's phone, called Ken, and told him we'd be on the 5:00 pm bus to Quepos. After 15 days apart, the longest Ken and I have ever been away from each other or either kid, the four of us were reunited. Tag and Ela chatted and chatted in the backseat. They may not admit it, but they missed each other too. 

Pura Vida! A new chapter begins.

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