Crossing the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica is a fascinating exercise in 'spot the difference'. This is not surprising, as Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, while Costa Rica is one of the richest; it comes out top in 'quality of life' measurements such as life expectancy, education, child mortality, crime prevention and so on, though Panama actually has a bigger economy because of the canal. As a result, the change when you head east is astounding.
While Nicaragua is dusty, pot-holed and rubbish-strewn, Costa Rica is landscaped and clean; in Nicaragua, farm-life spills out onto the street, while Costa Rica's cows are neatly hemmed into fenced fields; Nicaragua's cars are rust-buckets that drag their hind-quarters in the dirt, while Costa Rican cars look shiny and new; in Nicaragua, the roads are lined with shacks that are only kept upright by luck, while Costa Rica's housing is clean, modern and architecturally stable; and while Nicaragua's people are clad in clothes that reflect the rural and earthy way of life there, Costa Ricans sport sunglasses, tight jeans and a sense of fashion that is decidedly Western. It's a total shock.
It made the taxi ride from the Nicaraguan border a slightly surreal experience, not least because the taxi driver seemed to be more interested in driving carefully and avoiding collisions than in overtaking on blind corners or ramming cows off the road. There weren't any holes in the road to swerve round, or chicken buses heading straight for us, and even the policeman at the single checkpoint we passed through was dressed up in modern police gear, though one suspects that the police round here are still the last people you should call when there's a problem.
And when we checked into our hotel in Liberia, the first major city after the border, it really hit home. We'd teamed up with Paul and Jenn, a friendly couple from Manchester whom we'd met on Little Corn Island, and they'd suggested a hotel that had good online reviews and a swimming pool, but what the website hadn't managed to get across was the location. It turned out to be on a busy junction on the main highway just out of town, which wasn't ideal, but it did mean that we were literally next door to a gleaming tower of modern American living in the shape of a huge McDonalds. Over the road was a Burger King and in the hotel were lots of pasty American tourists... and that's where the culture shock started to make sense, for Costa Rica is not really a travelling destination, it's a tourist destination, and there's a definite difference.
I wonder whether it will turn out to be too much of a shock after the dusty trail through Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua...