Driving to Costa Rica

One of the first questions folks ask when thinking about spending a long time in Costa Rica, is "Can I drive my car there?" The answer is, "Yes, but it isn?'t easy." My first Pan-American Highway experience happened many years ago, when my wife and I drove our 1967 Volkswagen Bug from San Jose, California, to San Jose, Costa Rica. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It was an interesting experience, one we wouldn't have missed for anything. For a while civil war in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua brought tourist automobile travel through these countries to a virtual stand still. But even then some intrepid tourists insisted on driving, merely changing the route somewhat. They traveled the Pacific coastal route through Guatemala, avoided El Salvador by detouring through Honduras, and then carefully skirted trouble spots in Nicaragua. I tried to get through in 1983 but returned to Mexico after tiring of gun barrels 0 being pointed at my forehead at every military stop. Today, with the return of peace to the region, automobile travel is once again routine.

Our last adventure took place in 1997. The actual driving time from the Arizona border at Nogales was about eight or nine days. But not being in a hurry, we spread the trip over a full month. We stopped to visit friends in Lake Chapala, Oaxaca, and Guatemala City We also detoured to spend some time at the marvelous Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras. It was an unusually pleasant drive. From the time we left Nogales until we reached our home in Costa Rica, we encountered not one military stop, saw no military presence, and were halted only a few times for routine checks of the car-presumably, to make sure it wasn't stolen. At none of the borders did they inspect our luggage or do anything other than glance in the back of our Station wagon. Please realize that this good experience could have been due to an unusually lucky series of circumstances and may not be typical- Also, we were careful not to do anything stupid, like driving after dark.

So don't think I'm suggesting that everybody will have a breeze. It's a long, hard trip, with some bad roads as well as good ones. Sometimes the accommodations are awful; sometimes they're delightful, if you can speak some Spanish, it would be helpful, but we encountered other travelers who spoke very little yet were making out OK With the exception of the amazing and efficient toll roads in Mexico, the Central American portion of the Pan-American Highway today consists of low-speed pavement- sometimes pockmarked, occasionally smooth with dual lanes-with infrequent stretches of gravel. Nicaragua had the worst pavement of all, with more potholes than blacktop left on the highway Nicaragua's pavement has recently been improved considerably so this is no longer a problem. Mexico, however, offers new four-lane divided pavement, with 75 mile- an-hour speed limits. The tolls are expensive, so much so that often we were the only vehicle in sight, But the price was worth it- We set our cruise control and zipped along as fast as we cared to.

The downside is that you see little of Mexico other than fields, cows, and back country. Every day on the road was a new adventure, a new challenge, full of photo opportunities and stimulating encounters with other travelers and local people. The most annoying part of the journey was the delay and inconvenience while crossing borders. Sour-faced officials examine your papers with suspicious eyes, then hand out a sheaf of forms to be filled out in triplicate. Then they rubber-stamp everything in sight. (Oh, how they love rubber stamps!) You go from one official to another for what seems an eternity Finally you are allowed to leave the country, only to drive 50 feet into the next country and start the Process all over again at the next customs office. I recall that during the Somoza regime, the Nicaraguan border was absolutely the worst. The personnel were arrogant, corrupt, and sadistic as they bullied travelers.

One particularly nasty customs inspector searched through my book bag, looking for subversive literature. Since he read little English, he demanded to know what each book was about, His face turned livid when he found a sociology textbook among my belongings, with the word sociology prominently displayed on the cover. "Socialism!" he shouted in a Grim voice. "This book is about socialism!" I tried to calm him down by explaining that sociology is something like psychology. But when he opened the book to the first Chapter, which was titled "Revolutions in Social Theory," things hit that proverbial fan. The book stayed behind at the border, though I was permitted to enter the country albeit with some suspicion. Another man had a khaki-colored field jacket expropriated because it was 'military equipment." should be in good condition, with new steel-belted tires, a spare, an emergency tool kit, road flares, and flashlights with extra batteries.

Unleaded fuel is usually available nowadays, especially in larger towns. Always get out of the car arid supervise the gas station attendant while he services the car. Attendants have been known to accidentally put diesel fuel or leaded gas into a car requiring no-lead fuel. And make sure they turn the pump back to zero before they start so that you don't end up paying for gas you don't get. (I've never had this happen in Costa Rica.) You might carry a hand calculator to make sure you are paying the correct amount and getting the right change, too. Even if you don't know how to figure this out, the attendant will think you do, and he won't cheat. Another trick that station attendants in Mexico will try to pull on you (cabdrivers do the same): When you hand them a 100-peso bill, they quickly switch it for a 50-peso note, to make you think you made a mistake.

The cure for this is to carefully hand them the note and say "Billete de pesos" ("Hundred-peso bill"). You must have a valid passport. Visas aren't required in advance. However, if possible, it's a good idea to visit the consulates before you leave and have your passport stamped, you'll save time and extra Lip money at the borders. A visa is required by El Salvador and can be obtained free by mail. Without a visa you're required to purchase a tourist card for about $10. Mexican, Guatemalan, Costa Rican, and Honduran consulates and tourist offices have free road maps for the asking. if you can't get to the consulate or tourist office, request maps by mail. Don't forget car insurance.

Your U.S. or Canadian policy isn't recognized south of the border, but carry it with you anyway as proof that you have a valid policy just in case. You need to buy a special insurance policy for Central America. Before you cross into Mexico, contact Chris Yetland of Sanborn's Insurance at (210) 686-0711 (fax 210-686- 0732), or write to PO. Box 310, McAllen, TX 78505-0310. This company can write Central American policies by telephone and will Lake credit cards. For a fifteen-day policy, the cost of full coverage on a vehicle valued at $12,000 would be S201. For fifteen days of liability- only coverage., the cost would be $49. Ask for a Travelog with detailed directions, maps, and hotel/restaurant listings for Central America (free with insurance).

Also remember that you will need to have your smog certificate before driving into Costa Rica. Through MEXICO The first country to cross is Mexico. You will be issued a tourist card at the border without hassle, or you can obtain one in advance at your nearest consulate by showing your passport. if your vehicle is financed, you'll need a notarized statement from the bank or finance company with permission to Lake the vehicle out of the country. Best have it notarized at a Mexican consulate, if possible. Mexico has been closely checking cars coming into the country to combat a rash of stolen automobiles. Rules are in a state of flux at the moment, you may have to pay a small fee and post a bond to ensure that you don't sell the car in Mexico- (You must use a credit card for this bond-, no cash changes hands.)

When you exit the country, they'll cancel this bond. The Mexican crossing is easy-, you don't need a translator, and you don't have to tip anyone. If you are carrying household goods or items you will need in Costa Rica, make sure you let customs officials know you are "transit," and they'll so note on your car papers. Don't let them try to place you in an escorted caravan to the Guatemalan border. You'll have to stay where the police escort says, you'll have to eat where you're told, and the whole thing is rushed and expensive. That's not how you want to travel through Mexico. Unless you want to visit places like Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, and other spots on the West Coast, the best route is one of Mexico's new high-speed toll roads- Driving through Mexico on the normal highways will add a day or so to your travel time, but you'll see more of Mexico. Figure four or five days to make the trip to the Guatemalan border. You ought to take at least an extra week and enjoy a mini vacation, visiting Mexico's recreational and historical sites. Keep your eye out for speed limit signs and slow down to the posted limit; that way you won't be bothered by cops.

They won't stop you unless you're breaking some traffic law. This is pretty much true anywhere in Central America. Important: Never drive at night-in Mexico or anywhere in Central America. Mexican and Central American highways are generally in fair condition, but they are built as cheaply as possible. The road definitely ends at the edge of the pavement; when there are shoulders, it's purely by chance. In the dark you have no idea what lies alongside the pavements stretch of gravel, mud, or a 10foot drop-off. You might even find a bull sleeping on the pavement. Repeat after me- don?'t drive at night! (I have to admit that I violate this). Guatemala. The recommended place to cross into Guatemala is near Tapachula, Mexico-at the Guatemalan town of Tecun Umanan. Good overnight accommodations can be found in Tapachula, so you'll be ready [or the Guatemala run in the morning. Start early, since the border sometimes closes for siesta from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. sometimes earlier if personnel feel in need of a nap. Karen Bonis, remembering when she and her husband, Scott, drove their motor home into Guatemala, described a typical border crossing. From the center of town, we followed a steady stream of taxis filled with customers, heavy trucks, and cars down a potholes highway to the border a few miles south. We crossed a little river and immediately were deluged with young men wanting to change money and lead us through the maze of admittance procedures for Guatemala. We exchanged a few dollars and hired a young man, who led Scott into a small building to pay the bridge Lax. They were gone an interminable amount of time, during which I tried unsuccessfully to stop several young men from washing our windows with oily rags, while telling young beggars they weren't going to get any dollars from me. Finally, Scott and the young man returned. 'Ale moved another hundred yards to a modern building where a large sign said: FUMIGACION. They were in this building even longer. Occasionally they would reappear at the rig, clutching even more papers. Eventually someone sprayed the tires and underside of the motor home, and then customs inspectors confronted us.

They weren't happy about the two TVs, didn't like the cellular phone, and were adamant about not allowing the CB radio into the country. It turns out that CBs were illegal in Guatemala because they don't want rebels in the hills to get them. It was now well into siesta time, but fortunately, no one seemed to take a break. The inspectors grabbed lunch from various food stands lining the road and continued working. Scott disappeared into the building and was gone for well over an hour, negotiating with customs. He return smiling; we would be aloud to move just in few minutes. But the inspector returned to look at the car we were towing. Another problem. Only one vehicle per driver allowed. After showing the inspector my license, offering to drive the car across myself, and solving a few more problems, we finally received permission to enter Guatemala. it was a short haggle over the price with our young man who helped us, settling on $5.00 U.S., which Scott felt was worth the price. The total time spent crossing: four and a half hours. Alternate Routes to Costa Rica From Guatemala City to Costa Rica, you have two choices through Honduras or through El Salvador (which includes a few miles through Honduras).

The shortest, quickest route is through El Salvador, yet until the cessation of the civil war here; most drivers preferred the slow, safe route through Honduras. Nowadays travelers describe driving the El Salvador leg as uneventful. By the way, Honduras must have found a lot of extra money somewhere, because the highways are new, wide, and marked with a line in the center-and they actually have shoulders! The drive from Guatemala City to the City of San Salvador takes about six hours, depending upon the delay at customs at the border, At present the roads through Ell Salvador are almost as had as those in Nicaragua) but at last report officials are repairing them rapidly. From EI Salvador another early start will get you across a short stretch of Honduras and into Nicaragua. Try to have a full gas tank before entering Nicaragua; gasoline shortages here aren't unknown. It's only a 190-mile trip from the Honduras border to the Costa Rican border.

For an overnight stay in Nicaragua, you might consider the beautiful, colonial city of Granada. My favorite way to drive from Guatemala City to Costa Rica is through Honduras, bypassing El Salvador entirely, but it is slower. This route takes you through the town of Copan, where you must pause to visit the most fantastic Mayan ruins of all. Although this involve driving several kilometers of dirt road to the Honduran border crossing, there's usually only one CUSTOMS guy there, so it's a snap to cross. The road was in good shape for a dirt road-the last time I traveled it, in 1999. It may not be passable in the wet season, however. Make sure the border official knows you're going as far as San Pedro Sula and not just visiting the ruins for the day, otherwise, the official will give you temporary papers and no transit visa. Spend a day or two exploring the ruins, then go on toward San Pedro Sula, turning south to the Honduras capital city of Tegucigalpa. From there you cross into Nicaragua on Highway 3 and head for Chinandega and Leon. The other route through Honduras is through Agua Caliente and on to Nueva Ocotepeque, where you'll find satisfactory accommodations if you need them.

Understand that all of these border conditions change From day to day; on some days you'll slip through like water through a sieve, whereas on other days it'll be more like molasses. Controlling your temper and putting on a pleasant face will help. But also remember the saying "You can get a lot more with a smile and a $5.00 bill than you can get with just a smile." By the time you've reached the Nicaraguan border, you'll probably be eager to get to Costa Rica. Driving the length of Nicaragua can be done in a few hours, so there's no real need to stop over there, although you might be tempted to linger in one of the colonial cities or stay at a beach hotel not far from the Costa Rican border. Nicaragua has been plagued with strikes and protests, which can sometimes slow traffic down, so try to make the earliest border crossing possible Once in Costa Rica, be sure to make copies of your papers and your passport-and keep them in a separate place, just in case you lose the originals, Be sure to copy the passport page with the entry stamp for the date you entered the country Remember that the car permit and your insurance are good for ninety days. Unless you choose to apply for a Tico title and license plates, you'll have to take the vehicle out of the country for seventy-two hours and reapply for admission for another ninety days. There has been talk of clamping down on reentering with a car after the ninety-day period. The plan is to allow a short time to place the car into customs for processing or remove the vehicle from the country permanently Be sure to check with customs when crossing the border and find out the current policy 9 Remember: Don't drive at night!

Writen by John Howels

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