Retire Smarter

  Stretch the dollar of limited income

   Mar 21

From Guatemala to Costa Rica in Oct 2010

It took us 4 hours to drive from Arriaga and cancel the car permit. We got to Talisman (Mexico side) – El Carmen (Guatemala) border crossing Sunday morning around 11:00. The offices open later Sundays. There were few tourists at that time. Hordes of tramitors were courting us for business. Asking whether the job applicant speaks your language is a good filter. Only few did. This eliminated majority. Besides, there was only little need for their help. The exit from Mexico was quick and painless.

Guatemala is one of the two Central American countries were one needs local money – quetzals for gas, food and hotels. Adding up the cost of border crossing, distance through Guatemala (about 210 kilometers), lodging and food cost, we would have needed around 700 quetzals to cross it without buying gas. We had around 500 pesos left after filling the gas tank in Mexico. There was a potential problem with money on Guatemala side because there were no banks on this border crossing. Only way to exchange money was to use the “parking lot exchange”. In preparation for this exchange, I calculated the official (bank) exchange rate. It came to 1.53 pesos for a quetzal. Our 500 pesos should have given us 329 quetzals, but first offer on the parking lot was 150. Luckily there were many folks offering and I walked away. Seeing that I may know more than they desired, the offers kept growing rapidly up to 250. I still wasn’t interested. We were walking around and making copies of fresh exit visas required for whatever reason for the Guatemala side. A retired guy, George, was showing us the windows to go to copy shops. He told us that he is hanging out here because he is bored. The crowd of money exchangers followed us in this process, finally asking how many quetzals I want for 500 pesos. My response 330, drove most of them off, but few stayed.
My plan “B” was to exchange only enough to pay for the border crossing fees (90 quetzals), drive to the next down and find a bank there. The highest offer for 500 pesos was already 280. Calculating backwards that would take 160 pesos to get the 90 quetzals we needed. I offered this deal to the highest bidder. Seeing that they are about to lose out the major part, the guy offered 300 quetzals for 500 pesos. Losing less than $4 on this exchange wasn’t worth the trouble to exchange the remaining pesos in a central bank some time later. We did the deal, paid the Guatemala entry fees and were through the border crossing on the road in less than 45 intense minutes.

While the road surface is good in Guatemala, most have minimal to none shoulders. Where the shoulders exist, they are substantially lower than the road surface because of countless layers of asphalt laid atop of each other. There is plenty of speed reduction devices of various types, no different from Mexico. What is noticeably different is the road etiquette – driver’s behavior. I do not know why, but the friendly, considerate, and laid back manner of driving disappears with the border crossing. Now the drivers are aggressive, fighting for each inch of the road surface they can claim first. Mindless, dangerous speeding is common, so is disrespect to others on the road.

Perhaps aided by lighter Sunday traffic, we made very good time and passed Mazatenango in less than 2 hours. Possibly due to an unexpectedly rapid advance a thinking had developed not to stay overnight in Guatemala, but cross to El Salvador instead. Using the remaining quetzals for gasoline or food before the border crossing. This thinking was reinforced by fast and effortless drive, as the speed reduction devices all but disappeared some distance into the country.

Following our trip-tick we had no trouble finding our way trough multi-level intersections near Escuintla and heading to the last stretch to the border with El Salvador. Not so fast. Looking for a bathroom we noticed a brand new gas station. Pulled in and asked. Sure enough, bathrooms were brand new and very clean as well. To our amazement there were tables with computers set out on very roomy foyer. Apparently, they were set up for Internet access. Wow, in the middle of a third world country, non-tourist road all of a sudden Internet. Times are changing, or perhaps just our interpretation of a third world country was outdated? Good, we got in conversation with folks in this gas station. As it turned out a bridge few kilometers down the road had been washed away. We must have missed the signs for the detour that led to back roads few kilometers earlier. Armed with detailed instructions we had no problem finding the detour. The road was rough, but not very long. We were back on main road, progressing fast toward the border despite the car torture devices that re-appeared on the road. Their use may be sanctioned by local authorities. Some do like them in Guatemala, others don’t. We used our quetzals to buy gasoline in the border town and signed out of Guatemala in no time.

There were few people in the El Salvador border crossing and process was fast. I was looking for Raul – my helper from the trip in March. He was in another border crossing, but talking to him via another tramitor’s cellphone he promised to warn Poto in Honduras’ border of our arrival next day. We were done at the border at 6:25 PM with only one surprise. At the last checkpoint off the border crossing a man wanted us to buy $5.00 worth of municipal road tax certificates. El Salvador border crossing is free otherwise. Local municipality starting to tax tourists was new, but politicians must be dumb anywhere one goes. The certificate looked official enough and brought a wide smile on the face of a policeman in next police checkpoint few kilometers later. Possible, his salary depends on them as well.

Very soon we were on El Salvador’s incredible coastal highway high on the cliffs descending directly to the Pacific Ocean.

Sunset in El Salvador

We caught the sunset on El Salvador Pacific Highway. Click for better photo

We caught the picturesque sunset and had dinner in a restaurant on these cliffs.

Sunset dropping to Pacific

The sun is half way gone into Pacific. Click for better photo

The route through El Salvador is little more than 200 km. I knew a decent hotel close to the Honduras’ border. Traffic was very light Sunday evening and we made good time until about half way through the country the road was closed. We turned into a small side street behind a local car. Unfortunately, the car turned into a yard soon. Asking the driver how to go forward, we found out that the bridge had washed away on the main road. There was no local detour. It turned out that we had to drive back about 50 km and then take a road to San Salvador followed by a different highway to the border. About 250 km detour late in a day in dark was not appealing. Looking for a place to turn around we ended up on the riverbank. Then a SUV drove past and disappeared for few minutes behind the dunes just to appear on the other side of the river. Hmm, something did not match?

Ralf went to investigate. Few local guys approached us offering to guide as through the river. According to them a Honda Civic had done it. It might be possible for us too, although our Subaru was loaded to the brink. After moments of hesitation we decided to take the risk. Probably because it was dark and we could not see the river we were supposed to cross. In daylight it would have looked about like this:

River Subaru swam through

River our Subaru swam through in El Salvador in dark. Click for better photo

One of us will drive, other two will walk to make the car lighter. A local guy walked ahead of the car showing where the water wasn’t very deep. It was dark. Situation started getting scary when the muffler got submerged and the water level reached about to the middle of the doors. Subaru’s engine is a flat 4 cylinder at the very bottom of the frame. I was mainly concerned about ignition getting wet and we needing tow to get out of the river. Yet, our loaded Subaru crawled up the other bank without a hitch. There was no water in the cabin, nor in the trunk space. When I asked the guide how much we owe him for the service, he responded that they did it for fun, not for money. I rewarded him with $5 and he was visibly happy.

Another few hours of driving and we got to the Comfort Inn in La Union. It was about midnight, but we were only some 30 km from the border to Honduras. We were dead tired, but had been driving in three different countries in one day, crossed two borders and almost two entire countries without being stopped by legalized road robbers. That was something encouraging after Mexico.

We took late morning enjoying hefty breakfast included in the $35.00 room charge in the restaurant with wonderful views to the La Union bay and surrounding mountains.

El Salvador South

El Salvador South -- moving to Honduras' border. Click for better photo

The roadway, a nice 4 line highway was shared by cows and vehicles. Understanding that roads are expensive to build we exercised caution and it was all fine.

Cows on the highway

El Salvador. Not enough roads for everyone who needs them. Click for better photo

Back on the road to Honduras. Some 5 km to the border crossing a car pulled out and started following us. I did not know what to think of that. When the usual crowd of tramitors surrounded us I asked for Poto. The car that followed us pulled forward and a person presented himself as Poto’s brother who will help us until Poto shows up. Ok, they were obviously waiting for us and only way this is possible if Poto told them. The brother was young and I explained him my rules: I pay personally everywhere and only in exchange of a receipt. He agreed.

Signing out of El Salvador was fast and simple, but the long bridge across the river dividing the two countries was blocked by moto-taxi drivers protesting procedural rules that prohibited one side taxi drivers crossing to the other side with their passengers.

Back to basics

In El Salvador exit we noticed a different attitude to life. No need for cars, horse, husband(s). Click for better photo

The rule made their profession kind of meaningless if they had to drop their passengers half way across the bridge.

Strikers on the bridge

Strikers on the bridge from El Salvador to Honduras'. Click for better photo

For us it meant a delay of uncertain length in our journey. I walked across the bridge to Honduras side with Poto’s brother and documents. In about 30 minutes and few propinas we were done with all receipts except one. The missing one – $45.00 appeared to be an “official” propina in sense that I personally handed this money over to the head of the Honduras’ aduana team. Because I demanded receipt, he quickly compiled one on his computer and showed me on the screen. Very official looking receipt. Just that the printer wasn’t working for some reason and he was unable to print it for me. As expected, the computer technician was in their capital for training and no-one knew for sure when he will be back. I left without waiting for it. Poto showed up and promised to drive with us to Nicaragua border himself. His fee $50.00. Total of all actual official fees for crossing Honduras was $45.00, Total of all propina’s $130.00. We were done, but the demonstration was not.

Finally, an official showed up, listened to the protestors grievances, promised to help and the demonstrators dispersed. We left the Honduras’ border crossing 1:50 PM and got to the exit side before 4:00PM.

Honduras' village

A Honduras' village. Click for better photo

Wealth protection

Wealth must be protected in Honduras. Click for better photo

Fast forward through Honduras’. No doubt a country with rich history and culture, but no doubt, corrupt to their bones. After Mexico, there was no support in our little team to investigate more. Just put it behind as fast as possible.

Poto hooked me up with a young tramitor, Luis, on Nicaragua border crossing. He wanted $20.00 for his services. I negotiated it down to $17 and I made a deal with him. He get’s his fee if he gets us on the road in 40 minutes. If not, he gets nothing. Young dudes like challenges and he ran with it. He compiled quickly a team of 4 or 5 guys who were all running around in different lines behind different windows and I was running from one to another to pay the fees personally and collect the receipts. Nicaragua was officially the most expensive country to cross. All official fees for three of us and the car reached $80.00 while propina’s only $47.00. Luis and his guys were sweating and clock was ticking. Few minutes missing he ran to me and told the bad news. Customs and police have to be paid off . Otherwise will ask us to offload all our stuff from the car for inspection. Apparently, both want $20.00 for “looking the other way”, total of $40.00. Of course, inspection would not fit in 40 minutes. Understanding the situation I told Luis “You are very capable guy. You can get these officials off my back for half what they are asking. Here’s $20.00 and you have about 3 minutes to get me out of here”. He ran to two important looking robbers in the middle of the yard, argued a minute and we were on the road in less than 40 minutes. Like in El Salvador and Honduras, municipality of Nicaragua border crossing had joined in with road robbers – crossing fee $5.00.

Off the border we took a brief break at Somoto. We wanted to eat and I wanted to show my wife the foyer of the hotel I stayed in March. Pictures speak for themselves.

Hotel Garden

Hotel garden in Nicaragua. Click for better photo

Unfortunately this hotel restaurant served only breakfast. Across the street was also a nice park, but no decent eating places.

Park in Somoto

Park across the street from hotel in Somoto. Click for better photo

Fountain in Somoto

Fountain in Somoto park. Click for better photo

In less than 30 minutes we were on the road to Tipitapa. This is the suburb of Managua where we had to turn off from the Pan American highway to circumvent the Managua traffic.

Nicaragua was know for its colorful hammocks. I wanted one, but missed the best places It always felt that there may be better one in the next village. The distributors of hammocks just ended and we did not see any later. The majority of good ones were right after Esteli. Further South people did not appear to make them.

It was dark when we got to Tipitapa. Still looking for decent place to eat and trying to navigate in darkness. There were nice restaurants in Masaya, but we saw them too late and no-one wanted to waste time navigating back. We got lost once in Granada, but asking directions found the right road to Nandaime where we reach the Pan American highway again heading toward Costa Rica border and hoping to find an hotel in San Juan del Sur.

It was getting late, we were hungry and tired. San Juan del Sur wasn’t far, but the patience was wearing thin. It was time to feed our Subaru when we reached Rivas. We had just some 25 km to go to reach our planned night stop at San Juan del Sur, but folks wanted to find an hotel here. Ok, couple of times asking and few wrong turns we found a decent looking one – El Principe. There was a restaurant still open, price of rooms was acceptable. It even had Internet, although only on second floor balcony. We decided to stay even though the rooms smelled awful for an ancient bug poison. Probably would have found cheaper and nicer hotels in San Juan del Sur, but that meant additional 30 minutes of driving. For certain, we will not be eaten by bugs come morning, but may be poisoned. Food was decent and we were dead tired after, again, driving in three countries and passing two border crossings same day.

   Mar 21

From Costa Rica to Panama. Lessons learned in October 2010

We took off from Nicaragua early. The objective for the first part of the day was to get through the borders and to the dentist in San Jose, Costa Rica by afternoon. We were only 21 km from the border, but

    1. Nicaragua exit process is most complicated, costly and time consuming of any Central American country.
    1. Costa Rica entry does not cost much, but it takes time because of very inefficient and sloppy personnel.
    1. From the border we had about 200 km to drive on Costa Rica roads to reach San Jose.
      Being sarcastic about the roads in Costa Rica comes from many years of experience. They just can not be driven at “usual speeds”.
  • Driven by our challenging objective we got out of Nicaragua in little more than 20 minutes. My wife managed to bewitch the usually cold like Arctic ice ladies behind the seemingly endless sequence of windows and get her papers processed ahead of all the “regular” male truck drivers cursing in the line. She says it was a gender connection. Independent of the reason we were out of Nicaragua in record time and we did not steal a piece of their communism.

    Costa Rica costs less, but is sloppy. A new thing from March – they did not accept dollars any more. Official explanation given to me by the mandatory state run insurance sales lady: USD is unstable. You either have colones or have to submit to the mercy of parking lot exchange because there is no bank anywhere at the border crossing. Not exactly sure how this is going to advance Costa Rica image as a tourist friendly country. Must be they like the Euro troubles more than USD!

    Like in March, customs officials fill up the forms you need. On the next window they turn out incomplete and wrong. The burden is on you to go back and ask them to fix their errors. Costa Rica is the only country that provides a place for all drivers to be listed on the temporary car importation permit. Not knowing whether important or not, we filled the spaces for all our three drivers. Did not know that copies of all important documents are required for each driver. With car parked right next to the window and all copies there, this did not appear like a problem when we were told about it. Yet, running back with copies literally 5 seconds later the lady behind the window had already dismissed us. According to her, listing drivers on this document wasn’t important at all.

    Soon enough we learned otherwise (see later). It took us more than an hour going back and forth between the windows of wide sprawling Costa Rica border crossing compound in Penas Blancas to get all paperwork done. Most time was consumed on corrections to the sloppy work of different customs divisions. It is puzzling how the officials of Costa Rica customs can not get a handle on how to do their work without troubling their customers – tourists that provide significant part of their country’s revenue.

    Finally off the border crossing (so far without local municipality fees!) before 10:00 AM we breathed relieved and hoped to reach San Jose before noon. My wife – the only driver on the official car importation permit – did not feel well. In fact she felt terrible with flu type of symptoms. I was driving to give her rest. First police checkpoint and … of course problem. According to the police only she could drive this car in Costa Rica. Referring to a potential danger driving in her condition would impose and just plain human compassion for an obviously sick person, I managed to convince the policeman to write my name on the importation permit along with my wife’s and let us go. Took me more than half an hour and he asked for Coke?!. Quizzing what this actually means I was explained – $5.00. We lost time and little bit of money, but more important, was the bitter taste dealing with officials of a supposedly tourist friendly country that are obviously sloppy and corrupt.

    Costa Rica roads are peculiar. Curvy mountain roads frequently do not have speed limits posted (or perhaps they have been run down like in Mexico), but on recently paved and straight segments of International Highways the speed limit is 60 km/hr (posted or not). Truthfully, I did not follow the obviously meaningless speed limit signs. I broke the law. Most of the time I followed a local driver going 100 km/hr in 60 km/hr section, but once I failed. Here was the road robber with a gun. According to him, my infraction would cost me 220,000 Colones or $4360.50 (yes, four thousand USD, not colones!) by an official fee chart he showed me in a flash. While I was quickly calculating in my head how many years I would have to serve in a Costa Rica forced labor camp to pay this off, the policeman, made another discovery. Apparently, my International Driving Permit issued by AAA in the USA is not valid in Costa Rica, nor in many other Central American countries. It is all in fine print and English I never bothered reading thoroughly. This was the first policeman in my 7 months of driving in Central America who actually read English and discovered that I was driving without valid driver’s license. Kudos, Costa Rica, the country for tourists for discovering this! By the same official infraction fee chart this should cost me another, close to $5000.00 USD.

    Since I was in deep trouble anyway, I did not pull up my valid US driver’s license just to cut the time in forced labor camp by half. Adding up the numbers and knowing the general level of remuneration for Costa Rica people, this all did not make much sense. Well’ when things go out of whack, I ask for explanation. The policeman replied in clear English: “Well’ since you are in hurry and do not know the rules of country foreign to you, I’ll let you go if you buy me a beer. What the could that mean?Apparently, policeman asking for beer in Costa Rica means $20.00.

    Alright, something I can afford is always good, specifically if I can get away from a $9500.00 fine for paying just $20.00. We made a deal, he got the $20.00 bill, and we were on our way again. As you might expect, the bitter taste got stronger. I have driven in Costa Rica many times, recent years. Nothing like that has happened before. Contrary, since summer 2005, I have always considered Costa Rica my second home country. I was confused and still am. Something has fundamentally changed the attitude of police toward tourists in very recent months. It wasn’t like that when I drove through in March 2010.

    You bet, following 150 kilometers I drove exactly the posted speed limit. We were the “obstacle on the road”. Local drivers were beeping on me while passing. Showing some gestures I refuse to interpret. Yet, it is their country. If they are hostile, I will never come again. Nor will other folks. They are the losers, not me. So it is up to Costa Rica to stack up for international tourism or not.

    We got to San Jose about 2 hours later than planned, but without additional distractions. Costa Rica is by far the most expensive country in Central America on all counts. It also has hands down the worst roads. No doubt a wonderful country, just something appears to be going wrong there recent times for tourists.

    The hotel Cacts in San Jose was welcoming me like in March. In fact they seem to be quite excited about me coming back. I met again with Ramon and the owner. My son took lots of pictures of the interior of the hotel. It is very tastefully designed and carefully implemented with obvious influences from variety of different world renowned architecture schools. Really well done. Makes one feel home, rather than on a business trip.

    Hotel Cacts

    Hotel Cacts in San Jose. Click for better photo

    Our dentist, Dr Marco, surprised us again. We were all welcomed and taken care of in one afternoon session (it lasted a bit longer than usual, though). That meant we were ready to go next morning and opened up an opportunity to get to our destination a day earlier than planned. Wow, after all the delays in Mexico this seemed like a dream-come-true.

    We enjoyed the evening in hotel, resting for another long drive to Panama.

    San Jose from above

    San Jose from the roof terrace of hotel Cacts. Click for better photo

    In advance of planned schedule we took off next morning from San Jose. Our plan was to use the benefit of the new coastal highway and shorten significantly the time to the Panama border.

    Luckily, I missed the exit to the new highway to the Pacific Coast. Sounds like nonsense, doesn’t it? Well’ any time driving in Central America in rainy season be prepared for … unexpected. Asking best way to get to the new highway in a gas station we found out that the brand new coastal road South is closed. Apparently, part of the road was washed away with recent rains. Lovely to know this before few hours of driving. Alternative was the same old Pan American Highway going straight over the Talamanca mountain range. Very familiar route for me. Driving in the fog, no visibility.

    Dense fog as always

    Driving in the dense fog. Click for better photo

    For surprise, very light traffic and not even one policeman! Last trumped the feeling. I do not like road robbers, legal or not. If I can avoid them, I will do. Going 100 km/hr on mountain roads was fun, knowing that the robbers that are supposed to “protect us from ourselves” are not around. There were no dangerous situations along the way through the mountains, El Isidro De General and Palmar Norte. We were well in schedule to cross the Panama border early enough to end up in Boquete for night. There simply were no police at all anywhere from San Jose to Palmar Norte. This is a long strip of about 260 km, you wonder why. We did too.

    In Palmar Norte the new coastal highway and Pan American meet. Few kilometers out of Palmar Norte toward the border with Panama we met our first Costa Rica policeman for the day. He could not complain about the speed because we were driving under the speed limit. He also wasn’t as arrogant as the Mexican making new rules on the fly. Yet, we were in “trouble” anyway. According to this policeman it is illegal to modify official customs document – the temporary importation permit. Explaining numerous times who modified it and why changed nothing. He insisted that this is a very serious violation and will cost us lots of money. I argued that this is a customs document, not traffic police’s. If we deserve to be fined, then it is the authority of the Costa Rica customs office on the border to do so, isn’t it? Perhaps he realized that he is not going to win this argument and will not get a Coke, nor a beer out of me. After all, no matter how much I pay him, he can not make the document modification undone. About 20 minutes lost in pointless argument, but he wished us bon voyage and warned last time about humongous fine that is waiting us on the border crossing.

    Exiting Costa Rica was fast and simple. The aduana did not even ask about the “illegal” modification to the official document. Panama entry was relatively smooth, but the customs took time. Standing in line for the car importation permit we observed some drivers handing their papers into the customs window openly with a $5.00 bill. They were all serviced ahead of us. Once the “paid” border crosser’s were exhausted we got our quick inspection and permit. We were off after stinking fumigation spray all over the car that we had to wash off in the gas station half a kilometer into Panama.

    The posted speed limit after the border is 60 km/hr although the road is straight and pavement good. I thought this is a mistake. Glad we are finally home I went 100 km/hr all the time to David. Later on, meeting my friends Len and Dyala in Boquete, they told me different. Len had been stopped and fined on this road. The police will cash in any time they are short of money on this 40 km stretch. Must be they did not need money this afternoon.

    We spent the evening and next day in Boquete with Len and Dyala. Looking around in Boquete, arguing about politics, economy and world peace. The trip home to Toro Bravo did take a bit over 4 hours. No incidences and no surprises. The Pan American highway in Panama had suffered from heavy rains, but was still all drivable.

    As a result of this trip my wife has developed a very special “cop complex”. Whenever she sees one or upcoming drivers are blinking to alert of a danger she wants to stop, turn around and find a detour. That happens in Panama as well, although we have not had bad experiences with cops here. The traffic police has become a symbol of great evil for our family. She does not want to drive much anywhere any more to avoid the stress just from encountering the road robbers.

    New lessons learned on this trip

    1. In preparation for the trip stack up with many International Drivers Licenses for Central America. They do cost money, but less than fines.
    1. There is no other difference whether you check tourista or transmigrante on your visa application for Mexico, but intense questioning and lax customs inspection by the officials if you chose tourista.
    1. Encountering a corrupt cop in Mexico offer to go to office every time and leave him with one of your International Drivers Licenses.
    1. During rainy season ask frequently Mexican federal police’s about road closings.
    1. Enjoy chatting with the friendly and polite Mexican drivers, be polite and considerate yourself.
    1. In Guatemala and other border crossings, if forced to exchange on the parking lot, use your homework and stick to your money.
    1. Always pay all fees yourself and demand recibo (receipt) for each.
    1. Ask for directions at least twice if both match or until you get at least two matching ones.
    1. Check and demand in Costa Rica entry border that all fields on forms are filled
      Make sure that all drivers are correctly listed on the Costa Rica car import permit.
    1. It is possible to drive safely in the dark, but the driver must be fresh and alert.
    1. Searching for hotel in your budget validate if the price is for a room or per person.