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Crossing Costa Rica


   Jun 24

Crossing Costa Rica

Crossing the Border to Costa Rica

Tourist entry visa was quick and easy. Paid $5 for fumigation (most expensive so far). Mandatory liability insurance for 30 days costs about 7100 colones ($14) and that is it. One can pay with USD, but change will be in Colones. Exchange rate is not posted, but amounts are small. Getting the temporary car import permit costs nothing. Customs inspection, copies of all documents and standing in line for a while takes time, but not hours.

The Costa Rica customs officials did not agree to give me pass without seeing what is under the bed topper. I did not have the key. We were in impasse. No other choice, but to break in my own truck. I did pull open the tailgate. The topper wobbled, but flexed enough to let the tailgate slide out from underneath the topper. They made me crawl under the hatch and hand them the boxes they saw peeking into the bed so that they can inventory the boxes. That was exhausting, but did not take more than 15 minutes. After handful of boxes that for whatever reason looked suspicious they quit finding nothing objectionable. Once done I was off to get my permit and ready to leave.

Costa Rica Northern Frontiera

Costa Rica Northern Frontiera


Where one does anticipate trouble the least there it frequently comes. The hang-up came with the furniture and other stuff in Leonard’s gigantic trailer. All he asked was a quick transit to Panama. No-one should care what he is transporting. After couple of hours negotiations the agreement was reached to make a comprehensive list of all boxes and seal the trailer so that he can not sell anything in it while in Costa Rica. Why are they so darn concerned that someone will drag here furniture from Canada to sell it on the local market way below cost makes no sense. Bureaucracy usually does not. The transit permit will be for 72 hours. Although 3 times what we got in Honduras it does not leave Leonard other option than drive the truck with all the stuff straight to Panama.

By the time the agreement was reached it was too late to execute it all same day. The option was to sleep in cars on border’s parking lot or I proposed to hire a person to watch the truck with trailer overnight, drive with my truck to a nearby village hotel and return with the first light tomorrow to finish the process. Near-by about 12 kilometers away was a village La Cruz. That’s were we stayed for $14 per person.

By morning coffee time Dyala and Len had made the list and decided to by-pass San Jose driving down the freshly completed coastal highway instead of Pan American Highway. With big camper and trailer it certainly is an easier road. The coastal highway will join into Pan American at Palmar Norte, way South of Costa Rica and quite close to the border with Panama. Since I had to go the San Jose for dental work and I wanted to see my friends at the highest point of Talamanca Mountain range the Pan American routes our ways parted at the border. I drove Dyala and Leonard back to the border crossing, we exchanged phone numbers, emails and they promised to wait for me before the border crossing. They will probably have until Saturday morning, but would rather exit Costa Rica Friday to avoid weekend at the border.

On the roads of Costa Rica

The morning was nice and landscape pretty. There are gigantic volcanoes East from the highway in haze and the traffic was moderate. Roads of Costa Rica compete for last places with Mexico for quality, but they are mostly 2 lane with narrow or no shoulders like in Nicaragua. Multiple levels and generations of patches make for a bumpy ride. Different from Mexico, I did not encounter potholes and there are no speed bumps nor any other car torture contraptions.

Volcanos from the road

Volcanos from the road


Occasionally someone had used the highway ditches for trash dump, but that is rare, rather than common. Different from Nicaragua the fields are not completely dried out and the firefighters are putting out wildfires.
Nicer Houses, Newer Cars

Nicer Houses, Newer Cars


The animals appear in decent condition. There are many fruit stands at the road sides, much less bicycles. Costa Rican’s drive motorcycles instead. The are less of a nuisance because they move with speed close to the cars.

The trip from the border to San Jose is about 300 km and took about 4 hours. I signed in the hotel The Cacts next to the dentists office and got my first dental operation done same afternoon. Hotel Cacts is reasonably priced and nicely set up. It is not exactly in the middle of San Jose, but close enough if you don’t mind walking. They also advertise safe parking space, which turned out to be an old warehouse few lots away from the hotel. The warehouse was full of stuff. It took some time and effort to maneuver my truck into it. This was the only vehicle using the space and filled it all.

This hotel also advertises WiFi Internet. One would assume you can use your laptop in the rooms. On second floor you probably can, but the signal does not reach the third floor where my room was. Yet, the couch in the lobby was comfortable and the signal was good.

The key is the key.
Since my keys got lost or stolen in Hondura’s order crossing I had been washing my socks, underwear and shirt almost every day in the hotel bathroom sink. Enough is enough. I got up early and had few hours in San Jose until my dentist appointment at 9:00.Caught the hotel maintenance guy, Ramon and shared my problem. Looking at my puzzled face when he was giving me directions to the closest locksmith he said, wait a moment I’ll come with you. San Jose’s old city is a myriad of narrow one-way streets easy to get stuck for hours and lost for longer unless you know exactly the streets where the traffic moves. Ramon coming with me made it possible to find a solution.

We drove from one shop to another with Ramon. The answer to the queries was always same: unless they have the tool to find out the distances for the lock notches, making a new key when you don’t have one is hopeless. After handful of shops looking at the topper hatch one guy finally remembered that there is a master “Cerrajeria” (locksmith) in an obscure and remote place in San Jose. We got lost few times with Ramon trying to find it. Couple of more “direction” inquiries by Ramon in local shops and we found it. The “Master Cerrajeria” came out looked at the situation and said “no problemo”. He whipped out his tool, called it machamo or something like that and in less than 10 min I had a key plus a copy just in case. By that time we had been on the case with Ramon for 2.5 hrs. Getting this key cost my about $15 in colones to the Master and $10 to compensate Ramon for his lost work time.

Lesson learned: never embark on a journey of any kind without a spare key. A long journey through many countries and unpredictable situations, better have double copies, just in case.

Back on the road of Costa Rica

If you enter San Jose from North on Pan American highway then better take the Route #39 to the other side of town. Squeezing through city traffic (that’s where Pan American route goes) is arduous, lengthy and painful process. Even if in Paseo Colon or anywhere this side of town, it is easier to drive back to the intersection with #39 and go around the town.

Exit to San Pedro from #39 is route #2. This is a busy street toward Cartago, but the heavy traffic does not last long. It is 17 km from San Pedro to Cartago. Few kilometers after the toll booth the road forks. Straight toward San Isidro El General while the left leaning fork goes to Cartago. After fork the road points directly to the mountain range to climb for next hour or so.

Climbing Up

Climbing Up

It is steep, long and takes patience with big slow trucks. They usually signal when it is safe to pass. Soon you will be in the “Cloud Forest” – driving in the fog.

Driving in Clouds

Driving in Clouds


It is much cooler and dense fog is unpredictable Incredible views if out of fog, dense canopy of large trees and a bumpy road.
Next Cloud Around the Curve

Next Cloud Around the Curve


Gradually the steep ascent eases and the road becomes more even. Even means about equal up and down stretches. On this section you’ll find the hidden treasure of Costa Rica – the Tapanti hotel and restaurant run by “Charlie the Runner.”. Charlie serves the best food you will find in Costa Rica. Whether you are hungry or not it is worth stopping. There aren’t any advertisements for this place on the road. Charlie’s does not need road side ads. Whoever stops will send everyone they know to her restaurant. It is that good. More about Charlie and Tapanti restaurant, hotel http://tapantihotel.com/about.php .

Hotel, Restaurant Tapanti

Hotel, Restaurant Tapanti

From Tapanti it takes another hour to reach San Isidro De El General and another hour to Buenos Aires. The road condition is noticeable better a little after Tapanti. The pavement is smooth and does not rattle the car and your teeth. The landscape after decent from the cloud forest to San Isidro El General valley is tropical with obvious significant rainfall. That lasts until the border with Panama and beyond.

About 50 km and third hour later you’ll get to Palmar Norte with numerous new hotels. Palmar Norte is 56 miles or 90 km from the border. It was already dark and I stayed in Brunka Lodge. It is nicely set up new hotel. Cabinas are new and well equipped, although $45 for a night is pricey.

Brunka Lodge in Palmar Norte

Brunka Lodge in Palmar Norte


Then again, the touristy zone is creeping down South and prices rise with it. Good road lasted little past Palmar Norte. What follows is typical Costa Rica patched up bumpy road from there to the border through few little towns and villages.

Rio Claro

Rio Claro

With early start I was in Paso Canoa (the Cost Rica Southern frontier) few minutes after 8:00 AM. Longest delay came from the officials socializing rather than start working at 8:00 like they were supposed to. Once they started I got exit stamp into my passport in no time. It took couple of inquiries to find the customs counter dealing with the vehicles. Once I found the unidentified counter and the lady actually started working the temporary vehicle import permission cancellation itself took perhaps a minute. By 8:30 I was free to cross to Panama. Costa Rica does not allow tramitors’ in its borders, but there hardly is a need for them.

Between to borders there is “free trade zone”. It consists of hundreds of boutiques squeezed into few streets almost masking the entry to the Panamanian border control. I did get lost in “free trade zone” but found the Panama border control once realized that I turned incorrectly.

I learned later that Leonard and Dyala did get another nasty surprise at the exit from Costa Rica. They spent half a day at the entry Penas Blancas after everything was agreed. The trailer was sealed and they were asked to pay $300. What’s worse, they were given only 42 hrs to cross the country instead of initial 72 hrs. Rushing straight to Southern frontier did not help. In the opinion of a vicious Cost Rica customs official in Paso Canoa they came with wrong documents. She insisted them being penalized. By her opinion, only transportation companies can use these documents and since they were not, the seal or not did not matter. The whole scheme was proposed and executed by Costa Rica own customs official at the Northern frontier. Leonard and Dyala, rightly disagreed with this customs official. The conflicting opinions went to arbitrage by the customs boss. She sided with Leonard and Dyala, but found that the Northern frontier customs made a mistake. They overcharged Leonard and Dyala by $285.00. This is how their saga with Costa Rica customs went, so far they have not received the refund yet, but there always is hope.

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