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From Costa Rica to Panama. Lessons learned in October 2010


   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.
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