Thursday, September 18, 2008

Driving Central America - General Concerns

We drove to Costa Rica and back. Friends thought we were crazy; they wanted us to carry guns ! (We did not but did carry a big can of pepper spray.) We had a great time. Our Spanish was very limited but people went out of their way to help us. We would do this again if time permitted.

Here are some general observations.

Walking across a Central American border is one thing, but driving your car across is another. Each border is concerned about two things: 1) did you steal the car 2) are you going to bring the car into the country to sell it without paying the import tax. So you cannot take a rental car or someone else’s car. Bring your title for the car. If the title shows that you have an unpaid bank loan for the car, get permission from the bank in written Spanish. The normal procedure is to stamp your passport when you enter a country saying you came in with a car and then stamp your passport when you exit the country to say you exited with the same care you arrived with.

Your North American car insurance always stops covering you as soon as you cross into Mexico. Use the Internet to find someone like Sanborn who can provide insurance. Do this a month before you cross into Mexico.

You cannot drive at night, never, ever. It is too dangerous. Most roads are two lane affairs with no centerline painted, no road edge marking, and no shoulder. When there is no shoulder, cars and trucks that break down are just sitting there in the dark waiting for you to come along. Cattle and bicycle riders with no lights are on the road. Road signs are missing or difficult to see. Don’t drive at night. So start early each day and by 4 PM, start looking for a place to stay for the night. There are almost no motels; everyone uses hotels in cities.

A border crossing in Central America takes an average of 2 hours. We did one in 30 minutes but plan on them taking as much as 3 hours. The border offices often will close at sundown. And they often close between noon and one for lunch. So if arrive at a border at 4PM and cannot complete the paperwork, you will have to return the next day. That is not good because border crossings are generally in remote locations and the village that has developed around the crossing is not a pretty sight. You probably will not want to stay there overnight. The typical crossing is much different from a US border crossing. I works like this: as you leave country A you go through a gate into a “no mans land” where you first park and go country A’s immigration office to get your passport stamped and possibly pay an exit fee. Cash is required. Then you drive a short distance to country B’s offices where you park again. Go to country B’s immigration office to get your passport stamped and possibly pay an entrance fee. Sometimes a payment must be made to the local bank because the government people are not allowed to handle cash. Then you have to deal with your car and luggage at customs (a different building). If you have dogs with you as we did you have to see the agriculture people and get your doggy health papers stamped. Finally, you drive away through another gate that marks the exit from the “no man’s land” where a guard will check all your papers one more time before allowing you to pass.

Stay out of cities if you are in a hurry. City streets are generally unnamed, unmarked, narrow, congested, and run in crazy directions. Detailed maps are not available anywhere. If you get lost in a city, flag down a taxi and offer them $5 to lead you to where you want to go.

Highway signs are few and far between. Take a GPS. The GPS will not have detailed maps of the cities (at least not at this time) but it will give you a lot of confidence that you will get to your destination.

We were seldom sure of how much distance we could cover so we never made hotel reservations in advance. In addition, we were traveling with two dogs. Most Central Americans believe (not incorrectly) that dogs are dirty and should live outside. So finding a hotel that would allow the dogs to enter was tough and often forced us to take some not so attractive rooms.

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